Explore the distinction between epic fantasy and high fantasy in this captivating blog post. Discover the allure of otherworldly realms, sweeping narratives, and extraordinary adventures.
Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a squabble at your local book club, arguing whether a certain tale belongs in the realm of high fantasy or epic fantasy? Well, worry not, because by the end of this post, you’ll wield the power of knowledge like a mighty sword, or a mighty axe, or whatever else happens to be to hand, ready to cut through any confusion.
High Fantasy: Not Just a Tale of Towers and Tea
High fantasy, contrary to popular belief, isn’t just a genre where characters sit atop towering castles, sipping tea and discussing the metaphysical nature of dragonfire. No, it’s something much more profound, and dare I say, magical. High fantasy, is all about otherworldliness. It whisks you away from your mundane sofa (which reminds me, mine could probably do with a good dusting) and transports you into a world brimming with magic, mythical creatures and realms beyond our own. Be it elves with an uncanny addiction to moonlight or unicorns who’ve developed a penchant for politics, high fantasy has it all. The governing rule here is simple—the story must take place in a world entirely separate from our own, a place where reality checks its coat at the door. So, if you’re reading a story where Earth is but a footnote, and magic is as commonplace as a boiled egg for breakfast, you’re knee-deep in the waters of high fantasy.
Epic Fantasy: A Grand Adventure, Minus the Bus Fare
Now, let’s turn our spyglass towards epic fantasy. Just as the name suggests, epic fantasy is all about scale and grandeur. It’s the literary equivalent of a seven-course banquet, replete with drama, sweeping narratives, and characters as complex as my Aunt Mabel’s knitting patterns. Epic fantasy is all about the journey. It’s about ordinary characters, like you and me (minus the love for fantasy, perhaps), who are thrust into extraordinary circumstances. They must overcome Herculean challenges, defeat dastardly villains, and often, save the world whilst they’re at it. So, if you’re reading a tale that spans generations, features a cast large enough to populate a small island, and includes a quest that makes your weekend DIY project seem trifling, then congratulations! You’ve boarded the epic fantasy express.
High Fantasy vs. Epic Fantasy: The Showdown
But wait, I hear you cry, can’t a story be both high and epic fantasy? Indeed, the two are not mutually exclusive. A tale can whisk us away to a fantastical world (high fantasy) and regale us with a grand, sweeping narrative (epic fantasy). In fact, many of the most beloved fantasy books do just that. However, not all high fantasy is epic, and not all epic fantasy is high. A story about an elf prince living in a magical world, dealing with the daily trials of royal life (including, of course, the notorious moonlight addiction), would be high fantasy, but not particularly epic. On the flip side, an earthbound tale about a postman’s grand adventure to deliver a mysterious package, fraught with peril and intrigue, could be quite epic, but not at all high fantasy.
So, there you have it, the difference between high fantasy and epic fantasy, as clear as a crystal ball (well, a well-polished one at least). Whether you prefer your fantasy high, epic, or a splendid mix of the two, remember: the best part of fantasy is its ability to transport us, to captivate us, and to remind us of the magic hidden within our own world. After all, isn’t that the reason we read fantasy in the first place?
Uncover the enchanting influence of mythology and folklore on the high fantasy genre. Join us on a journey through epic quests, magical realms, and prophetic tales of dragons and wizards.
Today, we shall embark on an heroic journey through the realms of mythology and folklore, delving into their influence on the high fantasy genre.
So, grab a cup of tea, settle into your favourite armchair, and prepare to be regaled with tales of dragons, wizards, and all manner of mythical beasts.
A Brief History Lesson
Before we dive headfirst into the fantastical world of high fantasy, let us take a brief detour through the mists of time to explore the origins of mythology and folklore.
From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, we humans have always had a penchant for spinning yarns about mythical beings and grand adventures.
It’s no wonder, then, that these stories have left an indelible mark on the genre of high fantasy, providing a veritable treasure trove of inspiration for authors, both old and new.
Now, let us examine some of the most well-known mythological and folkloric elements that have found their way into high fantasy literature.
Magic is as old as storytelling itself.
In the ancient myths of Greece, we see the witch Circe using her magic to transform Odysseus’s crew into pigs.
Meanwhile, in Norse tales, we have the Allfather Odin, who’s not shy about using a bit of the old magical arts, even if it involves plucking out an eye for wisdom.
Now, let’s swap our ancient scrolls for the glossy covers of modern high fantasy, where the mystical mumbo jumbo continues to enthral.
In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, magic is a complex system of checks and balances, involving ingesting and ‘burning’ metals.
It’s not quite “eye of newt, and toe of frog,” but it sure keeps the plot turning faster than a witch’s cauldron.
In Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle, magic, or Sympathy as it’s known, is a bit like a university degree—demanding, dangerous, and very likely to leave you in masses of debt.
Whether it’s transforming spells of yore or the arcane arts in our beloved high fantasy sagas, magic continues to captivate us, sparking our imagination and making us check twice in wardrobes for secret worlds.
Ever since our cave-dwelling ancestors first etched a hunter’s journey onto a rock wall, humanity has been captivated by tales of epic quests.
After all, who doesn’t love a good yarn about some plucky hero venturing out into the unknown to slay monsters, find treasure, or pop to the shops for a pint of milk?
When it comes to ancient literature, the quest narrative is as ubiquitous as a rainy Manchester afternoon.
These quests are typically bold undertakings filled with wondrous adventures, strange creatures, and a spot of character development for our heroic protagonists.
Most importantly, they’ve served as inspiration for the modern high fantasy tales we love so dearly today.
One of the oldest examples of the epic quest narrative comes from Mesopotamia in The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Here, our eponymous hero Gilgamesh and his beefy buddy Enkidu venture into the Cedar Forest to square up against the beastly Humbaba.
It’s all for the sake of fame and glory, and it sets the stage for all subsequent epic quests.
After all, what’s a bit of casual monster-slaying between friends, eh?
Meanwhile, the ancient Greeks were not ones to be outdone in the epic quest department.
The Odyssey, one of the West’s oldest and most beloved epics, recounts Odysseus’s ten-year struggle to return home after the Trojan War. Along the way, he encounters cyclopes (who are not very fond of wine, it turns out), enchantresses, and cantankerous gods—a full roster of fantastical beings that wouldn’t feel out of place in a modern fantasy epic.
Now, fast forward a few millennia and we can see how these ancient quests inspire our beloved high fantasy narratives.
We can see these tropes in modern high fantasy tales, too.
Think of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, where numerous characters venture on epic quests, from Jon Snow’s journey beyond the Wall to Daenerys Targaryen’s path to reclaim her throne.
Not to mention her penchant for raising fire-breathing pets, which beats goldfish any day.
The point is, the epic quest, while thousands of years old, is a narrative we never grow tired of.
Perhaps it’s the sense of adventure, the battle against the odds, or just the joy of watching a character grow from zero to hero (or in some cases, zero to slightly-better-zero).
But no matter the reason, it’s clear that the epic quests of ancient literature continue to echo in our modern tales, providing a rich tapestry of inspiration for authors and a bounty of exciting tales for readers.
If there’s one thing that gets our literary pulses racing, it’s a good old prophecy.
Whether it’s foretelling the rise of a hero, the fall of a villain, or the precise moment your kettle will boil (usually when you’ve nipped to the loo), prophecies are a storytelling staple that never seems to lose its flavour.
From the mysterious riddles of the ancient world to the plot-twisting predicaments of modern high fantasy, prophecies are the Worcestershire sauce of narrative condiments.
They add a bit of zest, a dash of mystery, and a generous helping of ‘what on earth is going to happen next?’
When it comes to the classics, the Greeks really knew how to spin a prophetic yarn.
The Oracle of Delphi was a one-stop shop for all your prophetic needs. However, like the small print in a dodgy phone contract, her prophecies were often quite vague and open to interpretation.
A classic example can be found in Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex. The prophecy stated that Oedipus would end up doing in his dad and marrying his mum.
Attempting to avoid this awkward family reunion, Oedipus legs it to a different city, bumps off a stranger (who, surprise surprise, turns out to be his dad), and marries the local widow (you can guess where this is going).
The lesson? When it comes to prophecy, you can run but you can’t hide.
Fast-forward a few millennia, and the tradition of cryptic prophecies is alive and well in the realm of high fantasy. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is a smorgasbord of prophecies, dreams, and visions.
The ‘prince who was promised’ prophecy, for instance, has kept readers and characters alike guessing.
Is it Jon Snow? Daenerys? Or Hot Pie? We’re still waiting for that one to bake.
J.K. Rowling also serves up a fresh prophecy in her Harry Potter series. Professor Trelawney’s prediction that a boy born at the end of July would be the one to vanquish Lord Voldemort sets the stage for the entire series.
Spoiler alert: it’s not Neville. Though let’s be honest, Neville had his moments…
These prophecies, like their ancient predecessors, work because they create suspense and drive the narrative.
They offer a tantalising glimpse of what might come to pass, without giving the game away.
In a nutshell, prophecies are like that friend who hints at a surprise birthday party but refuses to give any details.
It’s maddening, exciting, and keeps us on our toes.
They’ve been a part of storytelling for thousands of years, adding spice to our myths, folklore, and high fantasy tales.
Otherworldly realms have mystified mankind since time immemorial.
From gloomy underworlds to luminous fairylands, these magical domains have played pivotal roles in mythology and folklore, and continue to captivate us in the realms of modern fantasy.
First on our itinerary is the underworld, a staple in many mythologies.
Arguably the most famous is the Greek underworld, ruled by the god Hades. Yes, that’s right, even in the afterlife there’s still bureaucracy.
But, bear in mind, if you’re planning a visit, be sure to avoid the local cuisine—Persephone can attest to the unfortunate side effects of indulging in a seemingly innocent pomegranate seed snack.
In Nordic mythology, we have Valhalla, the eternal feasting hall where Viking heroes spend their afterlives in a continuous cycle of fighting and feasting.
It’s sort of like a never-ending stag do, but with more axes and less curry.
Then there’s Fairyland, a realm full of magic and mischief, traditionally accessed via portals in the natural world, like rings of mushrooms or ancient hawthorn trees.
Be wary of their hospitality, though, or you might find yourself stuck there for a few centuries.
Now, let’s step through the wardrobe (mind the coats) into the world of modern fantasy.
First off, there’s the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, which takes the concept of other realms to a whole new level with the idea of parallel universes.
Here we see everything from our own recognisable world to the eerily beautiful realm of Cittàgazze, a city haunted by soul-eating spectres.
It’s like Venice, but with fewer gondolas and more terror.
And let’s not forget the mystical lands in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia.
Through a humble wardrobe, we’re transported to a land where animals talk, witches have a worrisome obsession with Turkish Delight, and wardrobes are definitely larger on the inside.
And no exploration of other realms in fantasy would be complete without mentioning the realm of Faerie in Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince series.
In these books, we encounter a realm both breathtakingly beautiful and chillingly brutal, reminding us that other realms, like people, have their dark and light sides.
Other realms serve as reminders of the infinite possibilities of the human imagination.
They give us space to explore complex ideas, confront our deepest fears, and maybe even encounter a unicorn or two.
Just remember, if you do decide to venture into another realm, be sure to read the small print, respect the local customs, and whatever you do, don’t eat the food.
Gods and Demigods
Gods and demigods are powerful beings whose exploits have coloured our narratives from the earliest myths to the most recent fantasy yarns.
First off, we have the gods, our divine heavyweights.
From the chiselled Olympians of ancient Greece, to the Norse pantheon chilling in Valhalla, these celestial beings wield power that can shape the earth, command the elements, and, apparently, complicate the lives of mortals.
Next up, the demigods—the result of divine dalliances with mortals.
These half-god, half-human hybrids often find themselves in the middle of epic quests, world-saving, and a lot of identity crisis.
From Hercules to Perseus, these guys are proof that having a god for a parent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Gods, in their majestic might, have found a cosy home in stories like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where they tackle the peculiar nuances of modern life. I
Demigods, meanwhile, have stamped their heroic mark in series like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books.
Whether it’s the awe-inspiring power of gods, or the relatable struggles of demigods, these divine figures from ancient lore continue to cast their influence on our modern high fantasy tales.
What’s the first image that pops into your head when I say “witch?”
A cackling crone with a pointy hat, a warty nose, and an affection for cats and broomsticks?
Perhaps an eye of newt and toe of frog recipe?
Or, if you’re more aligned with modern high fantasy, a powerful and complex figure with a deep understanding of the arcane arts?
Regardless of your witchy vision, there’s no denying that these spellbinding ladies have left an indelible mark on literature and folklore, from the ancient world to Terry Pratchett’s beloved Discworld series.
Our earliest witchy wanderings take us back to ancient Greece, where the witch-goddess Circe made a name for herself in Homer’s Odyssey.
Circe had a penchant for turning men into pigs.
However, she wasn’t all about the porcine transformation; she also helped our hero Odysseus on his epic journey home, showing us that witches can be just as helpful as they are harmful.
Skipping ahead a few centuries, we meet the witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Weird Sisters.
With their eerie chants of “Double, double toil and trouble,” they whip up a storm of trouble for our ambitious antihero.
They’re a classic example of the trope of witches as foretellers of doom and spreaders of chaos. And let’s face it, they’ve got a cracking recipe for disaster soup.
Now, hold onto your hats, folks, because we’re hopping on our broomsticks and soaring into the modern realm of high fantasy.
One needn’t look further than the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series for some of the most iconic and subversive witches in fantasy literature.
Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick (later replaced by the adorably feisty Tiffany Aching) are the witches of the ramshackle kingdom of Lancre.
They don’t fit the stereotypical mould of cackling, evil hags. Instead, they use their headology (a sort of folk-psychology-meets-common-sense approach), their knowledge of herbs and the human heart, and their innate grit to solve problems.
Granny Weatherwax, with her iron will and no-nonsense attitude, is the antithesis of the evil witch trope.
Nanny Ogg is the bawdy, jovial matriarch we all wish we had, while Magrat and Tiffany represent the idealistic, modern young witch trying to find her place in the world.
Pratchett’s witches are fully-realised characters, complete with strengths, weaknesses, and wonderfully quirky habits (we’re looking at you, Nanny Ogg and your naughty songs).
Over the year, witches have evolved from malicious spell-weavers and fortune-tellers into complex, multi-faceted characters.
They’ve gone from the sidelines of myth and folklore to the forefront of modern high fantasy, casting a spell that continues to enchant readers of all ages.
Whether you picture a bearded old man in a pointy hat or a bespectacled boy with a lightning bolt scar, there’s no doubt that wizards have cast a spell over our literary imaginations.
From their beginnings in ancient folklore to their lofty status in modern high fantasy, these magical maestros have had quite the journey.
Our first stop is in ancient Egypt, where we meet the high priest Djedi, who was said to be able to bring a decapitated animal back to life.
Now, I’m not sure about you, but I’d say resurrecting a goose definitely earns you a spot in the wizarding hall of fame.
Returning to ancient Greece, we encounter Medea. his enchantress, who appears in the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, certainly knew her way around a spell or two.
She could mix potions, control the elements, and generally bewitch anyone who got in her way. Although technically a witch, Medea’s powers and influence over the narrative can be seen as a precursor to our modern understanding of a wizard.
Moving on to the Medieval era, the figure of Merlin emerges in Arthurian legends.
Now, here’s a bloke who truly embodies the classic image of a wizard.
With his long beard, mysterious origins, and propensity for prophecies, Merlin set the standard for wizard-kind for centuries to come.
The mighty Gandalf from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a wizard par excellence.
He’s old, wise, and can put on a fireworks display to put New Year’s Eve in London to shame.
Plus, he’s got that killer line, “You shall not pass!” which is handy not only when facing demon Balrogs but also when dealing with queue jumpers at the local chippy.
On the flip-side of a Merlin or Gandalf, we have Terry Pratchett’s wizard Rincewind from the Discworld series.
Now, Rincewind’s not your typical wizard—in fact, he’s rather rubbish at magic.
His true talent lies in running away and surviving against all odds, demonstrating that sometimes, it’s not the strength of the magic that matters, but the strength of the character.
And who could forget the wizarding world’s most famous teenager, Harry Potter?
This bespectacled boy wizard has undoubtedly left his mark (much like that pesky lightning bolt scar of his) on the world of fantasy literature, bringing magic and wizardry to a new generation of readers.
From elves to pixies, and gnomes to dwarves, these small humanoids may be lacking in height but are positively brimming with character.
Our first stop is ancient Ireland, where we encounter the mischievous leprechaun.
This little green chappie, with his propensity for shoe-mending and rainbow-hoarding, is a cornerstone of Irish mythology.
But be warned, if you’re planning on nabbing his pot of gold, remember this: leprechauns are not to be trifled with.
Journeying northwards, we find ourselves amid the Viking sagas and their hardy dwarves.
These stout fellows were renowned for their craftsmanship, forging legendary items such as Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir.
Then, there’s the realm of the fairy folk, sprinkled throughout European folklore.
Ranging from the delicate, fluttery-winged beings of English lore to the more elusive and sometimes sinister entities found in Scottish and Irish tales.
Fast forward to the modern era of high fantasy, and we find J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits of The Lord of the Rings.
These pint-sized heroes, with their love for second breakfasts and their big, hairy feet, have won the hearts of millions.
Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin remind us that even the smallest person can change the course of the future. Just don’t ask them to share their elevenses.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series also boasts a delightful array of smaller humanoids.
The Nac Mac Feegle (also known as the Wee Free Men) are a rowdy, boisterous group of blue-skinned, red-haired pictsies who enjoy fighting, stealing, and drinking.
As Pratchett so astutely puts it, they are “the most feared of all the fairy races, even before you get to the point of mentioning that they’re all six inches tall.”
From the early folklore of leprechauns and dwarves to the modern imaginings of hobbits and house-elves, small humanoids have always been a big part of our storytelling tradition.
They remind us of the power of the underdog (or undergnome, or underpixie), the potential for magic in unexpected places, and the truth of the old saying: good things come in small packages.
A time comes in every man’s life where you have to sit down and say, “let’s talk unicorns.”
These majestic beasts, with their singular spiralling horns and penchant for purity, have trotted through tales from ancient India to Medieval Europe.
Many a noble knight was said to have wasted his days chasing these elusive creatures, presumably because they had an aversion to practical pursuits like jousting or crocheting.
This majestic creature, boasting the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, has been a mainstay in mythology since the ancient Greeks first said, “you know what our stories need? More flying lions.” And frankly, who are we to disagree?
Next on our list is the ever-rising phoenix.
Hailing from ancient Egyptian and Greek mythology, this fiery bird had the rather handy trick of bursting into flames and being reborn from its own ashes.
Next up, we have Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology.
Born from the blood of the slain Medusa, this high-flying steed had quite the dramatic entrance into the world.
He later served the hero Bellerophon, until a fall from grace—or rather, a tumble from the horse—sent Bellerophon back to the ground.
Then, we come to the centaur: half-human, half-horse, and all-around fascinating.
They trotted their way from ancient Greek lore to the fantastical world of Narnia and beyond, forever raising questions about where exactly they buy their trousers.
Moving from ancient lore to the realm of modern fantasy, we continue to see these magical creatures and their kin popping up all over the place.
Our beloved unicorn has evolved from the unattainable symbol of purity into magical creatures found in the pages of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.
They still carry the ethereal quality of yore, but with added layers of depth and pathos that leave us reaching for the tissues.
Then there’s the griffin.
Pegasus, the flying horse, inspired J.K. Rowling’s winged beasts in the Harry Potter series, from Buckbeak the Hippogriff to Fawkes the Phoenix.
Our magical tour continues to reveal the rich tapestry of mythical beasts that have galloped, flown, and trotted their way from ancient mythology to the heart of modern fantasy.
They add a pinch of the extraordinary to our stories and continue to ignite our sense of wonder. And who knows, next time you spot an unusually large bird in the sky or hear a rustle in the forest, you might just start to wonder…
Let’s begin with the not-so-gentle giants. They’ve stomped their way through folklore from Jack’s beanstalk to the tales of David and Goliath.
Always towering over us mere mortals, they have a knack for making us feel like Lilliputians on a bad day.
Next on our parade of peculiarities are the goblins.
These mischievous miscreants of the night have their roots in European folklore.
Not exactly known for their good looks, they’re usually trotted out to serve as a warning to children who misbehave.
I imagine it’s like saying, “eat your peas, or the goblins will get you.”
And let’s not forget the brutish ogres.
This lot have been the stuff of nightmares since their first mention in the epic French poem “La Chanson de Roland”.
Traditionally depicted as large, ugly and fond of human snacks, these creatures would make terrible dinner guests.
Next on our monster menu are the harpies. These winged women of Greek mythology, known for their screeching cries and unsavoury habits, were once considered the personifications of wind.
Of course, over time they’ve become less wind goddess and more flying fury.
Next up, we have the infamous Minotaur.
This half-man, half-bull chap was known for his residence in a labyrinth on Crete and his penchant for the occasional human snack. If ever there was a case for carrying a ball of string and avoiding suspicious mazes, it’s this fellow.
Lastly, we have the trolls of Norse folklore. These behemoths, known for their strength, slow wits, and aversion to sunlight, were not the sort of creature you’d want to stumble upon on a late-night hike.
Switching on the lantern of modern fantasy, we can see the shadows of these monsters stretching out into some of our favourite tales.
The giants have been reinvented by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. Here, they range from the sympathetic and slightly dense Hagrid to the less appealing and significantly more violent Golgomath.
Goblins, with their green skin and industrious nature, find a home in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
They may be miners and metalsmiths, but their union rights leave much to be desired, and their customer service skills are truly something to wince at.
And then, there’s Shrek, our favourite ogre from William Steig’s book and the beloved DreamWorks film series.
He might have a face only a mother (or Fiona) could love, but he shows us that even ogres can have layers, just like onions.
The harpies, with their shrill cries and chaotic nature, can be found in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.
In these stories, they’ve been repurposed as punishment for those who overstay their welcome in the underworld.
It’s like being told to move along by a terrifying, shrieking bird-woman.
Our bull-headed friend, the Minotaur, also makes an appearance in the Percy Jackson series, where he’s quite miffed about being beaten by a young lad with a piece of string all those years ago.
And finally, trolls. They’ve found a new home under J.R.R. Tolkien’s bridges and within J.K. Rowling’s magical world.
Now it’s time to dive into into the ocean’s depths, exploring the mysteries and myths of sea monsters. From the mighty Kraken to the enchanting merfolk and deadly sirens, we’ll traverse the tumultuous tides of ancient legends to the calmer seas of modern fantasy.
First on our maritime itinerary is the colossal Kraken.
This legendary sea monster, hailing from Norse sagas, was reputedly large enough to envelop entire ships with its giant tentacles.
Next, we have the merfolk.
These aquatic creatures with the upper body of a human and the tail of a fish are prevalent in folklore from all over the world.
They might seem inviting, but their whimsical nature hides a propensity for causing shipwrecks.
Lastly, we’ll listen for the captivating call of the sirens.
These Greek mythological creatures, often confused with mermaids, were said to lure sailors to their doom with their irresistible songs.
Now, let’s surface into the realm of modern fantasy, where these sea monsters continue to make waves.
The terrifying Kraken appears in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, proving that even demigods should be wary of what lurks beneath the ocean’s surface.
Merfolk, in all their alluring mystique, have swam into the hearts of modern readers in stories like Sarah Henning’s Sea Witch. These aren’t your Disney princesses, mind you. They’ve got more bite than you’d expect from fishfolk.
And who can forget the sirens? Their enchanting melodies have echoed through the pages of countless fantasy novels, including the Watersong series by Amanda Hocking.
Next, we’re lifting the lid on the coffin of undead mythology, from the spectral ghosts to bloodthirsty vampires and shambling zombies.
These timeless terrors have been chilling our spines from ancient legends to modern fantasy, so grab a garlic necklace, and let’s dig into the details!
First up, we have our friendly neighbourhood apparitions, the ghosts.
From Ancient Egypt to Shakespearean England, these ethereal beings have been haunting our narratives, often sticking around due to some unfinished business.
Next, let’s sink our teeth into vampires.
These undead aristocrats, originating from Eastern European folklore, are famed for their penchant for a liquid diet—type O, please, hold the garlic.
Lastly, we’ve got the ever-persistent zombies.
With roots in Haitian folklore, these undead folk don’t let a little thing like mortality get in the way of a good walk.
Ghosts float through many of our favourite stories.
From the mournful spirits in Susan Dennard’s Witchlands series to the helpful ghosts of Hogwarts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, they’re as much a part of the scenery as the cobwebs in an old house.
Vampires, with their impressive canines and nocturnal habits, have swooped into the likes of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series.
For some unfathomable reason, there’s something tantalising about a brooding, eternally young fellow who only comes out at night.
And let’s not forget the zombies, those steady if somewhat slow, pursuers of the living.
In novels like World War Z by Max Brooks, they serve as a stark reminder that the slow and steady can indeed win the race, especially if the race is to devour brains.
As the old saying goes, “Here be dragons!” But what are dragons, really?
Not the scaly blighters who keep nicking the BBQ sausages off your grill.
No, we’re talking about the fire-breathing, gold-hoarding, riddle-spouting creatures that have haunted the nightmares and fantasies of many a culture around the world.
Dragons are fascinating creatures.
They’re the Beyoncés of the mythological world—everyone’s heard of them, and they come with a full range of talents.
Breath of fire? Check.
Shapeshifting, telepathy, riddles? All present and correct.
They’re multi-talented, to say the least, and it’s not difficult to see why they’ve captivated the imaginations of authors and readers alike in the realm of high fantasy.
One of the main reasons we’re so drawn to dragons, I suspect, is because they’re wildly different depending on who you ask.
In much of Western mythology, dragons are usually the baddies.
They’re the embodiment of chaos and destruction, a menace that needs to be sorted out by our brave knight in shining armour.
St. George and the Dragon, anyone?
Meanwhile, some Eastern mythologies give us a different perspective.
Here, dragons are often benevolent, symbols of wisdom and power, the kind of being you wouldn’t mind having around for a cuppa and a chat.
They’re associated with water, agriculture, and the heavens, embodying harmony rather than chaos.
So, one dragon’s fiery chaos is another dragon’s spot of tea.
This diversity offers authors a fantastic toolbox when they’re crafting their high fantasy novels.
Whether a dragon is a fearsome antagonist, a wise ally, or an intriguing mixture of the two, it’s the dragon’s character that adds depth and colour to a tale.
It’s the one creature where the sky isn’t just the limit—it’s a mere starting point.
But these mythological fire-breathers didn’t simply pop up overnight.
Dragons have been slithering around in the imaginations of humans for millennia.
From their ominous roles in ancient religious texts to the great epics of early literature, let’s set our time machine back a bit and explore some of these beastly origin stories.
The Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, introduces us to the rather marvellous Tiamat, a chaos sea-dragon.
She’s one of the earliest dragon-esque beings in mythology.
With her, we’re in serious trouble. I mean, she’s the embodiment of chaos. Nice lass, I’m sure, but not one for a quiet pint down at the local.
Fast forward to ancient Greece and we encounter a plethora of dragon-like creatures.
There’s the Hydra, a water serpent with nine heads, slain by our friendly neighbourhood demigod, Hercules.
And let’s not forget about Python, a dragon-serpent slain by the god Apollo, which even had a prophecy-telling gig at the Oracle of Delphi.
Over in the Bible, we have the well-known serpent from the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis, often interpreted as a dragon in early Christian art and literature.
And don’t get me started on Revelation, where dragons and serpents are all the rage, particularly one “great red dragon” with seven heads.
Even the ancient Chinese had a spot for dragons, who were often considered as deities associated with water and weather.
These dragons were vastly different from their Western counterparts – they were symbols of power and luck, rather than monstrous beasts.
They even had a Dragon King, who was in charge of rain and water. So, if you had a water leak, you knew who to blame.
Whether they were feared or revered, dragons have been an integral part of cultural lore across the world, shaping tales and myths for thousands of years.
Even today, in our high fantasy novels, we see echoes of these ancient dragon tales, reminding us of our enduring fascination with these legendary beasts.
The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey, or monomyth, is a common template found in many stories from cultures around the world.
Proposed by Joseph Campbell, it illustrates the cyclical journey undertaken by the protagonist—the hero—in a transformative adventure.
From the trials and tribulations of Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey to the adventures of Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon, the hero’s journey is a tried and true formula that continues to capture the imaginations of readers the world over.
After all, who doesn’t love a good underdog story?
The Hero’s Journey in The Lord of the Rings
The Ordinary World: This is the hero’s regular life before the story begins. For Frodo Baggins, the hero of our tale, this is his peaceful existence in the Shire.
Call to Adventure: The hero is presented with a challenge or quest. In Frodo’s case, this comes when he inherits the One Ring from Bilbo and learns of its dark history from Gandalf.
Refusal of the Call: Often, the hero will initially refuse the call due to fear or uncertainty. While Frodo is anxious about the dangerous journey, he understands the necessity and takes up the mission.
Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters someone who provides guidance or training. Gandalf serves as Frodo’s mentor, imparting knowledge about Middle-Earth, the Ring, and the dangerous quest ahead.
Crossing the Threshold: The hero leaves their ordinary world and embarks on their quest. Frodo, accompanied by his friends, leaves the Shire to take the Ring to Rivendell.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero faces a series of challenges while making friends and encountering foes. Frodo and his companions – the Fellowship of the Ring – encounter numerous obstacles, from Orcs to the treacherous Gollum.
Approach to the Inmost Cave: The hero approaches the goal. For Frodo, this is his arduous journey towards Mount Doom, the only place where the Ring can be destroyed.
The Ordeal: This is a major challenge that the hero must overcome, usually facing death or severe danger. Frodo faces many ordeals, notably the climactic struggle at Mount Doom, where he battles the influence of the Ring and Gollum’s treachery.
Reward (Seizing the Sword): After overcoming the ordeal, the hero receives a reward or accomplishes their goal. Frodo’s reward is the destruction of the Ring, leading to the defeat of Sauron and the liberation of Middle-earth.
The Road Back: The hero must return to their ordinary world. Here, Frodo and his companions return to the Shire.
Resurrection: This is the final test, where the hero must face the consequences of their journey. For Frodo, this is the scouring of the Shire, where he and his companions defend their home one last time.
Return with the Elixir: The hero returns to the ordinary world but is transformed by their journey. Frodo, forever changed by his journey, ultimately decides to leave Middle-earth with the elves, passing on his story (the ‘elixir’) to Sam to continue in the Shire.
Ten High Fantasy Books Inspired by Mythology and Folklore
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Blending elements of American folklore, Norse mythology, and modern-day life, Gaiman’s tale follows ex-convict Shadow Moon as he becomes embroiled in a war between the old gods and the new.
Circe by Madeline Miller
This enchanting novel tells the story of Circe, the daughter of the Titan Helios and the nymph Perse, who is banished to a remote island where she hones her witchcraft and encounters legendary figures from Greek mythology.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Drawing upon European folklore and mythology, Beagle’s novel tells the story of a unicorn who sets out on a journey to discover why she is the last of her kind, encountering a cast of colorful characters along the way. The novel is known for its beautiful prose and poignant exploration of themes such as love, loss, and mortality.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Set in medieval Russia, Arden’s novel draws upon Russian folklore and Slavic mythology to tell the story of a young girl named Vasilisa who must protect her village from dark forces.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
In this epic fantasy tale, Rothfuss draws inspiration from various mythologies and folklores to create a richly detailed world filled with magic, music, and adventure.
The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
In this beautifully crafted series, Jemisin weaves together elements of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern mythology to create a captivating tale of gods, mortals, and the power struggles that bind them.
The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin’s classic series is set in a world of magic and dragons, drawing inspiration from various folklores and myths, including Norse, Celtic, and Taoist traditions. The story follows the wizard Ged as he journeys through the islands of Earthsea, confronting ancient evils and learning the true meaning of power and wisdom. The series is known for its vivid world-building, complex characters, and exploration of themes such as balance, identity, and the power of language.
The Broken Empire Trilogy by Mark Lawrence
This dark, gritty series follows the rise of a ruthless prince named Jorg Ancrath as he battles demons, both internal and external, in a world shaped by ancient myths and legends.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
A love letter to storytelling, Morgenstern’s novel draws inspiration from a wide array of mythologies and folklores to create a mesmerizing tale of a hidden, magical world beneath the surface of our own.
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
In this standalone epic fantasy, Shannon weaves together elements from Eastern and Western mythologies, creating a world filled with dragons, magic, and complex political intrigue.
Each of these stories offers a unique perspective on the timeless themes and archetypal characters that have captivated readers for centuries. Happy reading!
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Experience the thrilling world of Armour – a story set in the Ravenglass Universe. Join Hilda Strauss as she navigates the challenges of her workshop, alchemical inventions, and a fateful encounter with Lord Hueber. Get ready for an epic fantasy adventure like no other!
Hilda Strauss looked across the Braun Sea’s jagged waves as her workshop windows rattled against the autumn winds. She adjusted her optic lenses with sluggish fingers, sighing as the sun’s silvery edge crept below the horizon. She traced the line of the stone jetty as it snaked out into the sea, her eyes skipping to the north-east as the alchemical glow of the Nebel Hafen lighthouse cast rippling shadows across the water.
Hilda turned to her workbench piled high with brass cogs, rubber hoses, and copper wires, grunting as she shook an alchemical orb. Her arms ached with the motion, and stopped only when the orb glowed brilliant white. Steam hissed from around her elbow joints as she hung the orb from a hook behind her left shoulder.
Brushing aside her abandoned drawings for an underwater boat, Hilda heard the sound of approaching footsteps. She stepped over to the black-painted wheel to the door’s right. The wheel made a sharp metallic sound as she gripped it and turned it anti-clockwise. The door’s interior rattled with gears and moving parts as it swung outward, the air changing as the stony dampness of the corridor swept into her workshop.
A man strode towards her, his face obscured by a trio of candles, their light casting flickering shadows along the arched stone walls.
“Viktor.” She gestured him into her workshop. “What brings you down here so late?”
Viktor stepped into the light, placing the candlestick on a shelf next to jars of chemicals and oils. He stood tall with a thin face and sharp eyes, wearing high boots and a blue tunic. “Lord Hueber is anxious to know how you progress with the latest invention.”
“Please extinguish your candles in my workshop, Viktor. There are a lot of volatile liquids on those shelves.”
“Of course.” He gave a quick nod and blew out the candles with a single breath.
“If Dietricht wants to know how my work is progressing, he should come himself rather than sending his serving boy.”
“I am the Sworn Advisor to Lord Dietricht Hueber the Third of Hafendorf.” He puffed out his chest. “And this is his workshop.”
Hilda’s hand swung up with a sudden jerk to signal silence, mere inches from Viktor’s face. Though he did not flinch, Hilda smirked at the slight hint of a gulp in his throat. She dropped her arm with a hiss. “Dietricht’s specifications have been difficult to implement. I may have to start again.” She stepped over to her workbench as Viktor followed behind. Her hands gripped on the half-built jumble of wires and gears. “Why are you frowning? These things take time.”
“Can you not reproduce the structure you use?”
Hilda shook her head. “If only it was that simple. Dietricht has said he wants them worn with plate. This puts extra strain on the mechanism and makes it difficult to access for maintenance. I’m concerned that within a coat of armour it could simply overheat, melting its parts and searing Dietricht’s flesh.”
Viktor seemed to consider this for a moment. “Is there nothing you can do?”
“Yes.” She nodded. “But, as I have already said, these things take time.”
Viktor picked up the mechanical arms and manipulated the joints. “I’m sure this is in the same state as when I last examined it.”
Hilda sighed, snatching the arms back with a swift mechanical jerk and placed them back on the workbench. “The reason you have seen no change in the construction is because I have been trying to develop an alchemical coolant.”
Viktor scratched at the back of his neck and sighed. He turned to the sound of footsteps behind him. “Lord Hueber.”
Dietricht strode into the workshop and scanned his gaze along the cluttered shelves and dust-coated scraps of junk. “Madam Strauss.”
“I sent Viktor down here to see how things are progressing with my armour, then thought I might see for myself.”
Hilda noted Viktor’s change in posture, the air of confidence, the raising of his chin, and resisted the urge to smirk.
“Madam Strauss was just telling me about the alchemical coolant she is currently working on to ensure the mechanism doesn’t overheat.”
Dietricht lifted the mechanical arms from the workbench, turning them in his hand as he looked along each of the limbs as he gripped the shoulder harness between his fingers. “May I?”
Viktor waved his hands. “Madam Strauss has assured me they are not ready yet.”
“I must insist,” said Dietricht. “The mechanism looks complete, am I not correct?”
“You are correct, my Lord, but we are not ready for it to be encased in armour as yet.”
“But I can at least test its motion?”
“We can do that.” Gears crunched along her shoulders as she shrugged. “Place your hands up and keep your arms straight.”
She slipped the arms over Dietrict’s head.
He winced as the device tugged past his elbow, finally resting on his shoulders.
She stepped behind him and turned the key in the backplate to ignite the alchemical orb inside.
She frowned. “That is not advisable. The coolant is not quite there.”
Viktor placed a hand on Dietrich’s elbow. “My Lord, please.”
“Nonsense. Step aside.” Dietricht’s right hand shot forward with incredible force as steam hissed and gears ticked. “Impressive. Such speed. Such power.”
Hilda sniffed at the stench of singed hair. “Oh dear.”
Dietrich’s eyes grew wide. “Get it off me. Get it off me!” He screamed and writhed and thrashed.
Hilda turned to Viktor and sniffed. “Perhaps, next time, he will listen to his advisor.”
“We both know he won’t.” He shook his head. “We should probably help him.”
She licked her lips as Dietrich continued his panicked dance. “Probably.”
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Discover the enchanting world of fantasy author Jeffrey L. Kohanek and his captivating series, Fate of Wizardoms. Explore his writing process, world-building techniques, and immersive storytelling. Join the adventure today!
Jeffrey L. Kohanek has enthralled readers with his fast-paced fantasy series, Fate of Wizardoms.
In this interview, Jeffrey takes us behind the scenes of his writing process, the inspiration for his world-building, and what readers can expect from his work.
So grab a cuppa, put your feet up, and let’s dive into the mind of Jeffrey L. Kohanek.
What inspired you to start writing in the fantasy genre?
As a kid, comic books sparked my imagination, inspiring fantasies of heroes with super-powers saving the day. My tastes later evolved to fantasy epics featuring unlikely heroes overcoming impossible odds to save worlds born from the writer’s imagination.
Since middle school, I have exclusively read fantasy fiction, the total titles approaching 1,000 novels. The authors who have come before me helped to form the stories I tell, but what inspired me the most were the magic systems, something which I enjoy greatly and ensure said magic permeates the worlds I create.
How do you approach world-building in your stories?
Worldbuilding includes many aspects: geography, politics, climate, magic, culture, gods, religion, mythos, and more.
I often begin with a map, which helps to ground the story in a sense of reality while defining topography, climate, borders, city locations, and more. Gods, religion, and magic are also early aspects I define and all of those things combine to influence the politics, culture, and the mythos that exists in each nation across my fantasy world.
Can you walk us through your writing process?
I try to write every day and set a weekly goal of 10,000 words minimum and 12,000 as the target.
Drafting takes six to eight weeks depending on the breadth of the story. After completing a first draft, I dive into revisions, which is my favorite part of writing.
Two rounds of revisions with technical edits performed in between leaves me with a novel ready for editing. My editor gives it two passes, I incorporate the necessary edits, and then my books go to my proofing team of four people. They are the typo hunters.
When that is done, I send to my ARC/review team and the book releases a few weeks later. By then, I am nearly finished drafting the next book.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve had to research for your stories?
I often research odd medieval professions to add depth to my stories.
One of those was a tanner, which is a nasty, dirty job held by the father of the protagonist in my very first novel. Tanners use urine, lime and other odiferous chemicals to treat and clean hides. Hence, they also live on the downwind side and on the outskirts of a city. Who wants to live near a tanner?
What do you hope readers take away from your stories?
My books are written for pure entertainment, but my favorite scenes are the ones that cause readers to laugh out loud. I find that fantasy tales are often too serious, dark, and gritty, so the laughter helps to balance the tense moments. That is what I want readers to remember from my books.
If you could have any magical ability, what would it be?
I love magic that can transform a regular person into something super human, even if just for a short time. It is sort of like a superhero in a fantasy world, which I find to be fun.
If you were stuck on a deserted island with one of your characters, who would it be and why?
I love many of my characters, but I have a secret crush on a wizardess named Narine. While she was a bit pretentious and spoiled when I first introduced her, she grew up nicely, has a good heart, and is feisty for a former princess. I would happily be trapped on a deserted island with her.
Where is the best place to start reading your work?
This depends on your age and interest. If you are under fifteen or prefer coming-of-age elements with teen protagonists, check out my Runes of Issalia series.
If you are an adult and enjoy more complex stories featuring adult characters who deal with adult topics, start with Fate of Wizardoms.
If you enjoy either series, there are follow-up series set in the same world, leaving the reader plenty to enjoy.
About the author:
I love fantasy, adventure, and magic. More than that, I adore my readers.
My books are written to entertain — fantasy adventures filled with compelling characters, spectacular magic, thrilling action, constant intrigue, and a sense of discovery. I equate them to the “Marvel Movie” version of fiction, intended to be a fun escape.
I would love to have you join me and my quirky characters for one outrageous adventure after another. With 24 novels and more than two million published words to my name, my author journey has just begun.
Explore the enduring connection between fantasy fiction and heavy metal music, discovering the shared themes, influences, and epic storytelling that unite these two powerful art forms.
Fantasy fiction and heavy metal music have a strong and lasting connection, with fantasyproviding artists with a rich source of inspiration for their lyrics and music.
Both forms of art often deal with similar themes such as darkness, otherworldliness, and rebellion, making them a natural fit for each other. Fantasy fiction has been around for centuries and is inspired for many artists, including heavy metal bands and musicians.
The worlds created in fantasy often feature mythical creatures, magic, and battles between good and evil—themes and motifs found in many metal songs.
Iron Maiden has been creating music for over 40 years and has been heavily influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and has written several songs inspired by the world of Middle-Earth, including “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” “The Trooper,” and “Fear of the Dark.”
German metal band Blind Guardian also draws influence from J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, as well as other works in the fantasy genre. The band’s music often features complex and intricate storytelling inspired by the rich worlds of fantasy fiction. Blind Guardian’s music is characterized by its sweeping epicness and powerful vocals, making them a must-listen for fans of both heavy metal and fantasy fiction.
Rhapsody of Fire is an Italian metal band inspired by classic fantasy such as “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Their music often features grandiose orchestral arrangements, which are inspired by epic battles and fantastical worlds. Rhapsody of Fire’s music is a testament to the power of fantasy fiction to inspire heavy metal music.
Austrian black metal band Summoning produce dark and atmospheric soundscapes, which are inspired by the dark and foreboding world of Middle-Earth.
Nightwish is a Finnish symphonic metal band that has drawn heavy influence from several fantasy novels, including works by J.R.R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, and H.P. Lovecraft. The band’s music often features grandiose orchestrations, soaring vocals, and epic storytelling, which are inspired by the fantastical worlds of classic fantasy novels. Nightwish’s music is a testament to the power of fantasy fiction to inspire music.
Fantasy and metal have a long and intertwined history. As both forms of art continue to evolve, it is likely that this relationship will only grow stronger. Whether you are a fan of fantasy or metal, it is impossible to ignore the impact that each has had on the other.
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Uncover the role of religion and spirituality in epic fantasy as we explore gods, prophecies, religious figures, and the intertwining of magic. Discover the divine influence in fantasy worlds.
Today, we’re going to dive into the mysterious and often misunderstood world of religion and spirituality in epic fantasy.
Let’s start with the obvious—gods. These celestial beings are omnipotent, all-knowing, and all-powerful—or so they would have you believe. In many fantasy worlds, gods play a crucial role in shaping the fate of mortals, often meddling in their affairs and causing all sorts of chaos.
But, let’s take a step back and think about this. If you had the power to control the lives of countless mortals, wouldn’t you be tempted to use that power for your own amusement? I mean, it’s like having a giant sandbox and all the toys, what’s not to love? So, maybe the gods in fantasy worlds are just a bunch of bored, cosmic pranksters.
Next up, we have prophecy. Prophecies are often a key component of fantasy, foretelling the arrival of a chosen one who will save the world from certain doom. But let’s think about this for a moment. If you knew your destiny was to save the world, wouldn’t you just avoid the world altogether? I mean, talk about pressure.
Religious figures also play a prominent role in many fantasy worlds, serving as spiritual leaders and guiding forces for their followers. But let’s be honest, how many of these religious figures are just in it for the power and prestige? After all, who wouldn’t want to be the head of a massive religious organisation, with thousands of adoring followers and the ability to shape the lives of entire communities?
Finally, we have magic. Magic is often intertwined with religion and spirituality in fantasy, and it’s not hard to see why. After all, magic is just a way of manipulating the supernatural, and what’s more supernatural than the divine? But, if you had the power to control magic, wouldn’t you use it to create your own religion and become a powerful religious leader? It worked for L. Ron Hubbard.
So, religion and spirituality play a critical role in many epic fantasy worlds. Maybe the gods are just bored, the chosen one is just trying to avoid the spotlight, religious figures are just in it for the power, and magic is just a great excuse to start your own religious cult.
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You will get a free novel, two novellas, plus short stories and all the latest news in the Ravenglass Universe.
I cut off one of my eyelids today. It was definitely worth it.
“Now why on Earth would you want to do something like that?” Mum asks.
I shake my head, tut. “So I can control manatees,” I say.
“And what do you want to control manatees for?”
I shrug and turn the volume up on Match of the Day. Mum never gets me. She was banging on the other day about how I need to go into rehab. “There’s something not right about you, boy,” she said. “You’re always chopping bits off yourself. It’s not right.”
I tried to tell her there’s no rehab for wizards. Magic always has a price: a sacrifice of flesh always has to be made. A chunk of skin off your arm will give you control of a mayfly, but what’s the point in that? At least manatees have got a half-decent shelf-life.
I was telling her the other day about these wizards around Birmingham way who kill dogs and badgers for their magic. I asked if she’d rather me do that. She just cried.
The thing people don’t realise about using animals is that if you want to take control of dog, you have to kill about thirteen or fourteen of them. And even then, you only get to control one of those shitty little yappy ones. Seems pointless to me.
When Mum had a go at me for lopping off my little toe a couple of weeks back, I made a joke that I’d sacrifice her if she carried on having a go at me. She cried at that as well, and I really only meant it as a joke. Thing is, though, the more I think about it, the more it seems like a good idea.
I’d have to work out how strong the magic would be if I did it, though. I’m assuming it would be a bit like with the dogs. Kill a whole bunch of people to take control of a shitty one? I’d get in trouble for sure. But I’m thinking it’d probably count for a lot more if it’s your own mum. It must do.
I turn off Match of the Day and go upstairs.
“And where do you think you’re going?” Mum asks. “You’re not going to chop any more body parts again, I hope? What would your father say if he could see you now with all them bits hanging off?”
I turn back and smile. “I’m just going for a wee,” I say. “Stick the kettle on will you?”
When the kettle starts to boil, I reach behind the toilet and pull out my blade. I run my finger across its edge and grin as a small cut opens along my fingertip.
“Your tea’s on the hearth,” Mum says, shouting up the stairs.
“Coming.” I tuck the blade under my hoodie.
Limping back downstairs, I see Mum has put Eastenders on. “You don’t mind me watching this on catch-up do you?” she asks. “You’d turned your football off.”
“It’s fine,” I say.
I stand behind her and look down at her grey-streaked hair. I take the blade and bring it across her throat. She makes a weird gurgling noise.
I panic and run to the kitchen to grab some tea towels and kitchen roll. I try dabbing at the blood, but it makes a right mess.
Mum always said that when I started to get into one of my panics I should stop, take a deep breath, and have a nice cup of tea. So I sit down on the opposite sofa and sip my tea, my eyes half on Eastenders and half on my mum bleeding out all over her nice cream carpet.
If I let her keep bleeding, it will stop eventually. Then it will dry and be easier to mop up. I really don’t want to ruin any more tea towels, so it’s probably for the best to wait.
Then I remember: I’d forgotten to do the incantation. What a complete waste of time.
I turn Match of the Day back on. At least I still had my manatee.
The tunnels around me are dark, dark. I yearn for the hum of the strip lights, the drip, drip of the pipes. It’s cold down here. I lie, weighed down by my sac, as a dozen babies claw and writhe inside me.
It never used to be this way, but when the plague came, we all changed. Those that survived were never the same. A new norm emerged.
I whisper to the children. They’re not my children. They grow inside me, but they grow from the seeds of men and women. I am not like them. I am a host.
The men bring me food and water. The women bring me stories and blankets. They fear me, but they need me. Like soil, they need me to grow their seeds. Through their worship, their reverence, I can still taste their fear, bitter on my tongue. They look upon me as something else, something neither here nor there: a host.
I’ve heard whispers in the dark of “necessary evils” and “unfortunate realities”. Without me — without us — they cannot breed.
When they bring their offerings of sperm and ovum, I eat until I can eat no more. A desire to swallow the men and women, to tear them apart limb from limb — like a mantis extinguishing her mate — is only expunged by their restraints, their binds.
I know there are hosts like me who roam the tunnels and the wastes, feeding on their mates once the impregnation is complete. They aren’t like me — they are free.
There’s a tear in my sac. Amniotic fluid seeps around me, soaking my flesh. Men and women arrive. The first child is born a host. The child is cast to the flames.
Kat squinted at the sunlight pouring into her bedchamber, dust motes caught mid-dance. She smiled at her handmaiden Helene through her tiredness, wishing she could close her eyes and roll back into her dreams.
“Your Imperial Highness.” Helene lowered her gaze. “Your breakfast—” her eyes widened as she stared down at the bed sheets, crisp white linen patched with dried blood between Kat’s legs.
Kat recalled how excited her younger sister had been when she bled for the first time. But it would be different for her. Breath caught in her chest. Her mother would do everything in her power to change Kat, to mould her into someone just like her, but at least it would bring an end to Elisabeth’s gloating.
A smile emerged through the deep creases on Helene’s face, brightness reaching her dull grey eyes. “This is wonderful.” She pulled the sheet from Kat, the handmaiden’s fingers like crabs’ legs.
Kat dragged the sheet back towards her, kicking her legs until she sat with her head against the oak backboard, carvings of scrolls and ivies pressing against the back of her head. She rolled the bed sheet into a ball, folding her arms as she pressed it into her lap. “No.”
“We will have to tell your mother.” Helene raised her chin and scoffed. “You’re a woman now.”
“Please. You cannot tell anyone.” She sat up, clearing her throat. “That is an order.”
“Princess Kathryn.” Helene gave a chuckle, shaking her head. “You do say the funniest things sometimes.” Still smiling, she pried the sheet from Kat’s grip and held them up to the sunlight. She glanced down at Kat’s stained nightdress. “Would you like me to help clean you?”
“That is not necessary. You are dismissed, Helene.” She winced as cramps spread below her stomach.
“As you wish, Your Highness.” Helene dipped her head and hesitated by the door. “One moment, please, Princess.” She slipped from the bedchamber, leaving the door ajar.
Kat’s yawn turned into a sigh. She shifted from the bed, walking around aimlessly, floorboards cold beneath her steps. The arrival of her woman’s blood meant rituals and ceremonies—the cleansing, the sacrifice, the humiliation. She stared down at her trembling hands as her heartbeat pounded and breath grew tight. Sweat pooled around the back of her neck. She closed her eyes, counting to herself, concentrating on the breaths, trying to push away the darkness before it engulfed her, sending back down that spiral of panic.
Helene returned a minute or so later, backing through the door with a wash basin in one hand and a bundle of cloths in the other. She placed the bucket at the end of Kat’s bed and smiled. “You will need to be clean, Your Highness. I can help you if you like. Or if you would rather I left you alone?”
Kat blinked and inhaled, steeling herself. “Thank you, Helene. I can manage from here.”
The handmaiden looked down at a ball of cloth in her hand and passed it to Kat.
“What is this for?” Kat asked, taking the woollen pad.
“Pop it inside your smallclothes. It will soak the blood. I will bring you a fresh pad before you sleep.”
Kat swallowed and dropped her gaze.
“Don’t worry about a thing, Princess. It happens to us all. It just means you’re no longer a child.”
The door clicked behind her as Helene left with the bed sheets. Kat passed over a rug, made from the pelt of a white bear, and leaned out of her window. Clouds tumbled above the Braun Sea, the ever-shifting dots of reflected sunlight sparkling across the waves. Tall-masted ships bobbed in the distance. Barges and sloops vied for space around the harbour.
Kicking free of her nightclothes, she cleaned herself with the cloth. The water warmed her flesh as another pang of cramps pulled at her insides. She took in a deep breath and dried herself, sliding the woollen pad into her underclothes.
She pulled on the clothes Helene had laid out for her—a green silk tunic with a golden wyvern sigil curled along its chest and a pair of cream hose—and raked an ivory comb, carved in the shape of a narwhal, through her knotted red curls, scraping them away from her forehead.
She turned back to her room, searching around for something, anything, to give her comfort. The ornament of a hunting dog, shaped from black glass, so dark it seemed to suck in the light, stood perched on her writing desk. An icy chill ran along her fingers as she took the ornament in her hands, staring into its eyes, wondering what she was going to do. She needed to see Hansel.
Trembling, she set the ornament back on her writing desk, moving aside an ink pot and using it to weigh down loose parchment, many of the sheets scrawled with frantic writing outlining the details of her increasingly vivid dreams.
Kat mounted the windowsill, barefoot, and looked down. The courtyard’s pale cobbles lay four storeys below. Guards and servants passed beneath her in a flurry of movement and purpose, unaware of the young princess looming above them.
She stepped out, dropping down onto a stone ledge, a few fingers wider than her foot, and pressed her body against the sheer wall. Moving swiftly on her toes, she reached a white painted drainpipe and slid down two floors, feet meeting another carved ledge. She pushed herself away from the wall, landing on the roof of the servants’ lodgings, its slate tiles slick with the haze from the Braun Sea.
She hoped Hansel would not be away on a delivery—it was rare for a message to be sent out so early in the day. Leaning over the roof’s edge, she counted four windows from the right, reached down, and tapped lightly on the glass.
Taking care not to slip, Kat shuffled up along the roof tiles. Smoke rose from a crowned chimney to her left. Ostreich flags, dotted along the battlements of the palace’s outer wall, caught the wind, flapping in unpredictable shudders, the white wyvern on a black field dulled by mist. She watched as more guards emerged from the mess hall’s towering doorway, sauntering in twos and threes to their posts, sharing laughter and conversation. She took in the aromas of freshly baked bread and wood smoke, the hint of hops from the temple brewery catching the wind.
A scrambling sound came from just below the roof’s edge. Kat smiled weakly when Hansel pulled himself up onto the slates. His skin was dark from days on the roads, and he wore his black hair in a tight braid. A navy blue tunic and short trousers marked his role as a messenger. “What’s the matter?”
“Is it that obvious?”
He sat down next to her, pale knees poking from beneath the bottom of his short trousers. “Have you been fighting with your sister again?”
“Elisabeth?” She waved a hand. “No. Not this time.” Shoulders hunched, she looked down at her bare feet and swallowed. “I am a woman now.”
“What do you mean?” He looked her up and down, gaze lingering over her chest. “Nah, you still look like a girl to me.”
She gave his shoulder a playful jab. “Not like that. I do not know.” She lowered her voice to a whisper as her cheeks prickled with warmth. “I…I have bled.”
“Bled? Has someone—” He stopped and nodded to himself, a slight grin curling one side of his lips, and placed a hand on Kat’s. “I understand.” He tapped the side of his nose with a forefinger. “I won’t say nothing to no one.”
“Does that mean you will, or you will not?”
He tilted his head, eyebrow cocked. “Huh?”
Kat rolled her eyes. “It matters not.” She sighed and picked at a clump of moss, freeing it from between a pair of slates, letting it tumble into the drainage gutter. “Helene says she will tell mother.”
“We all have to grow up.” He picked something from his teeth. “Don’t worry about it. Happens to everyone.”
“I am worried. I have to go through the ceremony.” Her fists clenched into a tight ball, knuckles turning pale. “It will only be a matter of time before there is talk of marrying me off to some noble’s son or some foreign prince who does not even speak the Ostreich tongue.” She watched a pair of seagulls rise in broad circles. They danced around each other, diving and swooping, their broad wings slicing through the air. She envied them, envied their freedom, their ability to live how they wanted without the spectre of royal duties and marriage to a stranger looming over them.
“I thought you were supposed to be a princess.”
She turned to see his toothy grin. “Mother will chide me. She’ll tell me again about responsibilities to the Empire and fulfilling my destiny…” Her voice trailed off as she searched for the seagulls.
“Can’t you just order people not to make you do things?”
Kat laughed bitterly. “You think I have power?”
Hansel pushed out his bottom lip and gestured across the courtyard towards the stables. “I don’t know. You live in a big palace. Your mum’s the ruler of the Ostreich Empire.” He counted the points off his fingers. “There’s guards, servants, a navy, an army…”
“Not yet,” she spat. “I cannot even get my handmaiden to do what I want.” She tore up a handful of moss from between the tiles and hurled it from the roof. “It is not fair.”
“You would not understand.” She leaned forward, resting her head in her hands, elbows digging into the sides of her knees.
“You’ve got it simple.” She turned to him. “You can leave whenever you want and it is not going to cause any crises.”
“No, I can’t. I have responsibilities. People rely on me.”
“I know.” She sighed. “I just wish there was a way I could stop Helene from showing mother those sheets.”
“That’s not a good idea.” He nodded towards the chapel. “I think Witz is looking for you.”
She followed his gaze as the wyvern, no bigger than a large seagull, swooped across the courtyard, his wings broad, black, and bat-like. He landed on the chimneypot to her left and hopped down to the roof, making his way towards Kat on spindly legs. He came to a stop, lowered his head, and lay his leathery wings out at his sides, their surface shimmering between black and emerald green. “Princess Kathryn.” He spoke with a musical lilt. “Your mother is waiting for you.” He regarded her with tiny black eyes.
She gave Hansel a shrug. “I must go.”
“Good luck.” Hansel offered her a grin. “Knock for me later if you’re around.”
“I will.” She gave him a quick smile and climbed from the roof.
Kat scaled down the drainpipe to the courtyard as Witz glided down, landing on the cobbles next to her. He lowered his gaze again and flattened his wings against the ground. “Please, forgive my intrusion. I was sent to find you.”
“You do not need to bow to me, Witz. Just walk with me.” She found his formality in front of the other palace staff strange, and wondered whether they knew how close they really were.
“As you wish, Princess.” Witz straightened his body, folding in his wings, barbed tail stiffening. He looked up at her expectantly.
“Lead the way.”
The wyvern waddled ahead, and led Kat through a side-door usually reserved for guards. The door stood in solid oak inlaid with simple strips of wrought iron.
She hesitated for a moment. “Are you sure?”
He hopped up to the door’s handle, grabbed it with his beak-like mouth, turned it, and pushed the door open. “Come. This way is much quicker.” He took to the air and flew on ahead.
Kat followed him along the seldom-used corridor, footsteps echoing. Sunlight poked through the gloom, highlighting bronze busts of long-dead emperors. Her gaze lingered on a dusty tapestry showing a knight on a horse piercing the belly of a green-scaled dragon, its shield sporting the sigil of a basilisk on a yellow field. The earthen floor tiles faded to a chipped cream along a central path. Judging by the blackened beams and smoke-stained pillars, she presumed it to be a much older part of the palace than where she resided.
Bringing his wings out wide, Witz landed on the gilded handle of an oak door set into a stone archway. Brass images of leviathan and kraken caught the faint light, their surfaces dulled by dust and wear. The wyvern wrestled with the handle for a few moments before giving the door a light knock. He hopped to the floor, disappearing into the shadows.
The door inched open as a male servant eyed her. “Your Imperial Highness.” He bowed. “Forgive me. I was not expecting you here.”
Kat gave him a smile. “I was not expecting to be here either.” She looked back over her shoulder towards Witz.
“Her Imperial Majesty and Princess Elisabeth are waiting for you in the dining room.”
“Thank you.” She glanced around at the familiar surroundings—the glossy white walls, the golden twists of leaves along the coving, the plush jade carpet beneath her feet. “I can make my own way from here.”
Paintings and busts of ancient relatives, nobles, and war heroes blurred past her until she came to a halt outside the dining room. A male servant dipped his head and opened the door without a word. “Thank you.” She raised her chin and took in a breath before stepping through.
Kat’s mother and sister sat at the end of a long polished table, both in jade silks. Rows of tables filled the room. Alchemical orbs hung from ceiling beams, throwing their soft white glow into every corner. She walked to her seat, feeling their eyes upon her. “Mother. Elisabeth.”
“Where were you?” her mother asked. Her eyes widened at the sight of Kat’s bare feet. “Where are your shoes?”
A servant pulled a chair out for Kat and she took a seat, nodding to him with thanks.
“Look at me when I speak to you, child.” Her mother’s flesh had greyed with age, and deep lines creased her brow. She held a teacup with long bony fingers, her eyes narrowing. “Where were you?”
Kat met those dark eyes, her voice catching in her throat. “I—”
“She was probably playing with that servant again or sniffing around the stables,” Elisabeth interrupted, her voice edged with sarcasm. “One would forget she is supposed to be a princess.”
Kat scowled at her sister and turned back to her mother. “I just needed some air. I felt unwell.”
“Your handmaiden came to see me. Helene, is it? I can never remember their damnable names.” She held the cup next to her thin lips, steam rising across her face. “She tells me you have received your blood.”
“That means you’re a woman, like me.” Elisabeth tossed her red hair back, thicker and longer than Kat’s. They shared the same button nose, high cheekbones, and bright green eyes.
“I am still older than you.” Kat’s fists tightened involuntarily.
“Well?” Her mother pursed her lips.
“I…I think she may be mistaken.” Kat shuffled in her seat as a servant poured tea from a white teapot, its faded blue designs of falcons and dragons reminding her of the huntsmaster’s tattoos. “I was out climbing and hurt myself. It must have been from that.”
“She’s obviously lying, mother.”
The Empress silenced Elisabeth with a glare. “Did you visit the physician?”
Kat shook her head and looked down at her chipped fingernails. “It was only a small cut. I think it has healed.”
“Show you?” Kat’s eyes widened. “What?”
“Your cut.” She placed her teacup down on its saucer. “I must say, Kathryn, it is no surprise that you would hurt yourself the way you go scrambling along those roofs barefoot like some disgusting animal. You’re not hurt at all, are you?” She held Kat with her stare, waiting, a slight curl forming at the edge of her mouth.
Kat went to speak and stopped herself before she told another lie. “Sorry, Mother.” She dipped her gaze, pressing her hands together.
“So, there is no wound?”
A servant placed sweetbreads and cured ham on the plate before Kat. She tore up a piece of the meat with her fingers and ate, closing her eyes as she chewed. “I am sorry.”
“This is a big day.” Her mother raised her chin. “I will have the servants make arrangements.”
Kat met her gaze. “For what?” “For your ceremony, of course.”