When thinking about epic fantasy, how epic is epic enough? And at what point might things become too epic for a single band of heroes? Author Ryk Spoor has opinions on these questions, and how they helped to inform his latest (epic!) novel, The Mask of Ares.
Epic fantasy has a lot of common tropes and story elements; to an extent, having many of these elements (a huge threat to a big and engaging world, a small band of heroes who will somehow be key to addressing the threat, grand-scale magic and terrifying monsters, etc.) is one of the keys to the success of the genre; this is what the audience is paying for, so to speak. What makes the different epics worth reading is what the writer personally adds to the base elements – or, often, how they either challenge or change the base elements, to produce something that is still epic fantasy and yet is somehow new at the same time.
My main fantasy world of Zarathan is in a way a distillation – and a deliberate one – of many epic fantasy tropes, with other elements added. For the three major stories I have or will tell in this setting – my prior Balanced Sword trilogy (Phoenix Rising, Phoenix in Shadow, and Phoenix Ascendant), the Godswar dualogy (The Mask of Ares and The Spear of Athena), and the in-progress Spirit Warriors trilogy (Choosing the Players, Move and Countermove, and Master of the Game), there are several key fantasy elements that I’m playing with: the size of the world relative to that of the heroes, the concept of cyclical world-affecting events, the idea of grand-scale villainous masterminds and master plans, and the injection of nonstandard elements – both overt and referential – into the fantasy setting.
The first is perhaps one of the most obvious: can you really expect one group of heroes to do all the world-saving when you have nigh-immortal adversaries planning their diabolical plots for decades, centuries, or even longer? This often has the corollary that the world map for such stories turns out to have only a small number of locations that the heroes don’t eventually visit during their adventures.
Zarathan is too big for that, and the plans that the main villain (and associates) have set in motion will need more than one group of powerful heroes to address; and even after all three stories are told, there are large sections of Zarathan we will not have visited (and there’s an entire hemisphere or more we haven’t even seen on the map!).
At the same time, to get this concept across to the reader, it is only fair that as a writer I should provide at least a few hints to that effect. In the Balanced Sword trilogy, we in fact see the five heroes of The Spirit Warriors – Xavier and his friends – and they even provide our main characters Kyri, Tobimar, and Poplock with some vital assistance.
But there is also another set of heroes seen in that trilogy, briefly present in the first book and mentioned at intervals in the others: the main characters of Godswar, who are Kyri Vantage’s sister Urelle, her aunt Victoria, and their hired bodyguards Ingram Camp-Bel of Aegeia and Quester, an Iriistiik warrior and sole survivor of his Nest’s destruction.
Similarly, there is more than one recurring pattern that influence the characters and events in the three series. The largest is the succession of Chaoswars, world-devastating events that also cloud the memory of all things past, even to the gods themselves; Chaoswars occur about every twelve thousand years, as mentioned in The Balanced Sword. But the small country of Aegeia has an importance all out of proportion to its size because it, too, has a recurring pattern called the Cycle, in which the two gods of war – Ares, God of War and Passion, and Athena, God of War and Wisdom/Reason – play out the conflict between passion and reason with Aegiea itself as the stage. The Cycle turns out to somehow oppose the power of the Chaoswars, giving Athena and the other gods of Aegeia a greater memory and understanding of things past – and thus a greater possibility to predict and understand the future.
The Cycle of Aegeia is itself central to the events in Godswar; when our heroes realize that some impostor has somehow taken on the guise of the God of War and Passion (thus the title), they also understand that this has the potential to interfere with, or even break, the Cycle – and thus end Aegeia’s unique and precious advantage of knowledge of the past and future.
These events are tied, also, to (as I mentioned earlier) the wide-flung plans of the various malevolent forces at work on Zarathan. The worst of these is of course the King of Wolves, Virigar, the hidden-until-the-end major antagonist of the Balanced Sword, but scarcely less frightening and certainly grander in scale is Kerlamion, the Demon King of All Hells, whose main plan covers most of the continent.
But a key factor in both of these monsters’ plans is the neutralization of Aegeia, which introduces a different if equally deadly opponent for our heroes. Raiagamor, the main adversary for Godswar, inspired the Wolf King’s own personal plan to attain vastly more power than he currently has, and provides the opportunity to keep Aegeia and her gods from interfering in Kerlamion’s great plot of conquest and subjugation. Yet he is doing it for neither of those reasons, but for reasons that are ultimately personal – which, in some ways, makes him worse: he would manipulate an entire country, lead to the downfall of a pantheon of Gods, kill countless innocents… all not for power or glory but for a simple personal achievement: he wants to be acknowledged by his hidden family.
In a sense, this makes him a creepy mirror of Ingram Camp-Bel: self-exiled because he found that even his adopted parents did not consider him truly a member of the Clan, feeling as though he could never measure up to what the Clan demanded of its people… and then, suddenly, finding himself recalled with desperate haste to the side of the Clan he had rejected.
Each of the main heroes has something of this nature about them; Quester does not understand why the Queen of his Nest kept him away, prevented him from trying to defend the Nest, or why he has randomly-surfacing memories of the Queens of the past. Urelle Vantage is trying to prove herself after being rejected by Myrionar, the god that chose her sister Kyri to be its living representative; and Victoria, drawn once more into the field, wonders if an old, retired Adventurer can survive what is beginning to look like a battle between gods, not mortals.
The Mask of Ares also makes clear, I hope, the reason for another common fantasy trope: the need for what amounts to professional heroes, called Adventurers on Zarathan. While the countries described on Zarathan are often very large, they are not, in fact, countries as we understand them – huge spans of mostly civilized and certainly generally safe and controlled land. Instead, they are oases of relative safety connected by the protected Great Roads, bounding wilderness filled with the unknown and often deadly. Quester and Ingram are Guilded Adventurers (an event that is shown in the short story Adventurers), as is Victoria. Such people – invested with the trust of the peoples around them – are a vital part of maintaining the safety and security of people who may not have the opportunity to live within a fortified set of magically maintained defenses.
And they are, of course, the kind of people who throw monkeywrenches into the machinery of any adversary.
That particular metaphor also points up another of the tropes I play with: the crossover of SF and fantasy. In Phoenix Rising, magic intersects with technology in a small but obvious way when little Poplock Duckweed figures out how to make a magical battery for a handheld electronic device owned by Earth native Xavier Ross.
In The Mask of Ares, we learn that the entire Clan Camp-Bel derives from the survivors of a starship that crashed thousands of years ago in Aegeia, and who became loyal supporters of Athena and her people. Ingram Camp-Bel has a few technological devices that he brought with him when he fled, and these play an important role at points of the story. The background and resources of Clan Camp-Bel will play an even greater role in the sequel, The Spear of Athena.
One of the other and in some ways most significant purposes of Godswar is to acknowledge and salute some key influences in my life. I did a similar thing when I wrote Grand Central Arena, which was a nod to Doc Smith and other authors of the Golden and Silver Ages of SF, Princess Holy Aura which was my take on the mahou shoujo genre, and in Polychrome, which was effectively a giant thank-you letter to the spirit of L. Frank Baum, the creator of Oz.
Godswar – as indicated by its dedication – is strongly influenced by and a nod to the work of Masami Kurumada, the creator of Saint Seiya. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Saint Seiya led to my marriage; it would be no exaggeration but simple truth to say that working on Saint Seiya fanfiction with my then-fiancee Kathleen taught me a lot about how to write. Without that, and other similar anime influences, I wouldn’t be the author I am.
Godswar is in no way a copy of Saint Seiya, but many of the concepts of the God-Warrior come from that show, and others – Shurato, Yoroiden Samurai Troopers, various other sentai shows. It is my take on that subgenre, however, just as The Balanced Sword was my take on the concept of the Paladin and representative of a god, taking some of the recognizable elements of the source and then refining and revising them to play a part in the world that is Zarathan.
Ultimately, of course, GODSWAR: The Mask of Ares is the story of four people who find themselves drawn into a conflict vastly larger than they imagined, and how they discover whether they can somehow rise to meet that challenge. Ingram must throw off his self-doubt and eventually face secrets about himself that he does not even suspect; Quester must discover why the Nests of the Iriistiik are being destroyed, and how he represents the potential for salvation of his people; Victoria must bring forth her old skills and hard-won experience to keep herself and her friends alive; and Urelle must learn how to master the power of magic that she had only dabbled in if she is to be able to survive a confrontation with the agents of a god.
I came to care very much for these four as I wrote the story. I hope you will too!