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[GUEST POST] Miles Cameron on Writing Fantasy-Battles, War, and Violence

Miles Cameron is the author of The Traitor Son Cycle, which merges epic fantasy with intricate plotting and scathing action. The first book was The Red Knight. The second book, published this week by Orbit Books is The Fell Sword.

Writing Fantasy-Battles, War, and Violence

By Miles Cameron

In the Traitor Son series, there are a great many battles. But battles, IMHO, are like murders in a good mystery novel. Each of them needs to take place in a context and the results have to have consequences. You can’t just have a battle to see how the magic sword works. Or the hero, for that matter.

And I have to admit that my writing of violence in a Fantasy setting is enormously complicated by having actually seen a war or two.

When I was young, I used to imagine that battles were always important — nay, pivotal-historical events. And that they happened in isolation-like football games. The two teams line up: the Good team, and the Bad team. They played/fought. Somewhere at the end, one side triumphed, and the other side was defeated, and things were-decided. What mattered, I thought, was bravery and, in second place, technology; whether it was scientific or magical hardware. And there was skill…skill at arms, like D’Artagnan, and skill at controlling a battle like Corwin’s brother Benedict in Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny. Whose work, by the way, I worship.

And this view — constantly reinforced by books like Moment of Battle: the Twenty Clashes that Changed the World and 100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to the Present — remains popular with video game designers and board gamers even with some military folks. And yet…

And yet. My experience of war taught me otherwise, and then my reading-as an historian-suggested that the niggling criticisms of decisive war that my hindbrain tossed at me during the First Gulf War in 1990 were reflected in the vast amount of data that is the story of the human race (ie, History.) History does have an awful lot of data about battles. Aliens from outer space, reading our history, might be forgiven for believing that all we do is fight.

Battles are rarer than you might think. ‘Fair’ and ‘even’ battles — even unfair and uneven ones — are usually matters of mutual miscalculation. And many battles are very unfair — where one group of men (and sometimes women) mistakenly believes that they can take on another cultural system and they’re completely incorrect. (Almost anyone fighting the Mongols, for example).

And when battles DO happen, they happen for reasons. Perhaps not rational, calculated reasons, but the presence of two armies in one place at one time is the result of a great deal of planning, logistics, scouting, raiding, and so on. And usually the two armies come together because of some political necessity — the defense of a critical place, or the need to fight before one’s army deserts. That’s why I see battles the way a mystery writer would see a murder. Murders do not happen in isolation. There’s means and motive and opportunity.

And then, in the aftermath of a battle, there’s victory and defeat. The winner’s dictate terms…

Nope. Not necessarily. Any modern westerner who can read English knows that terrorism has redefined our thoughts about victory and defeat. But ancient and medieval soldiers already know all these lessons. Victory and defeat are, in fact, cultural ideas, exactly like ideas of beauty and what makes a good dance — or a handsome horse. History is littered with battles that both sides claimed as victories. Not to mention that over time, notions of ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’ can get blurred simply by the passage of time, so that issues that were pivotal a thousand years ago seem banal now. Let’s look at Agincourt — the very archetype of a decisive battle. The English won — absolutely, and in any terms you care to name. The French lost. They lost so completely that they surrendered the crown of France to Henry V. And that ended the Hundred Years War, with a massive English victory. Right?

Not at all, actually. Within forty years, the English had been driven completely out of France (unimaginable in 1415) after a string of crushing defeats. In fact, France didn’t stay beaten for four full years. The long term effect of Agincourt was negligible. It decided nothing. It has had long term cultural effects, but that’s for another blog.

Right, and what happened to skill and technology and bravery? Well, it turns out that the decisive skill of war is logistics. What really matters is whether people are fed and clothed and warm and free of disease. Like real life. And it turns out — really, I already knew this and you do too — that most people are brave. In fact, courage is almost banal. As George McDonald Fraser realized years ago, to get a new and interesting military character, you’d have to make him a coward.

But surely it’s technology that wins battles…well, in a way, of course it does. I suspect that the computer is the most important military technology in ten thousand years. But gamers (I am one) have a skewed view of weapons technology and we tend to want to see battle as some mathematical relationships — my armour is better than your sword, I win. And history does not bear that out. Even today, I’d maintain that my country’s F-15s (and soon F-135bs) are not enough to defeat the Taliban, who are to all intents and purposes a tribal group that Rudyard Kipling could have understood and reported on. What we end up seeing if we are GOOD military historians is that weapons — and armour and uniforms and horses and EVERYTHING — all tend to reflect the culture that gives them birth. More than any real search for ‘efficiency.’ Sword shape is AT LEAST as much about fashion as about killing. That’s who we are.

Culture trumps everything. War is often a cultural contest, and if it goes on long enough, both cultures will begin to adapt — each becoming more like the other. In the Traitor Son series, among the other stories I’m telling, I’m trying to show all this. The setting, the reasons, the logistics, the technology, the culture — and the adaptation. In the right context. So when the Red Knight puts Mag in charge of his logistics — when I spend all that time on how the wagons move around — that’s part of war. It is a part at least as important as who swings a sword and how. And when one opponent is so badly outmaneuvered (no names, no pack drill) that he loses his supplies and has to retreat — that’s war, too. In fact, any modern general would tell you that’s the best way to conduct a war. Even in fantasy — or perhaps especially there.

8 Comments on [GUEST POST] Miles Cameron on Writing Fantasy-Battles, War, and Violence

  1. What war -is-, in essentio, is an act of political coercion. It’s a way of getting people to do what you want (even if that’s only “die”). You inflict pain on them, they inflict pain on you, and the result is settled by a combination of ability to inflict damage and capacity to endure it, aka determination.

    This is why, as Machiavelli said, you can start a war on your own but it requires the consent of the other side to end it.

  2. Most wars within the same civilizational area are settled by attrition. Not always; sometimes you can win by sheer skill. But that’s usually not the way to bet. Both World Wars were settled by grinding the Germans and their allies down; Germany was always superior in military skill at the tactical and operational level , just as the Army of Northern Virginia was in the American Civil War. In the end it didn’t help.

  3. Note that moderns, for historically specific reasons, tend to exaggerate the potential of guerilla warfare and terrorism. These are traditonally the weapons of the weak, and the weak usually lose. If you’re writing in a quasi-historical setting you have to keep this in mind.

    The reason that ability to take ground and win stand-up fights was what mattered was that if you could do that, you could march across the countryside without the other side being able to do more than harass you.

    And if it refused to submit and supported guerillas(*), you could then follow the “policy of the three alls”; kill all, burn all, destroy all. Burn the villages, kill or steal the livestock, destroy or steal the food stocks and the farming tools, massacre anyone who tried to resist. Then your powerful allied generals would handle the task of breaking the enemy — General Famine and General Plague.

    You generally don’t have to kill everyone; just make it clear that you can and will, and the population will grass up or kill the hard-cases themselves, to preserve their own lives. Or you can empty the country and settle it with your own people.

    The Mongols often followed variations of this policy, and when enforced consistently it worked like a charm; people were so cowed that a single Mongol could ride into a village, line up a dozen men and chop their heads off without resistance. (That actually happened; a European visitor saw it in Persia in that period.) It’s what we did to the Indians, too.

    (*) a country that was densely supplied with strong castles was another problem, and a much worse one.

  4. It’s quite true that fashion has an impact on military affairs. This tends, however, to be greater when war is infrequent, or fought for limited stakes, or ritualized. That doesn’t last, because someone always decides to break the rules and eventually functionality trumps fashion.

  5. Note also that while a decisive battle or battles may decide who’s going to win, it usually doesn’t -end- the war right there.

    The outcome of WWII was settled when the Germans failed to break the Soviets in 41-42(*), but most of the fighting, dying and killing (including the Holocaust) happened -after- Stalingrad and Midway.

    The Germans and Japanese knew they couldn’t win at that point; but they fought on, very hard, to delay the evil day and on the chance that they could make complete victory too costly for their enemies to endure.

    (*) which was really quite extraordinary, given the scale of Soviet losses.

  6. Anyone who wants to declare war on another should be at the front of the line charging. Might make for a few less wars.

    • Usually their sons are. The only son of Herbert Asquith (PM of Britain) was killed in WWI along with a lot of other high-up’s offspring; the most dangerous thing to be in the UK in 1914 was the 21-year-old son of a Duke.

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