Guest Post Introduction!
Hello everyone! Today I’m sharing another post of my Indie Author series and I’m featuring a guest post by Pemry James where he shares some insights on fantasy world building. As someone who reads a lot of fantasy books world building is pretty important to me. I love a well written fantasy world that I can easily sink into. In my reviews world building is a topic that I discuss a lot, and when it’s done right it can really make a book memorable and unique. I’m thrilled to have Pemry James here today on my blog, don’t forget to check out his book & there’s info on an upcoming sale at the bottom of this post!
Pemry James Takes Over!
Greetings, book devourers. Amanda has been kind enough to share her blog today with me so that I can ramble on about some of my favorite topics: history, fantasy, and worldbuilding.
As for who I am? I’m Pemry Janes, the author of the Living Sword series and an occasional DM for my tabletop roleplaying group.
I want to take this opportunity to talk about something you come across in just about every fantasy story, the city. Some stories are set entirely within one city, but even ones that start with your typical farm boy will inevitably have that hero visit a city at one point or another. But when you set out to create a city for your story or tabletop campaign, there’s a lot you could consider to flesh it out and make it memorable.
In fantasy the world can be a strange place. For example, my short story World Eater took place within the mostly dead remains of a titanic eldritch god drifting in the void between realities. In such a place assumptions like gravity and sunlight aren’t given and that represents its own challenges for how people manage to survive. This, in turn, will influence what settlements would look like and if they would even be possible. But for the rest of this post, I will assume a more or less spherical world with a roughly earth-like environment.
There are three problems that a settlement needs to solve for it to function and not become a ruin. How does the city feed itself, where does it get its water, and what does it use as a fuel source? None of these sound exciting, most readers won’t ask that question when they come across this city in your story, but answering them helps you paint the picture in your own mind and if your story takes you to a new part of the city, you already have some ideas of what the characters will find.
So let’s start with the most important question, the second one. People need water, even when they don’t drink it because it’s not safe. They need water for cooking, washing, and to prepare most of the alcoholic beverages they might be drinking instead of water. Easiest answer is a river and indeed we see that many historical cities had a river running through them or besides them. Rome, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, Constantinople, Alexandria, just to name some well known ones.
With a river running through the city, there also needs to be a way to cross it. Most likely ferries or a bridge, depending on how wide the river is and what the people in your setting can build. But a river does more than hydrate a city and take away its waste, it is also the most important way commerce flows in and out of the city as transporting goods over land get very expensive very quickly. That means docks, warehouses, sailors, and the bars they frequent.
And if it’s not a river or a lake that meets the city’s needs, than something else is going on. Perhaps an underground spring, aqueducts, or a stable portal to the elemental plane of Water. All of these have their implications for your city’s place in the world and what’s going on in it. The underground spring might be considered holy, many cultures like the Romans and the Celts did so and archaeologists still find the offerings they left behind today. Aqueducts imply this city was planned by a larger empire with the resources to spend on such a project and a good reason to do so. And having one stable interdimensional portal in your world naturally leads to what other portals are about and what comes through them?
But although staying hydrated is important, a city won’t survive long without food. Now if there is a river, than fish will likely be part of the diet. But the river contributes more through irrigation of the farms that will surround your city.
The fantasy cities we see on the screen always seem to be surrounded by empty grassland. From Minas Tirith and Edoras to King’s Landing and Cintra, all of them appear to have nothing beyond their walls. Real cities in history weren’t like that.
Unless they are conjuring all of their food through magic, your city will be surrounded by farms and gardens with fields for grazing further away. The livestock can transport itself to the city when needed. Now chances are that the people working those fields don’t actually live in the city but in communities surrounding the city. And what is the city’s relationship with these communities on which it relies to feed itself? Is it a cooperative relationship or one of exploitation?
Fuel is the third consideration and is one regardless of climate. In a hot climate, people won’t need a fire to stay warm, but they will need it to cook, to work metal, and fire clay to name some examples. In such a climate the city might grind to a stand still during the hottest part of the day and people might opt to sleep on their flat roofs to escape the heat. Which means that your hero stalking across rooftops could find themselves with a lot of company at night. Or maybe your city lacks streets altogether, like Çatal Höyük from around 6000 BCE. This was one of the oldest cities we’ve found and all the buildings were built right next to each other with all traffic happening along its roofs. The inhabitants even constructed communal ovens on their roofs later on.
In a colder climate they will need fuel to stay warm and most likely this fuel will be wood. That wood has to come from somewhere and we’ve already established that your city will be surrounded by farmland. But anywhere they can’t grow crops, like the sides of the roads, on the boundaries between fields, that’s where you’ll see trees. Those trees may be coppiced to promote the production of enough wood.
So your city should have smell woodsmoke wherever they go, unless another fuel source is used. Peat and coal are some historical examples, but so is natural gas. From as far back as the Han dynasty they would drill for natural gas in certain regions which would then be transported through bamboo pipes. No magic required.
And speaking of fire, consider how the people of this city deal with fires that have gone out of control. For example, in ancient Rome before Augustus there were only privately funded fire brigades. Rome’s richest man, Marcus Crassus, formed a fire brigade of slaves who would only put out the fire after the owner had sold the building to Crassus. And you can imagine that the value dropped as the fire consumed more and more.
The city of Edo went for a more organized response on the other hand, with samurai firefighters. Initially only for the Shogun’s residence but the system evolved over time as Japanese society and the political clout of people grew. I’m very much oversimplifying this and I encourage you to read further about this. It is quite the fascinating history.
This brings me to the final consideration I will address in this post. What is the history of your city? Again, you don’t need a detailed timeline but knowing why the city started in this place and what trajectory the city is on right now helps you get a feel for the city’s atmosphere.
Was the city planned from its founding or did it grow over the centuries? In case of the former, I expect a lot of straight lines. If the former, than the streets will be old winding country roads petrified and preserved by the expanding city.
And how has the city been doing these past decades? Has a growing economy attracted a lot of immigration or has a recent plague left many houses empty? To come back to Constantinople, it’s population declined over the centuries so that by the fifteenth century there was enough space for farms inside the Theodosian walls.
To conclude this blog post I want to quickly create a city, taking the above considerations in account. I present to you the city of Darshehem, sprawled up the foothills of the Gray Mountains. Two streams fed by melting snow from the mountains meet in the city and divide it into three parts. The Crown between the streams, and then the Smoking Quarters north of the river El Barai and New Town curving along the south banks of the river. El Barai in turn feeds the terraced fields and orchards of date palms below the city before flowing out into the plains beyond.
But it is not only water that flows from the mountains, iron and coal too are mined from them and taken to the city where craftsmen turn them into steel and give the city its grimy coat. Darshehem steel is desired and so it has been some centuries since the city was its own master. However, lately there have been problems. The iron has become of poor quality, rumors fly that it rots like old wood now.
And yet the queen still expects Darshehem to pay its taxes and she grows impatient with their excuses. Something must be done.
And with that, I will sign off.
Pemry Janes grew up on a farm in the Netherlands and discovered history and fantasy at a young age, he even studied the former at university. Now he tries to combine the passion for both in his writing. He strives to create worlds that are both rich and strange, populated with people. Whatever shape, size, or worldview they may have.
My website is pemryjanes.com
My profile on Goodreads
The Living Sword by Pemry James
Eurik was found adrift by the san and raised by them. Though he had read much about the outside world, he’d never considered leaving home. Not until his teacher revealed what he had inherited from his parents: a living sword, a sentient blade of rare power . . . and with it, the names of his father and mother.
Reluctant to go, yet curious, Eurik sets out to discover who they were, and what happened to them. But is he ready for all the attention his heritage will earn him? Can he survive in a world he has only read about?
From September 1st until the 6th The Living Sword is on offer for only $ 0.99 or your local equivalent.
How important is world building to you when reading fantasy? What did you think about Pemry’s insights on creating a city? What are some of your favorite bookish worlds? Make sure to comment below so we can chat about world building in fantasy!