Upon finding out that I was writing “Epic Fantasy,” earlier in the week, a friend asked me if it would have orcs in it. This is an understandable shorthand. There is a lot of baggage when it comes to epic fantasy. And while the Ravensgate books will not actually have orcs in it, it’s still in many ways that kind of fantasy. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
How do you describe an epic fantasy without using shorthand? “It’s like Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones with a dash of Cthulhu?” See, it says a lot, but doesn’t really tell you anything. Not the least of which, it doesn’t establish whether there are orcs or not. Again, no orcs. But I do have much worse. Like flocks of carnivorous birds and some truly unsettling undead.
I decided the best way to give an peek behind the scenes was to break it all down into three easily digestible pieces. I’ll be doing one a week, looking at various aspects of the Ravensgate novel Death Like Cold Water. Those aspects are place, religion, and people–all of which factor heavily into why I’m excited to be writing this novel.
Today, an overview of the continent of Zel Hazaj and the rival cultures that call it home.
Bisected roughly west-to-east by a massive mountain range, a high plateau, and a menacing jungle valley bordered by cliffs to the north and south and ocean to the east, Zel Hazaj is a place of contrasts.
Fertile green fields and woods of the north comprise the Vale Lands: a largely feudal society of 144 counties ruled by noble families. Each family also selects someone to represent them in the Council of Thorns in Cambria, the administrative capital of the Vale. Beneath the rolling hills, the long-lived fae known as the Doonda Sidhe sleep and plot, waiting to take their lands back from the hands of man.
The south is dominated by deserts, rugged hills, and temperate coastlines. Known as the Caliphate of Dust, it is ruled over by a single bloodline from the power of the Peacock Throne in Ansur su-Kalinde on the western edge of the country. The largest, and oldest, city on Zel Hazaj is Anwat al-Masewi, a sprawling port in the south named after the God of Oceans who destroyed the city originally built there. Chancellors appointed by the Caliph oversee individual cities and regions,
Separating the two countries are three factors. In the east, the valley kingdom of Yerba Kolo, rendered impassible by rivers, dense jungles, lost cities choked with serpent men, fearsome giant lizards, and a warrior queen who guards her secrets, and land, with ferocity. In the center of Zel Hazaj you will find the Khal Plateau, named for the nomadic tribes of warriors who resisted a thousand years of human interference and are the only group hardy enough to live in the wind-scoured heights comfortably. To the west, there is a single pass in the high mountains, at the top of which sits Ravensgate: a border city built on the shores of a giant, dead lake and protected by the undead forces of the necromancers of Ravensgate College.
Ravensgate itself is the focus of the novel, though much of the book happens outside of the city. It has the distinction of being the only real border town between two powerful cultures. Though the Vale and Caliphate have been at a tentative peace for decades, a cold war atmosphere has settled onto Ravensgate, making it a city of cross-culture influence and intrigue, as well as a center of learning, and a cold, claustrophobic necropolis on the fringes of the Vale Lands.
Ravensgate for me feels a bit like Vienna, the crossroads of the world. Add to that the horror element of skeletal soldiers on the walls, the bodies of those who die in the city recycled into components at Bonepicker Hall, and a vast, dead lake. It’s a city that I’ve wanted to work within for quite a while, which is strange in a way because it’s the last place in this world I really developed.
The Caliphate, specifically Anwat al-Masewi came first because I always wanted to see more fantasy in a desert setting. The Khal plateau was part of that section as well, with the Caliphate seeing the grasslands as an unofficial protectorate of the Peacock Throne. I developed Yerba Kolo next just because I wanted a jungle full of dinosaurs and stalwart knights riding flesh-eating lizards, and then the secrets of the nation slowly grew from there. I followed that with the complicated politics and intrigue of the Vale Lands. Ravensgate was a simple attempt to provide a good place for those cultures to meet, interact, and spark.
If the Caliphate was Arabian Nights, and Yerba Kolo was Robert E. Howard, with the Vale taking cues from Kushner’s “Swordspoint” and Martin’s “Game of Thrones,” then Ravensgate was another beast entirely. It was Graham Greene’s “The Third Man” with the undead. And what’s not to love about that?
That is until the return of an ancient, long-forgotten god threatens the balance of power, at which point Ravensgate is thrown into the center of attention.
Ah, but that’s a matter of religion, so we should save that for next week.
In the meantime, here’s some Portishead to set the mood for Ravensgate.