Worldbuilding In A Cast Of Stones by Patrick Carr

Warwick_Castle_-mist_23o2007Every author creates a world for his characters to inhabit, but those working in speculative fiction have to invent one. Contemporary and historical writers have to research theirs. Speculative writers have to research but also design, combine, entwine features from this life and from their mind and imagination into a cohesive whole.

The world a writer builds is made up of more than landscape. It consists of culture and language, politics and religion, alliances and enemies, races and rules, hierarchy and economics, beliefs and superstitions, history and literature.

I say this because a number of reviews, particularly Mike Duran‘s and Katherine Coble‘s, of Patrick Carr‘s novel A Cast of Stones pinpointed worldbuilding as a weakness. In my comments to their posts I concurred, but I have to admit, I began to wonder how accurate the statement was.

As I’ve mentioned once or twice, I deeply felt the lack of a map! I realized as I read without the ability to reference a map, that I wasn’t picturing where places were in reference to one another. I didn’t know where the mountains were or where the gorge ran. I didn’t know how close the sea was, and was surprised to learn that the capital city was on an island (? – I think I have that right). In other words, I didn’t see the world well.

On the other hand, I felt the culture was well established. A messenger system existed. Each town had a tavern/inn that served as a gathering place and to which newcomers went. But they also had a church, and the priest had some authority. For example, the village priest had the power to have someone flogged and thrown into the stocks for drunkenness.

Herbwomen were looked at with suspicion, as if they believed in something unholy. Something unholy did venture in the land–a malus, which would best be compared to an evil spirit. And so did ferrals (a kind of sentient super wolf), though these were an aberration of the norm.

The church had a key part to play in the kingdom but was augmented by the conclave of readers (perhaps the most unique element of the governmental structure) and by the king and the Watch–soldiers dedicated to his protection. Readers were conscripted by the church, whereas serving in the Watch was something reserved for only the most skilled fighters. Both positions required training, so formal education was also a part of this world, at least for some of the people.

The economy depended on trade caravans, and bartering was the standard manner of doing business. People from various parts of the world, with varying physical features and accents based on their place of origin, gravitated to caravan guard jobs.

Other people lived in towns and villages or on farms, each under the oversight of an earl who owed his allegiance to the king. A line existed between commoners and the hierarchy. Even the church and the conclave of readers had their ranking.

All this to say, I actually know quite a bit about the world that author Patrick Carr created. In some ways it does resemble the medieval world of Europe–which required research–but there is also an inventiveness that had to come from his imagination.

Does Carr create a strong sense of place? Well, there’s no mistaking this world for Kansas, or Oz. Could it have been stronger? Undoubtedly. The weakest element, in my opinion, was in the visuals–the description of where the characters were.

Tomorrow I hope to comment on a different Christian speculative novel, one that does, in my opinion, a wonderful job of worldbuilding.

How important is worldbuilding to you when you read fiction? What makes a place feel real to you?

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12 Comments

  1. I’m with you, Becky — I could have used a map — but I never thought the place was unreal or unknowable. It felt solid, and there was a sense of deep history and established culture.

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    • Yes, I agree, Keanan. I thought it was a rich world, though perhaps not dense. I think the second book added to the world a great deal, and because I read them back-to-back, it’s a little hard for me to judge. But I certainly wasn’t feeling like it was two dimensional or a carbon copy of medieval times.

      I’m glad you mentioned history. I didn’t elaborate on that, but history and tradition are definitely a part of making this world feel solid.

      Becky

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  2. I have to go back and look at my review to see how I worded it. Because I’ve written about the book in enough different places now and I can’t think what I’ve said where.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that there are the bones of a good story, and that includes knowing sociological and infrastructure details about the world. And to me that counts as world building.

    But there’s not any strong sense of place. This isn’t the first book to he guilty of that; it’s becoming more and more the standard in YA fiction, it seems.

    Also, the way in which the world was built here is a way that bugs me. We didn’t know much ahead of time. One of the great story conflict methods in fantasy is seeing how the character conflicts with the world in which he is placed. It feels like a cheat to say, 78% of the way through, “here is how this establishment works.” The book would’ve been a richer experience if we’d known a bit ahead of time about those things.

    Especially readers. Here is this thing that is CENTRAL to the universe of this novel. And in our attached third-person POV we don’t know a lot about it because Errol needs to be gradually impressed by the enormity of his situation.

    Yet surely if this world is so governed by readers, Errol would have heard of them at least. The way he found out about readers made him seem like the equivalent of a 19yo American boy who didn’t know that America had Presidents.

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    • You bring up a good point, Katherine. Fiction technique is changing–or has changed, shall I say. There are more and more movie elements filtering into novels. We aren’t dwelling on things like we once did in fiction. Instead we take a quick snapshot and move the story along. I actually thought the pace of this one was slower than a lot of YA fiction and I liked it. Some of the tour reviewers (or maybe these were Goodreads reviewers) said they thought it got bogged down in the middle.

      You make a good point about Errol knowing about readers, too. But I actually think he did. He just didn’t have any association with them, he thought, so it didn’t cross his mind to mention them to anyone or learn more about them until it came out that he was one. I could be wrong on this, but I thought he explained at one point why he wasn’t tested at the proper age like everyone else–the drinking problem.

      Anyway, for a debut novel, I thought it was commendable, and book two immediately deepens the worldbuilding–we have lines in a different language, for instance, and a hidden land. It’s pretty good! 😀

      Becky

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  3. It wasn’t bad. The magic systems and church/state interaction was good, but there wasn’t context to put things into relief. Like why the church dislikes herbwomen but its okay with casting losts, which is a form of divination that seems neutral of God. A bit more detail would have helped, but it was a fun read. My big issue was that Errol became too competent too fast, ending the book seriously leveled up as a noble, a unique form of lot-reader, and a staff-master thrashing people left and right.

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    • D. M., the context you want comes out in the next book. I can tell you why the church dislikes the herbwomen and much more. But this is the nature of a trilogy. The world unfolds like a flower the same way the story does. Readers need to be patient instead of getting everything up front. That, quite frankly, would be boring. One of the great tricks of writing, fantasy, I think, is knowing how to introduce readers to the rules of the world without disrupting the story.

      I actually thought Errol’s progression was pretty believable. There was considerable time that passed, he had one of the best teachers in the land, he “worked out” assiduously, he trained with an unorthodox fighter, he went up against some of the best in a progressive manner. I bought it.

      The lot reader skill wasn’t really about learning how to read them as it was learning how to frame the questions. His great ability was that he could read other people’s lots and that wasn’t something he acquired by working for it. He was born with that ability.

      Interesting to see different people’s reactions. 😉

      Becky

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      • Yeah, I had the feeling this would be the case, but it was an odd thing. The herbwomen seem to be virtually harmless, and something like the readers have been proven to be far, far more dangerous and numerous. For a first book in the trilogy, it quickly powered Errol up more than I thought, and I still can’t help but think maybe less power and more background might be richer.

        The staff part I didn’t mind so much, actually. It was that, and then now he’s a noble, and an omne, and now teh hawt girls want him and he’s the equal to Liam…it was a bit too much. I wish he had stayed in Liam’s shadow a bit more. It was a cool dynamic that seemed to end too soon.

        It’s definitely an interesting series. I wonder how Patrick will improve. If these are his first books, they are fine efforts.

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  4. I like Patrick Carr’s world, what I know of it from reading only the first book. I look forward to adding to my imaginative “picture” as I continue with the series.

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    • I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, Laure! 😀

      Becky

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  5. […] my post about the worldbuilding in A Cast of Stones by Patrick Carr, I said, besides a description of […]

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  6. I read “A Cast of Stones” a while ago, and I have to say that I was really impressed by the elegant simplicity of the world-building. AU medieval world-building is challenging, because the author has to pick and choose different aspects of the existing medieval history/mythology and weave them into a new world–and the reader comes in with a lot of baggage, because medieval mythology/fantasy is one of the old standbys of speculative fiction.

    I did miss a map, but I found that the descriptions were so clear I developed a picture in my head. Otherwise, I really enjoyed the development of the world, and the unique addition of the Conclave.

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    • I felt the same way, Janeen. I was surprised when others complained, but they were comparing the work to another I hadn’t read, so I thought perhaps others did it better, and I was unaware of how good it could be.

      The map though . . . that’s a must in epic fantasy. I think I should write the publisher. 😉

      Becky

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