Fantasy Friday: Worldbuilding In Dragonwitch by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

DRAGONWITCH coverWorldbuilding, some say, is vital to epic fantasy. I’d argue that worldbuilding is vital to all fiction but is perhaps most noticeable in speculative fiction. Epic fantasy and space opera might have the greatest requirements put on them to develop a world that is at the same time vividly realistic and other.

And then there are faery tales.

Some faery tales may read a lot like epic fantasy. I think of Cinderella, for example, and the main thing that sets it apart from traditional good versus evil stories such as The Chronicles of Prydain, is, well, faeries. The magic of the story comes about at the initiative of a faery godmother (or, in Disney’s version, three fairy godmothers). In fact a good many of the most famous faery tales involve kings and castles, faeries and witches, princes and fair maidens in distress.

That was then. A host of writers today have taken the threads of those old stories and are turning them into a different type of faery tale–one that utilizes the craft of contemporary fiction.

When it comes to worldbuilding, perhaps no one creates a more realistic and at the same time, fantastic place as Anne Elisabeth Stengl does in her Tales of Goldstone Wood series. With each book I think this talented author grows, and so does her world.

As I thought about explaining the worldbuilding of Gladstone Wood, the closest I could come to was the Wonderland into which Alice stumbled. There is a similar disorientation in entering the world Anne Elisabeth Stengl has created.

Things don’t work the same way they do in the world of mortals, because this is the Wood Between, where the River plots against any mortals that stray, where stars come in human form, where paths change direction, and trees aren’t where they once were. Where time is swallowed up and where faeries guard gates, lest those who don’t belong end up slipping into the land of mortals.

In my post about the worldbuilding in A Cast of Stones by Patrick Carr, I said, besides a description of location,

[worldbuilding] consists of culture and language, politics and religion, alliances and enemies, races and rules, hierarchy and economics, beliefs and superstitions, history and literature.

So how does Dragonwitch measure up? The landscape is vivid, in spite of the fact that there is no map. In part, I’m convinced that a map wouldn’t help because the paths in the Wood Between simply aren’t reliably stationary. Things move. Trees reshape and the path itself is apt to go off on its own.

But outside the wood, in the Near World and the Far World, the terrain is just as explicit, though much more familiar. There are castles and stables, crypts and courtyards, mountains and deserts, villages and temple buildings.

In addition, each of these places has its own history, prophecy, economy, government, literature, language, and hierarchy. The fabric of each place is rich, made more so when people from the different parts of this faery world come together.

A sample of the story can say far more than I can describe. Below is an excerpt from a place near the middle of the story (pp 188-189). A faery named Eanrin has just helped rescue three mortals (the Chronicler, Alister, and Mouse–a young woman) from a host of goblins and has led them into the Wood Between.

“What in the name of Lord Lumé–” the Chronicler began.

“Hush!” The cat appeared at his feet and stood up into the tall form of Bard Eanrin. The Chronicler’s stomach turned at the sight, and his knees buckled so that he sat down hard on the marble floor beneath him. The legend stepped around the Chronicler to draw back a green-velvet curtain emblazoned with small white blossoms, and peered out.

Except–and the Chronicler knew he must be mad when he saw this–there was no curtain. There was only the branch of a hawthorn tree heavily laden with clusters of blooms. But when the cat-man dropped it and stepped back, it was again rich fabric falling in folds.

“We’ve lost them,” Eanrin said, crossing his arms as he addressed the three mortals. “They’ll not find us here.”

Alistair still lay on the floor, though he’d rolled onto his back and stared, openmouthed, at the vaulted ceiling above him. Mouse stood nearby, trying to disguise her own surprise at the sudden change in their surroundings. She looked more bedraggled and waif-like than ever in this setting . . .

How frail and foolish these mortals looked here in First Hall! By the standards of Faerie, the Haven’s proportions were humble and reserved. But this was an immortal’s abode, built by immortal hands at the direction of the Lumil Eliasul, who was neither mortal nor immortal but who stood in a place beyond either. Here, the little humans looked so imperfect in their Time-bound clay bodies.

Yes, Dragonwitch definitely has a feeling of place, especially of an Other place, though the scenes that are set in Gaheris and its castle resonate with historical reality. And the Near World evokes images of an amalgamation of ancient Egypt and early America before anyone thought to name it.

What a place. What a story. But I’ll give a full review of Dragonwitch another day.

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One Comment

  1. […] worldbuilding as I noted previously is exceptional. Anyone who loves the topsy-turvy world of faeries, who […]

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