The setting for The Curse of Steel is a region whose name will translate as The Great Lands (the constructed-language word is probably something like Mortalani). This is a region roughly analogous to western Europe (or north-western Middle-earth, if I’m being honest) which has just about completed its transition to the Iron Age.
The primary inspirations here are Tolkien’s legendarium, and
the fantasy of another British author: Michael Scott Rohan. From Tolkien will
come the general shape of the world map, and a few pieces of back story. From
Rohan will come a more Darwinian approach, in which the divine powers aren’t
all so benevolent to humans, and societies are rooted in the long prehistory of
a world that wasn’t created for their benefit.
At present I have five “races” (more accurately, hominid subspecies) in mind for this
The Elders are a
very ancient population, ancestral to all the others. Think of these as highly evolved
and sophisticated homo erectus.
Elders tend to be shorter and more gracile than humans, but they are strong and quick for their size, and are immune to aging or disease. They are not by nature more intelligent than humans, but they have many ages of traditional wisdom to draw upon, and they have considerable natural talent with magic. Their natural lifestyle is that of intensive hunter-gatherers. When they have the opportunity, they will sometimes maintain small sedentary communities in order to practice more advanced arts and crafts.
The Elders are almost extinct in the mortal world. Most of
them departed from the world long ago, to live in the divine sphere with the
benevolent gods. Some return from time to time on specific errands, always
apparently arriving by sea, so individual Elders and even small groups are
The Smith-folk are
about as tall as humans, but they are stocky and extremely strong. Think of
these as resembling homo neanderthalensis,
although with better manual dexterity and more advanced material culture.
The Smith-folk learned advanced crafts from the Elders in ages past and are now known as the best stone-workers, wood-workers, and metal-smiths in the world. They are very clannish and insular. They tend to live in small communities within reach of agricultural society, where they can trade their craft-work for food. When that doesn’t work out, they will often revert to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle (or turn to brigandage).
The Sea-folk are
small hominids, about half the size of humans, not very strong but quick and
nimble. Think of them as homo floriensis who have taken to more
Sea-folk originally evolved on a chain of islands far away
on the other side of the world, where they followed an intensive
hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Centuries ago they encountered human sea-farers, and
took to that life with great enthusiasm, making themselves so useful that every
sea-captain sought them out. Today, they can be found in coastal communities
Sea-folk are very gregarious, curious and imitative, good at
picking up languages and mimicking local customs. They are superb sailors and
fishermen, but are also known as thieves and rogues.
Humans are the
default population from which my protagonist and most of her peers and rivals
come. They are biologically and sociologically identical to homo sapiens sapiens, modern humans from Earth. They are the most diverse of the
peoples of the world, following many lifestyles and living at a wide range of
levels of technology.
In ages past, some human populations interacted with the
Elders and learned a great deal from them. Transplanted to a minor continent
amid the Western Sea, these were among the first to develop an advanced
civilization. Today they are great sea-farers, traveling all over the world to
trade with the peoples they find. In the Great Lands, they have begun to
establish permanent settlements on the coasts, and their relationship with the
indigenous peoples is turning greedy and exploitative.
Other humans developed civilization independently and are
beginning to establish large empires of their own, but these have generally
fallen under the domination of cruel and greedy gods. My protagonist is from a
more “barbarian” culture, technically advanced but still at a tribal level of
organization. Most human societies in the area where the story takes place are
blended from ancient hunter-gathers, farmers who moved into the area in more recent
millennia, and a warrior elite who arrived even more recently with their
distinctive customs, language, and military technology.
Beast-folk are the
“youngest” of the major hominid subspecies, bred by malevolent gods in the last
few thousand years. They have no close analogue in our own prehistory.
Beast-folk were bred to be carnivorous pastoralists, living
on herds of horses and cattle on the broad plains east of the Great Lands.
They’re also not above eating members of the other four subspecies when
opportunity arises. They are larger and stronger than the other peoples, and
raised from birth as warriors. They don’t make particularly good soldiers, since their logistical
requirements don’t allow them to form large armies. On the other hand, they
make excellent raiders and shock troopers.
Beast-folk were created to be destroyers of civilizations,
and many of them remain hostile to all outsiders, feared and hated. They are
somewhat variable, however; some beast-folk are less necessarily hostile, and a
few have even assimilated into human societies.
Final Notes on “Races”
Yes, if you tilt your head and squint, you end up with
“elves,” “dwarves,” “hobbits,” “men,” and “orcs,” but I’m hoping to play those
themes in a different key, as it were.
One note: when it comes to who can interbreed with whom,
humans and the Smith-folk are the ones who have been known to intermarry, while
the Elders and the Sea-folk are more biologically distinctive. No one is quite
sure whether the Beast-folk can interbreed with any of the others; no one
really wants to make the experiment.
The stories I have in mind are likely to have a variety of
villains and conflict-sources. Given that I’m aiming for a pulpy, Conanesque
feel, there should be plenty of corrupt kings and evil wizards to go around. On
the other hand, the big, world-shaking villains are all going to be gods.
Most spirits and gods are benevolent – or at least not interested in interfering with the
mortal world. Occasionally one of the gods decides to be malevolent, emerging
onto the mortal plane to pursue their own goals, actively interested in
killing, tormenting, or just ruling mortals. The Elders call these malevolent
beings the Great Enemies. So far in
history there have been three of these:
- The most powerful of the Great Enemies, a god of
deep cold and ice. He fought to preserve
the mortal world as a place of quiet, austere beauty, free of the “corruption”
of sentient life. Held sway for many thousands, if not millions of years, and
was only defeated by the direct engagement of more benevolent gods.
- A goddess of disease
and pestilence, who thought of herself as a champion of the natural world.
She sought to protect forests and animal life around the world by using
virulent plagues to eradicate sentient life. Opposed by the Elders, and
eventually by a brief period of divine intervention.
- A god of fire,
iron, and warfare, who seeks not to eliminate sentient life, but to rule it
“for its own good.” Currently active in the world in the present day, not
apparently opposed by the Elders or by the benevolent gods.
Okay, that’s a taste of the backdrop. Next time, some notes on the initial draft timeline for the setting. Then I’m going to start working on a new version of the map, which I may also use to set up a worldbuilding-by-simulation exercise to develop the timeline in more detail. More to come over the next few days.