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.


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.


Phoenix Rising: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt of the book. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

40 Comments on “The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor”

  1. Good book. Love Ryk’s stuff, especially the hard SF series he is co-authoring with Eric Flint (Boundary and Threshold, more to come, I hope!).

  2. No ebook version? Too bad, I live in an apartment, and have no room for physical books anymore. I’ll have to add it to the list.

  3. Got it! Thanks, guys! I actually had enough in my Baen account to get it, I don’t know why I didn’t think to look there, too. Distracted by work, I guess…

  4. Thanks for giving me this space, John. I appreciate it.

    And naturally, reading through it here AFTER it’s posted, I find a typo (“Heros” instead of “Heroes” at one point). :)

  5. Not a traditional fantasy buyer … but the write-up was so well done, I’m compelled to purchase. Question: Is the book suitable for YA readers (my 12 year-old son)?

  6. Congratulations on the new book, Ryk. My memories of your writing go back maybe fifteen years, to discussions (and arguments) on rec.arts.sf.written about Doc Smith, Heinlein, libertarian SF, and related topics. It’s a good success story.

  7. Nick: It should be suitable, though there are some temporarily nasty parts. Minimal use of “bad language” (and most of it is actually “fantasy swearing”). I try to write ALL of my books to mostly suit “The Golden Age of Science Fiction”, which as everyone knows is 12.

  8. Addendum to Nick: I read it to my 11-year old son and he loved it. Especially Poplock, who appears to be thus far the most popular character.

  9. I read the book (the ebook version came out last month) and found it very enjoyable. The worldbuilding did stand out, it was very obvious that the world was greater than the small story that you were reading. I purchased it as part of the monthly Baen bundle which also comes with Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance.

    It should be suitable for a 12 year old, I was certainly reading stuff of this nature at that age. There were a few nasty areas of peril (especially near the end).

  10. Jon: well, yes, near the end things have to get as bad as possible before the victory, after all. :)

  11. Mom — “No no you can’t read this. It’s too perilous!”

    “Mom, I can face the peril!”

  12. Poplock is a great character. My only complaint with this book is that the character introductions feels rushed.

  13. JimF: The original draft of Phoenix Rising had a considerably greater introduction sequence, especially for Kyri and her family; you in fact followed Kyri from the time her parents were killed onward.

    The overall reaction from most people, though, was that it took too long to get rolling, especially since much of the ACTIVE role in those sequences was taken by other people (Aunt Victoria, Toron, and Rion). Thus there was some considerable trimming.

  14. Chuk: Yes, I would not recommend reading those notes until after reading GCA. But there ARE some spoilerphiles who WANT to see everything beforehand…

  15. A new Ryk Spoor book? Well, I guess I can start a new ‘to-read’ pile. Probably on top of the current ‘to-read’ pile. (I utterly ADORED his Grand Central Arena, and heck, I was active on rec.arts.sf.written back when he was fortunate enough to post news of his first book sale. I look forward to reading this!

  16. Jaquandor: Thanks! You will be happy to know that the sequel to GCA is also on the way. :)

  17. I’m glad to see that the sequel to GCA is on the way. I really enjoyed that novel, I thought it was a smart & fun science fiction novel.

  18. Got mine in a Baen bundle. Phoenix Rising was actually beat out by the Bujold in the “now which do I read first” but only because I’ve actually seen the earlier drafts. :) Now if only all of the series/trilogies I’ve seen bits of come out I’ll be very happy (though still left wondering what happens next, I suspect.)

  19. OK Ryk, got it.

    Sidenote: When can we expect Boundary #3? You and Eric Flint left Helen and A.J. in a hell of a pickle, ya know!

  20. Well, I guess I can start a new ‘to-read’ pile. Probably on top of the current ‘to-read’ pile. (I utterly ADORED his Grand Central Arena, and heck, I was active on rec.arts.sf.written back when he was fortunate enough to post news of his first book sale. I look forward to reading this post !

    Cheap Flights to Miami

  21. I’ve never read any of Ryk’s books but after reading this article I’ve bought Phoenix Rising and Grand Central Arena from Baen. One question though. Marc DuQuesne? Am I in for a wild E.E.Doc Smith ride? If so I’m reading that baby first :)

  22. Flub;

    not… exactly.
    at least, not in the first :D

    oh, what the hell am i saying?!?! it *IS* rather in the same spirit, though Marc isn’t what you’re thinking. mostly.

  23. Flub: I’d say, yes, exactly. Grand Central Arena is my attempt to do a Doc Smith adventure in a modern style. And there is a good in-universe reason that Marc C. DuQuesne has that name.

    It hasn’t gotten to the giant fleets of spaceships battling yet, though.

  24. Really nice build-up! I feel like I need to start reading this book asap, just based on the time and passion that went into it. Not to mention, the plot and characters sound compelling. A model pitch!

  25. I finished PORTAL last week, it was a great read. I read BOUNDARY when it first came out and thought it was a super book. Then read TRESHOLD when it arrived on the scene. Now I have finished BOUNDARY again and am about a third of the way through Treshold again. I really wish PORTAL wasn’t the end of the series because I can see at least one maybe two other books that could really finish this series, maybe not with the same character entirely but they could still play key roles. (Think Atlantis for the finally)

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