Song of the Black Swan

25 June 2012

For many years, I have thought about writing a book of some sort. Today, I received news that a friend of mine, Imogen Binnie, is going to have her novel published by a company run by another friend of mine, Topside Press, run by Tom Léger, and as conincidence would have it, over the last few days, I’ve been dusting off a book idea I’ve been developing very, very slowly, in fits and starts, for the better part of my adult life. Imogen is not the first person I know who has been published, just the latest.

I should say, for those of you who might know me, that this is not a cookbook. I have also been talking about writing a cookbook and collecting the recipes that I publish all over the place when I remember to do so, and that project is also floating around somewhere in the back of my mind, and recipes get added to it practically every week, but this is not that project.

I adore fantasy novels. Fantasy novels were among some of the first books I ever read, and they have captured my imagination ever since. I discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the early 1980’s, and played it and similar pencil & paper role-playing games for many years, a passion that eventually resulted in my becoming one of the founding staff members of d8 magazine, which if anyone remembers it at all, will be remembered if for nothing else than launching the career of Holly Black, author of Tithe, Valiant, Ironside, the Curse Workers series, and co-author, with illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi, of The Spiderwick Chronicles.

So, it will probably not come as any surprise to you that I have thought for most of my life about writing a fantasy novel of my own. That idea has finally begun to take shape with a story I am temtatively calling, “Song of the Black Swan”, whose title character carries the name of my long-time RPG character, Avaïa Carasel, whose name was inspired by that of Avaïa, the Black Swan, in Guy Gavriel Kay’s “The Fionavar Tapestry”. “The Black Swan” is Avaïa Carasel’s nickname. The surname “Carasel” is of my own creation, and means nothing other than I like the sound of it, although, I may create a more substantial backstory, or not. Several months ago, I wrote the first chapter, and posted it to my Facebook Notes and Tumblr. If you have not read it, never fear, for I will re-post it here.

For the past few days, I have been digging through all my archived computer files searching for the notes I have generated over the years that document my ideas for this project, and revising them to build the framework for the setting in which the story takes place. Concurrently, I have been re-reading some books which I had stored in my mother’s attic, among them Mercedes Lackey’s books about the Heralds of Valdemar, and Patricia Kennealy-Morrison’s Keltiad series, two of my favorite fantasy series of all time. 

One of the things that has bothered me for a long time about fantasy novels began to come to my attention years ago when I read a critique of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. That critique, which I am hopeful a reader can identify for me, pointed out many problems with the ideas in fantasy novels, in general, like the propensity for monarchy as an acceptable form of government. As a civil rights activist, I simply cannot abide the idea of creating a world that is not governed by democratic principles of human rights.

There is a certain majesty to the idea of nobility, to be sure, but I must say I find it very difficult to believe that a society as advanced as that of Keltia could posibly attain such technological advancement and remain a monarchy, let alone an absolute monarchy. I am also an atheist Solitary, and as any fan of fantasy can tell you, religion plays a major role in nearly every famous fantasy setting. This causes me extreme difficulty.

The world I am building is called “Athren”. It is an Earth-like setting, but I am developing a system of unique measurements for Athren. Among these are a new calendar, although it will remain at 365/366 days, a new currency system, and new systems of measuring weight, volume, and mass. They will be fairly close to US customary measurements, in some cases identical to them. I have never been a fan of the completely arbitrary ISO system, which has in its favor only the fact of the ease of working in base 10 math. Aside from the advantages in calculation, the metric system, as the ISO system is more commonly known, is comprised of units which bear no relationship whatsoever to the scale of human existence.

Many of my geektype friends are enamored of the metirc system, and crow its superiority, but when they drink, they drink a cup, not a quarter litre. The US customary system may be fairly arbitrary itself, but the original English measurements that our system was based on at least attempted to have a relationship to objects that a human being would encounter in everyday life. A pound of food feeds a family of four. A human is about six feet tall. A cubic foot of water contains about 8 gallons, each gallon conveniently containing 16 cups of water.

The numbers used in the customary system, 12 inches to a foot, 16 ounces to a pound, work well because they are easily divisible in 2, 3, and 4 parts, for the most part. This works well because most families share things, so simple division is something which most people use every single day. many times a day. For Athren, I have decided that mesurements shall follow a customary system, that will be based on a human height of 6 feet, and each foot will have 12 inches.

While the names of the units may change, an “ounce” of mass will be equivalent to the mass of 1 cubic inch of water, and that volume of water will be 1 “fluid ounce” in Athren. A “pound” will be 12 “ounces”. This means that a cubic foot of water wieghs 72 “pounds”, or 1728 “ounces, and contain 1728 “fluid ounces” of water. A gallon in Athren will contain 144 “fluid ounces”, and thus there will be 12 “gallons” to a cubic foot.

This feeds into the monetary standard, which is a commodity standard based on platinum, gold, silver, tin, and copper, traditionally the most important metals of exchange in our history. I break from the traditional usage of gold, silver, copper, by adding tin, which is not only more rare and more expensive than copper, but alloys with copper to form bronze, the metal which figures so strongly in human history prior to the discovery of steel, and which even today is used in systems of medal awards.

The coinages are “stellara”, “soldara”, “lunara”, “dolara”, and “centara”, and I am sure you will recognise the derivations of those names. There are 100 centarii to 1 dolara, 10 dolarii to 1 lunara, 10 lunarii to 1 soldara, and 10 solarii to 1 stellara. 1 solara, the standard, is equivalent to 1/10 of an Athren ounce of gold, and the other coins will be set at 1/10 ounce of their respective metal standards, platinum for stellara, silver for lunara, tin for dolara, and copper for centara. All coinage will be cast at 90% purity, a common purity for coinage on Earth. The exact coins are 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, and 50 centara, and 1, 2, and 5 units of all the others.

Athren will be primarily populated by humans. Many of us are enamored of the dwarves, elves, kender, hobbits, gnomes, orcs, and other races that populate popular fantasy settings, but I have never been comfortable with the explanations of the origins of these species in most settings. There will, however, be faerie, who are very much like humans in many regards, but have the distinction of having an entirely different biological origin, and who have hemocyanin blood. There is a brief background story that I posted, like the first chapter of the story, to my Facebook Notes and Tumblr, and which I will also repost here.

I will not be shy about noting where I have taken inspiration from others. Guy Gavriel Kay, Mercedes Lackey, Sharon Shinn, and many others have aspects of their writing which I greatly admire and from which I have drawn inspiration. I am very much fond of Sharon Shinn’s elemental aspects in her book “Troubled Waters”, as well as the ways in which Fibonnacci series numbers are used to good effect, the Fibonnacci Series being something that has long resonated with me. What resulted from this inspiration is an entirely new calendar that actually matches fairly closely with the Gregorian calendar, but has a flavor all it’s own. Again, I have published an article about this calendar, which I will repost here.

The Athren calendar is based on eight seasons consisting each of five weeks of eight days, separated by festivals of five or eight days each. A leap day is celebrated once every four years. The first day of the year is Midwinter’s Day, or what would generally be called the Winter Solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere of Earth.

Athren follows a system of five “elements”, which is inspired not only by Sharon Shinn and by Chinese practice: Air, Water, and Fire are common, but where I introduce a new idea is the separation of Earth into two distinct elements, Metal (inorganic earth), and Soil (organic earth), much as Shinn uses Wood and Earth, and the Chinese Wood and Metal.

I have to cook dinner now. I will come back to this later.