Map Reveal – Regional vs World

Map of Port Selumer and surrounding areas, by Steven Sandford

I am happy to reveal the official novel-edition map of Port Selumer and surrounding areas. Steven Sandford, who illustrated the world map seen in the Gift-Knight trilogy, returned to focus on all the world that’s relevant to the novel Alathea: Goddess & Empress.

The lay of the land

The city of Port Selumer springs up from the one large accessible beach to be found amidst rocky terrain and old cliffs. To the side and up those cliffs is the home of Emperor Maximian and his daughter, Alathea. Further to the east of that, and best accessed by an easily defensible causeway, is the territory of the old palace and village of Eirinikos.

It’s a city of tiers that gets divided by class along the upward slope. People at the bottom can live off the fruits of the sea and anything that might be desired for trade further up the city. North of the city, pastures and vast fig orchards exist to serve upper class feasts.

North of farms and orchards, you find some wilderness, most notably a sumac-dominated forest in which lurks a northern clan adept at stealth. And north of that, clan territories: different peoples who are alternately swinging deals and temporary alliances with the Port Selumer based empire or openly fighting against it, or settling disputes with each other, or just living life in a manner that’s most meaningful to them.

South of the city and a cross the water lies a more familiar world, but this novel isn’t directly concerned with that.

Challenges

A writer who can’t really draw for the life of him can picture what he wants in fragments but not render it the way he likes. An artist is capable of rendering such visuals but doesn’t have direct access to the writer’s mind. That’s the first challenge with me.

I start with drawing a mockup map. Here I try to remain cognizant of what exactly I don’t know how to do well with it so I can communicate the difference to the artist later. I also make frequent use of words to describe anything I want placed in a general location but don’t know how to draw. It’s a step up from a completely word-based set of instructions because at least I have tried to visually arrange where things should go relative to each other.

Scale is a greater challenge to me on a regional map than on a world map. A building only appears on a world map to show where a landmark is, but we don’t expect it to-scale.

When I had to mock up this regional map after only ever having done the world map, I was left with vast pockets of empty space because the city was too small, and conversely, too much attention was being paid to the world-map shape of coastline around it. I was automatically focusing on something irrelevant to the story, which means it doesn’t need to be on the map.

A professional map artist might have clued into that on his own, but they don’t know what I mean until I spell it out. Unfortunately, they are probably used to clients who have made them guess, only to say, “No no, that’s not what I had in mind,” without being particularly helpful to the artist. You will generally have a better time working with artists when you figure out how to avoid doing that, or at least how to be mindful of their challenge in not being able to read minds.

That said, I prefer to listen to the artist on matters of making geographic sense. In the world map, not every border could be a mountain range, and most divisions between land and sea for an entire continent weren’t going to be cliffs (if you will, is that an active fault line? Are some of the mountains on the range sandwiched against the sea/ocean going to be volcanic?). If you want something to be prohibitively inconvenient to navigate, consider other reasons why ships might pass an area by for a more convenient port, like swamps, dense mangrove growth, shallows, for example. If you want a village best accessible by causeway, perhaps there should be a reason visible on the map for people to go to all that architectural trouble.

At the end of the process, I feel that I considered exactly what I needed to have on a map for the purpose of the story. A touch of realism to the lay of the land is appreciated, but I’m also not attempting to map out a product of our planet’s specific environments, plate tectonics, and eons of geologic time. If you require a deeper level of detail than I do, or a harder realism, then you’re the one who decides that for your project.

For my part, I’m happy.

Alathea: Goddess & Empress” releases May 1, 2020, and is currently available for pre-order.

Villains and Mental Health Depictions

The mask of Alathea

To my knowledge, no protagonist or antagonist I have written is a bad person because of a specific mental health issue per se. Every developed character I have is struggling with something deep and personal; for example, as I understand it, Derek has in common with his author that he’s autistic and that he gets to be under pressure from some of his peers and society for staying true to his demisexual nature, and also a deep dissatisfaction with his life at many points. He’s also not the main focus of this post, just an opening thought.

With my villains, their villainy tends to stem from imperialism, monoculturalism, a need for stifling control over everything, a refusal to collaborate with or listen to others about what their goals are and only letting people have input in order to use them for a personal goal, exaggerated vendettas, and a privileged detachment from countless human lives affected deeply by antagonistic actions every day. Lords Merton and Belheff are less-developed characters who have very specific agendas and treat human lives flippantly in order to pursue grandiose goals, and we can see how little they care about people of the land even if they claim everything they do is to strengthen and secure the future of that land. Merton and Belheff aren’t the focus either because they are pawns, and they’re getting about as much focus here as they do presence/relevance in the trilogy.

This is about Alathea, because I decided she’s important enough to have an entire new book written about her. This is also more within the trilogy context because that’s where she’s acting as primary antagonist. The new book doesn’t even go to the same places that the trilogy does because it’s focusing on a formative stretch or cycle of her life, though it sure doesn’t hide the aforementioned laundry list of villain traits either.

This is about her trademark mask. Everything she does that makes her an antagonist, she does whether the mask is on or off. It is never about being pleasant or charming when the mask is off, then a cruel dictator when it is on; she’s capable of being intimidating and mean without it.

The mask is specifically there because of an inner revulsion at having to perform violent acts against any other human being, even one who poses a threat to her, and a traumatic incident involving her father who believed she would need to have to kill someone some day for the sake of power and wanting a controlled learning experience of this for her. She’s convinced of what she needs to do according to his instruction, but feels utter revulsion that someone else couldn’t just do it for her, so her father’s mask is like something she can have with her that enables her to do what needs to be done.

After his death she likes to imagine it is him, and is a way in which he can be with her whenever she needs him, instead of constantly going away to fight battles that in her view he could always have gotten someone else to do, ultimately depriving her of his valued presence. She even likes to imagine having a conversation with him via the mask as a way of processing ideas which she may not like but she imagines he might have made her consider anyway.

None of which touches on why she is seen as a villain. It’s not wearing a mask that suddenly makes her an ultra-controlling imperialist warmonger, etc.

The original intent of the mask is also to intimidate, which her father used it for, which a key ancestor of theirs used a mask of his own for, so she can use that functionality as well. You wear it to battle so that no matter how you feel inside, no one should have to see you concerned or afraid. Just an intimidating entity to which one must surrender or die.

But she doesn’t have to wear the mask to send armies off to wars of aggression, nor order people tortured and/or killed, nor desire revenge against Chandra Kenderley, nor do any other terrible thing, except if she might have to take a life with her own two hands or do something very in-person and direct that doesn’t sit well with her.

Absolutely nothing about Alathea’s character arrived as a result of any study of clinical psychiatry, psychology, or any understanding of that nature, but everything I do certainly reflects long-standing tropes in fiction that I have read and any leaps of imagination resulting from that and everything is certainly up for discussion.

I felt the need to write this due to a broader discussion of mental health, its depictions in media, and especially cases where antagonists/villains are portrayed as having their villainy/antagonism directly caused by an unfair/inaccurate depiction of a mental health situation. I thought I should spell out my approach just for the record.

Reading post-mortem: introducing the antagonist

"Alathea" - by Maddie Bolek

In this particular trilogy, antagonists are people who are good at having very lofty visions, but not at questioning the need for their methods. Not once they get started. They are powered by absolute belief in the necessity of what they do. Whatever needs to be destroyed along the way, whoever needs to die, all justified by the ends pursued. If they stopped to question whether what they’re doing is actually a valid means to the end, that hesitation might ruin everything. That lapse in faith might curse them.

Protagonists have an uphill battle, to put it one way. They arrive super aware of the problematic aspects of their privilege, but they see that they could potentially wield this privilege to change things for the better. Everything that an antagonist might dismiss as a “bump in the road” is a big deal and deserves scrutiny and thought. Protagonists must have the courage to doubt, think twice, reconsider, but ultimately act in the best way they can given the limitations of their resources and knowledge at that instant. They have that valiant struggle against people of absolute faith, who don’t face the same intellectual/moral hindrance to their actions and are therefore unpredictably dangerous. But there are negative consequences to never questioning, and it can also be bad practice for those inconvenient times where physical reality/actual happenings don’t unfold the way you had absolute faith they would, and where thinking on the fly can mean everything.

That creates a three-book plot arc where the primary antagonist starts off with the largest armies, the newest invented weapons and the expertise to use them, and absolute faith that she represents both the demolition of the old world and the construction of a better one; she is so sure that her actions are going to save the world from conditions of injustice, by any means necessary, that she doesn’t do a lot to question the means, and dismisses the advice of her closest associate because it represents doubt and faithlessness to her. And the protagonists still have hope in the face of that, because they second guess, make contingency plans, understand at all times and with deep gravity the human cost of whatever they intend to do versus the human cost of not acting; they have the courage to doubt, and at the best of times, the strength to make sure doubting doesn’t stop them but forces them to behave considerately/thoughtfully.

The reading I did at Albert Campbell Library was an illustration of this. Alathea is going to take full credit for something it took an expert captain, crew, navigator, and thundery contingent to accomplish, and utterly no practical skill from Alathea, but does she speak or behave as if she values their lives particularly much? I feel in the end it’s a bit heavy (and also gory) for a public reading, where given the type of audience, levity is key. I feel a bit like the audience needed the balance of levity and seriousness you get from the better Marvel movies, while I gave them a super serious super grim Batman vs Superman type experience.

The full text of the reading is behind the cut. It is from Chapter Two of The Crown Princess’ Voyage, which is available for preview on Wattpad.

Read More

Big Huge Spoilers: Context For Sunday’s Reading

You’re warned for the last time, this post spoils key plot points/outcomes of The Gift-Knight’s Quest.

Why is that necessary? Because I have 10 minutes to read a 1000-word excerpt, which given my chronic stutter is a slight time crunch. I could present a paragraph-long summary saying what I’m about to say, only less/shorter, if time permits, because the excerpt is from the middle of The Crown Princess’ Voyage and context is very healthy.

Also, TGKQ has been out and available since May 28, 2015. If you got an ebook copy from the Kickstarter, it’s been available to you sooner. It’s very nearly been a year. I understand if you haven’t read it yet because life is busy, but we’re coming up to the one-year anniversary. Sorry, but there will now be spoilers. The good news is, you don’t have to read these spoilers.

It’s because I understand that this is a bit of an obscure book, and life gets in the way, and long reading queues, that I’m placing the spoilers behind a cut. I don’t really understand why many of these spoilers can’t be inferred from the fact that this is a continuing series, but we do live in a world where your favourite author might kill off every character to whom you make any personal connection or take a liking, so…

LAST WARNING, SPOILERS ARE BEHIND THE CUT.

Read More

Alathea illustrated, and “Atonement” re-shared

"Alathea" - by Maddie Bolek

In addition to releasing this new artwork, I toyed with the idea of sharing a new excerpt. However, this one, which has been on Wattpad for a while, actually served as a key inspiration for the piece. I see it as most fitting, then, and also the least “spoileriffic”. A new excerpt of a different nature will be shared with my audience on May 15 at the Bathurst Clark Resource Library, with the speech scheduled for 1:50PM, should you be in the neighbourhood for a live author’s reading.

Alathea had prepared most of her meeting look when she realized that she had some personal housekeeping to attend. She found an ornately decorated dagger sharp enough for the purposes of cutting a rope. From her room, she climbed a set of stairs leading to a cliffside balcony.

She realized that having a prisoner in a state of Atonement might not be well understood by the guests she would one day expect. It was best to cut the rope of the frame and let the prisoner’s remains be dashed on the rocks below, and let the typically violent surf around those rocks clean up anything left from the fall.

But when she reached the balcony, she was surprised to hear a moaning sound.

She carefully put the blade of the dagger next to the loop of the rope, which was tied to the finely carved yet sturdy fall-guard railing; there were subtle marks from where other ropes had been cut through in the past.

“You’re still alive down there, aren’t you?” She gazed out upon the sea but spoke to the prisoner.

Another moan, just barely audible above the sound of waves crashing. One would have to be standing on the balcony, right at the fall-guard, to hear it.

Alathea smiled. “That leaves me quite impressed. Did you know that in the time since your people submitted to me, I have sailed out of port, slain a Longneck, and returned triumphant? And all the while, you were still alive.”

She was tense near the loop of the rope with the dagger, but she ascertained that the moan of response was no closer. It was enough of a feat that this clan leader should still live and breathe after that length of time, but the strength expended in keeping himself alive was strength he no longer had to climb the ropes, even if he could somehow free himself of them without falling to the rocks below.

The ritual preparations for Atonement tended to rule out ever being able to climb the ropes, let alone free oneself of them.

“I don’t know why you cling to life, but you make me happy. Now we can have this conversation together.” Alathea said.

Prisoners were physically broken before their Atonement, and proper symbolic marking and branding was meant to stop them from using sorcery to escape. While they might sway a bit in the wind, they were positioned such that the waves filled their view, with perhaps a glimpse of the sky above the water.

“Do you know that even a Goddess feels humility? We of flesh and blood must always understand powers greater than ourselves, even those of us who are divine vessels. The right thing for you to have done was submit to my greatness. I hope you’ve taken this time to understand what a small being you are, and the consequences of your arrogance. I really should leave you there, to keep learning the virtue of humility.”

A defeated moan sounded again, from farther away if possible; weaker, rather. Even if his speech blockage had come loose, if his jaw happened to have been broken during the ritual preparations, it never had a chance to heal.

She knew it was impractical not to cut him down, but after all, that would kill him. Alathea felt out of place doing that. She needed not to be herself in order to put him out of his misery, and for that, she needed her other face. That was back in her room, which was fortunately close.

But she doubted he was aware of all that.

“The Tides are great and eternal. They rose and fell in cycle when the first creature was born, and they will topple every mountain in time. Remain in awe of their greatness.” She turned and took loud steps down from the balcony to her room, hoping her footfalls were audible, hoping his very heart would stop with despair.

He managed to live that long, though, so she would return with mask and dagger to cut the rope.