Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Guest Post: Using Real Cultures in Fantasy Fiction

Today I've invited blogger buddy A.J. Walker to talk about his new fantasy novel, The Maze of Mist. I've guest blogged for his Medieval Mondays series several times on topics such as medieval handgonnes and medieval weapons in the Civil War, so it's great to have him here. He's going to talk about using real cultures in fantasy fiction. Take it away, A.J.!

Fantasy fiction is a blend of the familiar and the strange. The familiar helps the reader construct a framework for envisioning the story. It's no surprise, then, that most high fantasy settings are reminiscent of medieval Europe. Writers usually pick medieval England, France, and the Norse region as their settings, and while I love all these cultures, I've always felt there were plenty of others that were being underused.

For my Timeless Empire series, the setting is reminiscent of medieval Spain. That makes it a little different than your typical fantasy novel, but still familiar.

I went further afield with The Maze of Mist. The protagonist, Metis Itxaron, is a mixed-race prince, the son of a goblin mother and a human father. Goblinkin culture is a mix of Native American, the peoples of the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, the prehistoric Kurgan culture, and a fair amount of my own weirdness. The human culture is medieval European. I wanted something for my reader to find familiar!

I also throw in a new race, the mysterious Amhara from beyond the Southern Sea. These explorers have solved the mystery of the Maze of Mist, a strange labyrinth of fog that has baffled navigators for all of recorded history. For this culture, I borrowed some of Sean's experience and made them Ethiopian. If you're a regular reader of Sean's travel writing you know he's a regular visitor to that ancient land and has even written a book about Ethiopian history.

So why Ethiopia? Because as an archaeologist I know this land is home to one of the oldest and most advanced civilizations in the world. Even Heroditus lists it as one of the great cultures of his time. Yet it is almost entirely ignored in Western history books.

The kingdom of Abyssinia went through several different incarnations that had several similarities. The land was made up of several tribes and held together by a ruler that did not have absolute power except in times of dire emergency such as a foreign invasion. Women enjoyed a relatively high status and compared to medieval Europe (although there weren't female warriors like I have in my novel) and studies such a geography, painting and literature were highly developed.

When my protagonist goes off with these newcomers on a diplomatic mission, he gets to sample their food and drink, learn about their world view, and generally immerse himself in their culture. He's not just journeying across an ocean, he passing from one culture to another. The ancient Abyssinian kingdoms are a perfect model for a civilization that your typical fantasy character would find both strange and alluring.

Plus they had cool swords and strong booze. You gotta have cool swords and strong booze in a fantasy novel!

Thanks, A.J.! Do you have a new release you'd like to shout about? Go to the How Can I Help You? page to learn how, well, I can help you. . .


  1. Yes you do!
    Didn't know that about Ethiopia's history.
    Your main character is a mixed breed? Great minds think alike - my latest also has a mixed breed.

  2. Great swords and bronze....So very true! This looks like a very good read and I love the cover!


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