The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor
In creating their books, most science fiction and fantasy writers engage in a certain amount of worldbuilding, developing the environment in which their stories take place. How long does this take? Well, if you are Ryk E. Spoor, and the book in question is Phoenix Rising, the answer is: Longer than some adults have been alive on the planet. Spoor explains why he believes (and hopes you will believe) the incubation period has been worth the wait.
RYK E. SPOOR:
Like many of my works, Phoenix Rising attempts to be classic example of its core genre – in this case, epic fantasy – yet with some interesting twists and turns. So we have the highborn young woman, family slain, on a quest for justice and vengeance; the exiled prince; and the somewhat roguish troublemaker who helps the less subtle heroes get the job done.
But Kyri Vantage is not turning to the gods for help; she’s the last hope of her own god, who is as weakened and betrayed as she. Tobimar Silverun is not fleeing his people or a deposed ruler, but seeking something which only his family can pursue, and in exile to keep them safe; and Poplock Duckweed is an Intelligent Toad barely larger than a hand, yet a fully capable adventurer in his own right, whose diminuitive size leads others to fatally underestimate him.
Phoenix Rising is perhaps the most personally important book I have yet published. It is the first book I sold to my publisher entirely on my own, from start to finish. It is a story I have wanted told since I first began to write Kyri’s story in 1991. And perhaps most importantly, it is the novel which finally brings Zarathan, the World of Magic, to life for those outside my small circle of friends.
I have been working on Zarathan for thirty-five years, building it both as a world for writing and as one for adventurers to enter and play in, since I have been running roleplaying game campaigns since the same year I invented Zarathan. I could write a great deal about how RPGs in general became a tool for me and my writing, and how I avoid (I hope) making my stories read like some guy’s game writeup. But it is Zarathan itself which I think is the core, the heart of Phoenix Rising, and on Zarathan I will concentrate.
I built Zarathan from my own ideas, from those I encountered on TV, books, movies, stories of all sorts. Yet even when I used something from elsewhere, I wanted it to make sense within the world. When a player wanted to create a character different from any others I’d seen, I always wanted to let them go ahead… but it had to be integrated with my universe. Sometimes the creation was a partnership that went farther; the character Kyri had her origin in a game run by my friend Jeff Getzin, author of Prince of Bryanae… while Bryanae itself was created as background for Jeff’s character D’Arbignal, and I gave that background – that piece of my world – to him for his own use. Other players brought their ideas, their dreams, their hopes and fears, and these all left their mark, made me think about how the world could encompass everything that those visiting the world might hope for.
To do this, I had to understand the universe I was building, and make it bigger, make it more real, make it able to be solid and strong enough to encompass anything. I had to reconcile the way that magic worked with the logic of the way people would use it, find a way for it to work without becoming a runaway solution for all problems in the hands of someone who thought differently. I had to find ways to keep it reasonable that a hero could be a simple warrior just as much as he or she could be a magician or a priest. I had to, in fact, figure out why the world could be the way it was, and yet need so many heroes to save it.
And so – without my realizing it at first – Zarathan came to life. The huge empires of the Dragon King and the Archmage of the Mountain, seeming so mighty and all-encompassing… yet actually merely networks of roads and towns surrounded by ever-wild forests and plains and mountains. Dozens, hundreds of different species of sapient creatures, each with their own agenda, powers, interests. The great cycles of the Chaoswars, and my eventual understanding of exactly what caused them – how they had started, how they could manage to even affect the gods themselves with befogged memories and lost knowledge, and what was truly behind their devastating cycle of repetition. The tie between Zarathan and Earth and the fall of Atlantaea, the sealing of the magical conduit that joined them, and how this was connected to the War of the Hell-Dragon and the revolt of the Saurans. All of these things emerged, sometimes as though I had known them all along, as I worked to make sense of a world that could contain so many things.
Zarathan lives so clearly in my mind that I can usually answer detailed questions about it without really thinking. I know the answers are right, just because they somehow fit. And the World of Magic that I see is a world where there are a double dozen countries, hundreds of gods, a million interwoven plots, and a need for untold numbers of Heroes.
Phoenix Rising follows one set of heroes – Kyri, Tobimar, and Poplock – on a mission of deadly importance to the world. But they are not the only such heroes, nor is theirs the only – or even, perhaps, the most important – such mission. Xavier Ross, who shows up at a few points in the book, is part of another group, following other clues to a different but no less vital destination. There are yet other groups of Heroes on other important quests.
I felt this was a vitally important part of Phoenix Rising – to have our heroes at once be on an epic quest, one whose ultimate end will be as desperately important to the safety and survival of the countries they know and love as anything could be, and at the same time to recognize that in a world so huge, with powers so vast, no one group of heroes will be enough; there will be need for heroes aplenty.
There are many books, and RPG adventures, where it seems that only one set of heroes are available, or needed, where the map is just the right size for the heroes to visit all the vital locations. But I built Zarathan to handle smart roleplayers – and those people always go somewhere you didn’t expect them to. They figure out ways to evade your cunning traps, to use magical devices in a manner completely contrary to what you’d intended, and in short make a complete hash of anything that seemed simple and foolproof.
So I built Zarathan bigger. In Phoenix Rising, the main characters will touch only a fraction of the points on the map; in fact, they will touch only a small fraction of those locations even after the entire Balanced Sword trilogy is complete. Even if I get to do the other two concurrent trilogies – The Spirit Warriors (which features Xavier Ross and his friends) and Godswar – all three sets of heroes will still not have come close to hitting all the spots on the map.
Zarathan is also – quite intentionally – a world in which everything works, and where almost anything is possible. So our adventurers are a preternaturally strong God-Warrior (Kyri) with divine-source powers, a swordsman trained in a mysterious martial-art discipline that seems to offer mystical powers (Tobimar), and a little Toad who studies some practical magic, tinkers with clockwork, and knows a lot about dramatic entrances. Along the way, they meet a native of Earth (from, in fact, Morgantown, the setting of my first novel Digital Knight) who appears to have super-ninja style powers and amuses himself with a portable gaming system, another Toad who conducts what amounts to a magical CSI investigation, a meddling magician who seems to be manipulating even the gods, and traces of demons, psionics, and more.
I tried, as much as I could, to give some form of closure to Phoenix Rising; this was necessary because I do not know, yet, whether I will be able to do the two remaining novels in the trilogy (although, if Baen chooses not to continue the trilogy, I intend to write them eventually and sell them independently somehow). But I will admit that I could only do so much. Not only is it clear that their own particular adventures are merely paused, not finished, but the other events they have touched upon – and affected – are themselves dangling threads.
Those threads, however, connect. They are VITAL. Xavier’s presence changes the course of events twice, and it would seem likely that without him, our main characters would have been killed or worse rather than reaching their goals. At the same time, what they have done affects Xavier strongly, and will influence what happens to him and his friends. The connections continue later, also; these plot threads, and some for Godswar which are subtly present in Phoenix Rising, return at various points in the trilogy.
Just as the chaos spreading across Zarathan is all connected – all part of Kerlamion’s ultimate plan – so, too, are these groups of heroes connected, parts of the mysterious wizard Khoros’ manipulations, playing a game of lethal chess across thousands of miles and hundreds of centuries. Yet… even these are only a small part of Zarathan.
This is a world where a dragon stretches its wings and spans the horizon, while elsewhere a dashing swordsman challenges three others for the sake of honor and the joy of the fight; where three rivers – two of chill water, one of orange-flickering lava – plunge as one into a pool of water with an eternal crackling thunder, below a city built across the lava flow between the green and blue waters; where Idinus of Scimitar, God-Emperor of the Mountain, casts his gaze across ten thousand miles or five hundred millennia, seeing all yet unsure whether he has lost himself; where other worlds await the traveller, gateways hidden within lost ruins or beyond a shimmering in the air or around the next bend of the road; and where four friends rise from a battle they thought had ended them, and realize they are now more than mere mortal, raised by the faith they inspired in those they met.
This is Zarathan. It is the world I have dreamed of – and dreamed in – for thirty-five years.
Come. Bring your own dreams with you. There’s room for them all.