A Tour Through Gwelf

The cover of Gwelf gives you a pretty good indication of what it’s going to be

Gwelf is a land far in the north peopled with Badgers, Sparrows, Raccoons, Otters, Mice, Rabbits, and Foxes. The best anyone can tell, everything further north of Gwelf is run by the Ravens and their minions, and is very unwelcoming. But the council of Gwelf would like to give tourists some idea of what to expect, and so we have this guide to the land, its peoples, its magic, and everything the interested visitor might want to know about this fantasy land, from what’s served in the tea shops to where one might find the Badger Zones. Be cautious, though: as one starts in the south with the hospitable city of Gwelf and its bookshops and inns, one might become overconfident and unready for the harsh moors and tundra of the north, with its constant struggle against the ongoing attacks of Ravenkind.

A fox playing a lute

The real hero of Gwelf is the artwork – every page has some gorgeous illustration of an adorable anthropomorphic animal, or an apothecary made out of a tree stump. Larry MacDougall has done fantastic work, and there’s a lot of beauty spread around the book. It is an unusual work – a standalone guidebook to a fictional land, but the art makes it clearly worthwhile.

There’s an interesting backstory to this work as well: MacDougall was working in the role-playing industry for years, and he grew tired of producing work that became more grim and violent every year. Once he had enough of the serious and bloody work in the role-playing industry, he switched into children’s books and eventually wanted to tell his own story, which became this sort-of-a role playing sourcebook stuffed with pretty pictures, the wonders of particle candles, and a lot more sunshine. The Ravens or the ghosts might still get the inhabitants of Gwelf by night, but it’s not Mordor or Warhammer. Lots of fun to be had here, especially by those with an interest in anthropomorphic animals.

Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower

Cover art of The Raven Tower by Lauren Panepinto and Arcangel

The Raven Tower is really two stories in one – both of which are told from the perspective of a local god, which places one of the stories in an interesting second-person voice. Eolo, the servant/attendant of the heir to the throne of Iraden, comes to the capital city and gets wrapped up in a scheme reminiscent of Hamlet: the brother of the Raven’s Lease (what they call the ruler of Iraden) has usurped the position of Raven’s Lease and somehow done away with the original Raven’s Lease, cutting his nephew Mawat out of the succession.

The second story in The Raven Tower is even more interesting – the rise of a god named The Strength and Patience of the Hill. This story shows how gods and magic work in this world. The way gods are born is unclear, but what is clear is that humans can find them. As more humans start to worship a god and give it offerings, it gains power. Another feature of gods, vital to the plot: a god cannot lie – its very words are its actions, and anything it says will draw on the power of the god to make the statement true. I very much enjoy this aspect of the story, and the way Leckie sets up her gods to deal with it. They’re very circumspect in their pronouncements, and cagey with their words. Emotion does get the best of them, and that’s when they are most vulnerable. The Raven supposedly enforces some aspects of the Raven’s Lease – the Lease dies when the Raven’s physical form does, and as a sacrifice, renews the power of the Raven in its successor physical form as a younger Raven. The fact that Mawat’s uncle can claim to be the Raven’s Lease without being struck dead is considered by many of the characters a sign that the Raven blesses this succession, but there is more to that story.

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Eolo’s tale of usurpation and The Strength and Patience of the Hill’s (TSPH) rise are connected, of course. An indeterminate length of time ago, TSPH agreed to take part in a coalition of gods defending the city of Ard Vusktia from the titular Raven. In the course of that war, the Raven declared all the gods opposing him dead. The Raven of Iraden now rules his country and Ard Vusktia. TSPH is relegated to the bowels of the Raven Tower, grinding away providing much of the actual magic that fuels and sustains Iraden, answering prayers directed more to the Raven than himself. The Raven’s attempt to kill off all the opposing gods catches up to him, and that is how, with the support of skulking Xulahns (foreigners from the south with some sort of snake god with them,) the uncle was able to usurp Mawat’s succession to the throne. The Raven himself is dead, with only the imprisonment of TSPH keeping the kingdom going.

I greatly enjoyed The Raven Tower, even more than I’d liked Leckie’s Provenance, and I’d highly recommend it as a good read for anyone interested in fantasy that avoids well-worn tropes. The one thing I would have liked to see more of is more about Eolo’s crossdressing and its implications for her/them?

The Dreamblood Duology


The Dreamblood Duology is a book (two books you can find in one volume) you need to read. “Assassin priests” for real! When does that ever happen? Not only does that part of the cover blurb pay off, but N. K. Jemisin has built a world where it even makes sense. Gujareeh and the lands explored in Killing Moon (the first book of the Dreamblood Duology) and Setting Sun (the second book) are dominated by the magic of sleep and dreams, narcomancy.

Jemisin starts from the premise of a society like that of ancient Egypt, but for the fact that it is dominated by and founded upon narcomancy, sleep-magic that enables healing, manipulation of the soul, and other powers. The religion, run by a church called the Hetawa, is the center of life in the riverside city of Gujareeh and has a profound impact on the people’s lives in a believable way. Jemisin is a rock star of world building and character creation, and only after I finished Killing Moon did I discover that it was her first novel. She was so thorough in giving her characters independent motivations and desires, excellent arcs in which to grow and develop, that I thought it was the work of someone who had already mastered her craft rather than a newcomer.

The religious order and the city around it make fascinating parallels and divergences from our own world. I can see a fervent religion of magically empowered adherents saying “How can we eliminate ‘corruption’ in our city? I know! Let’s train priests as assassins and have them kill the corrupt people!” The motif of reaching for the hammer of violence every time a human nail appears is far too common in our own history and present for anyone to be skeptical of this. There are also hints that the Gujareen may mean something quite different by “corruption” than what a modern reader might believe is encompassed by that term. Jemisin uses this introduction to her world to guide us through issues including faith and power, oppression and occupation, the legacies and expectations of chosen families and biological ones.

She clearly draws on the experience of the modern world, our own entanglement in the Middle East (while much of the book deals with fictional politics, it is not a thinly disguised treatise on modern geopolitics,) the filters through which we see the world and perceive inaccurately both other people and the ways in which we can make the most improvements on the world around us. I’m particularly fascinated as the Duology addresses people with a great deal of faith (Ehiru, one of the assassin priests, especially demonstrates the effects of ‘strong’ faith on a person’s choices) and the effects of families (those who make the Hetawa their family, or choose other characters over their biological relatives, as well as the expectations of fathers (mothers are in the book, do not fit as prominently into this theme.)


Since reading Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy last fall/winter, I’ve been a little obsessed with her writing, and have quickly burned through every book of hers I could find. I’m loving the wild ride her books take my imagination on, and heartily recommend them to anyone else with even a passing interest in fantasy writing.