Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Solitudes (The Ægypt Cycle, Part 1) by John Crowley

A few years ago, I read John Crowley’s fantasy novel Little, Big and was blown away by it.  It was a book which, as Ursula Le Guin put it, “all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy”, incorporating as it did family saga, fairyland, historical figures and modern urban life.  And wonderful characters.  And beautiful prose.

I hadn’t heard of any other books by Crowley before, recently, I picked up a copy of Ægypt, since retitled The Solitudes  when the former became the overall title of the tetralogy it begins.  Having just finished it, I’m happy to report that Crowley’s very far from being a one-book wonder.

It is, Crowley says in his introduction, “a book made out of other books”, and it centres around an unconventional historian, Pierce Moffett, setting out to write a book about a different kind of history:

Whenever the world turns from what it has been into what it will be, and thus earns a different past and a different future,  there is a brief moment when every possible kind of universe, all possible extensions of Being in space and time, are poised on the threshold of becoming, before all but one pass into nonexistence again...then all the other similar disjunctures in time (for there have been several) can become visible too...

The particular “disjuncture” Pierce is most interested in revolves around Giordano Bruno and John Dee, sixteenth century Hermetic philosophers, astrologers and magicians, and around his obsession with the concept of Ægypt, a mystical realm with only a passing connection to the mundane land of Egypt.

This is not an easy book to read, containing as it does extended passages of metaphysical thought, along with entire chapters from the work of a fictional author of historical novels, Fellowes Kraft, whose spiritual journey seems to mirror Pierce’s own.  Kraft writes about Bruno, Dee and even a young Will Shakespeare, moving gradually from lively historical romance to an examination of the clash between the old world and the new (which is also the even older) in the sixteenth century.

In the historical sections, we see Dee and his assistant communicating with angels and Bruno being guided by a young man who might be Hermes, but there’s very little overt fantasy in the contemporary chapters.  Most of this concerns Pierce’s life, first in New York City, then in a rural region called the Faraway Mountains (I assume these to be fictional, though I’d be fascinated to be proved wrong) where he interacts with a rich array of local characters, some of whom have their own point-of-view scenes.  In some ways, the books would work almost entirely as a blend of country life and academia.

Nevertheless, this is unmistakably a fantasy novel, and magic permeates it, even if it’s mostly hidden just under the surface, just as it is for much of Little, Big.  Along with Pierce’s lovers and colleagues, along with the inhabitants of the Faraways, The Solitudes is peopled by the scattered inhabitants of Ægypt, the signs of the zodiac, the spirits of the planets, the decans of Hermetic lore, angels, gods and dæmons, and the story’s progress is controlled by the twelve houses of the Moon.

The book’s obsessions remind me a little of Mary Gentle, one of my favourite authors, in particular the Hermetic lore (which features especially in Rats & Gargoyles) and the concept of history’s mutability (the central theme of Ash: A Secret History).  The two authors’ approaches, though, are radically different, Gentle incorporating the themes completely into speculative stories, whereas Crowley takes a more academic slant.  If I were really pushed to choose one approach over the other, I’d probably go for Gentle, but I’d rather not choose.  There’s nothing wrong with loving both apples and oranges.

The Solitudes isn’t a book for light reading: it requires willingness to invest time and thought, to immerse yourself in his characters, his settings, his magic, his gorgeous prose, and not emerge for some time.  It also pays to have a dictionary at hand if, like me, you’re the kind of reader who joyfully welcomes the opportunity to expand your vocabulary.

There are three more books in the Ægypt Cycle, and I’m looking forward to losing myself in each one of them, as well as anything else I can find by John Crowley.

I don't have the means to award star ratings here, but it would be the maximum, whatever that is.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Evolution of a Map

Every fantasy world’s got to have a map, hasn’t it?  Some authors create a map in loving detail before they write a word and stick to it; in other cases, the map is simply drawn from information given in the book.  Sometimes, though, it’s a lot more complex.

The first map I drew for my world (provisionally called the “Travellerverse”) was a little map that covered some of the countries that The Winter Legend takes place in, although eventually the story spilled over the eastern edge, so I had to draw a slightly bigger one. 

Even so, it suffered from the problem most maps have – an edge.  I began to realise there were other lands, cities and peoples beyond it, and when I began writing stories about them, I had extend the map again.  This one covered an entire continent and the northern part of another; but, of course, part of a continent is no good.  What was down there, further south?  And what lay to the east and west?

As it happened, most of my novel At An Uncertain Hour took place off the map to the south and west, so more maps were required.  The two maps included in the book cover, between them, about half of the world’s total land-mass, but it still wasn’t enough.  I knew there were other continents off to the east, as well as chains of islands in the far north and south.  A couple of months ago, I finally took the plunge and drew a map of the entire world.

There were problems with this, though, the chief one being that the stories I’ve written about the Travellerverse cover many thousands of years.  Imagine trying to draw a map of our world that has to fit in the cities of Sumeria and the Egyptian Old Kingdom, along with the classical world, the middle ages, Napoleon’s conquests, the twenty-first century...  Well, you get the picture.

So I drew a rough outline.  Coastlines and rivers do change over millennia, but not drastically, and mountains hardly at all.  I indicated no forests and deserts, though, which are subject to alteration, and certainly no countries, cities or names.  The idea is that, now I have the outline, I can customise copies with all or some of this information for any era I wish to.

A larger image of the map can be found here.

So what do we have on the map?  The small continent in the north-west is most commonly known as Kaazhu.  Its most important historic culture is the Golden Empire, but it’s most important as the Traveller’s original home: he was born among those north-western mountains.  The population here are mainly what would, in our world, be called caucasian.

The continent to the south is Droivithi, dominated by the Lul Empire and the ancient city of Hafdosu, standing where the river flows into the big bay in the north-east.

Scattered out to the east are the Thousand Isles, sometimes regarded as an oceanic continent in its own right.  The very large island to the north of the archipelago is Eltava’s birthplace, while one of those small ones to the south is where the Traveller founded Assanara, the ideal city.  The population of Droivithi and the Thousand Isles are, for the most part, either tawny skinned (most like Native Americans) and a tan-skinned race somewhat like Polynesians.

The two big continents in the centre are usually referred to simply as the Northland and the Southland.  The westernmost part of the Northland – the area of my original map – has seen the Vuldesta, the Kyus, the Kimdyrans and the Terrliu successively dominating, and the large island to the west, of the coast of Kaazhu, is the Kimdyran colony of Amnien.  Although I haven’t written a story set there (though one is planned) two of my main characters were born there: Demolin Nardins, from The City of Ferrid, and Salsha Demnen, from the unpublished stories Mad Hofith’s Machine and Destroyer of Worlds.

The Northland has had its share of great kingdoms and empires: Greclisk, Dhirsha, Ananë, Klou-es-Thaal and many others.  On the isthmus that joins the two continents stands the city of Errish, which claims to have stood for ten thousand years.  Limited in space to spread out, Errish has soared upwards in great towers and down into a vast undercity.  The people of this continent are mainly “caucasian”.

The Southland, the home of the black people, was for a few millennia the empire of the Demon Queen of the South, whose fortress of Xar-Toren rose from the continent’s southernmost cape.  After her fall, great nations arose across the Southland: Qymssa, Hroidh, Sheith, Ario-ne and many more.

The east is the newest area for me: I have few names there, and I’ve only written a couple of stories that touch on it.  The northerly continent is sparsely inhabited, except in the south.  The yellow-skinned people who live there, called Kal’shaks among other things, also live on the islands to the south and east – and the corresponding islands in the far west (yes, this world too is an oblate spheroid) and even on parts of western Droivithi.  Eltava is half Kal’shak.

The south-eastern continent goes from sub-tropical to antarctic, but much of it is inhabited by a strange green-skinned race.  The Traveller visited their city of Fadao, in the north-east of the continent, in an unpublished story called Out of Mind, and found it one of the strangest places he ever visited.

So there’s a whistle-stop tour of my map.  There might not be much on it, but it’s the empty stage on which most of my stories are set, and to me it’s packed with far, far more than I could fit onto it.