T is for Turgonia, the main city in Lindsay Buroker’s fabulous Emperor’s Edge series. Since it’s Saturday, it’s book review day, but since it’s the A to Z, I have to focus on world-building. My review is of Conspiracy, book 4 in the series, which starts with The Emperor’s Edge, continues with Dark Currents, and then Deadly Games. Click those titles for my reviews and you’ll find me raving about each one of them. So I’m going to try to do a review without spoilers for the series to date, which is pretty difficult!
Turgonia is a city, or empire, with a steampunk field, but it’s more fantasy than that – shades of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, but with a woman in the lead and a hot assassin at her side, or stalking her, or fending her off…. She leads a motley gang including a self-important dandy who believes she is irresistibly attracted to him, a bookish wimp who became an outlaw by accident, and a light-fingered all-purpose useful ne’er-do-well who’s keen on magic. They are actually an attractive bunch, and they work really well together – even those who can’t cook and would like to kill one of the others (0r more than one). The leader suffers from a compulsive wish to be pardoned for the misunderstanding tthat led to her becoming an outlaw, and so she intends they should defend the emperor and save him from all sorts of dastardly deeds being dreamt up by parties within and without the empire. Some of which involve magic, which is totally outlawed in the empire.
All that, as I have read, absorbed and lived them – aren’t books wonderful?
The quality of Ms Buroker’s world-building is such that everything not only rings true, but can be conjured up by an avid reader months after reading the last book (and I have a notoriously bad memory at present). I have strong visual references for the world of Turgonia, as well as sights, sounds and a vague map. The hierarchies within the city I’m a bit vague on, but the politics are so complex you really need to keep a clear head to follow them. The plots are strong, and the subplots even stronger! Ms Buroker’s machines (and her magic) are superb, everything links and works, and one day… [spoiler deleted]
I wrote all that before I read Conspiracy. Like all the others it’s brilliantly written with a convoluted tale where plot twists slide out of the shadows at you like the slippery dank alleys of the Turgonia dock area.
Now for the interview!
Thanks for visiting today as part of my A to Z romp through well built worlds. What did you set out to achieve when you invented Turgonia?
I’d grown up reading a lot of fantasy based on a medieval European framework, and I mostly just wanted to do something different. (Since I started working on this series, back in 2002 or so, steampunk has become more of a thing, and I’ve seen plenty of non-medieval fantasy, but the desire to get away from what I’d read before was originally inspired a world with locomotives, steamboats, and steam-powered machinery in the city.)
I also wanted it to feel like a world, or at least an empire, in transition. With our own world changing so much from decade to decade, especially in regard to technology, I think it’s tough for us to identify with those bucolic fantasy worlds of old. So, I set my adventures in a capital city of a million people in the middle of an empire on the verge of finding a new way (propelled by the actions of our heroes, of course!).
How well do you think you achieved that?
I’m probably not the most original author out there when it comes to world-building, but I’d like to think that Turgonia feels like a distinct and memorable place by the end of the series. (Or maybe even by the end of the first book or two.)
Well, I certainly think it is. What was your favorite aspect?
I gave the empire a male-dominated, warrior-loving militaristic society, but I also gave woman some power, since in Turgonia, the saying is that “men go to war while women mind the store.” Someone had to keep the books while the men were off at war, after all. Thus the ladies ended up being educated and more likely to be the ones running businesses. The stories are set in an era where business is becoming more global and more important, so women are rising in power.
Even though my outlaw heroes are too busy running from the law and trying to uncover plots against the emperor to notice much of the antagonism this sometimes created as the sexes clashed, it was fun to have in the background and to touch upon.
Yes, I liked that, especially with some of the seedier enterprises! What didn’t work, or not in the way you expected it to?
I’m not sure if anything didn’t work in a horrible way, but I’ll share a story of how little things can end up having long-term and wide-flung ramifications. Back when I was running the first novel through a writing workshop, a horse-owning reader was often dinging me on knowing nothing about how horses work and what is and isn’t possible when using them in stories. (She wasn’t wrong — my parents never got me the pony I wanted.) I got frustrated with worrying about it, and said, “Screw it. No horses!”
I took all mentions of horses out of the story and then, realizing my thousands-of-miles-spanning empire would have to have developed an excellent alternative transportation system if nothing like the horse had ever been domesticated, I made it so they were known for their engineering prowess as well as their military prowess, and there were railways crisscrossing the empire and ironclad warships all over the seas. I feel like all of the transportation systems almost became like a character in the stories with our heroes often hopping on trolleys and trains. (In case you’re wondering, I did give some of the warmer climates giant lizards of burden, but nobody ever got horses!)
I still have vivid memories of the steampowered streetcleaning machine! Of the elements I’ve mentioned elsewhere (physical, social, technological, political, cultural) which do you think is most important?
Oh, gosh. I’m probably not smart enough to answer this question!
Oh, go on!
At the basis of it all, we’ve got the bottom layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — so much of what drives everything from politics to war to societal and technological change is people trying to feed their families and feel safe and comfortable. I feel like the individual quest for security and comfort is what drives a lot of the world, even on a national level. Usually when you’ve got some great change or upheaval in the works, which is often at the center of epic fantasy, it’s because those needs aren’t being met for enough people, or they’re being met in such a way that is so oppressive that nobody can feel safe and comfortable.
One of the things I’ve explored in my Emperor’s Edge world (and even more so in the Chains of Honor spinoff series) is what happens when resources become scarce after centuries in which they’ve been plentiful. We may be heading into a future like that if population growth outpaces what advances in technology can come up with, so it’s interesting to consider. We live in a weird era right now, where the educated class isn’t usually worried about basic needs, so we tend to worry about a lot of weird and ultimately inconsequential stuff. Or as the Twitter people say, #1stWorldProblems. I think there’s a quiet fear simmering beneath the surface, though, and that there might just be a reason why Dystopian fiction is so popular right now.
Fiction is a safe way to explore the what-might-have-beens and also the what-might-bes, and fantasy and science fiction often have more leeway than contemporary works, since we can explore ideas without being too in-your-face about our beliefs. Hey, it all exists in another world… I’m just making things up. That’s all.
I’m not entirely positive that answers the question. 😉
It might not answer it, but it’s hugely insightful, and you’re definitely the first person who’s quoted Maslow at me for years 😉 What key messages would you give to budding world-builders?
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not one to create a whole world bible before I sit down to start writing — sometimes, especially if it’s for a stand-alone novel, I’ll world-build on the fly — but it’s worth remembering that characters have to be a product of their cultures. Whether you create the world or the protagonist first, you need to make sure things are logical and that the character you’ve created makes sense for the culture that he or she comes from.
Everyone wants to create “strong female characters” right now, which isn’t wrong, but if your heroine comes from a society in which women are considered property and aren’t educated, then you’ve got to come up with a very convincing backstory as to why your heroine is so different from the norm!
Ah! So you’ve noticed I’m busy building backstory to fend off criticism of the women in The Perihelix who are basically still slaves at the start of the series! Have you any new books you’d like to mention while you’re here?
I’ve just published he second book in my Chains of Honor series Snake Heart. You can read an excerpt from the first book on my site: http://www.lindsayburoker.com/fantasy-novels/warrior-mage-epic-fantasy-adventure/
Good luck with that, and thank you very much for talking to me, Lindsay.
Thanks for having me on your site!
Author image from Amazon.com