Tough Travelling: Cities
Welcome intrepid adventurers to Tough Travelling with the Tough Guide to Fantasyland!
That’s right, we’ve dusted it down and brought back this feature (created by Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn, revived by our friends over on Fantasy Faction, then dragged kicking and screaming to the Hive).
It is a monthly feature in which we rack our brains for popular (and not so popular) examples of fantasy tropes.
Tough Travelling is inspired by the informative and hilarious Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. Fellow bloggers are absolutely welcome to join in – just make your own list, publish it on your site, and then comment with the link on this article!
This month, we’re recalling our favourite CITIES in Fantasy. Here’s what DWJ had to say on the matter…
Cities occur at the rate of one, or at the most two, to every COUNTRY. They are usually where the ruler lives, and they are surrounded by high stone walls. For these reasons, they are going to be under SIEGE around the time the Tour arrives in them. Prepare for HARDSHIP as soon as you see the walls in the distance. But first prepare for a lot of noise and people (See BEGGARS) and horsedrawn traffic. There will also be multiple ALLEYS (where all the HORSE droppings get pitched), many squares, and some fine houses. The CASTLE or PALACE of the ruler will be on a hill in the exact centre, with TEMPLES somewhere near. The heads of malefactors or enemies of the state will be on stakes somewhere – you may recognise one of them as having belonged to a GOOD man you encountered earlier and rather liked – or perhaps there will be picked-clean skeletons hanging in cages along the sides of the streets, performing the same function as streetlamps, except after dark (see also EXECUTIONS). It is usually quite easy to get into a City through the gates in the walls, but not so easy to get out. When you wish to get away, you will find the gates are shut at sunset and are guarded at all times; you will need to bluff your way through or adopt a disguise. But this does not apply to Siege. The Rule is that, in a Siege situation, you will be glad to stay there and help until eventually you escape, leaving the plucky citizens to their fate.
See also CITY OF CANALS, CITY OF WIZARDS, OLD RUINED CITY and WALLED CITY.
A big thank you to Nils, Jonathan, Beth, and Theo for their recommendations…
Much classic Fantasy takes for granted its rural setting, from Middle Earth onwards, which means it can be easy to forget that the city – the urban sprawl that becomes the centre of our cultural attention after the industrial revolution – has a rich tradition in Fantasy dating back almost as long. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy (1946-1959) takes place in the massive, sprawling, decaying castle of Gormenghast, which is so big, and has such a rich ecosystem feeding off and on it, that to all intents and purposes it is a city. The other ur-City in Fantasy is Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, from his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. Starting with ‘Two Sought Adventure’ (1939), Leiber’s sword and sorcery duo are most at home in the decaying metropolis of Lankhmar, which is a veritable hive of scum and villainy, where danger and adventure await around every single street corner.
The City becomes the nexus where fantasy and reality meet, overlap, rewrite each other as generations of inhabitants find their own use for the streets. We can see this in two New Wave masterpieces. M. John Harrison’s Viriconium is a shifting, mutable city that forms the setting for his Viriconium stories (1971-1984). Starting with The Pastel City, Harrison’s novels see the city shift and change beneath his characters, never remaining still, impossible to define, and eventually atrophying into an impossible dream glimpsed by loners, visionaries and madmen in our world on the wrong side of the looking glass. Samuel R. Delany’s Bellona, the setting for his masterful novel Dhalgren (1975), is a post-apocalyptic ruin haunted by myths, legends, and the sense that it may be aware of its own fictitious nature. Together, these two works redefined the boundaries of Fantasy and paved the way for the New Weird. The glorious experimentation was not confined to Anglophone speculative fiction and fantasy. In Finland, Leena Krohn would write Tainaron: Mail From Another City (1985), a pioneering work about a woman visiting a City inhabited by giant insect people, which would not be published in English until 2004. Italian writer Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972, translated into English 1974) describes a dizzying range of fantastical and impossible cities, in a story which plays with the nature of storytelling itself and the trustworthiness of the narrator.
The New Weird takes the City as its starting point, with all its diversity, mixing of different perspectives, and celebrations of hybridity. The modern City is a melting pot where different cultures and ways of being collide, beautifully and messily. We can see this in China Mieville’s sprawling metropolis of New Crobuzon, the setting for Perdido Street Station (2000), but many New Weird writers have invented equally beautiful, insane and confounding Cities for the reader to lose themselves in. Jeffrey Ford’s The Well-Built City in The Physiognomy (1997), Memoranda (1999) and The Beyond (2001), Jeffrey Thomas’s Punktown in Punktown (2000) and Deadstock (2007), Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris in City of Saints and Madmen (2001), Paul Di Filippo’s Linear City from A Year In The Linear City (2002), Simon Ings’ The City of the Iron Fish (1994)… it was a golden age for those of us who prefer fantastical and imaginative cities as our venue for the fantastic. Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest (2009) imagines a City inscribed in ink on people’s skin and transmitted via sexual contact, mapping the cyborg hybrid body of the city onto the human bodies of her characters. Recent works like Jeff Noon’s Nyquist Mysteries, starting with A Man of Shadows (2017), draw on the energy of the New Weird to describe an ever changing array of Cities rife with myth and metaphor, and show that the urban is still a powerful venue for explorations of the very edge of the Fantastic. Likewise, Gary Budden’s London Incognita (2020) hovers on the edge of slipstream, literary fiction, folk horror and New Weird, carving out new and surprising spaces in London’s familiar sprawl.
As Jonathan has pointed out fantasy fiction has a rich tradition of city states and also cities in a state. It feels like there should be so many choices in this one and I have a few that spring to mind.
Ankh-Morpork Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
This is just such a brilliant creation, like Granny Weatherwax one of Pratchett’s finest inventions, a city so full of character it is a character. Just rifling through the quotes on Goodreads is a joy. Here’s a link Ankh Morpork Quotes (6 quotes) | Goodreads And here’s a couple of Terry’s great lines about a truly incomparable conurbation
“So let’s just say that Ankh-Morpork is as full of life as an old cheese on a hot day, as loud as a curse in a cathedral, as bright as an oil slick, as colourful as a bruise and as full of activity, industry, bustle and sheer exuberant busyness as a dead dog on a termite mound.”
“There was not a lot that could be done to make Morpork a worse place. A direct hit by a meteorite, for example, would count as gentrification.”
Minas Tirith J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
Or Minas Anor as I like to think of it from happier days. The idea of a city built into a mountain with concentric rings of walls providing a seven layered defence is hard to imagine from the page of a book, so I guess we must be grateful to Peter Jackson and his model makers for the striking cinematic image with the blade of rock sticking out of the citadel. Like other aspects of Tolkein’s imagination it takes a bit of a liberty with conventions of geography. Where are the market squares? the central business districts? The tanneries even? In a city that really is just an overcrowded fortress.
Lake Town J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit
I saw a documentary once on settlements that lived in lake houses, built on stilts by the shores of the lake, presumably for ease of safety from predators and the opportunity for fishing. They exist now only in the underwater middens where the refuse their inhabitants hurled over the side has collected around the fallen pillars that once held the structure up.
Lake Town in The Hobbit seemed to expand on this theme, presumably for similar reasons of safety and refuge, which worked perfectly well until the unfortunate day it started raining dragons.
Camorr Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard Series
Scott Lynch’s atmospheric creation where Locke Lamora and his band lie, thieve and generally make havoc has very much an aura of renaissance Venice. The merging of city and aquatic life is brilliantly done, with dangerous gladiatorial contests taking place over shark infested lagoons. The plucky band of conmen pursue a hazardous path between tall buildings, winding canals, political peril and mafiosa crime bosses – with the city adding richly textured atmosphere.
Rigus Daniel Polansky’s Low Town Series
Has anyone done noir fantasy better than Daniel Polansky in his Low Town series? Here the unnamed warden, ex-cop, current drug dealer, negotiates the cliques, factions and crimes within the Low Town quarter of Rigus. The city itself, like 1920s Chicago, is full of decadence and victims recovering from a great war with a slice of magic and a sniff of pixie dust. From its opening page, Polansky has us inhaling the rich aroma of downtown Rigus, with prose whose tone rivals Chandler but in content is distinctly Polansky’s own.
The Tower of Babel Josiah Bancroft’s The Books of Babel Series
Josiah Bancroft’s brilliant invention is a whole world within a city, or a city that is the world. A layer cake of a metropolis a bit like ancient Troy was with each iteration built on the dust and ruins of the previous Troy, except in Babel’s case they built each new/higher layer while the previous/lower layers were still inhabited and functioning.
Of Gondolin and Nargothrond
The world was fair, the mountains tall,
In Elder Days before the fall
Of mighty kings in Nargothrond
And Gondolin, who now beyond
The Western Seas have passed away:
The world was fair in Durin’s day.
See, Nils, this is why you have to read The Silmarillion to appreciate that reference in Gimli’s song of Durin. The two hidden elven city kingdoms of Beleriand, the impenetrable fortresses that – hard as Morgoth sought them – could only be undone by folly or betrayal. One led by Galadriel’s brother the other by Elrond’s great-grandfather, both are part of the richly majestic world history that Tolkien distilled down into The Lord of The Rings.
Nils: If this is part of The Fall of Gondolin I have that on my TBR!
Menzoberranzan R A Salvatore’s Icewind Dale Trilogy
And while we’re on the subject of elven cities, how about this one, the home city of the formidable swordsman Drizzt Do’Urden. Menzoberranzan is a vast underground metropolis of Drow treachery and infighting. Like much 1980s fantasy writing it was surely inspired by AD&D role playing games and, more specifically by the module D3 Vault of the Drow – the concluding module in the first official TSR series of high level adventures (and I still have a tattered copy of it in my loft).
But finally what about the real cities
Can we just have a shout out to all those places, the underground cities of Turkey (Derinkuyu underground city – Wikipedia), the incomparable Machu Picchu (Machu Picchu – Wikipedia), the walled city of Kowloon (Kowloon Walled City – Wikipedia) and so many others that make me just want to go and write a fantasy story set in them every time I see a picture or read an article. There are some times and some places where human innovation seems to have outpaced even human imagination.
I have to admit to often getting cities and countries mixed up! So I’ve had to double check these, but still if I’ve got any wrong, I apologise! Nevertheless, here’s four cities which I have to commend the authors for writing so vividly detailed that each of them are vital to the story and wonderfully come to life.
Rivendell – The great Elven city from Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien describes as majestic, ethereal and a place of sheer tranquillity and beauty. Rivendell is also a key location as it is the place where the great races of Middle Earth gathered and a fellowship was formed and the quest to destroy the ring began.
Dannsburg – is the capital city in Peter McLean’s War for the Rose Throne quartet. It is the pinnacle city of the nobility. they want for nothing, and never fear starvation, yet this only seems to magnify their cruelty. In Dannsburg they hide behind veiled words, and false pleasantries, but underneath the bravado they still allow or even implement atrocities to their own people. They turn a blind eye to those in need, even though they have the means to help. As Tomas Piety states: “Dannsburg, the city of lies and whispers and treachery.”
Cairo – I thought I’d mention a real life city, the capital of Egypt, featured in Shannon Chakraborty’s City of Brass. This city is only featured briefly in the first few chapters of the novel, but I just love the way Chakraborty describes the lively noise from the bazaar, the chaotic press of people, the smell of the richly spiced food. Yes, Cairo has its poverty too, but Chakraborty shows it’s also a perfect place to con people and become invisible, which was something that Nahri, our main protagonist needed to do. I’m currently reading The Kingdom of Copper and Chakraborty still uses descriptions of Cairo to express Nahri’s homesickness, which keeps reminding us of her fondness for its beauty.
Luthadel – the capital city of The Final Empire, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. Luthadel is where the Lord Ruler resides in the Kredik Shaw palace, the Hill of a Thousand Spires. It is the city where the Lord Ruler’s oppression is naturally felt the strongest, where his obligatory and Steel Inquisitors rule with much brutality, where the nobility turn a blind eye and remain content in their privileges. Yet it is also the city where Kelsier, Vin and the rest of the crew spark their rebellion.
So many amazing cities already mentioned, and yet there are so many more out there we could talk about! I love a fantasy city that exudes its own personality, like of course the ever-growing and evolving Ankh-Morpork, or Chakraborty’s rich and magical Daevabad. Where to begin?
D.P. Woolliscroft’s debut novel focused on the eponymous city of Kingshold, but by far my favourite city of his was Ioth, the City of Lights. Who doesn’t love a Venice-inspired fantasy city? But Ioth also features a slum area that sounds very much like the walled city of Kowloon, as mentioned above by Theo. A city within a city built on wooden platforms atop itself.
Would it be a Tough Travels if I didn’t turn to my two go-to authors? …
Firstly, we can’t talk cities and not bring up Jen Williams’ Ebora from her Winnowing Flame trilogy. We first come across the ancient city as it’s decaying and becoming ruinous, barely inhabited. But as it becomes a place of refuge for the people of Sarn seeking shelter from the Jure’lia, we see the city brought back to life. It’s by no means a main plot line or anything, but a lovely feature throughout the trilogy. In particular seeing Bern restore various gardens and the shrine for Alistair…
From one city being rebuilt, let’s turn to one being destroyed under siege in Anna Stephen’s Darksoul (book two of her Godblind trilogy). This is my favourite book of her trilogy, as we spend the entire time in the city of Rilporin. It’s a claustrophobic story as we follow our protagonists through the streets hammered by the enemy without hell-bent on ripping the veil and bringing back their Red Gods, and treachery and treason within. As the story enfolds you really come to feel like you know the city, its districts and gates and towers, its weak points and choke points as the battles spill over the walls…
‘Me and a couple of the lads checked the wall this morning as per your orders, sir, like we done every morning. She’s been taking more of a pounding than a two-copper whore since this siege began and…’
Durdil bit hard on the inside of his cheek. ‘And?’ he asked, straining for calm. He could feel sweat gathering at his hairline.
Merle stroked his beard, loosing a small drift of dust and stone chips to patter down his shirt. He brushed them away and shifted, uneasy. ‘And like said lady of easy affections, the wall’s well and truly fucked, Commander.’
Another fantasy city which really had a sense of personality was Agatos, Patrick Samphire’s city of trade and magic from his SPFBO 6 finalist Shadow of a Dead God. Agatos is home to down-and-out mage Mennik Thorn, and I absolutely loved the way Samphire weaved Mennik’s story through so many different aspects and areas of the city. It’s elevated from a simple backdrop to a story, to a believable experience that you explore through the protagonist.
We can’t talk cities and not mention our very own G. D. Penman’s depiction of one of the most famous cities in the world, New York. In his noir alternate-history Witch of Empire series, Penman’s protagonist Agent Iona ‘Sully’ Sullivan works and barely-lives in the city of New Amsterdam. There’s a particular area of the city I’d love to be able to talk about but it would probably be something of a spoiler, so please go and read The Year of the Knife. Penman brings New Amsterdam to life through mix of people and creatures, and his complete disregard for time of day – truly paying homage to the city that never sleeps.
Finally, I’ll finish off by talking about Adua. No, King’s Landing. No, Verity. No, Roke. Maniyadoc, Imperial City, Arconia, Qazal…
I’m going to settle on Skea…
They say that in the Realm, the sea is in the sky – so begins Edward Cox’s beautiful The Wood Bee Queen. Cox’s story takes place in two cities (towns? A town and a city?) Strange Ground by the Skea (‘somewhere in England’, i.e. fictional, although I did Google it as it’s so believable) and Strange Ground Beneath the Skea (very much in the Realm). Ebbie Wren is a librarian living by the Skea, who finds himself transported to the fay-like realm Beneath the Skea and thrust into a plot of politicking and murder, a missing heir and characters that are merely pawns to the gods. By the Skea is very much a believably British sea-side town with its familiar faces and routines. But Beneath the Skea is very much your more typical fantasy fare, the cities linked in name only. Cox’s skill in rendering these two cities as so utterly different in feel and tone, and yet so natural together in the one story, was incredible.
Next month, we’ll be looking at our favourite WOODSMEN.
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