Sunday 3 June 2012

Blog Tour: Spirit of Fire

War - What is it Good For?
By Stephen Zimmer

Today I want to say a few words about war, and what it might be good for.  Of course, war is a horrible thing in our own world, but this post concerns war as it is used in fiction; and in that sense war does have value when it comes to forging an engaging tale.

Conflict is one of the most critical elements of a compelling story, and there are few better contexts for bringing conflicts of all kinds into a story than war.  Wars provide an environment in which characters of all kinds develop, are tested rigorously, and ultimately go through their individual arcs to destinations that are for the better or worse. 
In the genres that I write in, such as fantasy, wars are prime components of a great many of the most successful stories and franchises of all time.   From the epic clash with Mordor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, to the struggle against the White Witch in Narnia, to the trials of the mercenary company in Glen Cook’s Black Company novels, wars have long provided fertile ground for storytellers.   In fact, one of the first major works of western literature, the Iliad, is centered around a large war that becomes the catalyzing force for the events that form the amazing story told in the Odyssey.

By their very nature, wars introduce great degrees of chaos and upend the status quo in a story setting, allowing for a wide range of scenarios involving the various characters appearing within a novel.   In the greater conflict, key characters are pitted against each other, whether that takes the starker shape of a clear villain-versus-hero dynamic, like a Voldemort against a Harry Potter, or becomes part of a much more complex maelstrom involving flawed characters and sudden shifts in the conflicts, as readers of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire are well used to.

As the characters and armies move against each other in a fictional war, action, intrigue, and all manner of things come into play, some very intrinsic to the genre.  Not the least of the latter, and one of the things that I have the most fun with, is when genre authors bring creatures and other non-human entities into the mix, as important pieces of the fictional war. 

Often, the use of non-human creatures in the wars of fiction serve a decided purpose, such as when practitioners of dark arts in a Robert E. Howard Conan story conjure up some otherworldly menace to tilt the balance of a war.  Also frequent in the conflicts of fantasy literature, the non-human entities form the “manpower” for one of the sides in a war, whether that might be the Trollocs in the Wheel of Time Series, the Orcs of Middle Earth, or something like the Ur-Viles in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. 

The utilization of creatures in a war instantly demands effective world-building on the part of the writer, in terms of integrating the creature, and perhaps an entire culture, into the story in a way that is ultimately believable to the reader.

I can relate strongly to these kinds of elements.  In my own writing, I have many instances when a creature is serving a specific, powerful function for one of the sides of a conflict.  For example, I have some large, flying, reptilian beasts called Darroks in my Fires in Eden series that have been harnessed with large platforms, fitted with a system of chutes that allows for the dropping of great numbers of heavy stones from the sky upon an opponent.   The way these Darroks are used significantly affects the story, spurring some of the more emotionally charged scenes in the first novel of the series.

I also have larger populations of non-human entities taking different sides in the war depicted in my Fires in Eden series.  There are the subterranean creatures called Unguhur, who get drawn into the massive conflict raging in the world above them, and resist the forces of the Unifier.  Fighting for the Unifier’s side, though not entirely at ease about it, are the Trogens, a brawny, dog-faced warrior race that make use of flying steeds called Harraks in battle.  Both the Unguhur and the Trogens serve as the basis for subplots in the series, provide for many action-heavy scenes, and contribute strongly to the conflict present in the novels.

As in the case of the Darroks and the Trogens upon their Harrak steeds, creatures can influence the kind of tactics used in a battle.   Of course, an author has to be careful when introducing the more fantastical elements, as the more gritty the realism the more likely the reader will suspend disbelief.  

This is why Glen Cook’s Black Company series is so well-received by readers with a military background.  While it is in a fantastical setting, and involves supernatural arts, the characters within the mercenary company exude a high degree of realism.   Glen’s masterful portrayal of the various personalities in the Black Company and the realistic ways they interact and experience the world help to sell the more fantastical components of the story.   A modern day solder is highly likely to find themselves discovering reflections of those they have served with among the members of the Black Company.

As you can see, wars can bring a lot to a story, and provide for rich character and plot development, with genre fiction able to take advantage of even more options with the usage of non-human creatures and entities.  If only we had a world to live in where the only place war existed was in fiction.  


About the author

Stephen Zimmer is an award-winning author and filmmaker, whose literary works include the epic urban fantasy series The Rising Dawn Saga, as well as the epic medieval fantasy Fires in Eden Series.

The Exodus Gate, Book One of the Rising Dawn Saga, was Stephen's debut novel.  It was released in the spring of 2009, with The Storm Guardians following in 2010, and The Seventh Throne in August of 2011. 

Crown of Vengeance, Book One of the Fires in Eden Series, was released in the fall of 2009, with Book Two, Dream of Legends, following in December of 2010.  Crown of Vengeance received a 2010 Pluto Award for Best Novel in Small Press.


Spirit of Fire - Book Three of the Fire of Eden Series 

A maelstrom of war engulfs lands resisting the designs of the Unifier to bring about a new order, of a kind that has never existed within Ave.  Battered by a massive invasion force from Gallea, the tribal people of the Five Realms and their Midragardan allies are being driven eastward, towards the sea, while the Saxan lines are wearing down ever thinner on the Plains of Athelney.

Time is running out quickly, as an ancient creature of legend soars through the skies with a brave young Saxan.   They carry the desperate hopes of two realms sorely beset by a voracious enemy.  

Diabolic entities conduct a great hunt, as a malignant darkness deepens across all of Ave.  Exiles from another world must gain refuge, or find themselves ensnared by the long reach of the Unifier.  The very nature of creation itself stands in the balance.

It is a time when the honor and fortitude of many are put to the test, and terrible prices are paid for resisting great evils.  It is also a time of awakening for many, old and young alike, some of whom may yet discover the spirit of fire that lies within.  

The third installment in the Fires in Eden series, Spirit of Fire is richly imagined epic fantasy with a diverse ensemble of characters that offers a new world to explore for readers who enjoy large-scale tales along the likes of George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Steven Erikson, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
 Thank you Stephen for a really insightful post. So, what does everyone think? Do you like wars in your novels? Which is the war you remember and cherish the most? For me, the epic battle in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is something that has not been eclipsed by anything till date!


  1. Probably a cliche, but as someone who grew up in India, the war scenes from the Indian epic, the Mahabharatha are awe inspiring - they were my first taste of politics, cunning, death and the fact that most battles are won by strategy off the field in fact. This is how I developed my love for swordplay and bows & arrows though. Its challenging to write war scenes, as I know from personal experience. In many ways I find it more satisfying to zoom in on the inner conflicts of the characters as the fight rages outside, and the impact of war on relationships. The 'war of the roses' feels richer than having just 'thorns' on opposing sides.

  2. "War! What's it good for?"

    Writing epic fantasy novels. :-)

    While epic fantasy novels aren't my main reading matter, I really don't have a favorite war-centered fantasy novel. But I can see how war plays a big part in their creation. Humans love reading about things that speak to their needs, wants and fears, and war/conflict is a big part of human nature. We just can't seem to get along. Can you tell I just finished watching the Hatfields & McCoys on the History channel? :-)

    Personally, I like the softer side of the human experience - love (preferably with a happy ending.) So if an author can give me that set against a backdrop of conflict, he'll have me hooked.

  3. Hi Laxmi: I know exactly what you are saying, and because of my writing style I have the best of both words. Since I write in a character thread style, not to dissimilar to George R.R. Martin, I do view the battles from the perspectives of individual characters. I am also able to insert some brief "overview" type threads that give a big, epic view of the battle as well. Further, with some of my characters being carried on flying steeds or flying themselves, the character's own perspective sometimes ends up rather broad too.

    Elysa: You get an A+ for that answer, LOL. In my writing the big wars are a backdrop, and in my new third book of my Fires in Eden series, I just might be getting into a bit of a love story. Can't say too much because of spoilers though... :) thanks for reading.

  4. Elysa, my former boss played Devil Anse Hatfield in the 2-hour "Hatfields & McCoys" documentary. I don't have cable, so I've gotta wait for the DVD. :(

    I read a lot of epic fantasy, but to be honest, my eyes tend to glaze over during the battle scenes. My favorite-ever fantasy series is "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant," but my least favorite book of the series is "The Illearth War," precisely because battle scenes make up so much of it. However, gauging by the comments of other Donaldson fans, I'm apparently in the minority. ;)

    I can recommend the "Malazan Book of the Fallen" as a series where war -- and political intrigue -- are handled well.

  5. Lynne: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is high on my list as well. Great stuff, as you probably noticed I mentioned the series and the Ur-Viles in the post above. I think there is a wide variance in the way a battle scene is depicted. If it is brought down to the experience of a character and the danger they face, or the heroism they undertake during it, things like that, then I think it can come alive.

    Erikson's Malazan series is outstanding, probably one of the most complex plots you'll find in Epic Fantasy. Steven Erikson was also heavily inspired/influenced by Glen Cook's Black Company series that I use in the post above as an example. ;)

  6. I'm currently finishing a re-read of the last two books of Jim Butcher's Codex Alera. War plays a major role in the series, which gives the author the chance to ask questions such as 'What precisely are we fighting for' and 'is there ever a foe with whom we can reach a peaceful compromise?' Of particular interest are the Canim, intelligent dog-like beings who do a good job of meeting John Campbell's requirement for aliens: "Show me a creature that thinks as well as a human, but not like a human." The protagnist's gradual understanding of Canish culture, and his adaptation of their body language and ability to communicate and operate within their codes of honor provides a key alliance that helps shape the war - and the peace which may follow.

  7. If I can diverge slightly from the topic of war, one thing I do not like is when aliens/fantastic creatures are monolithic. Unless diversity is specifically a human trait, I think alien creatures should have a range of behaviors and beliefs as broad as humanity does, even if they are very different. For example, I would have loved it if in Babylon-5 the Vorlons and Shadows were alliances based on their respective ideologies. Instead of all the squids belonging on one side and all the spiders on the other, let like thinking override like shaping. Anyone else have an example of alien diversity?

  8. Larry: I love Jim Butcher, and I work with a similar dynamic in my urban fantasy series (the Rising Dawn Saga), where I have a werewolf like race called the An-Ki that are very intelligent, but do not think just like humans do. This expands with some of the other races of beings (Nephilim, Avatars, etc.) that are found in the series, arrayed on both sides of a cosmic war.

  9. I read more military sci fi/fantasy than I would have expected to. Picked up a Robert Jordan book at a dollar store and then asked my husband ... that would be Larry Lennhoff commenting above... whether we had the rest of the series in the house. From that I moved on to David Weber. But my eyes do tend to glaze over during the war scenes or the long description of weapons/technology stuff.

    Fantastic post about the use of war and how it can be used. Love it.

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  11. Thank you very much Tasha for reading the post! :)

    1. It was a fantastic post and I had been looking forward to it since I knew it was coming up. You did a great job with the topic. I hope more people find their way here to read it.

  12. Thanks for sharing your thoughts regarding war in fantasy.

    I think it depends on the story and the genre if you use war and hwo detailed you will describe it.

    But one should not forget that there wars with completely different weapons.
    Often a feather is as powerful as a sword.
    Nowadays we have cyber wars ... who knows what kind of wars we will have in future.

    1. Edi: You are most welcome, and yes, you are right about mixes of wars. In my Rising Dawn Saga I have several types of wars occurring simultaneously. Wars in non-physical realms, military conflict in a world like ours, and references to other elements, both supernatural and technological (references are made to a cyber war too that is ongoing).