Culture Composites: Darronwy

Six years later, I return to the Culture Composites series!  I’d always planned to make more, I just…never did.

With this installment, we’re only one step away from finishing up all the Risen Phoenix Empire’s vassal provinces and protectorates.  Darronwy joins Riddian, Trivestes, Wyndon, Amandon, Corvia, and Haaraka, all located in the Imperial Heartlands (even if they don’t agree that they belong), plus the conquered lands of Illane and Kerrindryr.  Beyond the Rift with the latter two, Jernizan is the only free land shown so far, but it won’t be the last.  (I swear!)

Here is Darronwy on the central Heartlands map:

Not exactly central — and yet affected more than most of its neighbors by the Shadowless Circle, which is [spoiler circa Book 3].  Granted, not many people live within the swampy hills that make up most of that area, and the protectorate itself extends far further westward — into the Khaeleokiel Mountains, which are shared as a neutral zone by Corvia and Krovichanka.  But Fort Krol, the entrance into the Darronwayn interior, sits squarely within the Shadowless Circle, and many Darronwayn towns fall within the fringe of that influence.

Beyond the desolate swampy hills, Darronwy is comprised almost exclusively of forests and uplands.  Its fortresses cling to cliffs and straddle rivers; its towns climb the sides of every mountain or valley that will hold them.  Its lakes are deep and cold, its rivers innumerable.  It is mostly these waters that feed Daecia Swamp, as well as running further north and south to the Ice and Atharenix Seas.

Darronwayn generally build in wood and stone, but aren’t fussed about repurposing a cave or digging a den beneath a hill.  Likewise, they have various ways of interring their dead, from sky burial to earth burial to cliff burial — as seen in the image above, top right.  The cliff wall behind Fort Krol is a particularly popular burial site, filigreed to an almost dangerous degree by tunnels and walkways and niches that have been carved over millennia to house the bones of its fallen people.

While a fair number of Darronwayn live in large towns or small cities as pictured above, and there is a designated seat of government (with a Lord Protector) who ostensibly rules the whole place, that is really a polite fiction.  There are basically-ungoverned people everywhere in the forests and mountains, eking out an occasionally profitable living from the land — while taking care not to anger the spirits.

Winter weather is regularly foul throughout the protectorate, but unlike the Wynds, Darronwayn don’t gather in the lowlands to ride such things out.  Instead, they hunker down with their stores and their spirit-helpers, determined to hold their territory and supplies from any rude neighbors who might raid them.  While raids aren’t common — the spirits tend to broker deals instead of let the situation get that bad — the Darronwayn as a whole are wildly independent and occasionally a bit crazy about keeping what they claim as theirs.  Their wild-eyed backwoods kin might show it most strongly, but any Darronwayn out in the wider world will tend to consider themselves apart from other peoples, and from fellow Darronwayn as well.

Some of this hostility is natural to their bloodlines — none of which are particularly pack-minded or social — but more of it stems from feeling unfairly roped in with an Empire they care nothing about, and which has only exploited them.  The Darronwayn claim that the worship of the Risen Phoenix came originally from its own Firebird faith, whose main bastions are located high in the Khaeleokiel Mountains neutral zone.  The Empire, meanwhile, contends that the Firebirds are splinter-cult heretics, and a danger to everyone because of their worship of both the Khaeleokiel volcanoes and the Fire Primordial chained in the depths of the world.

And it’s true, there have been some crazies birthed from the Firebird’s followers.  (One of them is a well-known fire-blooded problem child.)  However, the cult’s current emphasis is on ecstatic celebration — NOT burning the forest down, just reveling in the thought of it.  (For now.)

The Empire also contends that the other traditional faiths of the mountains are witch-cults.  Conflict has occurred between the Imperial armies and the spiritists of Darronwy intermittently for over two hundred years, with great conflagrations during both the Shamanic Purge and the Corvish Eradication.  However, the Empire never sufficiently convinced either the lowland Darronwayn or their leadership to turn on the high-country spiritists.  When Field Marshal Rackmar — himself a Darronwayn, but an anti-spiritist to the core — failed at a coup against his cousin the Lord Protector, the Emperor finally put his foot down and declared the infighting over.  The mountain spiritists were too few and too weak, in his opinion, to bother with further.

During all of this, many Darronwayn served with the Imperial armies — some conscripted but most voluntary.  There is an aggressive (if not necessarily militant or at-all-obedient) streak within the people that demands an outlet.  Wisely, Darronwayn were never tasked to police their own, and usually sent to the northern border with Krovichanka or — in later years — over the Rift with the Crimson Army.

Despite all of Rackmar’s meddling and the many years of anti-spiritist oppression, most of those soldiers were in fact spiritists.

While everyone in the Khaeleokiels’ long shadow holds a cautious reverence toward the volcanoes and the Firebird supposedly spawned from them, most Darronwayn revere one or more of their ancestral beast-spirits and make offerings to appease the Winter Graces.  The main beast-spirits whose children live in these woods are Shaskret the Owl, Erro the Bear, Sessenekh the Serpent, Kvenkiut the Hawk, and Daxfora the Fox.  Kvenkiut is dead, its worship somewhat rolled into that of the Firebird, and Daxfora is something of an interloper — crossing in from Corvish territory for refuge and intermarriage.  Regardless of origin, the spiritists build shrines and shelters for any spirit that makes contact with them, whether in the eaves of their houses or in carved statues and accessories.  The spirits, in return, provide protection and encourage the flourishing of resources in their areas, as they have some influence on wood and water elementals and are occasionally conversant with the earths and metals.

Of note regarding the Darronwayn skinchangers, particularly of the Owl or Bear types, is the practice of bequeathing their skulls and skins to their non-skinchanging descendants, should they have any.  These skin-coats are supposed to confer great protection and wisdom on those authorized to wear them, but have been rumored to strangle or outright eat people who steal them from their rightful inheritors.

In general, though, as long as they’re treated well (or avoided), both the skinchangers and spirits of the Darronwayn uplands mean no harm to anyone.  They just want to be left to their own business and that of their kin.  This philosophy can be extended to the Darronwayn in general, who would be perfectly happy if the rest of the world fell into a gigantic sinkhole or were washed away by the rising seas.  As long as they can roam, hunt, bother each other, occasionally fight for territory, and dance around ridiculously large and dangerous fires, the Darronwayn are happy.

Some noteworthy lunatics upstanding Darronwayn citizens or protectorate-adjacent individuals include:


(All right, I admit I’ve been playing Black Desert Online.  But it’s not impacting my work!  Really!  Certainly it can’t account for my 5 and a half years of slacking between the previous Culture Composite and when I started playing.  That’s just been aaaaaaall me.)

Any questions?  Ask away!

Posted in Religion, World Info, Worldbuilding | Tagged ,

Best Reads 2019

Since I failed to do a Best Reads for 2018, I am making a point to do one this year!  Arghh!  It’s probably been clear from my minimal posting that doing blog-related things is at the bottom of my list right now — which I wish wasn’t so, since I’ve enjoyed this.  I just haven’t had the brain-space to devote to it.  I hope to get back to it once I have the full rough draft of Book 6 hammered out and can stress a bit less.

Anyway!  Since I skipped last year, I’ll add a few highlights from it, since some of them (series- or author-wise) do continue onto this year’s list.  However, this was also the year where I saw some of my previously-favorite series, both old and new, trail off into things I didn’t like so much.  I don’t really want to go into what I didn’t like and why, just to note this background feeling of dissatisfaction with a lot of the authors I used to favor.

All right!  So this year I read (in sci-fi):

Hexarchate Stories, by Yoon Ha Lee.

Coming out the gate with some fangirl gibberish here.  Looking back, I see that I blabbed about the first book in the Hexarchate trilogy in my previous Best Reads (2017), and I have only gotten more into this crazy series.  I knocked out the second book, Raven Stratagem, in 2018 and the third, Revenant Gun, in very early 2019.  Should have praised the series again on a 2018 post, but alas.  I put myself on the pre-0rder for this short-story anthology as soon as I realized it existed (I follow Mr. Lee on Goodreads and elsewhere), but in the meantime I also read a couple of the stories that ended up being included in it both in Clarkesworld magazine issues and in other anthologies.  I was rabid for more after the ending of Revenant Gun.  And Hexarchate Stories did NOT disappoint me.  Being this deep into the series, I can’t really say much about it that wouldn’t be massive spoilers, but on the non-spoilery side it taught me that an in-series short story doesn’t have to make outside-of-series sense.  It can just be a vignette, nested among many other vignettes and scenes and novellas and other trace artifacts of a universe, for the enjoyment of readers who understand all the references without needing all the background.  This helped me smash out my own short story (which I will get to posting here soon I swear, H. dammit just do it), which requires knowledge up through Book 3 but at least is out of my system.  The end novella, Glass Cannon, ties up the series very nicely, leaving me a bit sad but very pleased by how it all shook out.  Additionally, I read his kid-level novel Dragon Pearl (one of the benefits of having a library Day Job) and quite enjoyed that as well.

I also read:

The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells.

I charged through this set of four novellas (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy) very quickly, both because they’re short but also because they’re pull-you-along compelling.  I’ve read and enjoyed Martha Wells’ fantasy before (though her characters have been hit-and-miss, and I’m very much a for-the-characters reader), but what I’d read hadn’t prepared me for this sort of security-bot rogue-AI hacking-and-unenthusiastic-espionage romp.  Murderbot is a great character, making up for the thinness and shortcomings of some of the others — which is understandable as this is all about being in Murderbot’s head as it attempts to decide how it feels about humanity.  Additionally, the universe it exists in belongs to the expanding roster of ethics-minded cultural- and gender-variant sci-fi universes that I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the past few years.  Several other authors have leaned that way — notably Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch series) and Mr. Lee above — and I’ve seen it also reflected in fantasy, as I’ll note below.  I have enjoyed it, however much the use of ‘they’ can make a sentence stumble, and have been trying to learn from it, since I also have gender-variant and gender-neutral characters who deserve more time to shine.  Murderbot is definitely the star of its own show, though, and I look forward to the full-length novel expected to be out some time next year.

Next, my highlights in fantasy:

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James.

Hargklhjfwhhhgl, insert desperate fangirl gibberish.  Goddamn but it’s been a mixed-bag year, with some high 5-star items slamming the top of my list and some eagerly-awaited stuff sinking down into the depths.  This one was a big surprise for me, for many reasons.  There’s a scene around mid-book that is easily the NASTIEST thing I’ve read in a traditionally published novel, and made me go ‘what?? that can actually be printed?? should I stop editing my hideous monstering so much??’.  I don’t think my alpha/beta readers would let me go so overboard, alas, but Mr. James handles that hideous little scene very well, so all respect to him.  The story itself follows self-named Tracker through a rather Conan-era and Conan-brutal alternate Africa, full of monsters and magicians and culture-clashes and political conspiracies and…I should re-mention brutality.  Because this story is harsh in every way, toward its protagonist and his comrades and his enemies and the bystanders and the few innocents and even toward the monsters.  Tracker doesn’t care about the political side, he just wants to do the job, but between the enemies of his past and those determined to derail his present quest, he’s in deep shit.  Beneath all that, though, it’s a story about figuring out who you are despite the wasp’s-nest of cultural strictures that try to sting you into submission.  There’s also lots and lots of man-butt, so if you’re afraid of that, avert your eyes.   I NEED the next one, which is evidently an alternate take on the events of the quest, from the pov of other characters.  Fuck the gods, Tracker!

I also finished up:

The Broken Earth and Inheritance Trilogies (and novellas), by N. K. Jemisin.

Look.  Look.  Just so I don’t have to keep mentioning it, assume that I am in fangirl gibberish mode for this entire post.  The Broken Earth trilogy kinda wrecked me.  I knew pretty much what was coming (it was very well foreshadowed) but I still went NO!  Noooooooo!!! periodically as the hammers came down.  I still can’t think about this one scene without wincing.  In addition to that, a lot of stuff in both trilogies cuts close to elements in my own work, so I had that piercing angst of self-comparison.  Fortunately, there might have been similar aesthetics in places but they did not have similar underpinnings, and similar themes but without similar outcomes, so I don’t have to pitch myself down a well just yet.  Instead I can learn, as always, about how the pros handle certain horrific story elements and consider how I might better my own work.  ANYWAY.  All these stories are, at base, about power and its abuses — including the abuse of those with power because of fear and hatred.  They’re about brainwashing, enslavement to a hostile system, acts of desperation, the brittleness and inevitable collapse of the regime…and about families, found or otherwise, fighting sometimes amongst themselves but also struggling to persevere against the world that would crush them.  The last of both series that I read, the novella The Awakened Kingdom, seems to me like the culmination of all of it (even though it’s not the last-written story).  Rise and be free.

Meanwhile, in the field of graphic novels, I read:

The Electric State, by Simon Stålenhag.

This was recommended to me by a coworker, and he nailed it.  Thanks Alan!  This isn’t a standard graphic novel, with comic-book style panes and dialogue in speech bubbles.  Instead, it has full-page images on one side and full-page text on the other, telling the story of an alternate past gone horribly wrong.  Most of America has been subsumed by a sort of virtual reality nightmare, endlessly linked up to corporate towers and letting the world lapse into ruin around them.  Through this rusting landscape, a girl travels to find someone important — and also a possible way out of the crumbling dystopia this world has become.  Moody, oblique, and reminiscent of other VR-collapses-society stories I’ve read, it nevertheless stands out because of the deft and allusive artwork.  Quite a lot of the storytelling exists in the images alone, the text providing background and context without touching on the revelations and mysteries of the visual journey.  Highly recommended, and I’ll be looking into this guy’s other work.

I’m also a big manga fan, but I’ve mostly continued reading long-running series rather than started anything new this year.  However, here’s a stand-out:

Cells At Work!/Code Black, by Akane Shimizu.

This series is a kind of…human biology edutainment manga, which may sound strange to Western readers — though I’m noting more educational graphic novels being printed for American kids these days — but are a long-time staple in Japan.  You can get manga-style training in many a topic, from cleaning to economics to….aaaanyway.  This is much more on the entertainment side, as it follows its red and white blood cell protagonists on their duties throughout the human body.  Carrying oxygen to cells, removing waste — and fighting a wild array of germs, bacteria, parasites, allergens, and just general human bad habits.  Wonder how the personified cells in your body react to smoking?  They ain’t happy.  Interested in liver function, lung function, digestion and all that business?  Witness it through the struggle, grief and triumph of the billions of tiny people inside you!  It may seem like an odd conceit, but it’s compelling to see the work that goes on invisibly inside of us all the time, and the extra stresses we put on ourselves without realizing it.  Code Black is a spinoff of the main series, dealing with the dismal lives of the cells stuck inside a body in decline.  Nastier, and with more fan-service (bleh), but either series will definitely make you look at your body and habits in a new light.

I also read a lot of nonfiction.  This year’s highlight was:

Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz.

I read a lot of books because they seem relevant to my characters.  This biography of Thomas Dent Mütter, pioneering reparative plastic surgeon, spoke strongly to my (melodramatic jerkface) medical necromancer both for his work and for his attitude.  In a time-period where patients’ suffering was considered to be just what they deserved for getting sick, Mütter not just helped repair injuries and deformities that other surgeons wouldn’t touch but also pushed forward the use of anesthetics during surgery.  He was also a major proponent of STERILIZING HIS TOOLS YOU SONS OF BITCHES, during a time when that too was considered unnecessary.  Energetic, enthusiastic, but doomed due to hereditary conditions, he blazed a trail through Philadelphia’s medical establishment in contrast to his great rival Dr. Meigs, who represented the old style of NOT EVEN WASHING HIS HANDS AND BEING AN OUTRIGHT ASSHOLE TO PATIENTS.  AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A PROFESSIONAL?  (Excuse me.  Enkhaelen, get back in your box!)  Even as Mütter faltered and faded, his style of medicine took hold, leaving Meigs and the old callous way to be consigned — mostly — to history.  We all know that Meigs exists like a ghost in many a careless physician to this day, but so does the spirit of Mütter help us push forward with compassion and expand our ability to repair what damage and genetics might wreak upon us.

That’s it for the top tier.  Finally, some Honorable Mentions:

The Wormwood Trilogy, by Tade Thompson.  Strange alien dome in Nigeria becomes the centerpoint of a city, the source of strange new psychic powers, and the catalyst for a quiet war between worlds.  Well…not so quiet, circa the second book.  (For more alien strangeness in Nigeria, also see Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor.)

The Tensorate series, by J.Y. Yang.  A nonbinary silkpunk fantasy world populated by fantastical creatures both natural and created, magic and technology battling for the same niche, a leader clinging to her throne despite her rebel offsprings’ attempts to bring her down, and the eventual fall of it all.  Told in short novellas, sometimes just adjacent to the main arc of the world, but interesting windows into it regardless.

Finally, the Bloodborne comics by Aleš Kot, for being feverish nightmares.  I don’t even play the games, but these are….wow.

And that was my reading year in brief.  Joy, disappointment, blood and madness.  How about you?  😀

Posted in Review

General Update: September

I can’t really call them Book 5 updates anymore, when nothing about Book 5 is moving.  Sadface.  Hopefully soon, though.

September has been trash for progress, due to a few Day Job issues but also a grand fun time with a pool leak.  A leak repair guy is out there right now, getting started on what should be a 2-3 day affair, which pretty much smashes my writing week.  I know, fragile artist types, but I can’t concentrate when there are other people around.  I feel like it’s been that way for the whole month.

Regardless, I’m wrapping up chapter 16 of the Book 6 rough draft now (well, probably Thursday v_v).  Hopefully October will be more productive, but there will be at least one Day Job intrusion.  Not sure now whether I can finish the draft in this calendar year, but since all my deadlines are self-imposed, I suppose it’s fine.  My alpha reader seems to be enjoying the draft well enough, though I have a lot of work to do, both in removing and adding material.  Honestly, right now I’m just going through my copious notes and trying to hit all the points brought up by them.  Turning all of that into a polished story with the right character and plot beats is the big job.

Posted in Writing | Tagged ,

Book 5 Update: July Redux!

I hate having to type that title.  It means it’s been a year since my previous Book 5 July update.  But…that’s just how it is.

Yet again, this is a brief ‘things continue to progress, like snails’ post.  The Book 5 cover has moved forward a smidge, but there’s been another technical snag for the artist, which hopefully will be resolved in August.  Then we can steam forward?!?!

The Book 6 rough draft continues on schedule.  I’ve started Chapter 12 (of still probably 27) and am pleased with how everything is shaking out.

In related (?) news, I did finish a paperdoll I started prooooobably a year ago, of Magus Revek Voorkei, our lovable if tusk-garbled Gejaran spy-slash-ally-slash-scryer’s-first-boyfriend.  Seen below modeling Gejara’s typical ‘we like colors and patterns and we don’t care about your eyes!’ casual garb under a light spring coat.


Posted in Writing | Tagged

Book 5 Update: March

Just a brief update, since I don’t have the news that any of you readers really want to hear.  I’ve finished the final draft of Book 5, The Bloodied Army, and am awaiting further notes and/or tweaks from my editor.  The cover is, unfortunately, still in the wind; my artist has been having a rough time lately.

However, I plan to take ~a week’s break, then edit a short story (unrelated to the series, but which I’ll post here), then start on Book 6.  Hopefully we’ll encounter a block of time in which we can get both the 5 and 6 covers done — since I have the concept for 6 as well.  Doesn’t matter too much to me if the two final books come right on each other’s heels.  I just wish I could get them out to you all ASAP.

See below, my shabby author’s composite concept of the Book 5 cover, which alas is all I can show at the moment.

Continue reading

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Book 5 Update: December

So.  Book 5’s main draft is done.

Looking at my timeline for this book is pretty embarrassing.  According to my notes, I started the rough draft on 11/1/16, finished it on 3/7/18, then immediately started this draft.  Which I have just now finished, nine months later.

So much for speeding up my production cycle!

Some data:

The rough draft clocked in at 439 pages (in my preferred page/font size), which came out to 317k words.  Whereas the main draft, this one, ended up as….338 pages and 246k words.  I fricking gutted this book.

More comparisons:

Book 1’s final final version is 186k words.  B2 is 238k words.  B3 is 336k words, and B4 is 288k.  So if this one stays around this size, I am indeed making a bell-curve of book sizes, which is something I weirdly kind of want?  Remains to be seen if B6 will follow that trend or expand into something very different.

I now have to wait for my beta readers to go over the last bit of b5 I’m shipping them, then go through the final draft (possibly chapter by chapter on googledocs with my alpha) and deal with all the new notes this draft generated, then format everything.  Also, of course, I need a cover.  Cover Artist has been having a rough time recently, so Book 5 might not roll out til mid-late spring at this rate…  But that’s just how it is.  I’m on no timeline but my own — though I do hate to keep people waiting.

Anyway, thanks for your patience.  I’ll try to post more while I have some brain-space available (aka while the betas are doing their thing), but it being holiday time, who knows if I’ll succeed?

Regardless, more…soonish.

Posted in Writing | Tagged ,

Book 5 Update: July

So.  Hi there.  You might not believe it, but I’m alive.

I am also about as useless as a flattened, desiccated gecko.

It has taken what feels like a majillion years to finish editing the second of the three threads that go into Book 5, but finally, that is done.  Starting tomorrow, I move onto the main thread.

This is still just the main draft edit — it will have to go through beta readers once I’ve done it all, and then go through me again for the final edit (if not more).  At this point, and with my dried-out-dead-thing pacing, Book 5 will most likely be a 2019 release.

But the work goes on, tortoise-like as it may be.

Until I finish the draft, I’ll probably remain quiet.  Just wanted to say hi!

Posted in Writing | Tagged | 2 Comments