Introducing the Fourth World

July 12, 2012 marked the beginning of a new era for me. This was the day that Dark Tree: A Tale of the Fourth World went live on Amazon as an ebook. The reason that this is so significant for me is because Dark Tree is the introduction to my epic fantasy series, The Fourth World.

It all began many, many years ago (two, to be exact) when I was but a wee lad (aged 26) when I first conceived of a character whose sole purpose was to kill, even though he himself could not die, a weapon of mass destruction that was doomed to live with all the pain and death that he caused for all eternity (although that, of course, is not the end of his story). His name was Bladefray, and he was what I would come to call a Born Sword—the title given to each of the six immortal warriors that lived in what was to become the Fourth World. He was the spark that quickly became a roaring conflagration that has consumed my imagination ever since.

At the time, traditionally publishing novels seemed to be the only way to go, so that’s what I began to do: write a novel that I would shop around to various agents and publishers to see which one would bite. It was the tried-and-true method, if ever there was one, and though it was very difficult and very chancy, it was what I was prepared to do. It seemed to me the only legitimate option at the time.

I had met some other writers who were at a similar stage in their writing career who were considering self-publishing their works as ebooks, but I scoffed at such folly. Self-publishing? Ebooks? Pshaw! Although I decided to watch the phenomenon with mild interest, I didn’t really think it would amount to much, considering the sad and sordid history of self-publishing. I was convinced that if I was going to be a writer, I would do it the old-fashioned way.

Then came claims of publishers misreporting their authors’ royalties.

Then Borders closed its doors for good.

I started to worry, but also, to wonder.

Shortly before those things happened, when I was about 60,000 words into my novel The Born Sword, I went to World Fantasy Convention to peddle another novel that I had been working on for centuries, as well as rub elbows with the people who I had hoped would be my coworkers—the agents, editors, publishers, and authors involved in the fantasy industry. It was there that I bullied a senior editor from a major imprint into dinner with me and some of my peers so that we could finagle our way into his good graces and hopefully interest him in our work.

The “interesting him in our work” part didn’t turn out so well, but he did give me some advice that stuck with me, and that was to write short stories. Once you proved you could write those, he said, then I might consider looking at your longer work.

Well, if that’s what it took, then by golly, that’s what I would do!

The popularity of short stories, especially fantasy stories, seemed to be waning as more and more of the markets that carried them were going the way of Borders. My early years as a reader were shaped by short stories, particular those by Ray Bradbury, so I had long regarded the short story with romanticized awe, and often thought about writing some, even though I believed they would do little to advance my writing career. Armed with my new insider knowledge, I quickly revised this misconception and began to write one in earnest.

Since it was to be a springboard for my fantasy novel (though I had since abandoned the previous one and was now focusing on The Born Sword), it seemed natural that the story I was to write be a fantasy as well. And hell, while I’m at it, why not in the same world as The Born Sword (an idea shamelessly pilfered from fantasist Peter Orullian, who released a whole gamut of related material before his debut novel)? If I could find a magazine that wanted to publish it, great; if not, well, maybe I could give that silly little self-publishing thingy a shot.

One story became two, and I realized that I had a whole lot more of them in me, screaming to get out. Furthermore, these stories seemed like they would be a good introduction to the increasingly complex metaphysics of the Fourth World, and so it was that I decided to collect them into a book called The Clans: Tales from the Fourth World.

It was about that time when I finally realized that publishing wasn’t what it used to be. I had to make a decision: I could place myself in the uncaring hands of a major corporation that expected me to fail and was existing in a bygone era, unwilling to change or adapt; or I could go it alone, without support from the industry, into uncharted territory out of which very few had ever come out alive.

Of course I chose the sexier option, and decided to self-publish all the way.

It was while I was working on the sixth and final (sort of) story in The Clans when I was struck by an image I had seen of Yggdrasil, the sacred tree of Norse mythology. Now, the Fourth World had a bit in common with Norse mythology already: the purpose of life was to prove oneself ready to battle at the God’s side in the afterlife, and I already had a massive tree that was the source of all human souls. The problem with that last was that the Birthing Tree, as it’s called, was three worlds away from the stories I had been writing, and there seemed no natural way to integrate such a nifty image into the Fourth World.

For some reason I can’t fully understand or explain, I had to have that image in my world. It was going to happen. I just had to figure out how.

So while the beta edits for the various stories of The Clans started rolling in, I let the image of a giant tree made of smoky glass, its massive branches sheltering a city from the light of the sun, simmer in the black cauldron of my mind. I even threw in some eye of newt for good measure.

Finally, after several months of slowly coming to a boil, Dark Tree was ready. And what a potent brew I had concocted.

Once I knew what I wanted to do with it, I couldn’t stop the words from pouring out. Dark Tree, at over 13000 words, is a novelette; stories graduate from short story into novelette when they reach about 7500 words. It would normally take me three days of uninterrupted inspiration to write a 7000-word short story.

I wrote the bulk of Dark Tree in two days.

For me, that was an awful lot of inspiration.

I took the time to polish it up, of course, with the help of my beta readers. But the polish was simply that; the story itself was, to me, already immensely satisfying and complete as I had written it. A couple of times, especially with the ending and implications the story has for the series as a whole, I even surprised myself. I couldn’t be happier with the end result, and I am content to send it off into the world.

The facts that The Clans is supposed to be an introduction to the world of The Born Sword, and that Dark Tree is in a way another introduction, may cause you to wonder in what order you should be reading these books. After all, The Clans was mostly written before Dark Tree, and The Born Sword mostly written before that. Should they be read in the order that you wrote them, or in the order you published them, or what?

I would recommend reading them in the order that they are published, but really you could read them in any order that you want. Each work informs the greater narrative in its own ways, adding its puzzle piece to create the larger picture, but is complete in its own right. You could read The Clans and then The Born Sword, and go back to Dark Tree later (and hopefully have an “A-ha!” moment, when you finally break free of your New Wave comic book prison), or you could read it in a completely different order. The chronology only starts to matter with the main sequence of novels, namely The Born Sword and its sequels. If that sounds convoluted, then let me put it this way: jump in anywhere, so long as you read Novel One before Novel Two, and you should be fine.

Which raises the question: what are my plans for the Fourth World? I plan on wrapping the main story in three or four novels and calling it good. No fifty-book series for this guy. I’ve got a whole lot of ideas that I want to write about, and not all of them fit in the Fourth World. I have a clear direction for the series, and as you’ll begin to see once you start reading them, you’ll understand why the series cannot exceed four books.

Given that, I have developed an extreme fondness for stories that are novelette-length, and I plan on writing some more of them. Rather than having you wait in between novels, I will release a Fourth World story or a collection of stories as a teaser for what’s to come. I already have some plans, and I’ve already written most of a story from the next collection.

I have one last announcement. I have made Dark Tree available for free on Smashwords in all electronic formats, so that you can read it on your Kindle, Kobo, Nook, Sony eReader, Web browser, etc. If you’re interested, I’d love for you to check it out. If you know anybody who reads fantasy and is looking for something new, let them know that they can read it for free. If you’ve read it and have an opinion on it, writing a review goes a long way to helping me out, especially on Amazon. I’m not necessarily asking for unconditional praise, but more for your honest opinion (though I wouldn’t at all mind if honesty and praise coincide). Thank you if you’ve already gotten your copy, thanks again if you’ve already written a review, and thanks a million times more for being so supportive of what I’m doing. While I’m proud of what I’ve done, knowing that all of you support it as well really means a lot to me. Oh, and thanks for reading this really long blog post. *grins*

May the God of All Worlds bless you and find you worthy to fight at his side in the War beyond Time.

P.S. For those of you who haven’t seen my cover art, created by yours truly, here it is:

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Yuck, There’s Thermodynamics in my Magic System

The development of the magic system in the Fourth World came about naturally as I was telling the stories that took place there. While many out-of-the-ordinary processes in the world I created could technically qualify as magic, the part that most people would think of as magic (i.e., the powers that sorcerers would use to flamboyant effect) is something called binding. By using willpower, a sorcerer is able to bind a particular substance to a point of his choosing. For example, an ironbinder could create a focal point in the air which drew metal to it, very much as if that point became magnetic. Pretty simple and straightforward, right?

As it turns out… not so much.

In one of my stories in The Clans, a character has a magical object that has been heatbound, meaning that it has a permanent binding which allows it to draw heat out of its immediate environment, thus making them much cooler. As a plot device, it served its purpose well, and I thought it was kind of a cool concept, so I was proud when I handed it over to my beta readers. They liked the story, but one of them pointed something out to me that seemed to present a serious problem.

Left unchecked, the mere presence of this heatbound object would eventually destroy the entire world.

So much for simple and straightforward.

Thermodynamics formulaThis beta reader of mine is primarily a sci-fi reader, so he is very particular about the cause-effect relationships in a way that only an avid hard-SF reader can appreciate (although Brandon Sanderson and Brent Weeks are changing that, with their magic systems that act more like physics than hand-waving). So when he discovered how this object worked, his mind spun out all the implications of such a thing.

So what happens to all that heat that gets drawn into the object? Nothing; it just packed in there, so that the core becomes more and more superheated… and will every moment for all time. Therein lies the rub: heat gets continually drained from the world into what amounts to a black hole of thermal energy, never to be seen again, until there is no more heat left. The Fourth World eventually becomes nothing more than a giant snowball.

Of course, the easiest thing to do would be to just scrap the whole idea of the heatbound object. This character could very well perform his tasks with some other object that wouldn’t destroy the world, and the story would go on. Besides, I never set out to create the coolest magic system. I created the magic system to fit in with the world where my stories take place. If this one little idea ended up on the cutting room floor, I would still be true to my goals for the Fourth World stories and you, my dear readers, would never know the difference.

But where’s the fun in that?

So I’ve decided to challenge myself and come up with a solution. I’ve got a pretty solid idea of how to fix it, but I’m going to run it by my people first, just to make sure there’s nothing else I’ve overlooked. After that, it’s just a matter of inserting a paragraph or two and applying another layer of polish, and “It Beckons” will be in final form for the book. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have writing it.

Epic Fantasy: A Definition

The question of what epic fantasy is often arises, yet despite that, few people attempt to define it, and fewer yet believe that the definition they come up with is adequate. For the most part, however, we all know an epic fantasy when we see it. Why is it so difficult to define what makes an epic fantasy an epic fantasy? Is there even any value in trying to come up with a definition?

I’ll answer the second question first. Though some may argue that defining epic fantasy is merely a semantic concern, I think that there is value in coming up with a definition, not because of anything to do with epic fantasy, but because of the human need to understand the world we live in. Art and literature are important to many, if not most, people, and being able to understand art can help us to understand life in general. Art can often give life meaning and understanding, and such things are among the most important requirements of a fulfilling existence.

So why is defining epic fantasy so difficult? I would argue that people have attempted not to define epic fantasy as such, but rather what they like about it. One person (usually a writer, since they are the ones who get asked to define epic fantasy the most) will say it has to do with the world, and another will say it has to do with the characters. As it almost always turns out, the first person likes (either to read or to write) epic fantasy with a focus on world building, whereas the second likes those with a focus on characters (of course, this is not a hard and fast rule, and may not even be the case generally, but it is something I have seen through observation). While these things and others may have much to do with epic fantasy, I do not believe that they are its defining characteristics.

Definition is largely comprised of two conceptual processes: integration and differentiation. In order to define anything, we must first determine to what class of things it belongs, and secondly determine how it is distinguished from all other things in that class.

The class in this case is, of course, fantasy, which is a genre that is in turn defined by its use of elements that are derived purely from imagination. If it includes dragons, magic, or places that have never existed and never will, then it is fantasy.

That’s the easy part. The definition for fantasy isn’t controversial in the slightest, at least not in the circles I run in. So we’ll leave that part alone and tackle that part that everybody disagrees about, and that is what distinguishes epic fantasy from other kinds of fantasy.

The key word here is epic. What distinguishes something epic from something that is not? A lot of answers have been given, but the size of the book or the length of the tale is among the more common. So is the size of the cast; the “cast of thousands” is something that is often considered to be a hallmark of epic fantasy. I think these things are common in epic fantasies, but are not really defining characteristics.

However, there is something about these attempts to define the epic that are important in discovering what makes a story epic. Both of them talk in terms of scope, but is it really scope in terms of geography or number of characters that defines epic fantasy? Or is it something else?

There are a number of stories that take place in only a handful, or even just one, location that qualify as epic fantasy, just as there are epics that follow only a couple of main characters, where the rest of the cast is mere window dressing or simply doesn’t exist at all. Yet there is something about these stories that still feels vast. I would argue that that smoky, vague something is a story’s scope of consequence.

In epic fantasy, lives are changed, kingdoms fall, and the rules of the universe are turned on their heads. The consequences of the actions taken by the main characters affect the lives of everyone that matters, and sometimes have consequences that reach far beyond that. If Frodo had traveled across the world without interacting with anyone along the way, only to travel to Mordor to borrow a cup of sugar, The Lord of the Rings would have been seen not as an epic fantasy, but rather as an epic failure. Frodo’s story matters because of how he and his friends change everything.

Another hallmark of epic fantasy is the clash between good and evil, and indeed, it is very prevalent, though an number of examples of epic fantasy can be found where this is not the case (A Song of Ice and Fire chief among them). But I think there is a very good reason why many of these stories feature this kind of conflict, and that is because when it all shakes out, the world is changed. Either good triumphs over evil, or evil triumphs over good. Everyone in that world has a stake in the outcome, and everyone’s lives will be changed whether they were featured in the story or not.

Contrast this to stories where a character or set of characters travel across the world but only fight monsters or gather loot in caves and dungeons. It doesn’t matter how many places they go or how many people they meet; their actions, in the big scheme of things, are meaningless. Now matter where their adventures take them, the world is still more or less the same. This kind of story fits in the category swords and sorcery, as distinct from epic fantasy, and it is distinct primarily because of its lack of scope of consequence.

Ever since the term epic fantasy was first coined, there has been a rough, ostensive definition of it, or else no one would have bothered to come up with it. Hopefully, what I have said here will either help clarify this concept, or at least promote more discussion on it. While I think scope of consequence captures the essential differentiator of epic fantasy, I am very interested in hearing what you have to say on the topic, since two of my favorite things are philosophy and fantasy. If you have anything to add, or if you want to dispute my definition and say it’s complete foolishness, please comment below. Thanks!