W is for War

W is for War

“And you must forgive me,” he said dryly, “but I have fought a war before and there was nothing noble in it.  Aye, songs now are sung for those who stood before the wizard in the last days of Dis before she fell, but I was there when there was no singing.  I was there when the humans marched on Masala.  I stood that line and hacked at men who screamed and bled and died just as any Cerosan.  I’ll raise an axe in this war that comes, for I believe Taryn when she says it comes, but ‘tis nothing to yearn for.” –The Army of Mab

* * *

“People are dying! The war is over and you’re still killing us!”

“The war?” Now Azrael turned, sweeping toward her so that his long skirts and trains snapped and billowed in the wake of his own passage. “I desired no war,” he said, his voice like thunder rolling down the hall. “My demands were small. There need never have been any conflict. In my age of solitude, I had built for myself a palace of secret wonders deep under the earth where no man might be troubled by it. I sought only companionship. Did I demand a tribute of virgins? Did I raid them for their favored firstborn?”

He halted just before her, separated only by the two crossed pikes his door-keepers held between them. In the sockets of his hollow lights, a fel light burned, bloody red and full of smoke and sparks. “No,” he snarled. “I raised up their unwanted dead, the merest handful, to reside with me in peace. No one need ever suffer for it. No one need ever lay eyes on them or my terrible self again. Yet they defied me. They slaughtered my helpless children where they stood, too innocent even to know to scream. Now you dare to come before me protesting the war they began, the war they demanded!” –The Land of the Beautiful Dead

* * *

War. Hoo-ah! What is it good for?

Well, quite a few things, as it turns out. Apart from crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you and hearing the lamentations of the women, war is a powerful stimulant to economic growth, scientific and technological advancement and, of course, political dominance. But it’s a nasty, brutal business for all of that and I’m sure  I’m not alone in wishing it could all just stop. However, this series is about worldbuilding and war is such a common element of fantasy and science-fiction that I decided to cancel my sciency lecture on weather and do war instead.

weather 1


The first and arguably most important thing to remember when putting warfare in your book is to do it for the right reasons, by which I mean, your own reasons. It has become a staple of fantasy fiction that elves and dwarves are openly hostile toward each other. Why? Because Tolkien said so. Tolkien may have gotten the idea from the folklore he studied—rife with examples of animosity between fair beings of light and creatures of the underground—or he may have just enjoyed playing up the conflict so he could have two of his characters befriend each other in spite of it. Whatever his reasons were, way too many people adopt the premise without bothering to include a source for the hostilities.

It can be argued that the conflict between dwarves and elves is nothing more than the old-as-Time conflict between force and finesse, ably represented these days by barbarians vs. nobles, technology vs. magic, pirates vs. ninjas, and especially werewolves vs. vampires. Please note there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these examples. Ninja steals pirate’s parrot, pirate raids ninja’s hometown looking for parrot, ninja is annoyed enough to send pirate cooked parrot, pirate returns to hometown and burns it to the ground, surviving ninjas lay waste to Tortuga, surviving pirates amass fleet with flags depicting running ninjas in flames. Sometimes things just snowball.

Tim Buckley

Parrot-napping taken to its logical conclusion.

What makes their use wrong is when people include them as a given, or worse, come up with the most craptastic reasons to indulge them. In the Underworld franchise, for example, the vampires used the Lycans as slaves, which would have been a great reason for a grudge, but it took a tragic romance to get the ball rolling. Really? I doubt I could find ten people on this planet who care about my love life, but every vampire and every lycan is so emotionally invested in whether Sonja should be allowed to have Lucian’s puppy that to this day, they’re all willing to die over it. In my (inexpert and snotty) opinion, that entire movie exists solely to justify the werewolves vs. vampires thing in the first two movies. It had one job and it took the path of least resistance.


I just need to buy one of these and carry it around with me.

By now I expect you’re all willing to agree with anything I say as long as I’ll stop talking about scientist elves vs. pirate werewolves and get back to war. Remember war? This is a blog post about war.

Now I’m not going to waste any time writing about the tactics and weapons of modern warfare. We can all just turn on the news and look at that. I write about aliens and fantasy worlds, so the kind of warfare I know is modeled after either futuristic technologies or ancient ones. And because I lack a lot of hard-science imagination, my future weapons are pretty much amped-up versions of today’s. So let’s talk about ancient warfare.

One of the oddest things about ancient wars is that they were so often structured so that very few casualties actually occurred. Resources were limited, so populations were often small and scattered, and everyone had roughly the same weapons. With notable exceptions, ancient peoples were forced to use diplomatic means to settle their differences rather than risk a bloody conflict that might leave both sides vulnerable to further attack. The solution was apparently to avoid conflict and move as far apart as possible. This had the result of isolating some people so much that they began to develop technology at a different rate than other people. Suddenly, some people had this thing called a strategic advantage and just as suddenly, we start seeing evidence of battles in the archeological record.

The first bows clearly swept over lands where previously only hand-held weapons were known. The advent of large-scale farming allowed people to live together in greater numbers and to fortify themselves against invaders. This led directly to the invention of siege weapons. The adoption of armor, alloys, chariots and boats each created unstoppable armies in their time.

And then came currency.

Prior to the invention of money, even large-scale battles were fought for basic reasons—for food, for land, for revenge, for slave-labor. But with money, suddenly war could be a job. Cultures that were already predominately war-like could now specialize in combat without worrying about little details like growing crops or caring for livestock. And as is so often the case, specializing in a skill soon made those specialists the best. Somewhere along the way, someone realized that rather than take money and buy food, you could just conquer farmers and cut out the middleman. The main objective of war swiftly becomes expansion and populations become empires with the army under the direction of the ruling elite, who were themselves invariably military commanders.


I think I may have been the History Channel in a previous life.

How does any of this relate to worldbuilding? Well, listen, you remember what I said earlier about how you can’t have elves hate dwarves for no reason? The thing is, you can’t have anybody hate anybody for no reason. I know, I know. In real life, that happens all the time, but people don’t read books looking for reality. Realism, yes, but not reality. What’s the difference? Realism has to believable; reality doesn’t. Real life is full of the most outrageous, amazing, and just plain unrealistic coincidences anyone could imagine. You can’t get away with that in a book, where success is measured by suspension of disbelief.

So unlike the wars in real life, you have to understand the war you write into your book—why it started, who’s got the advantage and how it’ll end, even if it doesn’t end within the timeline of your book. And as an extra lick of unfairness for people who write fantasy, you also need to know the unknowable, how supernatural beings or abilities could affect the outcome. After all, what good is a gun against a vampire?

Depends on the gun.

If you are interested in ancient warfare, I highly recommend Warfare in the Classical World by Jorn Warry (covers pretty much only Greece and Rome, but is full of pictures); Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor; anything in the Fighting Techniques series (I own Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World and the Medieval World, but they go all the way up to the Early Modern Era); Norse Warfare by Martina Sprague; The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armor from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry by R. Ewart Oakeshott; A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor by George Cameron Stone; Arms and Armor of the Samurai by Ian Bottomley; and of course, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. In the don’t-judge-me category of reference books, I also own the Ultimate Equipment sourcebook from the Pathfinder RPG, the Weapons and Armor Compendium from the Palladium RPG and The Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare—An Illustrated Guide to the Battles, Armies and Armor of Middle Earth, by Chris Smith (no relation).


4 responses to “W is for War

  1. Two times now you have quoted from ‘The Land of the Beautiful Dead’. I searched the internet but cannot find reference to this book. Completely agree with you re war – realism vs reality. You are definitely in the home stretch – x, y and zee (as the americans say).

  2. I do occasionally read books that are about war from start to finish, what I like is a bit of realism. I hate it to be clean and romantic, it has to be nasty and hard. I thought you might have gone for weather as you use it very well in your books. Looking forward to X!

    • Seriously, I was going to do weather. Did the research, wrote a few notes, clipped out some examples from my books and then thought, ‘Hang on, this is boring to anyone who isn’t me!’ Because you know, a lot of writers follow the Hollywood guide to weather: Rainy for funerals and battle scenes, foggy for suspense, dark and stormy when the Big Evil is gathering his forces for a final attack, and a pleasant early summer morning every other scene.

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