Worldbuilding part 2: It’s a kind of magic

This blog post gives an overview of my very physical take on ‘magic’ in the world of Snakewood.

Now, inevitably, with a fantasy novel, you’re likely to have some sort of ‘magic’, something to make it fantastic in the purest sense.

For Snakewood, perhaps because of my conceptual struggle, as a materialist, for magic, I wanted what was magical about my world to be rooted in it somehow, to be earthy, tactile.  I didn’t want some hand-waving and lightning bolts and flames springing out of nothing or great waves of force from mere gestures.

I’d experimented with a few non-garden varieties of mushrooms way back, experiencing their strange and beautiful power, and knew of the concoctions the berserkers would drink to get them fired up, and I thought how cool it would be if you could imbibe such concoctions but their effects were like magic, they really did confer superhuman strength and speed and more powerful sense perception.

When I began the book for my Writing degree some twenty odd years ago (I parked it for most of my adult life until the thought of not writing it became unbearable), I hadn’t given much thought to what such a magic system would actually mean.

Then I sat down, about six years ago, and started figuring it out.  The ramifications were massive, and profoundly affected the novel I’d write.

If the soldiers that fight the wars will win them if they are stronger, faster and less susceptible to wounds and poisoning and fatigue then the country that owns those soldiers will be the most powerful….so all countries would prioritise both research into and the supply of the ingredients that went into the “fightbrews”, the concoctions the soldiers would drink to boost performance.

This would of course mean that, as in Dune’s ‘who controls the spice….’, the plants that provide the ingredients would be incredibly valuable, probably moreso than gems and gold, and as such those countries who controlled the supply and were geared to feed the market would be the richest as well.  The richest countries would effectively be akin to drug cartels.  This is of course a fundamental shift in how medieval societies would be organised compared to our own, although perhaps not as different to some areas of the world in the present day.

Whereas our world once revolved around spices like nutmeg, silk and precious metals, this world would revolve around the ingredients of these brews.

With the flora of that world being significantly more potent, the potential for ‘drug abuse’ and dependency on its effects, would create potentially large social problems, even though this might somehow balance out with the greater medicinal power of other plants.  There would be as many junkies as there are drunks, more dealers and so more social problems, more family problems.  I don’t think, in all honesty, I worked this through as deeply and thoroughly as I might have, but as the novel is told from the first person perspective of two of the characters, I didn’t see that they would notice the difference such that it was worthy of comment.  In a sense I was bound by their narration not including all those things that are, to them, normal, forcing such information in as asides where I could.

One particular way that I did this was built out of my image of the norse or celtic berserker painted with woad.  I thought it would be cool to have the brews cause such powerful changes that over time they would dye the skin, even the blood, they would change pigmentation, even less savoury effects like causing hair loss, and infertility.  As such these men and women would look, after many years, like chameleons, with wildly patterned skin.  The richer the colour, the more experienced and veteran the warrior.   This soon morphed in the text into them being referred to as ‘men of colour’, which plays obliquely on the phrase as it was and is used in this world.  These men could easily be identified and marked out by their colour.  In a sense, battle prowess cannot be faked.

I liked the idea that such fightbrews would have a big ‘comedown’, a high price paid as is the case with hard drug use in this world.  This would, over time, lead to psychological and physical problems for career soldiers.  I then thought that, as with cut and refined heroin, the finer and more expensive brews would do less damage; so the richest countries, or soldiers in the case of mercenaries like Kailen’s crew, could produce brews that enabled their men to last longer, indeed, become somewhat acclimatised to them.  Kailen’s crew would be immune to most standard poisons.

As with all arms races, it was interesting to follow the ramifications in terms of plant varietals and crossbreeding.  The arms race would actually be as much about the recipes and the preparation of such brews as it would weaponry.  It would involve usually quite destructive ‘lab testing’ on vagrants and slaves, leading me to ensure there was a much deeper and more widespread slave trade generally.  Also it would be about who has the best researchers, the best ‘cooks’ effectively.

Knowledge in this world is most definitely power.  The secrets of fightbrews and other poisons and medicines would be jealously guarded, and codified.  A potent recipe book would be worth more than diamonds and gold.  Recipe books from far distant lands, or even better, seeds, could give that crucial edge in improving an army’s own recipes that would yield greater battlefield performance or recovery.  I bastardised the idea of ‘Druids’ as these worshippers of nature into ‘Drudhas’, that were more herbal scientists.  The academies where Drudhas researched and were trained were the great universities of their time.

When it came to writing the novel, a more unexpected side to all this showed itself.  There would be a greater cameraderie among soldiers, mercenaries in particular; a keenness to share what they’ve learned because their lives were at stake and any one of them could have a clue to something that would help them stay the terrible effects of consuming these brews.

There would also be a cameraderie not dissimilar to the miners who would wash each other’s bodies clean after a shift.  With these recipes being both for rubs for the skin, or sliding small leaves under the eyelids, a soldier would always look to ready himself or herself for battle with at least one other, a sort of ‘battle-grooming’ that ensured that they were protected and ready for the biological aspect of the war ahead of them.

It behoves anyone building a world to think about how their magic system influences the wielding of power, and how that would then define the institutions of a society, and the wider world beyond, from trade right through.

I’d be keen to read any interesting takes on this interrelationship, so if anyone out there wants to recommend something, I’m all ears…