Silk Road Fantasy and Breaking the Great Wall of Europe
Tired of nearly every secondary world fantasy being set in a world that seems to borrow only from Medieval Europe, especially Western Europe? Most especially Northwestern Europe (England, France, perhaps the Low Countries)? Tired of the rest of Eurasia and beyond being ignored, except when token people and lands care called for, or perhaps a crusade against the unfathomable East, with no sense of them as people? With no sense of their cultures, values, flora, or fauna?
Good. So am I. And I’d like to tell you about the fantasy that transcends that barrier.
Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of good fantasy out there that plays with Western European archetypes and makes it work. George R.R. Martin’s Westeros is the most famous example, of course, but just stop and think of much of the imagery you think of when you think of fantasy: stone castles, knights on horseback, chivalry, kings, queens, barons, deep forests, wild sea coasts, English moors, old roman roads, western style dragons…
A whole lot of fantasy maps, going back to the Lord of the Rings, have a left-justified fantasy map, with the ocean to the west and on the left. When drawing a new fantasy map, I have to keep myself from automatically starting a map, so ingrained the look and image of such a map is.
The archetypes of many roleplaying games take from Western Europe as well. The Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons and Dragons has that left-justified map, complete with a British isles like realm just off the coast, and mysterious realms to the east and south. Player character classes like Paladins and Cavaliers draw directly from this iconography. The magic users, clerics, fighters of the D&D world conform to them, too. Devils and Demons of the outer planes, enemies of Good, look very much like Christian concepts of evil, enough to help give D&D a reputation for being associated with satanism.
Still, there’s more to fantasy than this. There is a world outside Europe. Lands of deserts and steppe. Mongols, Caliphates, and Djinn. Cities where you can smell the fried lentils and onions from the stall as you walk toward the Caliph’s palace. Where you bargain with Djinn, debate with Chinese Dragons, race a horse to win the heart of a Mongol princess.
We can do better, and incorporate these ideas, these settings, these tools, in a responsible and respectful way that shows nuance and understanding of the source material. And some authors are doing just that. They are busting out of this wall and showing that there settings beyond the Western European in secondary world fantasy. Worlds that are inspired by the lands that stretch from metropolises of the Bosphorus and the Nile all the way to lands inspired by India and China.
I call such works Silk Road Fantasy.
It’s not a new idea, of course. History and Historical fiction writer Harold Lamb wrote many novels and stories set in Central Asia, with characters from that world fully immersed in the context of their culture. Khlit the Wolf, for example, is a retired Cossack who wanders across the continent from Russia to China, having adventures all along the way. Other stories of his have Muslim and Mongol protagonists. The fast paced style of Lamb, in comparison to the purple prose of many of his contemporaries, makes him insanely readable even to this day.
Also, the late MAR Barker, one of the early roleplaying game giants, created an RPG setting, Tekumel, which I have talked about at length here before. Tekumel owes far more to Central and South America, Africa, and India than England or France in its cultural inspirations.
Howard Andrew Jones, a fan of the aforementioned Harold Lamb, has taken up the challenge of writing similar fantasy in his tales of Dabir and Asim, starting with The Desert of Souls. A scholar and guard captain in the 8th century A.D., the two have adventures across the Caliphate and behind. Byzantine wizards and Chinese sea monsters, unnatural winters and hidden cities in the desert are but a sample of foes and situations this pair have found themselves up against.
Elizabeth Bear’s Steles of the Sky, out this year, is the capstone to the first three novels in her Eternal Sky novels (starting with Range of Ghosts). Set in an alternate world whose polities are inspired by the many diverse cultures to be found along our own silk road, Bear’s novels give us cities of strange magic, djinn, horse lords, and a world where the number of suns and moons and color of the sky above your head is determined by the culture that rules that part of the landscape.
Saladin Ahmed’s Throne Of The Crescent Moon introduces us to Dr. Adoullah Makhsblood. He is a ghul hunter, the last of his kind, living in a fantasy city far more inspired by Baghdad than by London. With a dervish and a shapeshifter on his team, he faces off not only against unholy magic, but the complications of discontent against the Khalif of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms.
N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood Novels (The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun) are set in a world of powerful desert city states, with a setting and culture inspired by ancient Egypt and ancient Nubia. Dream magic, scheming deities, complicated politics, and the smell of doro wat wafting along the clay brick streets and cyclopean architecture of a teeming city.
But even this set of worthy authors and their works are but a drop in the bucket compared to Western European fantasy. There’s much more room for fantasy outside that Great Wall, along that fabulous silk road. We can keep Winterfell and Deverry and Wendar. But we can also have Gujaareh. And Dhamsawaat. The Empire of the Khan. The Celadon Highway stretching across the continent. And many more.
Let’s have more stories like those. Tear down this wall. Let’s have more Silk Road Fantasy.
* Credit for the phrase “Great Wall of Europe” goes to author and gamer Rob Donoghue, who coined the phrase in a twitter conversation with me and Cam Banks, talking about these issues.
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