I’ve been rather short on writing substantive posts on my fantasy series Ascendant Realms. But, since I just released book two, Winterfinding, I thought now would be a good time to expand details of the world.
There are no elves or dwarves or orcs or ogres or wizards in Syr Nebra. There are only people, humans. Within humanity there is a myriad of races. Often when we read we imagine the characters (unless we are told otherwise) as white. It’s an ingrained, insidious form of racism that can’t be simply done away with or ignored. It’s especially an issue in fantasy, a genre that is virtually synonymous with white men.
Forcing people of color into a narrative doesn’t resolve the issue. But shouldn’t the issue be addressed? Shouldn’t fantasy writers strive not to throw stereotypes into characters by simply saying that those characters are ‘elves’ or ‘dwarves’ or ‘hobbits?’ Or ignore the issue altogether? I think responsible world building requires one to not just acknowledge the issue but grapple with it. I’ve tried to address my own concerns. I think I’ve done so rather clumsily, here and in my fiction. But no one ever got better by not trying.
When I began my story I wanted to have people of color in the story as organically as possible. I wanted to do this because not doing so felt stupid, fake. My ordinary life is composed of individuals of different nationalities, ages, races, and classes. To exclude such varied and rich experience didn’t make sense. I want my fantasy world to incorporate as much as my real world as possible, but just in wondrous and new combinations.
I don’t know if I succeeded. In fact, I think I may have been more than a bit hamfisted or fetishistic–essentially doing the authorial version of blackface. I realized recently that when I read I see characters in my mind’s eye as what could be called Levantine or Persian looking. When I wrote Adversaries Together and Winterfinding, my imagination saw characters like Fery, Wynne, Jena, and Declan as olive-skinned. Because they are from The Cathedral, which is more northern than the other cities, I imagine Goshen and Kira being very Nordic looking; those are my white people.
Smarter and far better writers than me have taken on the issue of race in our fantasy worlds. In fact, some of the best recent stuff has been crafted by gamers. Dragon’s Age is the new World of Warcraft/Skyrim. I read a great article, ‘In Fantasy World’s, Historical Accuracy is a Lie,’ in Offworld. This lead me to Will Partin’s examination of Dragon’s Age’s racial depictions. That article prompted the exceptional fantasy author N.K. Jemisin to ponder race. Add on top of these the Game/Show’s episode “Why are NPCs still racist?” and you can get a sense of the issue I’m looking at in my own fantasy writing.
I’ve avoided describing the race of my characters, which is an issue. Because I’m attempting to write a realist fantasy (is that even an allowable phrase? Is speculative fiction better?), I can’t ignore race. To a certain degree, I’ve taken on the issue by rejecting the idea of elves, dwarves, and orc and replacing it with notion of multiple human species living together simultaneously. But simply doing so just moves the issue over slightly, it’s still there.
I always thought it was an odd thing that we human are a lone species. You don’t see that in too many animals. In recent years, anthropologists have been able to find out more about ancient human ancestors. Most recently, Nature had a fascinating story about Neanderthals wearing eagle talons as jewelry. I thought about how interesting it would be to exist alongside genuinely different humans.
The fantasy world of Syr Nebra is populated by four major human species:
Sovi, homo sapiens like ourselves
Athingani, inspired by homo neanderthalensis
Austri, inspired by homo floresiensis
Ensi, inspired by denisova hominins
And a fifth species of human, one that is an extreme minority and virtually unknown to the others, is inspired by the Red Deer Cave people and has yet to appeared in the story.
The nations of Essia (of which the city of Rikonen belongs), Cassubia (the territory of the city of Sulecin where The Cathedral is located), and Silvincia (whose capital Ardavass is known as The Seven Spires) are predominately sovi. There was a time when athingani shared this area with the sovi. But the edict signed by Patriarch Arsene Parmentier (the first scene in Adversaries Together) sanctioned the genocide of the athingani. Those that have survived are few and far between.
Full-blooded athingani are barrel chested with broader shoulders, have shorter and more muscled arms, and a slightly more pronounced brow with larger eyes than sovi. Athingani tend to have darker hair than most sovi. The majority of this extreme minority are in fact hybrids. They can often pass for sovi in appearance. Those with mixed blood can’t have children but do live longer than the sovi. Avery Roth is an athingani mixed blood. Although Roth looks to be in his late 30s or early 40s, he is actually nearly 80 years old.
The nations of the sovi and the athingani make up most of the northern hemisphere of Syr Nebra. The Novostos Sea is analogous to the Mediterranean in both culture and climate. Along the southern coast of the Novostos is the country of Adrenia. This nation is bordered on the north and west by the Novostos Sea, by the smaller Avostos Sea to the south, and by the Ragan Mountains to the east. The austri dominate this region.
In creating the Adrenines, I took what was known about homo floresiensis and mixed it with the Melanesian ethnic group. The austri are small, the tallest being only four and half feet and the average being four foot. Not all Adrenines are austri but native Adrenines are. Unlike sovi or athingani, the austri don’t have much racial diversity. Austri are brown-skinned but usually not very dark with blond wiry hair. The character Adamix is an austri Adrenine as were the pilgrims to whom Roth sold Reg’s cart to on their way to Rikonen.
Lastly, there are the ensi. This human species was inspired by the discovery of Denisovan humans. However, the only fossil remains of Denisovans were a finger, some teeth, and a toe, thus making it difficult to model a physique on them. I imagine ensi being taller than sovi, averaging at least six and half feet tall, having features that aren’t sharp but rounded yet very pronounced, they have long limbs and hands, and are generally slender but strong. Featuring prominently in Winterfinding, Umma Myr-Sen and Rava Din are ensi. Rava Din is from the far south and, honestly, I imagine Idris Elba as this character (mostly because I adore Elba).
So these are the races of Syr Nebra. What impact does all this have on the story? Well, a theme that I am hoping to explore is the nature of violence. The sovi in this world are an expansionist and violent people. In contrast, although the athingani were skilled the art of war, they are a people that value peace above all things. Avery Roth is a pacifist and a vegetarian, yet he wanders through a world that pushes him into violence of all kinds. To varying degrees, each of my seven heroes deals with this–being hectored and harried towards violence.
I imagine neanderthals as being humans that just wanted to be left alone to go about their lives but were harried by an aggressive species that bred faster and in greater numbers, home sapiens. These newcomers demanded more and more resources pushing neanderthals to the brink and, ultimately, extinction. The fantasy story of Ascendant Realms is this conflict.