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.

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?

Gettin’ To Be THAT Time Of Year


I can feel it coming on. I’ve noticed it more the last few years, but no doubt it’s been part of my makeup for some time. Call it the Fantasy Itch.

Yep, for some reason as the “holiday season”–usually defined here in the US as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day–approaches, I begin to have an urge to snuggle in with one of the great fantasies. In recent years I’ve used the occasion to reread the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, much of the Narnia series, and a couple of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain books. I even reread the one Harry Potter book I own–which made me realize, I definitely want to visit the library and get a couple more to satisfy this year’s fantasy itch.

The odd thing is, I read fantasy all the time–part of the job now, so to speak. I recently finished Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes, a general market young adult story, and the beginning of a series touted as “ideal for fans of George R. R. Martin and Kristin Cashore.” Then there was Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, another general market YA. Before that was Shannon Hale’s sequel to Princess Academy, Palace of Stone.

Of course I also read all the books the CSFF Blog Tour features and some I judge for contests and others friends send me. With all this speculative fiction coming out of my ears, why would I want to settle down with a fantasy as a special holiday season activity?

I don’t really have an answer. I think I’ve mentioned this propensity before, either here or at Spec Faith, and kindly commenters have tried to help me make sense of it. It’s still a mystery to me.

Somehow, with shorter days and cooler weather (I realize we here in SoCal aren’t allowed by our Eastern friends to say “cold weather” 😆 ), reading becomes a greater pleasure. But more than that, getting lost in a different world, one so rich it feels real, is pure delight.

Which probably explains why I gravitate to certain books–those classics that have a level of worldbuilding that is a grade above most other fantasies.

Some of these more recent fantasies–not the urban kind or the dystopians–seem to me to be a weak imitation of the medieval world, with different countries, and of course some magic or supernatural power. In other words, I don’t feel transported to somewhere else.

Tolkien’s stories, though supposedly happening on “middle earth,” feel Other. Not unfamiliar or strange, mind you. There are familiar things like inns and ponies and roads and a comfortable fire and birthday parties. But peopling this familiar place are hobbits and trolls and dwarfs and orcs and wizards and dragons and elves. What’s more, there are frightening forests and abandoned dwarf mines that once held an entire city and mountains that turn malevolent and secret stairways and deadly marshes. In other words, along with the familiar are places that enchant and intrigue and even frighten.

Harry Potter is similar. Nothing could be more familiar to most of us than a school, though fewer of us have experienced a boarding school, unless you lived in a dorm during college. But mixed in with what seems so normal–homework and tests and boring lectures and athletic contests–is the special world of wizardry with its hierarchy and governance, games and tradition. And history. A dark history in which a wizard utilizing the dark arts ruled.

Ah, yes, I’m definitely ready to settle down with a good fantasy. It’s that time of year!

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