I’ve been doing some rough draft work for Tinder Stricken, and a lot of thinking about the new book’s world. It’s been a while since I did extensive worldbuilding for a writing project! The Stories of Aligare setting has been firm in my mind for years now, with only the smaller details and customs that needed defining. It’s a nice change to design a completely different realm — and the creatures in it.
Which brings me to the phoenixes! Greek mythology usually refers to the phoenix as a large, magical, immortal bird that periodically douses itself in fire and rises up renewed from its own ashes. That renewal symbolism is a great selling point for a mythological creature and it’s been interpreted variously over the years, even embraced by early Christian symbolism.
The phoenix has differing physical descriptions, depending on which ancient text you consult. It’s usually said to have a crest of feathers on its head, and red/yellow colouring that suits a fiery creature. Other than that, they’re up to the individual’s imagination. Sometimes the phoenix is the size of an eagle or a rooster, other times it’s said to dwarf an ostrich. (I suspect that the stated size has to do with whether people wanted to carry the legend on their arm like a trained falcon, or ride it through the sky.)
There are other cultural representations of phoenix-like birds, such as the Slavic firebird, or the simurgh sometimes said to plunge itself into fire after 1 700 years of life. And some mythical creatures are loosely compared to the phoenix just because they’re legendary birds.
In particular, the fenghuang is often called a “Chinese phoenix”, although it’s not fire-aspected. Fenghuang are legendary birds associated with femininity, justice, honour and the various celestial forces, and sometimes used to symbolize the ruling empress. Fenghuang were originally described as elaborate chimera creatures (much like Asian dragons) but more modern depictions of fenghuang are mostly fusions of peacocks, pheasants, cranes, ducks and swallows. To be fair, they do look a lot like a Western phoenix.
And can we consider Harry Potter a legitimate folklore source for phoenixes? I think we can, since the series is so far-reaching. Fawkes the phoenix has the crest, long tail and colouration of a traditional phoenix, and he bursts into flames to recover from periodic death. His feathers are powerful magical items that can be made into wizarding wands. And Fawkes also has some less traditional special abilities — such as healing tears, teleportation, and an enormous carrying capacity — that phoenix lore is able to support. Surely, a creature magical enough to be healed by fire must have some other amazing traits, right? J.K. Rowling was able to put her own spin on the mythology.
Because much like dragons, the phoenix has a lot of long-standing mythology to draw from, but not many stone-set rules. A phoenix can be recognisable while still being different from what we’re expecting. I love it when the fantasy genre does that!
I’ve used phoenix lore alredy in my Aligare world — as Phoenix the Legend Creature, said to cause volcanic eruptions each time she throws herself into the renewing “firerock”. Now, with Tinder Stricken, I’m using phoenixes in a more central role to the story. Much like my Aligare dragons being more approachable interpretations of Earth lore, and mundane in their own world, I’m making the phoenixes of Tselaya into more realism-based creatures. They’re not all-powerful legends. They’re just living things — and a part of the local ecosystem.
These phoenixes are about the size of an eagle, with physiology like a combination of ravens and cranes. They’re omnivorous, snapping up passing insects and other opportunities, but the bulk of their diet is shoots, buds, fruit and seeds from high-magic-content plants. Because such plants are rare in the challenging growing conditions of Tselaya Mountain, phoenixes cultivate some of their food. They use flint and steel to start fires, so that they have fertile ashes to grow seeds and saplings in.
I thought that using striking tools to start their fires would be an interesting take on phoenix lore, since tool use is a well-known sign of intelligence in Earth birds. To that end, phoenixes have stringfeathers — two tough, cord-like tail feathers that they can use to help carry objects. The stringfeathers can be wrapped or tied around the phoenix’s cargo, including their prized bits of fire-starting minerals, or their gathered plant sprigs. The rest of the phoenix’s tail is forked like a swallow’s tail. I figured that a mountain-dwelling bird would face high winds, so they’d need a more practical, flight-assisting tail than the showy display plumes usually seen on a phoenix.
But the crest aspect of phoenix design suits my purposes. Partly due to intelligence and partly due to their magic-rich diet, Tselaya phoenixes are very good at communication. Their three crests of feathers help them express themselves.
And an intelligent, fire-starting bird like that is bound to get on the wrong side of the local humans. Phoenixes are generally considered dangerous pests — but the best way to get rid of a wild phoenix is to have a trained phoenix talk to it and ask it to leave. When Tinder Stricken‘s main character has her family heirloom knife stolen by a wild phoenix, she essentially needs to fight fire with fire. (Huh, I just noticed how conveniently that idiom fits into my scenario.)
So I’m looking forward to working with my own take on various old lore. Phoenixes and similar legendary birds might be well-known and open to interpretation, yet they’re nowhere near as popular as dragons. And unlike werewolves and vampires — which are nearly their own genres — phoenixes don’t often get top billing in fantasy novels. I think that should change! The phoenix is one more aspect of speculative fiction that’s fertile ground for reinvention.
I’ve talked before about anthropomorphic stories, where non-human beings have the traits of a human. Humans in fictional stories are often held up as an ideal that other life forms aspire to. But I’ve been wondering what we consider “human”, exactly. What really distinguishes us from other living things, the ones we call mere animals?
Well, intelligence is a big factor. Humans are the only (known) higher beings with elaborate developments such as technology, art and the ability to learn other languages. But intelligence is a loaded concept. Just because a being can’t do a specific task doesn’t mean they’re too simple. Maybe they just didn’t understand what was being asked of them. Maybe they didn’t see any motivation to comply. Earth animals such as ravens, squid, elephants and whales have shown relatively complex behaviours such as tool use, problem solving and communication — but they can’t exactly take an IQ test. They don’t follow our standards, so it’s hard to measure what their full capabilities are.
Okay, so intelligence isn’t necessarily humans’ domain. Brainpower can be a vague and scary thing. And besides, when fantasy or sci-fi prompts us to define “human” traits, we often think of simpler, more concrete things. Maybe human social constructs — such as being given a name at birth, or working at a job to earn money. That’s hard to sum up in a snappy way, though. You can’t exactly draw cover art to represent the concept of a name. This is where simpler aspects of anthropomorphism come in — like when we give an animal different physical traits! Distinctly human physical traits! Yeah, there we go!
So, let’s see. How to make an animal seem more human. Mammals and birds already have a lot of similarities with humans: a fleshy body supported by a bony spine; four main limbs attached to shoulders and pelvis; a head with two complex eyes; a mouth with one moving jaw. We find mammals and birds fairly relatable, as evidenced by all the mammal and bird characters in human cultures. And when mainstream media does anthropomorphize insects — and tries to make them look “friendly” or “relatable” or “less scary” — we can really see how many physical traits we take for granted.
I think we can agree, though, that the human body has a few truly defining factors.
Terrestrial biped posture seems to be the trait most strongly associated with humans. We’re the only creatures on Earth who stand upright on two legs, walk easily on just those two legs, and use our dextrous forelimbs for manipulating objects. So when we’re fictionalizing our normal Earth animals into thinking beings, the quickest visual way to say “These are people now” is to make them straight-backed bipeds.
King Louie from The Jungle Book? Brian from Family Guy? Team Rocket’s Meowth from the Pokemon anime (whose backstory is surprisingly sad, as a warning)? They all relate to humans by mimicking human posture. Look at the poster for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie and you’ll see Rocket the bioengineered raccoon standing in a remarkably human stance. And when we’re creating alien beings from other worlds, we tend to assume that the tall, stately, two-legged aliens are the intelligent ones — and any other body type is a cute pet and/or vicious monster. I think that’s an alarmingly bigoted way to look at other beings, but it’s a shorthand often used in our fictional stories.
As a writer of fantasy and sci-fi, I always try to question norms before I use them. Why must intelligent species be bipeds? Would a species reasonably end up looking like us, if they evolved in their own speculative world? As much as I like Star Trek, I don’t think it’s reasonable that the path to sentience always makes a creature look like a makeup-decorated human. So I made sure to think about physical form while developing the non-human people in my Stories of Aligare. And since my ideal fantasy works hand-in-hand with science, I basically asked myself why these fantasy beings would develop into what they currently are.
- Ferrin are the most closely linked to their animal origins. They move like squirrels: switching between quadrupedal movement for running/climbing, and bipedal movement to free up their forepaws for delicate tasks. They have thumbs, if small and still-developing thumbs: they sometimes use their jaws to help hold and manipulate objects. (The other peoplekinds don’t put too fine a point on it.)
- Korvi are dragons, and dragons can have as many limbs as they want because fantasy genre, that’s why. But I looked mainly to birds when I was designing korvi, which is why they’re bipeds. I think the biggest design decision I made was using the classic lizard-like dragon tail as a third weight-bearing limb. Korvi are a bit top-heavy, so they walk on two legs but use their tail as a tripod leg while resting or leaning backward — somewhat like an Earth kangaroo would. They’re not very biologically realistic — with all those big, well-developed, metabolically expensive limbs — but that’s why korvi rely on their innate magic as a fuel source.
- Aemets are a grab bag of insect and mammal traits, and they use a partial exoskeleton (their “shell”) in place of a mammalian spine. They might look humanoid at a cursory glance but if you X-rayed one, the story would be very different. They have two arms, two legs, and the vestigal traces of a second pair of arms buried in their torsos (like how Earth snakes have remnants of their ancestral leg joints). Aemets’ casting magic comes from the palms of their hands, so it seemed reasonable to me that they would use those limbs for dexterity, not for bearing body weight. Aemets are related to sylphs, which look much more bug-like, so I imagine that proto-aemets made some pretty dramatic evolutionary changes before arriving at the aemet characters I’m actually writing about. Maybe. Depending on how long it’s been since the gods created life long ago …
Long story short, an upright bipedal posture is one of the most significant parts of being a Homo sapiens. Anthropomorphic characters have human posture and body structure to make them more relatable — which is one thing when we’re talking about a humanoid tiger selling breakfast cereal. But in more meaning-laden fantasy and sci-fi, I think that human appearance is a tool to be used wisely. Two legs and a vertical spine don’t have to be directly related to intelligence. Fantasy races from magical worlds don’t have to be just humans with pointy ears. If we learn to understand living things who don’t physically resemble us, we’ve taken a big step in broadening our minds. That’s something I care a lot about.
Just a quick update on my writing-related endeavours lately, for those who didn’t happen to catch my Twitter commentary:
—My short story submission was selected for the Distorted anthology forthcoming from Pulpwood Press. Distorted‘s theme is modern reimaginings of mythology — and my story puts an environmentalist spin on the oceanic Greek sirens. This is my first sale to an established fiction market, which finally makes me a professional author by conventional standards. I’m awfully amused about that! Distorted is tentatively slated for a fall 2014 release.
—This past weekend, I had a great time at What The Fur? 2014. It’s a small convention (breaking 300 attendees for the first time this year), so it’s a wonderfully friendly event to return on an annual basis. I always see familiar faces dropping by my dealer’s table. As a first, I was invited to participate in the annual Iron Artist competition — which isn’t exactly geared to writers, but I suppose I made an interesting underdog against the three well-known visual artists! The surprise medium was cheap face paint (plus brushes and a small canvas). My painting didn’t win — that honour went to the Guest of Honour, Ookami Kemono — but I enjoyed the challenge a lot anyway.
—Work continues on the tabletop game Omens of Aligare. A small game company has expressed interest in our project! Further developments if something solidifies.
—Work also continues on the first draft of Tinderstrike, my next novel. Hopefully this summer will be a productive one.
I wrote an entry for The Woven Tale Press’s weekly prompt contest. This week’s prompt word is blue.
All Things Blended
by Heidi C. Vlach
The apprentice lost track of how many months passed, as she travelled under the shifting sky on her two dusty feet. Gradually, she gathered all the components.
In the secret depths of mountains she found lapis lazuli, a vivid-hued thing like a jungle bird. On the salt-sprayed coast she found a sea snail, plain and viscous but its chroma was hidden inside. In markets and bazaars, she bargained for treasures: azure crystals; a velvet pouch of cobalt powder; a lovely turquoise gem polished to a pearlescent shine; desiccated leaves of indigo. When her coin ran out, she walked herself through green-flourishing places, for woad, and cornflower, and periwinkle.
She had all that the earth could give her. With feet sore and blistered, and her face weathered like wood, the apprentice returned to the workshop. The dust-cloaked space was hers now, its original master long since departed. There was no alchemist here — not yet, not until this apprentice claimed her true colour.
Over and over, she read the spellbook, with her knuckles brightly sore from gripping the pestle. The instructions were distinct for each shade and each preparation; she left fingerprints, cobalt smudges glaring against the yellowed pages.
She crafted a nerve-wracking array of fine pigments, all heaped onto tin plates. The apprentice waited some hours, tried to summon her soothing choice of colour in her heart, and finally she could stand it no longer and she spilled of her powders all onto a hammered gold platter beneath the sky. Carefully, with a knife’s edge, she arranged the powders into a ring. All her tints fanned together now, blending.
She bent close over the pigments, her dun robes a shield against the breeze. She read the spellbook with purpose now, running its words through her mind’s voice like sand through her fingers.
Combine with the hue of the sky, the claiming spell said.
Her heartbeat welled up underneath her. She had hoped the journeying would grant her wisdom, hoped that she would be a lightning rod to revelation but she was no master just yet.
Patience was key. A cool presence like her chosen colour. She closed her eyes and sat there breathing, aware of her mundane body’s outer husk. The apprentice was a fleshy thing rent in common earth’s colours but she was blue inside, she knew she was. She returned to the passage at the end of the spell, the one lodged in her mind like an eloquent fishhook:
When blended, the ingredients will produce the very colour of a productive life: equal parts calmness, confidence and clarity. Know the colour blue and you shall be as the sky, the sea, the ice never melting.
Really, she thought, a clear and oceanic life was all an alchemist could want. Breeze fingered the apprentice’s robes and she was calm regardless. She had her ingredients gathered; she could persevere a little longer.
Combine with the hue of the sky, the book said.
She turned her face upward, poised over her azure and turquoise and ultramarine. The apprentice spent a little more of her time as the daylight waned and waxed, as the winds turned and the sky showed her more of herself.
She would know the right shade when she saw it.
I have a lot to consider, regarding my writing and other life endeavours. So it seems best if I go quiet for a while.
I’ll still be using my social media accounts, if you want to follow me! And if you’d like a notification when I resume updates on this blog, consider the Follow Blog via Email option at the top-right of this screen.
Hmm, I don’t really have anything to say this week. How about I share some links to things that caught my eye?
- Till Human Voices Wake Us by Annie Bellet. I’m currently reading this collection of sci-fi/fantasy short stories. It’s got an interesting variety of speculative elements — and lots of non-white humans, who are always nice to see in sci-fi/fantasy.
- War Dog and Marginalized Populations by Malcom Cross. A pair of novelettes about genetically engineered dog supersoldiers, who have to find a way to fit into human society when there are no more battles to fight. Military fiction isn’t one of my stronger interests but the concept seems like a great way to use anthropomorphic characters.
- The Whacker Chronicles by Stan Grimes. Adult fantasy fiction about a society of pigeons, who deal with very relatable issues.
- To Journey in the Year of the Tiger by H. Leighton Dickson. First book in a saga of genetically altered tigers, lions, wolves and dragons, who picked up the torches of ancient China, India and Japan. Sounds pretty cool to me!
- And, for a non-book entry, the tile-matching game 2048. WARNING: highly addictive.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me mentioning this: I’m working on a new novel. Worldbuilding began at Furnal Equinox while I was sitting at my dealer’s table, and I’m nearly finished a chapter of rough draft.
It’s still very rough, of course, but the tentative title is Tinderstrike. This is the story of Eino, a middle-aged woman who’s been working the fields for decades and has very little to show for it. If she hopes to provide for herself in her declining years, she’ll need some extra income. So Eino secretly goes out trapping in the forest — and in her inexperience, she gets stuck in one of her own traps. Unable to free herself, she uses communication magic to call a phoenix (which are highly intelligent, crow-like birds, known for using flint and pyrite to start fires). And after the phoenix uses Eino’s knife to cut her free, the phoenix makes off with it. Since that knife was Eino’s most valuable possession — and part of her retirement resource — she has to find that phoenix.
But the phoenix didn’t just take that knife because it’s shiny. She’s trying to pay off a looming price of her own — to the leviathans, a race of subterranean water dragons that humanity knows very little about.
Tinderstrike takes place in a fantasy realm loosely based on the Himalayas and surrounding Asian countries. The dry, high-altitude climate means that local plant life is mostly coniferous. Magic-rich flowers are rare and valuable.
Why does Eino have deer-like ears and horns in the concept art? Because in this world, humans develop animal traits as they age. It’s thought unseemly to be anything except a human, so non-human features are kept covered up with clothing as much as possible. Full transformation in old age is thought to be worse than death. Eino has early-onset deer features, so she was abandoned by her upper-class family at a young age, and now her time to provide for herself is growing short.
This is part of the new writing direction I was talking about. It’ll have plenty of non-humans with viewpoints of their own, but it’ll also have broader appeal (I hope) than the Stories of Aligare. I’ll let you folks know when Tinderstrike is near completion!
This past weekend, I attended Furnal Equinox 2014 in Toronto, Ontario. It was my first time at this particular anthopomorphic convention. I had some technical difficulties over the weekend, and my Render reading had less than a handful of attendees (possibly because of its timeslot: 1 PM on Friday, when many of the con-goers had yet to arrive).
But the convention’s atmosphere was great. I chatted up artists and costumers. I participated in a goofy scavenger hunt. I lounged in the hotel’s lobby, reading an ebook and giggling when fursuiters leaned over me to peer at my phone’s screen. Overall, I’d call it an enjoyable weekend!
I also did a lot of thinking while sitting at my dealer’s table, waiting for people to happen by. My biggest life decisions are made while I’m away from home, it seems. So, here goes.
I’ve been giving the Stories of Aligare series the best treatment I’m capable of right now, but its very essence is also its greatest handicap: these are small, odd stories. They’re not thrill-a-minute page-turners. They’re not the kind of book people gobble down in one night and then rave about to all their friends. I firmly believe that quiet stories deserve to exist, and deserve to be read. The tiny little legion of Aligare fans is so meaningful to me — but I think I need to increase my reach as a writer and publisher, or else I’m not doing justice to this goal of mine.
I’ve got other unusual, human-free stories in mind. Some of them I’m holding back because I don’t think I’m ready to execute them well. (I felt kinship in the way Pixar’s WALL-E took years of development and tinkering with the emotional tones. ) But as a writer, I like working with a variety of literary tones and approaches. And Serpents of Sky has gotten a better reception so far than any of the Aligare books. I’m clearly able to write higher-concept stories.
So my next full-length novel won’t be a Story of Aligare. The next story (or stories) I publish will be something with broader appeal. I’ll still twist and subvert fantasy clichés wherever I find them. But I’ll see if I can tell a more crowd-pleasing story, before asking that crowd to give my weirder works a chance.
Stay tuned! I’ll tell you folks what my next book will be as soon as I’m sure myself.