To take a break from the constant shouting into the void about worldbuilding exercises and standards, here’s why I have been deeply into so far this week:
First and foremost, my wife stumbled across a (relatively) new show called Jordskott out of Sweden. It was labeled as a pretty standard Scandinavian Noir thing but, as it turns out, it’s a little more of a True Detective or Twin Peaks style mystery with increasingly overt supernatural overtones. She’s been watching it voraciously in the evenings and I’ve been playing catch-up myself, but so far I like what I see.
I have said before that one of my favorite elements of True Detective, at least the first season, is that it deals as much with toxic masculine culture as it does with cosmic horror. It creates a world where, up until a certain point, men are rewarded for acting certain self-destructive ways even if it hurts not just them but their loved ones in the end, and then in the same world it presents them with problems that not only can’t be solved by but are actively driven by the behavior that they have been taught is expected of them. Jordskott is much more of a dark fairy tale, and a woman-centric one. Admittedly I am not super far into it, but the themes it’s tackling deal with maternal instinct, women moving in a male dominated albeit progressive society, and certain taboos and stigmas attached to actions. The mother figure’s frantic actions immediately being disregarded as hysteria and gatekeeper figures judging her by her tone rather than what she’s actually saying. I’ve been very careful not to spoil myself so far and I’ll try not to spoil you, but if I know my Scandinavian mythology well enough it seems to be an amalgam of environmentalism, motherhood and the changeling monomyth with children taken away and returned changed in ways that only their mothers can sense.
It’s good stuff so far. The acting is excellent, there are definitely some overt nods to Twin Peaks and diner fruit pies, and the horror is of an existential sort that has you questioning characters you don’t necessarily want to question and seeing the blockades that society has put up between them and the truth. Silverhöjd is a fascinating setting too, and shows off the kind of visual worldbuilding I love to see in a serial show. You have to pay attention to everything happening in the background and not just the talking heads in the fore.
I’ve spent a lot of my non writing time reading through Eugene Rogan’s Fall of the Ottomans, which is just a fascinating and engrossing book. I am admittedly a huge dweeb who would be reading historical texts for fun even if they weren’t for story research, so grain of salt and all, but he strips away the layers of politik to add a very human angle to it. The Ottoman involvement in WW1 is not something often touched on, even in university level world history, and as a nation they’re kind of relegated to the role of Germany’s sidekicks/patsy. It’s way deeper and more interesting than that. You have a largely antiquated but enormous empire gazing at the rapidly modernized Europe and going “fuck, man, they’re going to slice us up and eat us.” Which they pretty much did, just not in the way it was predicted. You’ve got all kinds of backstabbing and intrigue as the Ottomans commission a taxpayer-funded purchase of two huge ships from the English shipyards, only for England to revoke the deal, keep the money and the ships citing that they need them more than the neutral Ottomans with the war sweeping Europe. Meanwhile Germany, a relatively newcomer to industrialization and consolidated power, has been watching the Ottomans and breathing heavily from the closet, thinking that after seeing how rapidly various Islamic sects pulled together during the Italo-Turkish War they might be able to ally with these guys and use the Sultan’s direct ties to the Prophet Muhammad to stir up divisions in some of England’s colonies with a heavy Muslim population.
The Ottomans end up offering refuge to a pair of German ships fleeing French and English forces they had attacked earlier, and in a deft piece of maneuvering the military commander put out an announcement that the empire had purchased both ships from Germany for 80 million marks (made up on the spot) and that English and French ships would not be allowed in the harbor. This led to an incredibly bemused Germany ratifying a secret and then public alliance with the empire and the Ottoman government gaining back a staggering amount of public support that had been on the wain, for having outsmarted three European powers at once, getting two ships larger than the ones originally promised by the Brits, and solidifying a treaty with a country who could potentially protect them from Russia and the angry Balkans States from the northwest.
It’s the kind of stuff where you just want to steal it wholesale, or at least the idea of it, and transplant it into a fantasy story, but it works out so neatly that it almost feels unrealistic. I find that a lot of reality and history is like that. I also find that it emboldens me when I write the history of these various fantasy settings, because if you cut out the magical elements way weird stuff has happened in our world. When I start getting antsy that maybe my fantasy takes on these different cultures are not going to fit neatly into a relatively small region, with different naming conventions and everything else, a history book is a good reminder that you can literally have two groups without any shared names existing a stone’s throw away from one another, worshiping variations of the same god(s), entirely different clothing, and one might be in the Victorian age of technology while the neighbor might barely be clinging to the Edwardian.
The other thing I’ve been reading recently, for a rapid change of pace, is Kentaro Miura’s Berserk! comics. Well, re-reading for the most part. I read it religiously through the end of high school and the beginning of college, and I think I fell off sometime around chapter 220-230ish, when there was a massive break and I stopped checking to see if it ever resumed updating. Because I’m a sucker for punishment, I started reading them from the beginning. It’s been close to a decade since I last read and honestly, while I remembered the central characters and the general gist of the storyline, I knew I had to have forgotten a lot of little details. I’m glad I did, because honestly? It holds up better as an adult than I ever expected it to. It’s a grim-ass story filled with all kinds of violence and sexual content, and it doesn’t shy away from being incredibly graphic with that. I find that it it isn’t really as offensive as I thought it would be. I tend to dislike rape as a narrative device in general, I think you have to be a damned good author and you have to be willing to devote a lot of time to exploring the subject and, more importantly, the fallout from it than a lot of writers are. It’s something I probably would not want to tackle myself, because I can’t think of any of my stories it would improve. But what Berserk! does really well is examine what happens after assault and the emotional, physical and even spiritual ramifications of it. There are vast swathes of the story devoted to the victims rather than using them as set pieces or fridged women to drive the protagonist forward, or to illustrate the evilness of the villains. Berserk! doesn’t really have random bad guys doing it, it is usually a betrayal by a friend or trusted one and a symptom of a societal failing, just like in real life. It’s still uncomfortable to read but I’ll definitely take that over the borderline-pornographic way that some other novels depict it.
It’s also surprisingly heavy and, as a teen I glossed over a lot of this in favor of the cool combat scenes, it deals quite a bit with the question of the nature of man. Which sounds really silly when you apply it to a comic book about a dude with a crossbow built into his mechanical arm and a sword bigger than he is, but it’s true. The underpining thesis of the piece is that mankind has the potential to be either the greatest good or the worst evil because it has the ability to choose, rather than the demons, monsters or other supernatural creatures who are born into a role by virtue of their place in the damned/celestial hierarchy. It not only predates the contemporary ~grimdark~ trends in fantasy writing but exceeds them by offering the occasional, unrewarded glimmer of hope in a hopeless setting governed by malicious and uncaring spirits.