Which World Is Your Story Set In? — reposted

This article was originally posted on my old blog in 2015. It felt it was well worth reposting, and I hope you’ll agree.

People who don’t like fantasy often base their objections on the claim that they prefer to read books or watch films set in the real world. For these people, the dichotomy is obvious. Fantasy is set in an invented secondary world, which obviously makes it trivial and irrelevant, whereas good fiction (that is, whatever they happen to like) is set in the real world, which automatically makes it superior and relevant.

Leaving aside the fact that many of the books, films and TV shows ostensibly set in the “real world” are neither superior nor particularly relevant (the James Bond stories are nominally real-world stories, for heaven’s sake), this attitude shows a fundamental lack of understanding about the nature of fiction — not to mention the nature of reality.

My contention is that every story ever written is actually set in an invented secondary world, and fantasy (as well as some SF) is the label given to those that are upfront about it. It doesn’t matter how uncompromisingly gritty a slice of social realism a story might be, it’s set in a fictional reality, not an objective reality.

Consider two authors both writing stories about a maverick cop who rides roughshod over the rules and procedures. In one, he might be the hero who nails the bad guys that would get away if he played by the book. In the other, he might end up destroying innocent lives the rules were there to protect.

This isn’t just a matter of attitude. Depending on their views or agendas (often, but not always, the same thing), each author will create realities in which their take on the story is objectively true. The first will quite genuinely be a world in which bleeding-heart liberals are letting the crooks get away to prey on their victims. The second will just as genuinely be in a world where the rule of law is the only thing separating the good guys from the bad.

Of course, a reader who entirely agrees with one or the other point of view will interpret that fictional reality as objectively true, but another will see the opposite as being true. The point is that the difference isn’t between the attitudes of the characters within the story, but lies in the author’s primary worldbuilding. This is analogous to the way Tolkien writes about a world in which morality has the force of a law of nature and can affect the outcome of events just as surely gravity or the weather. The differences can be a lot more subtle, though.

Soap operas* are generally presented as ultra-realistic slice-of-life drama, but actually they tend to take place in an odd half-reality. Besides obvious anomalies like location (EastEnders, for instance, is set in a rearranged version of London) there are usually odd social habits that are unlike anything you’d actually find, simply to facilitate the dramatic necessities. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, but it’s not the real world.

Most of all, perhaps, the fictional reality of a story will be determined by selecting what to put in and what to leave out. The complete reality of our society contains everything from cosy village life to inner-city gang warfare, but the reality in which a story takes place rarely includes all this. The author will select what’s relevant to go into the story, and the rest won’t exist.

This kind of selection, like the two ways our maverick cop can go, largely reflects the author’s views and/or agenda. The fictional reality of a story isn’t the world as it objectively is, but the world as the author wants it to be — not necessarily wants as a good thing, but wants in order to make a point. It’s set in a custom-made world, just as a fantasy story is, but masquerading as the real world.

Does any of this matter? I think it does. Fantasy is often accused of portraying unreality, but it doesn’t pretend otherwise, concentrating instead on using that unreality to shine a light on the world around us.

The more the fictional reality looks like our own world, though, the harder it is to make that distinction. I recall an argument I had once with a work colleague — I can’t remember the exact topic, but I think it may have been about the precise effects of particular illegal drugs. What I do remember, though, is that the killer argument presented by this otherwise intelligent person was “Of course it’s like that. Didn’t you see EastEnders last week?” To which I gently explained that it had been that way in EastEnders because that was how some author had written it, not because it was necessarily true.

Fictional reality isn’t restricted to fiction. Each of us sees the world in a slightly different way from anyone else, selecting what we admit and what we don’t, explaining events according to our own assumptions and interpretations of reality. Most of the conflicts in the world are due to the fact that we do this unconsciously and assume our own fictional reality, whether individual or broadly shared, is objectively true.

If we could learn to understand how fiction works, critique it not in absolute terms but in terms of its unique fictional reality — its own secondary world — maybe we’d be better at understanding our own and others’ unique inner worlds.

And what place better to learn how to do that than fantasy?

* The term soap opera is used with different meanings in different parts of the world. I’m using it in the usual UK sense of a continuous series (ie no breaks or seasons) about some kind of community that takes place in real time, so that, for instance, the characters are preparing for Christmas or anticipating the Cup Final at the same time the viewers are.

You’re Starting to Drabble

It’s probably fair to say that my natural instinct is to write long stories. I might start with good intentions of keeping it to a story of four or five thousand words, but next time I look it’s into five figures.

Some years ago, though, I disciplined myself to start writing flash stories — that is, stories of less than a thousand words. Once I was focused on that, it turned out to be surprisingly straightforward. All a matter of paring down the story to the single sequence of events that forms its heart, rather than trying to expand into all its corners. I’ve now had a dozen of them published, besides several more just over the limit.

But that’s not the limit of cutting down length. Recently, I’ve started writing drabble. A growing market, these are stories of exactly a hundred words each — short even by the standards of flash.

This arose out of a couple of challenges on Fantasy Writers.org, to write and submit drabbles to two separate anthologies — with the result that both are packed with FWO members.

The first is a horror anthology about funfairs (carnivals in American) called Festival of Fear.. I don’t write a great deal of horror (even though my first published story was in that genre), but I channelled my phobias (often the best way to write horror) and produced Serpent’s Maw, a brief tale of a gruesome ride.

The second anthology, Rise and Fall, is about the beginnings and endings of civilisations. I submitted three pieces to this and was gratified that all three were accepted. The City at the End of the World is a SF fable of the decay of everything in the universe; Foundation of Empire (yes, the title was a deliberate nod at Asimov) describes the foundation of a new world eerily echoing the origins of Rome; while The God of Time is a poetic vignette of the entire history of a civilisation encapsulated in its god’s eyes.

Both are available on Amazon, as Kindles and physical books, and are packed with stories that shouldn’t challenge anyone’s attention span.

And perhaps that’s ultimately what’s behind the prevalence of both flash and drabble today. It doesn’t take long to read them. You can fit a complete story (or several complete drabbles) into a short bus or train ride, or into a work break.

And drabbles aren’t even the shortest form. Microfiction is a story that can fit into a tweet — and there’s always Hemingway’s challenge that you can write a valid story in six words. One off the top of my head: “She was his everything. He’s lost.”

I certainly haven’t been “cured” of writing longer stories. There are plots that need scope and space and a grand scale, whether their natural length turns out to be short story, novella or novel. But writing flashes, drabbles or even shorter can be a great discipline, forcing me to identify and understand the stripped-down heart of the story and to make every word count — a worthwhile exercise even for writing novels.

And there are plenty of drabble markets out there, so maybe I’ll be trying my hand at a few more this year. Watch this space.

Hanuut’s Stand

I don’t normally post material here that’s still available elsewhere, but I felt this was a special case. It can be found in the anthology The Tale Trove, but I’m posting it today for Ukraine.

            The city of Naamid burnt around Hanuut as he stormed the guard-post with his fellow-rebels. Soldiers of the Demon Queen held the broken gateway, ferocious at bay.

            Hanuut didn’t underestimate them. He’d served unwillingly in their ranks, hating the tyranny but seeing no way out. Like so many others, he’d taken his chance at last to join the rising as the liberating army of the Free Alliance approached the city’s gate. He knew from his own training that these were formidable fighters.

            His comrades were falling before the swords that defended the gate, but there was another way in. Sheathing the old, notched sword he’d grabbed before deserting, Hanuut reached up for a handhold on the rough stone wall and began to climb.

            He was two storeys up when a warning shout from below cut through the din. He just had time to look up before a lump of masonry half his size came tumbling down on him, sweeping him off the wall. The impact on the ground knocked all the breath from him; but it seemed an infinitely long time before the stone crashed onto his leg. Searing pain filled him, and…

            “They’re coming!”

            The shout jerked Hanuut from the nightmare of that terrible night — was it really only two nights ago? He hauled himself into a sitting position, cursing the pain the movement sent through his half-healed stump, all they’d saved of his shattered leg. The makeshift hospital where they’d brought him — a half-burnt inn, from the look of it — was crowded with the injured and dying on pallets and heavy with the stench of death.

            He’d no doubt who they were, and he saw at a glance that no-one here was capable of resisting them. Of the fighting-men, few were even conscious, let alone able to lift a weapon.

            The wise-women who tended the sick, along with their younger apprentices, cowered in terror at what was coming. Hanuut found himself wishing, despite everything he’d never questioned, that the women here in Naamid were like those in Ario-ne to the north, who fought alongside the men. These untrained women might have the courage to die shielding the sick and the children with their bodies, but that was all they could do. They’d die and achieve nothing.

            “How close are they?” Hanuut demanded. Until today, the roar of his voice would have filled the room, but now his hoarse wheeze made him wince in pain at the effort.

            A child stared at him with huge dark eyes. “They’re coming up the street, sir.” Her voice was soft with terror. “Are we going to be sacrificed to the Queen?”

            “Not if I can help it,” snapped Hanuut, though it was unlikely the remnants of the Imperial forces had anything that formal in mind. Looking at the little girl, he shuddered at visions of her fate.

            He hesitated an instant, protesting silently that a man with one leg couldn’t be expected to fight. That wasn’t the point, though. Even if he tried to hide, it would do no good. He’d be cut down, in his bed or out of it. That was really the only choice to make.

            “Find my sword,” he told the child. “It’s probably somewhere near the bed.” She goggled at him. “Now would be a good time,” he added, making an effort to be gentle with her.

            As the girl scurried to search, Hanuut summoned the effort to raise his voice. “Someone get me up and strap me to the doorpost.” Met by uncomprehending stares, he launched into a string of curses that brought shocked looks to the healers’ faces, though one or two of the wide-eyed children seemed to be memorising the phrases he used.

            “You can’t,” protested one of the healers, an old woman with a crumpled face. “You’ve lost a lot of blood, and the wound hasn’t healed. You’ll…”

            “I’ll die standing instead of lying down,” he snapped. “Want to argue till they come. Now, get me up, or so help me, I’ll take a sword to you myself.”

            There was a shocked exchange of glances, then two of the younger women came and hauled him up on either side, half helping and half carrying him to the door, where others waited with bandages. They wound the strips round the shattered doorframe — the door itself had clearly been splintered down in the fighting — and about his chest and waist, securing him in place, before retreating into the room. The child handed him the battered, notched sword, her face grave and scared.

            Hanuut peered around the doorframe into what was left of the street. The building opposite — a petty merchant’s establishment, by the look of it — was on fire, and several neighbouring structures were charred remains. The smoke-heavy air fixed islands of screams and yells amid an ocean of eerie silence. Two dozen paces away, a group lurched towards him, the rabble into which the proudest army might descend. Hanuut’s last hope — that these were rebels, or the liberating forces — vanished at the sight of the Demon Queen’s red flower emblazoning their torn surcoats.

            The leader stopped two sword-lengths away, and the surprise on his brutish, scarred face — a mahogany face, lighter than the people of Naamid — gave way quickly to mockery. “What do we have here?” he demanded. “They’re giving us target practice now?”

            An ugly laugh spread through the group. They knew — it must be true, Hanuut thought — that they’d be dead by sunset. The imperial garrison’s last footholds were being overwhelmed, and there was no escaping the vengeance of the people they’d oppressed. They were as good as dead, but they were going out on a tide of blood and rape. They had nothing to lose — but nor did he, really, Hanuut reflected, as he felt the aching emptiness where his right leg used to be.

            “You’re not getting past me,” he snarled, hoping his certainty could make it so.

            “Oh no?” The man lunged at Hanuut, bloodshot eyes glaring with the lust to kill. In the heartbeat he had, Hanuut smelt the stench of drink on his breath and knew it gave him the advantage. Flicking the blade aside, he plunged his sword-point into the enemy’s exposed breast, pushing it deep and then yanking it out with the suck of blood.

            Another, the drunkest of the group, rushed at Hanuut yelling furiously, sword raised high. An easy target as it was, paying no attention to defence, the man stumbled onto the blood-soaked blade of his own accord.

            After that, the survivors took more care. Doomed they might be, but they wanted to enjoy their orgy of slaughter for as long as possible, and they approached Hanuut with caution. Like most soldiers, they had little skill with the sword — in battle, a clumsy blow could kill you just as surely as a subtle thrust — but they didn’t need it.

            They tried to surround him, but the doorway prevented it. Hanuut, his head swimming with pain from his stump, tried to concentrate on countering each swipe or thrust and managed to get in a couple of wounding ripostes, but he was slowing down.

            A searing agony cut through his guts, and he looked down stupidly at the blade he’d missed sticking out of his belly. As a mist rose in his eyes, another sword sliced deep into his shoulder. Hanuut sagged against the bindings. This was the end.

            The yells of triumph turned to screams. His eyes cleared enough to see men striking at his attackers, and Hanuut recognised, with a lurch of relief, the insignia of the Alliance.

            Then everything dissolved around him, and there was only a tunnel of light ahead of Hanuut.

It’s About Time

Most secondary-world fantasy writers love creating a whole world (or at least a significant part of one) for their characters to play in. They create geography, cultures, races, religions, politics… the list goes on. But there’s one thing most of them seem less thorough about — time.

Now, that might seem an odd statement, considering how rich many fantasy worlds are in history. But that’s the point. Whether it’s the memory of Bran the Builder or the ancient triumph of the Dragon, these periods are only ever seen from the perspective of a “present” — as history.

Authors might write stories about this history. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, for example, includes a book called Tales of Earthsea, made up of short stories set long before Ged’s time (her “present”). However, these are told very much as “tales of old times”, rather than being immediate, as are the main stories in the series.

There are exceptions, and in general SF is better at this than fantasy. Both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, for instance, have shown themselves willing to move around in their universes’ histories. Most fantasy works that do the same, though, are still looking at the time factor from some kind of (at least relatively) fixed points.

For instance, both Tolkien and Howard were writing about fictional prehistories of our world and could therefore treat different periods essentially as a historical novelist would. Tolkien, in any case, was supposedly translating ancient works about the War of the Jewels and the War of the Ring.

The Chronicles of Narnia certainly cover a large amount of history, since they go from the creation in The Magician’s Nephew to the end of the world in The Last Battle. In this case, though, it’s all being seen from a relatively fixed point (a lifetime) in our world.[1] The same is true of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, where millennia of the Land are seen within a few years of Covenant’s lifetime.

A fantasy world that has time built into it is different. It’s like the contrast between a two-dimensional picture, where the distance is always the distance and nothing exists in front of the foreground, and a 3D virtual tour, where you can wander around and see points from each others’ perspectives.

My first real moment of enlightenment in this respect was when I read Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane series. An excellent but often overlooked sword-and-sorcery series, it tells the wanderings of the immortal main character (essentially the biblical Cain) through an antediluvian world. Each story is set in a different kingdom or civilisation, with locations of other stories sometimes mentioned as ancient history.

This inspired me to do something similar with an immortal of my own, the Traveller, who at this point had only appeared as a secondary character in one context. I realised that, like Wagner, I could tell tales of the Traveller’s wanderings where the setting of one story might be crumbled to dust in the next.

In time, I took that further, and now I have stories set in every period of my world, from its stone age to its computer age — and even the odd glimpse into an age even we’d find futuristic. There’s no artificial “present” — why should there be? My world isn’t in any way synced with our own, so no time period has more relevance than any other. Each story is set in its own present, with references back to characters who are now legends and foreshadowings of what’s to come.

Is that a unique approach? I’ve no idea. I haven’t read any other author approaching their world that way, but then I’m really only familiar with a small selection of recent fantasy. Any recommendations would be very welcome.

But I’d love to see more fantasy authors shake off the shackles of a false present and make time more fluid in their worlds. After all, as Einstein would tell us, it’s all relative.


[1] Yes, the “fixed point” is several decades (from the childhood to old age of Polly and Digory), just as Earthsea’s “present” is Ged’s whole lifetime. In historical terms, though, a lifetime can be seen as a fixed point.

Juvenile Delinquents Against the Future — Dweller in the Crack

Just over a year ago, my novella Dweller in the Crack was published by Gypsy Shadow Publishing — but I didn’t have a blog at the time, so I didn’t note the occasion. So here’s everything you always wanted to know about the book (didn’t you?).

Dweller in the Crack is the fourth published story about Karaghr and Failiu — Kari and Fai to their friends. They’d describe themselves as wandering teenage sorcerers, lovers and outlaws. Others might describe them as a couple of homeless juvenile delinquents who know a few spells and fake the rest. The truth is probably somewhere between the two.

Kari and Fai’s stories are set in the same world as many of my other stories, including At An Uncertain Hour and Eltava: A Sword for All Ages. In fact, the Traveller, who figures in both books, makes a cameo appearance in the first of the stories, while Kari, in a somewhat different later life, will appear in several other novels, including the one I’m currently writing.

The first three stories were published by various markets between 2009 and 2011. In Steal Away, they inadvertently saved the day and were given the resources to leave the city of Errish, where they were living in what can only be described as a squat. In Rainy Season, they tried to fix the climate for a community of islanders and only made things worse. While in The Temple of Taak-Resh, they actually managed to summon a demon — though a reasonably benevolent one.

For some reason, I didn’t write more about Kari and Fai for a few years, but a while ago I wrote a much longer story, Dweller in the Crack. Without giving away too many spoilers, this story involves a missing city, a child-goddess, time-travel, a nightmare future, a crack in reality, and a threat to the whole world and maybe more. And, in the end, Kari and Fai find that perhaps they really are the great sorcerers they claim to be.

I love writing about Kari and Fai because they’re neither heroes (even flawed ones) or villains (even with redeeming features). They’re something far more awesome and terrifying — teenagers. Absurd, romantic, passionate, chaotic, wildly in love with new experiences (and with one another), and always just on the edge of creating mayhem. Always with the best of intentions. Well, usually.

I have three more story ideas for Kari and Fai, and I just have to get around to the minor detail of actually writing them. And I’m sure there’ll be more.

Some years ago, I described Kari and Fai (with apologies to Johnny Mercer) as “two drifters off to see the world”. I still think that sums them up better than anything, and I’m going to enjoy following them as they see more of the world. And maybe blow up odd bits of it.

A Ghost Story for Christmas

In the fine old Christmas tradition, here’s a brief but creepy story. Inspired by MR James, who in turn was inspired by Shakespeare.

Christmas Neighbours

There was a man dwelt by a churchyard. He’d never wanted to live there, having since childhood a morbid fear of graves, but there was nowhere else he could afford. He boarded up the windows overlooking the church and its surrounding gravestones, and he always turned in the opposite direction when leaving his front door, even if it made his journey twice as long.

On the morning of his first Christmas Day there, he found a card posted through the door. That surprised him, since he never celebrated Christmas and anyway had no friends. Opening it, he found the words “Merry Christmas from your neighbours. Why not come to see us sometime?”

That was all. He pondered on the card, wondering which neighbours had sent it. He rarely saw anyone, and certainly there had been no sign of friendliness. Should he knock on various doors and ask if they’d sent the card? No, too embarrassing. Best to leave it alone.

Next Christmas, besides an identically worded card there was a small package in Christmas wrapping with three pairs of socks. And, as the years passed, the mysterious neighbours added other festive gifts to their usual invitation. One year, a Christmas wreath appeared on his door, while another saw the front of the house adorned with fairy lights.

Then came the year when, an hour from midnight on Christmas Eve, singing came from outside his front door. Carols. Instinct told him not to answer, but curiosity got the better of him. Could these be the mysterious neighbours?

As he opened the door, half a dozen figures immediately surged past him and into the hallway, bringing a terrible stench with them. He could see, by the hall light, that their faces and bodies were decaying.

“You never answered our invitation,” said one in a hollow voice, “so we’ve come to you. Give us food.”

“I’ve no food in,” he protested, but the carol singers only laughed hideously.

“Oh, but the food we like best is right in front of us.”

The man who dwelt by the churchyard was never seen again.

Never Argue With a Woman Holding a Sword

Earlier this year, my collection Eltava: A Sword for All Ages was published by the lovely people at Gypsy Shadow Publishing. I didn’t have an active blog at the time, though, so I couldn’t announce it. But here it is, better late than never.

The collection actually had its roots many years ago, when I wrote the novel At An Uncertain Hour. At one point, the immortal main character, the Traveller, tells a story about one of his long-ago adventures, and I wanted to give him a companion for it. So Eltava made her appearance.

And that was supposed to be that — but Eltava insisted she wanted more stories written about her, and you don’t argue with a woman holding a sword. So I started to write them.

At first, like most writers of action fantasy, I wrote about her in her twenties, but after a while I began to think — why? A male action hero has a little leeway to age (if not much) but if the character’s female, once she hits about thirty she’s supposed to settle down and raise kids or knit socks, or something.

That isn’t Eltava.

So I wrote stories about her in her teens, thirties, forties, sixties, and eventually even in her eighties. OK, she isn’t dashing around having adventures at eighty-four, but she can still wield a sword to good effect when she needs to. And, of course, she does need to.

So who is Eltava? She’s a woman of mixed race — her father (whose parents also appear in At An Uncertain Hour) is of a race similar to East Asian, while her mother’s race is not unlike Native American, although Eltava takes mainly after her father.

One point to note is that these similarities are only a matter of appearance. The various peoples have had very different histories from their terrestrial equivalents and shouldn’t be confused with those.

Eltava grows up in a privileged merchant family, but her love is always for adventure, and eventually she leaves home to wander the world with her grandparents friend the Traveller on board his magical ship. Some of these stories feature the Traveller too, in three cases as a roughly equal main character, but Eltava spends plenty of time apart from her companion, too, facing adventures, romance, betrayals and sorcery. Not to mention having to face her ultimate foe — the fact that she ages and the Traveller doesn’t.

This doesn’t mean that Eltava just fights for the sake of it. Although she comes alive in combat, she has a strong sense of right and wrong. Whether she’s defending villagers against aggression, striking against tyrants or just protecting a child, the causes she fights are always just. It’s simply that she really, really enjoys fighting them.

Seven of the eleven stories in this collection have been published before in various outlets, with the four most recently written appearing here for the first time. I’d like to thank Charlotte Holley at Gypsy Shadow for getting this ready for publication and particularly for the stunning cover.

So why not get to know Eltava — in all her ages?

Welcome to the Fantasy Worlds of Nyki Blatchley

So, I have a new website and a new blog — welcome to both.

OK, what do you write about for the first post in a new blog? It doesn’t seem right to post something that could just as easily be the two-hundred-and-twelfth blog, so I’ll use this to introduce the site. I did have a website before, which I created back in 2007. Now, I’m anything but a designer, and back

then it seemed like a great idea to have white text on a black background. And, for good measure, pack every inch of the screen full of stuff. What could be wrong with that?

I’m still not a designer, but I’ve hung around with enough designers to know better now. I wouldn’t actually call the new site minimalist (I’ve never liked minimalism), but I haven’t been afraid of white space this time.

The Home page and the About page do what they say on the tin — tell you about the website and about me, respectively. The photos of me were taken by the wonderful Arianna Cagli of Ari’s Thread, while the various other images on the site come from a range of sources, but all legally sourced.

The bulk of my fiction is set in a world I’ve been developing since I was at school, which I simply refer to as the Traveller’s World, after the immortal character who runs through its history. On the page devoted to it, I’ve explained how it came to be, as well as a brief outline of its geography and history.

On linked pages, you’ll find maps of the Traveller’s World, available books set there, and a list of all the stories set in the Traveller’s World that have been published, whether or not they’re still in print. I’d like to think that I’ll be adding to those pages on a regular basis.

I also have a number of unconnected stories published in a range of anthologies, ranging from epic to comic, and all those currently in print are listed on the Anthologies page.

I also write articles. In fact, I now write articles for a living, but even before that I wrote about my interests. Some years ago, the website Fantasy Faction published two series of my articles. One was a study of a new way of looking at fictional heroes, called The Chaotic Champion, while the other was a looser series of pieces about older masterpieces of fantasy that are often ignored by today’s fans. Links to all these can be found on the Non-Fiction page.

And then there’s the blog — this very page. I’ll be aiming to update it at least monthly (packed work schedule permitting) on a variety of topics — introducing aspects of my world, introducing new publications, giving reviews, discussions of writing, reading, speculative fiction, history, music — whatever takes my fancy.

I did have an old blog, as well as an old website, which ground to a halt in 2016. It’s still sitting there, and you can read my old posts, but I may repost some that were well received from time to time, as it seems appropriate — or if I can’t think of anything new to write.

You can sign up for notifications of new content at the bottom of the Home page and contact me through the Contact page (who’d have thought that?). In the meantime, I hope you enjoy trawling through the Fantasy Worlds of Nyki Blatchley.