Elspeth Cooper

Purveyor of fine fantasy adventures

Tag: world-building

Under the influence

Baked. Wasted. Paralytic. Bombed. Hammered. Blotto. Three sheets to the wind.

There’s countless ways to describe being intoxicated, from the humorous to the obscene. This is probably because human beings, as a species, have invented similarly countless ways in which this state can be achieved – many of them thousands of years old, and still popular today.

The humans inhabiting the world of the Wild Hunt Quartet are no different. They enjoy getting tanked just as much as we do, so I thought it might be fun to discuss a few of the ways in which they can do it. Some are quite benign, and others definitely fall under Schedules 1 to 5 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, or equivalent legislation.

Beers, ales & ciders

Painting of man drinking beer from a tankard by Karel van Mander III

Man Drinking Beer from a Tankard, by Karel van Mander III – Christie’s, Public Domain

As long as there’s been bread, there’s been beer. Consequently, beers and ales are drunk wherever grain is grown in the Empire and beyond. These drinks vary from the thin, rather sour ales of the Northern Isles to the darker, nuttier brews of provinces like Syfria, Elethrain and Tylos, which form the breadbasket of the Empire. Northern Syfria in particular produces some excellent stouts and porters.

In rural parts, where grain is too valuable as a cash crop to use in brewing, or the terrain is unsuitable for growing cereals, cider is the more common drink. Apples will grow almost anywhere, and in the presence of humans a cider press will usually spring into being, as if by magic, not far away.

The resulting product rarely travels far from the home farm, but some are locally quite famous – the late Squire Mattison’s ‘Yelda Gold’ being one such, attracting labourers to work for him from miles around.


The Empire and its immediate neighbours have several wine-growing regions. The largest and most famous are clustered in the temperate belt north of the Inner Sea, with each region producing its own distinctive vintages. Syfria is known mainly for its whites, which vary in style from fresh, green-apple zingy to honeyed dessert stuff that would put a Monbazillac to shame.

In Tylos, it’s the reds that take top billing. Robust, hearty wines with notes of damson and plum jam from the west of the province are a popular accompaniment to roast meats and peasant-style dishes. In the east, the free-draining shale-rich soils offer lively tannins and a smoky, layered finish. The whites produced there are few but stellar, including a range of small-vineyard sparkling wines  – much prized for celebrations – made from the famed marchion grape.

Grapes on the vine © publicdomainphotos | ID 95657061 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

South of the Inner Sea, the climate is generally unsuited to viniculture. It is too harshly hot in the summer and inadequately cool in the winter, which produces rough wines of a somewhat varnishy nature. These are usually consumed domestically.

That being said, some growers  have had remarkable success with more heat-tolerant varietals on the northern slopes of the Glass Hills and similar highland regions. These wines are not well-known outside of the area, except among connoisseurs.

Fortified wines are not widely made around the Empire, although port is occasionally mentioned among the more well-travelled.


Many unique varieties of spirit are available. The clans of Arennor and Nimroth imbibe liberally of uisca, a clear, biting spirit not dissimilar to poteen. It is rare to find a clansman or woman without a flask of the stuff somewhere about their person. Arennorians are a friendly people, and hate to drink alone so they share their uisca freely, in celebration and commiseration, for new life and fallen friends and whenever else they can find an excuse.

Elsewhere in the Empire, brandy is popular. As you would expect, the quality of the source wine dictates the refinement and character of the resulting spirit. There is a smoother, double or triple-distilled variant called goldwine, which is commensurately more expensive.

There are also a number of regional speciality spirits, such as Bregorinnen kavit, which is made from birch leaves, not to mention various types of mead, own-label liquors, fruit brandies and the like. Some of these can be an acquired taste.

Incense © publicdomainphotos | ID 95830331 | Dreamstime Stock Photos


Pursuit of intoxication is not limited to only that which can be fermented and drunk.

The drum and dance rituals of the inikuri shamen make use of several compounds, whose ingredients are kept secret outside their island community. The dancers throw these powders into their fires; the resulting fumes lower inhibition and promote sexual arousal in the participants and spectators alike. The precise spiritual purpose of these rituals in iniku culture is not fully understood, beyond ensuring a good time for all concerned.

It is also worth mentioning yarra root, which is used by many Astolans for its meditative properties. Thin shavings warmed in a little oil give off a pleasant earthy aroma, which is relaxing and calming. Prolonged use has a soporific effect, and will leave the user foggy and slow for some hours after they wake up. Not recommended for anyone likely to be performing delicate surgery the next day!

In the lands south of the Inner Sea, quite the palette of recreational pharmacology has developed. Most common is chaba, a plant that grows in the fertile deltas and flood plains. Its leaves are dried and then smoked, often socially, via a shared waterpipe. The effect is mildly stimulant, and somewhat addictive.

Photo of ivory opium pipe with terracotta bowl

Ivory opium pipe | Credit: Science Museum, London | By Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0

At the more dangerous end of the spectrum is mezzin. This psychoactive compound is extracted from the sap of the kalabal tree. Mature trees are tapped like maples, and the collected sap cooked down to a gummy resin which is rolled into pellets that are then wrapped in pieces of kalabal leaf to prevent them sticking together. The finished pellets must be stored in a dry environment, as the kalabal leaves are prone to mildew.

To consume mezzin the pellet, wrapping and all, is smoked in a specially-shaped pipe. Inhalation produces an initial feeling of wellbeing, followed by hyper-real hallucinations and perceptual anomalies, such as synaesthesia. It is highly addictive. As the user builds a tolerance over time, the risk of overdose increases proportionately. Symptoms of overdose include paranoia, night terrors and in extreme cases, death from cardiac arrest.

So if you’re determined to party hearty in the world of the Wild Hunt, you may want to think twice if someone offers you a hit from their pipe. It might not be just chaba in there!


Featured image by Thaler Tamas – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62474724

Traditional fantasy: what does that mean to you?

People keep telling me I write traditional fantasy. They’re usually being nice when they say that, otherwise they probably would have called it derivative, so don’t get me wrong, I’m totally happy with the label. But to be honest with you, I’m not sure I know what ‘traditional fantasy’ even means. Or rather, I’m not sure what it means to them, the people using the term. Their perceptions may not be the same as mine.

That’s the thing with labels like ‘traditional’: I want to know whose traditions are being referenced. Y’know, just so we’re clear. There’s nothing worse than having a debate that isn’t actually a debate at all, because we’re talking about the same things, just using different terms to describe them.

Cover of David Eddings' Pawn of ProphecyWhen I think of traditional fantasy, I default to the likes of David Eddings’ Pawn of Prophecy: a Chosen One raised in obscurity to keep him safe, who goes off on a quest with a motley band of adventurers (including a feisty girl that the bewildered, nice-if-a-bit-dim protagonist hates at first but will ultimately marry) leading to a glorious destiny at the end. Probably involving a throne. Black hats and white hats are readily identifiable, motives are rarely murky, and it’s a pretty good bet you know how it’s going to end.

Another trope that I closely associate with ‘traditional’ is the protagonist being somebody’s heir, descendant or a hero reborn. Their destiny is pre-determined and thus their agency is limited because of who they are, so I would put the Shannara books in that category too (although I gather that in later volumes the story tries to get ‘bigger’ and move beyond this). I’d likely throw The Wheel of Time in there too: it certainly started out that way, before Rand got over being a whiny brat, accepted his fate and owned it.

Speaking of prophecy, characters getting pushed around by one is yet another hallmark of what I’d class as traditional. After all, prophecy is a common motif in the myths and religious traditions that fuel much of our storytelling: Ragnarök, Achilles’ heel, auguries etc. As an indiscriminate and voracious teen reader I gobbled up fantasy like that, but these days it chafes a bit. I like to see more characters figuring stuff out as they go and getting thrown off track by their mistakes, rather than just following signposts.

A more general definition of traditional fantasy encompasses those stories which draw on a particular mythic heritage, usually European, usually set in a pseudo-medieval* secondary world, with non-urbanised, non-industrial feudal societies, before the invention of firearms. In other words, a society in which the existence of magic can’t be argued away by actual science. I can see why people would apply that definition to The Wild Hunt, although personally I don’t think the shoe quite fits. It’s pinching my toes and there’s a blister on my heel.

Balliol College Quadrangle (5647597466)

Balliol College, Oxford – founded in 1263

The Empire I wrote about has a state press (at least in the capital), mass-printed books, accurate clocks, mechanised weaving, quite widespread literacy, numerous universities, and some indoor plumbing, all referenced in the text, and none of it dependent on magic, only human ingenuity. By those lights, I wouldn’t call it ‘pseudo-medieval’ at all – it’s more ‘pseudo-early modern’.**

I’ve tried to portray it as a society on the verge of a technological leap: they already import fireworks, so it’s only a matter of time before someone starts looking closely at their explosive properties, and the military applications thereof.***

The Empire is also only a titular monarchy, and the Emperor does not have absolute power. He requires a consensus in his privy council, whose members are regional governors for each of the provinces in the Empire (which were once kingdoms in their own right) and if they chose to revolt, they could vote for the appointment of a new Emperor. Yes, really. No divine right of kings here.

There’s no band of plucky adventurers either. Most of the time Gair’s alone, or with one or two people, who are not constant companions but move in and out of the action as needed – and the feisty girl is an older woman who makes no secret of the way she feels.

I will cop to the wandering magus trope, however, and the fact that there is some mystery over Gair’s parentage, although I tried to poke fun at that a little:

‘You know, that has the ring of a story to it,’ Alderan said. ‘The orphaned boy with the crown-shaped birthmark that identifies him as the lost heir to the kingdom, and so forth.’

Gair shook his head. ‘No crowns. No kingdoms. Just a soldier’s brat put out to charity.’

— Songs of the Earth

The truth is exactly what Gair believes it to be: his mother couldn’t keep him and his foster family didn’t want to, so he ended up raised by the Church. But when the music stops and the story ends, he will not be the king of anything.

I used those tropes deliberately, knowing I would get flak for them, because they fitted the story I was telling. I’ll use whatever tools are available to me to build what I want. Besides, I’m nowhere near well-enough read in the genre to know the minutiae of everything that’s been done before and therefore attempt to create something entirely new; the story came first and the world evolved around it. If all this makes me a writer of traditional fantasy, then so be it.

So I circle back to the original question: what does traditional fantasy mean for you? Is it the setting, the plot, the protagonist’s origin story? Is it the archetypes the author uses, the mythos they chose to draw from? Does it even matter to you, as a reader, as long as the characters are engaging and the story’s fun?

Is a bit of tradition really a bad thing?


* A personal grumble of mine: I get a tad irritated when folk use the term ‘medieval’, which refers to the Middle Ages, as some kind of lazy catch-all for any pre-industrial society. The Middle Ages were on their way out by the time Gutenberg produced his folio Bible in 1455. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and his anatomical sketches were maybe fifty years away,  and both Oxford and Cambridge had colleges that were by then already almost 200 years old.

** I studied early modern history, so I drew on that in building my world. The Tudor era, the dissolution of the monasteries, the Reformation, the whole nine yards.

*** Consider the proliferation of firearms in our world, spreading westwards from China into Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, and the evolution of personal rather than battlefield weapons. Yes, considering the timelines of other technological developments I appropriated from European history, the Empire should probably have at least prototype mortars by now, but this was one area I deliberately chose not to explore in these books. I had plenty else to deal with. Besides, the trade routes up from the lands beyond Arkadie are risky, so it’s hard to bring new ideas home. Ships are lost all the time to storms and piracy. It’s entirely possible there are cast bronze cannon already languishing at the bottom of the Inner Sea with the Empire’s equivalent of the Mary Rose.


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