Core world building in The Wizard's Harvest Table follows constraints about mentioning distances and time.
Are worlds units fundamental to imagined worlds?
Time and distance are hardly ever measured precisely; days, and moments, are about as specific as things get. There are no clocks. Buildings have bells, but to declare alarms or events, not passing time. Hours are mentioned, in passing, as a long period of time to endure, or 'a late hour', some interminable period reached during the evening or night where sleep escapes. There is mention of a clockwork toy, but no watches, clocks, hourglasses, sun dials, or calendars. Astrid, from Easom's Prize, a technologically advanced world, can shift the crew's baggage in 'a few minutes', that takes a troop of sailors all day. Passing time is felt by the characters, but nobody counts it out. Durations are measured in life times, periods of emotional endurance. There are seasons, stellar events, natural processes like tides and thaws. In terms of distance, there are no miles, yards, feet or inches, or metric values. There are no mentions of months or years; nor even hours, minutes or seconds. But why? People in exotic worlds still need to count with numbers, use language, name things. Wouldn't they just have their own names for all these things? I thought about that a lot. Tolkien invented an 'elvish' language (or two) but I wasn't sure I wanted to go that far, especially since the book traverses several worlds, and not all of them have people. It's kind of cool, when your lore extends as far as having a whole language, like Klingon, but it's usually best as part of the meta content of a story. I didn't want to have to maintain a collection of exotic terms, so the only unique language cases in The Wizard Harvest Table are a smattering of incantations, part of an incomplete magical system that Modest struggles to understand, even as its usefulness peters out.
Roots of words (and ideas)
Notice how in James Cameron's sci fi movie Avatar, the humans encounter the Na'vi once the natives have already picked up some basic English? The story has to be accessible to all comers. Language is a difficult challenge when telling a fantasy story, where people purportedly have no connection to our world or its history. Some words are general, like sand and dirt and stone, that are so old that their etymology isn't a snag in a fantasy story. Even 'stone' is identifiably a Middle English word with a Germanic root. What would you do if your characters are prehistoric cavemen, to be both authentic and readable?
Middle English, from Old English stān; akin to Old High German stein stone, Old Church Slavonic stěna wall, and perhaps to Sanskrit styāyate it hardens.
If you want to refer to a character's neck, knee, chin, eyes, or face, you can be fairly safe. Even it would be fine in fantasy to mention staple components like candles, lanterns, tankards, flasks and so on. But what if you start using terms like motor, engine, propellant, telescope? There are points where using modern terms or phrasing can throw the reader out of the world. In The Wizard's Harvest Table, since there is a sort of scientific, or at least alchemical, world flavour, the boundaries were hardest to maintain with the characters who are more technological: Lem, Astrid, Rastarian.
The Night Offensive, the ship in the book, is able to proceed on water as well as in the air, at least early in the story before it becomes too damaged and stripped down. It also has cannonades and deck guns like a WW2 submarine, and radio masts. This image is one I did for a project Strata, before I started writing The Wizard's Harvest Table, but it remains my best shot at describing the Night Offensive in its overall form. The flying ships of Ian McQue (http://ianmcque.bigcartel.com/) were something of a guide. Maybe it's time for a stab at a more accurate rendition, based on the text itself?
Like the characters in the book, the ship is transitory, changing shape and details. Of course, with flying ships, it's hard to create a plausible sense of place without describing how they function at all.
They went through an open bulkhead hatch, and Modest followed to find a hollow space like the faceted interior of a crystal, split down the middle by a spine of rotating disks glowing and pulsing with heat. Water pipes dewy with condensation ringed all of this, running off into the bowels of the engine.
“This provides the energy to bear us aloft,” Fitz pointed out, addressing Lem more than Modest. “Do you divine its function?”
Modest had no inkling, but Lem answered. “I believe it draws power from the sun and stores a charge; heating and cooling water gives it thrust, but light keeps it aloft. It is not technology of this world.”
“Indeed not,” Fitz confirmed. “If and when she breaks, we’ve little recourse for repairs.”
We learn that some worlds are more advanced than others, and the filter of Modest's point of view is that he is learning fast, his sense of wonder fighting his fear of the unknown.
The human tongue is a beast few can master
Usually, technical difficulties should well-hidden in art. The talking birds, Banoola and Bidehoo, provide moments of comedy based on the problem of language, but it's a disturbing comedy because there are thousands of birds all over the ship and they are clearly predators. In our world, as I'm told, many bird species have the physical ability to reproduce human speech. The fact the only parrots incline to it is possibly due to co-habitation, as crows kept as pets sometimes copy human speech. Dogs are also trainable to talk within limits, and psychologists have spent a lot of time determining apes communicate with each other, and can communicate with us with training, just not using speech. In fact, Miguel Nicolelis demonstrated a monkey can be taught to control a robot in a far off country with just its mind.
There's a conceit in the book that people who travel through portals immediately understand each other. The characters don't know how portals work, but they have noticed this particular property of portal travel.
“They speak the same language as we do,” Balkan said. “Don’t you find that strange?”
“Better than not.” Modest winced at the creak of his ribs. He lay down on a casing roped to the deck. His head swam.
“In your own country the people in the very next valley speak a different dialect. There are dozens of different languages written down, let alone those that scribes have not yet committed to the page.” Modest nodded, aware the visiting pilgrims often barked and chattered in tongues he dreaded to hear. “Everyone who uses a portal gets the ear of others who do so. This ship has seen many ordeals. It’s clearly from Easom’s Prize. The accent of the captain confirms it. But this vessel is older than those you’d expect to see there now.” Modest became aware Balkan was talking to himself. He was a sounding board, not required to speak. He closed his eyes. He had never noticed that the sound of Balkan’s voice was different to a regular cove from Dunedin. “The mechanism that slurs language into one betrays something hidden in the fabric of the world. But there is no good theory to explain it. Wizards whisper to each other that we are not real, and everything may end in an instant and we’d never know.”
In our world, at least in the ComingSoon category of inventions, there are already immediate translators which allow people who do not know each other's language to communicate passingly. In the book, there's a theory Hara points out, that people, once they use a portal, are soon driven to another. It's certainly observable that once people take up a new technology, they are often unhappy to give it up, but also experience anxiety about it. If you google 'technology we depend on' all of the results are for articles fearing we rely on technology too much. Remember life before google?
Ship of Fools
The ship is a mixed crew, mostly from Easom's Prize, but they pick up stragglers who influence its journey.
I sketched the picture below in biro before I coloured it in photoshop. It informed my mental image of Neneste, before I decided to make her hair black (this was partly because red hair is something of a cliché for female heroes, such as Horizon Zero Dawn, but also because I once dated, too briefly I still think, a girl who had a huge, curly cloud of black hair). Neneste is a far more experienced portal traveller than the other characters.
Their leader approached, a martial looking silver-haired woman with a veteran’s easy authority and, Modest thought, a look of condemnation. She spoke to Neneste, which was no doubt because Neneste was the only one armed to the teeth. Her voice was hushed as she spoke a few words, to which Modest had to lean in to hear but found he did not follow at all. After a frosty pause Neneste stood up tall and stepped back. The request was clear enough, through gesture and posture and a certain degree of loud talking, that Neneste was to disarm immediately. It was like asking a king to surrender his crown.
“This is a famous warrior. Taking her bow won’t stop her if you cross us. We mean nobody harm,” Modest said.
“They don’t understand us. They haven’t used a portal before,” Neneste explained.
“But we have,” said Modest.
“But they haven’t.”
Modest and Balkan - they could be considered proto-medieval lead characters we'd find in many fantasy books; their gothic-like little town Dunedin is a starting point we all know, from which we then depart into new lands
Neneste - a warrior, she talks with bluntness and raw humour, and seldom for long, and leaves much unsaid
Lem - a distinct feature of his language is that he talks in arguments; mostly he is also neutral
Opole - like many troubled children, reticent in speech, but pure when he does
Bidehoo - Bidehoo (and Banoola) have few lines of dialog, and they use short, parroty phrases
Miles Hara - a hulking guard, he at first seems like a typical muscle man, limited to single words, like 'daemon', but later he is revealed to be eloquent, calm and collected (once he also travels through a portal)
Mardigan - mostly talks in bewildered phrases and idioms, but delivers a parting word that is very insightful about Modest's powers
Yuzz - talks naturally enough, but with a certain pain and reluctance; but is voluble once in the tomb world
Kelmak - talks in taunts, posing riddling questions
Demons also play a part. The fact that the demons talk to Modest at all determines some properties of the story.
“Not every demon kills with vicious abandon. Like men, some are driven by other needs, not unlike men.”
While the demons are hostile, they are wary of a wizard's magic, and Modest's power, once they sense it, fascinates them. Therefore they are reluctantly courteous, and there is an aristocratic hierarchy in the underworld, which is notable when demon meets demon. Demons are not entirely bound by one physical form; they speak in the same way that a computer which can calculate thousands of steps per second, must still present one sentence at a time in a human interaction. While Modest initially thinks demons are simply forces of nature, driven to destroy men where they find them, he learns that humans are not of great importance to the demons, whose destruction of worlds is an internal struggle for control of the underworld. Humans, the undead, and lesser demons are currency that the lord Ilsov Kashprav spends to preserve his rein.
Fantasy cliché or death!
Readers and writers both hate and delight in genre tropes. In video games, there is a meter for how soon a crate or barrel is spotted, and while I didn't mind to play with identifiable fantasy content, like wizard's towers and flying ships, I also had fun with fantasy cliché. The first barrel by the way is mentioned when the bird Bidehoo goes missing, and eventually emerges from under a barrel where it was hiding all along. And there is only one mention of a crate, on which the crippled ship master Debron is placed. Barrel and crate are both mentioned within two pages of each other, at page 208 and 210 ; which is pretty good for medieval fantasy featuring a flying ship, right? Anyone who plays Path of Exile might notice that the game contains neither horses nor cattle, but its does contain horseshoes and waggons. This is a detail that stuck in my head while editing The Wizard's Harvest Table. Lual has horses, we find out only by reference, as we don't meet any; instead, as we visit other worlds, we meet thrails, which are mounts ridden in battle (and Modest more or less adopts one as a pet). In my head a thrail looks something like a hybrid of the ridable deer in Princess Mononoke, a Miyazaki movie, and the long-legged, ill-fated mounts in The Dark Crystal, a Jim Henson movie. Since thrails currently exist only in a book however, you'll hopefully create your own mental image. Other new and unique creatures in The Wizard's Harvest Table include massive Illud worms, floating Asporgs, various slimy serpents and lizards, and many birds and insects. Modest remarks that, from world to world, life retains similar forms, like grass, rabbits, fish, and wolves, but they may be subtly different, so while we're calling an animal a rabbit, it may only be rabbit-like. But dinner is dinner.
Several of the characters keep journals in which they record notes and illustrations about the creatures they encounter, which itself could be thought of as a cliché of the fantasy genre (every time I mentioned Opole imitating the Doctor Foss in The Wizard's Harvest Table I thought of Lord Blakely imitating Stephen Maturin, the doctor in Peter Weir's Master and Commander (an adaptation from a set of books if you're only aware of the movie).
Along with time and distance, currency is a unit form that fantasy books can play with to set world variables. Modest buys a pie with a coin and Debron offers Opole a coin to cement their work agreement, but there are no names of coins like gilders and florins. Gems are mentioned as a form of valuable exchange, and Debron and Inders line their clothes with them, to secret away their wealth, like Marco Polo returning from China apparently in tatters, only to tear the seams of his garments open to reveal gems and pearls that spilled out (or so the story goes).
Astrid carries pearls in her clothes, but not as currency. They are a weapon she can unleash like a hail more destructive than a gun. When Neneste is stripped of her weapons in Tuncio, Astrid teases the guards with her pearls, who do not know they are being fooled. Later however, she is forced to use them against the guards, when the unfortunate Inders is killed.
Early in the story, Balkan and Modest encounter a dying man who has a pouch of currency, and it includes an ancient coin from Dunedin, Modest's town, causing them to speculate about how coins can travel far beyond one man's journey. As well as the coins, Balkan notices a portal key; this idea was based on the currency of Path of Exile being not only gems and scrolls, but also utilitarian and craftable. In our world, there are still tribes and islanders today who use bright feathers and dolphin teeth as currency, though I'm not sure of the exchange rate.
I tried to think of currency as a source of small jokes. In the final part of the book, arriving in Hiolathe, the crew of the ship are pressed for coins by beggars, and buskers...
Beggars accosted them, and minstrels bent their instruments to show they too would receive a donation well, all the more for earning it.
The demon Ilsov Kashprav bribes a delighted bathhouse succubus with a pearl that soon turns into an insect and burrows away. In our world, money is increasingly a sort of fantastic, digital, ephemeral stuff, uncountable by the rich, and impossible to obtain for the poor, the unstable metric of our times.