The Big Idea: Will Wiles
Over time, little things can add up. This is the case for empires falling, governments collapsing, and sickness spreading. In Will Wiles’s Big Idea, he goes into detail about how being aware of these little things can lead to big changes. See what changes await in The Last Blade Priest.
Decay, that’s the thing. I wanted to talk about decay. Not physical decay, but the decay of cultures and institutions – an awful creeping fear that the familiar world is crumbling, and might have been crumbling for some time. It was 2016 and I didn’t much like the way the world was going – in the UK, at least, the existing order was fracturing, a rupture that felt quite sudden, but also the result of fault lines that had been growing and rumbling for years. The outlook seemed ominous, but within it were intriguing glints of possibility.
At the time I was reading John Julius Norwich’s immense, wonderful history of Byzantium, and I was struck by how long decline can take, and how it can be interspersed with periods of relative quiet and even recovery in between flashes of irrecoverable disaster. The scenery can appear quite normal, before it falls over with a bang. A character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is asked how he went bankrupt, and he answers: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
You’d think, when an institution is entrusted with a vital responsibility, it would never lose sight of that trust. But it happens all the time, throughout history. Armies become more interested in bribes and kingmaking than defence of their state. Religions sink into luxury, or become hidebound and pedantic and incapable of change. The watchdogs of democracies drift into slumber.
These processes, the workings of decay, fascinated me as an undergraduate student of history, and they fascinate me today. The gears turn, and then – crash. Gradually, then suddenly. Sometimes, the occupants of these systems are unaware of the slow-turning disaster. Sometimes, they are aware, but powerless. Sometimes, it’s their efforts to change course that hasten the final crisis.
Gloomy thoughts, you might say, and you wouldn’t be wrong – but tremendous narrative. It’s fascinating for a reason, and it’s an underpinning of the Gothic. Decay is, after all, a process of life – the dead whale sinking to the lightless floor of the ocean makes that desert blossom with weird and wonderful creatures. Of course, it’s best enjoyed through the pages of a book, in an armchair in a stable and prosperous society, rather than witnessed in the fabric around us. But reflecting on these things can help us keep alert to the warning signs and the wicked problems.
So, an institution is entrusted with an awesome responsibility. At the heart of the world there is a Mountain, a Mountain completely unlike the mountains around it, with a dreadful ever-shifting countenance that repulses anyone who looks at it too long. Perhaps it’s not a mountain at all, but it is the size of a mountain and among mountains so it is called the Mountain.
The Mountain is the source of all magic in the world, and can grant godlike powers to any person willing to journey to it and strike a bargain with its monstrous protectors. And it has spawned a world religion based on human sacrifice to appease the avian necromancers that guard the Mountain, and a simple mission: ensure that no human ever gives themselves the power of a god.
Simple. A typical fantasy set-up maybe, a hidden kingdom defending a magical resource of incalculable value. And my earliest outline had a fairly typical approach to the set-up: a questing party, from an upstart nation that doesn’t respect the old ways, aims to penetrate this mountain fastness. The sprawling monastery-fortress of the decadent priests and their monstrous demigods would naturally be the destination of that story, held for the end.
But the more I thought about that rotten religion and its factional battles in a demon-haunted fortress, the more time I wanted to spend there. Why store them up for the end, and then see them only from the outside? Why not spend a little more time with them?
Moreover, what if some of the priests at the heart of this ancient religion weren’t entirely blind to their decayed state, and had some awareness that the world outside was changing? And, in fact, even the gods realised things had to change? Suddenly there were two stories to tell: the brash, infidel newcomers, and their quest to open up this secret religious kingdom; and the struggle within that religion between reform and tradition.
At the heart – excuse me – of this battle is the question of human sacrifice, an ancient necromantic rite to bind men to their gods, which the gods now say isn’t needed any more. For one of the young priests in training to deliver death to the gods, this comes as a great, secret, relief – but puts him in vastly more danger than he realises.
This seemed like a great opportunity to get inside some of these questions of decay and renewal, and competing visions of progress in a world gripped by a gathering crisis – but also to have a lot of fun with a story of intrigue, murder, betrayal and human folly. And at the heart – sorry, again – would be the vital question of responsibility, and who gets to wield power, when those best placed to take it are not the ones you’d want using it.
Also there are abominable snowmen.
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