Welcome to the new regular feature on writing craft. This is for readers as much as writers and will feature a different topic every two weeks. It’s under the cheeky title of “In the Eyes of the Lore,” as we’ll be exploring storytelling together.
Two years ago, I bought tickets to see The Nutcracker. Most people who know me are aware of my obsession with all ballets and with any fairy tale set to Tchaikovsky in particular. I remember going to Boston Ballet to see the classic and still take friends to see it every December.
These tickets were unusual because they were for the Joffrey Ballet production. My college roommate who is a librarian in Michigan flew out to join me and before and after the performance, we enjoyed exploring Chicago. We had the best ramen ever, met up with friends for Christkindlmarkt, and even made waffles in our hotel room while she taught me the basics of Dungeons and Dragons. (Yes, I am a geek who has never played. I also didn’t read much in the way of comic books, but that’s another story.)
For me, this picture is how I remember Chicago. Full of light and diversity and surprising in many ways.
Why We’re Here
Now, how does this relate to today’s topic and the first book to be featured in my new In the Eyes of the Lore series? Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart is set in a Chicago that is heart-breakingly unfamiliar and that is one of the things that makes it one of my favorite speculative fiction books of all time.
Let’s step back and introduce anyone who needs it to Steelheart, the first book in the Reckoners series. David, a young boy, is witness to a massacre one day when a man attacks the bank where his father is conducting business. This man is the eponymous Steelheart (Katey calls him “Superman as an evil overlord”) and he is an Epic. For the last two years, super-powered beings have been cropping up in society and every one of them uses their powers for evil. Steelheart enthralls the population of Chicago and David grows up in the metal monstrosity that is left in the familiar city’s place. He tells the reader in the first line of the book that he has seen Steelheart bleed and one of his missions in life is to exact revenge on the man who murdered his father and enslaved the city.
If you’re not interested in reading it yet, go read it anyway.
On to setting. Steelheart says in his first scene that “I have claimed this city, little Epic. It is mine…and it is my right to dominate the people here.” Yes, that means that he has dictatorial power and control over all industry and society, but that soon extends to influence everything else and that is why I cracked open this book for today’s lesson.
Let’s look at the cataclysmic moment:
“Steelheart let out a scream of rage and indignation. I could barely hear it, but I could feel it shattering what windows remained, vibrating the walls. Then something spread out from him, a wave of energy. And the floor around him changed colors, transforming into metal.
“The transformation spread, washing through the entire room at incredible speed. The floor beneath me, the wall beside me, the bits of glass on the ground—it all changed to steel. What we’ve learned now is that Steelheart’s rage transforms inanimate objects around him into steel, though it leaves living things and anything close to them alone.
“By the time his cry faded, most of the bank’s interior had been changed completely to steel, though a large chunk of the ceiling was still wood and plaster, as was a section of one wall…
“Later that night, he performed the Great Transfersion, an awesome display of power by which he transformed most of Chicago—buildings, vehicles, streets—into steel. That included a large part of Lake Michigan, which became a glassy expanse of black metal. It was there that he built his palace.”
The first scene, a showdown between two supervillains over turf, is riveting, but Sanderson takes the effects far further. Within paragraphs of the Prologue’s end, we discover that Steelheart is the overlord, but surrounded by allies who also have an effect on “Newcago.” Nightwielder, for example, eliminates daylight and the moon, so one of the most striking descriptions of the first chapter is that it “It’s always dark in Newcago.” We are told that the Great Transfersion also transformed soil and rock and that Steelheart graciously employed Diggers to make underground warrens where people can live and work. David has spent most of the last decade in forced labor just so he, as an orphan, can have food and a place to sleep.
I could go on for pages and pages about this, but this introduction should suffice to give context to the rest of the post. Let’s first go over some things that Sanderson does in his setting from the get-go.
- One of the first descriptions of his father is that he has sun-weathered hands. Since David then spends a decade in supernatural darkness, this attention to someone who has experienced so much sunshine that it’s left it’s mark is very effective.
- The setting, or “Great Transfersion” creates some mysteries. We don’t know why there are parts that were immune to the steel, in the same way that we don’t know why a gunshot was able to wound the bulletproof Steelheart.
- We know how absolute the tyranny is. David says that they adapt (“except when they refuse to”), but only after giving a litany of living conditions not out of place in fascist regimes.
- The inclusion of Lake Michigan as an affected area is, for me, a significant one culturally. I am a member of the Potawatomi Nation and one of our lore is that a series of visions led the tribe to new lands. One of the destinations was a place where food grew on the water. It so happens that on Lake Michigan, there are wild onions. They’re called shikaakwa and that’s how my nation named the setting of this book. The lake represents life and sustenance and, in a way, divine providence, so Steelheart having dominion over it is appalling.
Several years ago, I taught a class on ten things to ask while creating a fictional setting. I included the mandate that you consider what resembles your own world, what is missing, and what does that mean? Is a lack of sick people a sign of healing or euthanasia? Is diversity a sign that all are welcome or that there have been foreign influences? (Wicked memorably says “a man’s a traitor or liberator…is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It’s all in which label is able to persist.”) Settings should answer the basic needs of a society, ranging from commerce to citizenship, from education to egalitarianism. You don’t have to provide a description of each of these, but you should have them in what I call the “Brain Back Burner,” ready to come forth at a moment’s notice.
Turning away from Brandon’s books for the last part of the post, I have a book that I’m going to be sending to agents and editors. In it, there are wizards around, but no fairies, and that is highly significant. It has to do with a law making association with a fairy a criminal offense. That relates further back to why one crown prince was banished, one died in battle, and the third son of the King is now next in line for the throne. This is a fairy tale kingdom where magic is dangerous unless wielded by those who are the royal law enforcement.
I recently read Alex Harrow’s spectacular debut novel, Empire of Light, in which the space program was scrapped because humans couldn’t afford to maintain their own world, much less reach for the stars. The setting for many scenes is an abandoned space shuttle that no one else wanted and I love that sign of dystopia.
Think back to your favorite book’s setting and write down what stands out to you about it. What things do you know for certain about the setting? What things are explained as the book goes on? What is something that never gets satisfactorily explored?
Now, go and start asking these things about the world you’re walking through in your story.