Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Ashkar the Magnificent

I've always been a big fan of Andrew Chapman's Seas of Blood. Great atmosphere, place-names, set pieces, creatures, and funky map. Not everyone likes it as it's very difficult to beat by the rules, but I've never been much of a one for playing the Fighting Fantasy books strictly by the book, so I've never let that spoil my enjoyment of it. The lands of the Inland Sea have always been one of my favourite areas in Titan, so imagine how pleased I was to discover that Andrew Chapman had written another book, a novel, set in the same place: Ashkar the Magnificent (published in 2000). In issue 7 of Fighting Fantazine, I discussed some aspects of Ashkar and its relationship with Seas of Blood in the Fact of Fiction article. In this post, I've extracted the bits about Ashkar as a preface to an analysis of the geography of the lands of the Inland Sea as described in that book, and added a few other comments on why us FF fans might be interested in Ashkar the Magnificent.

The Lands of the Inland Sea

The lands of the Inland Sea first appeared in the Fighting Fantasy gamebook, Seas of Blood, written by Andrew Chapman and published in 1985. Nothing in Seas of Blood indicated a connection between these lands and any other Fighting Fantasy setting, which is perhaps not surprising as the world of Titan was first referred to in Sword of the Samurai, published in April 1986, and was first revealed in detail in Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World, published in October 1986. In that book, the lands of the Inland Sea were placed in the continent of Khul in Titan, and Andrew Chapman was thanked for his contribution to the Fighting Fantasy world in the acknowledgements at the front of Titan. This placement of the lands of the Inland Sea in Khul was not unproblematic, however, since it was not Chapman's original intention that the lands of the Inland Sea should be included in the world of Titan. Chapman revealed on the Rebuilding Titan Yahoo! group that he “had created a more extensive geography and history for that world which I used later in two other books, and also in the unpublished FF Deathlord”. One of these other two books is Ashkar the Magnificent, which contains the same map as Seas of Blood. The other is the unpublished Darksoul (come on Andrew, let's see it published!).

What is Ashkar the Magificent?

Ashkar the Magnificent is a novel set in the lands of the Inland Sea which tells the story of the confrontation between the brothers Ashkar and Morkain, Autocrats of the Lagashian Empire, and the adventures of the mysterious girl L’lan, the sentient sword Prax, and Starg, the Captain of the pirate ship Banshee from the notorious city of Tak. The setting of Ashkar is at once familiar and strange to those who have played Seas of Blood. The places detailed on the map in Seas of Blood are all there, and elements such as the Kishain Winged Hussars and the pirate ship Banshee are common to both. Indeed, the captain of the Banshee himself takes centre stage in both books, but whether Chapman intended them to be the same individual is unknown.

But unlike Seas of Blood, with its Mesopotamian and Arabesque nomenclature and culture, the lands of the Inland Sea in Ashkar are full of peoples, places and things with exotic sounding names of an entirely different sort, more reminiscent of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth setting. It seems likely that Chapman, finding his lands of the Inland Sea co-opted into the Fighting Fantasy world, Titan, continued to use the setting for his own adventures whilst making an effort to distinguish them from the Fighting Fantasy version of the region. So the lands of the Inland Sea and its peoples exist in two places at once, in Khul and in another world (called ‘Earth’ by Chapman in Ashkar), two alternate versions of the same fantastical vision.

What can we learn about the lands of the Inland Sea from Ashkar?

There's all sorts of interesting stuff in Ashkar the Magnificent concerning the lands of the Inland Sea. The following is only a small sample of the kinds of interesting titbits that lie between its covers:
  • Although the city of Kish itself does not feature in Ashkar the Magnificent, Kishian Archimandrites such as Mengg comb the Inland Sea in search of virgins for their 'Isostatic Rite'. 
  • In Ashkar the Magnificent (p. 82), a group of fifty Kishian Winged Hussars is termed a flight, and it appears that they can be hired as mercenaries.
  • The city of Tak, with its towering granite bay (just as in Seas of Blood) is, to all intents and purposes, ruled over by the pirate lord Lolfant the Interminable.
  • The captain of the Banshee is also one of the central characters in Ashkar the Magnificent. Named Starg, he is an unwholesome character, dressed in a cape of human skin and ready to kill his crew for raping his female slaves, not because he cares about the poor girls themselves but because he recognises the value of virgins to the nefarious Kishian Archimandrites. Although he acknowledges Lolfant the Interminable, de facto ruler of Tak, as his superior, it is Starg who is instrumental in the gathering of forces to attack their common enemy – Morkain, Autocrat of Lagash.
  • The great golden city of Lagash is the centre of the Lagashian Empire, ruled over by the autocrats Ashkar and his brother Morkain.
  • Although Lagash plays a central role in Ashkar the Magnificent, no Wazi of Lagash, as found in Seas of Blood, is mentioned. However, the autocrat (leader) of Lagash, Morkain, is served by a Vizier called Shagtran (Ashkar, p. 112-3), and we can assume that this is the same office of state.
  • Starg visits Assur to enlist the aid of the Kajn Lizard Men, and the river which flows inland from the city is named the Uphom.
  • The Lizard Men are called the Kajn, are described as “blue-tongued reptiles, towering at seven or eight feet in height” (p. 47) with skin “composed of gorgeous blue scales” (p. 49), and are willing to act as mercenary forces in the assault on Lagash by the pirates of Tak.
  • The nature of the beasts ridden by the Lizard Men in Seas of Blood is unknown. In Ashkar the Magnificent, the steeds of the Lizard Men are not mentioned, although the massive, lumbering Gunderwals, which act as beast of burden, might possibly be the same creatures (Ashkar, p. 51-2).
  • The inhabitants of Calah, the Calahites, are described as having copper skin.
  • The name Goth appears once in Ashkar the Magnificent (p. 91), where it is said of Ashkar, in reference to his mighty power, that “the power and strength of his nature swept from him like the fire of Goth”. Is this a reference to the volcanoes which flank the western shore of the Channel of Goth, or to some god of the Inland Sea who has given his name to this fiery region?
  • One wonders whether the enormous, plesiosaur-like sea creature which looks and acts like an island in Seas of Blood (para. 120) might be one of the Coelacanths, summoned from the depths by Ashkar to swallow the pirate ships of Tak (Ashkar the Magnificent, p. 86).
  • The River Parine is the central artery of the great Lagashian Empire, with settlements such as Mantou, Aut Haat, Uffle, Embre and Kul found along its length.

As you can see, there's loads in there of interest to the fan of Fighting Fantasy in Ashkar. I'm particularly interested in the geographical aspects of the book and what they can tell us about what 'Khul' might be like beyond what we know from other (FF) sources. I know Ashkar isn't set in Khul (kind of), but just as was the case with Dave Morris's outline of The Keeper of the Seven Keys, it's fun to imagine what Khul might be like if Ashkar was set there. I'll return to this in another post, exploring in particular the geography of the Lagashian Empire and the River Parine area.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Gundobad in Khul

If you've ever played the 2-player Fighting Fantasy gamebook Clash of the Princes,* you'll be familiar with the golden city of Gundobad and the lands surrounding it, as detailed in this beautiful map by Dave Andrews:

The curious thing about Gundobad and its surrounding lands is that they were not connected in any obvious way with the rest of the Fighting Fantasy world, Titan, despite looking like they should be (in terms of the style of map, the kinds of monsters and situations you encounter and, of course, because this was a fantasy-themed FF adventure). When I joined the online FF community, it turned out that other fans had, like me, been wondering whether Gundobad was in Titan and where it would be if so. Not only that, but Andrew Chapman, one of the authors of CotP, had told fans on the Rebuilding Titan forum the following:
"I don’t think I was even aware of Titan when I wrote Clash of the Princes and was certainly never consulted by anyone about it. I have no problem with Gundobad being situated in Titan and you may place it there with my blessing."
All sorts of theories were dreamed up, from Gundobad being on Titan's Unknown Land (see the world map of Titan in Titan - The Fighting Fantasy World) to Gundobad being on the ancient continent of Irritaria. None of these theories was particularly convincing, although there was some support amongst fans for Gundobad being in the Unknown Land or in Khul.

In 2005, I put together a document (placed in the titan_rebuilding discussion group files section) summarising my thoughts on the location of Gundobad in Titan, and I later developed this as an article in the first issue of Fighting Fantazine in 2009. In this article, I discussed the likely locations for Gundobad in Titan and suggested that it was in northwest Khul for the following reasons:
  • We know nothing about the Unknown Land and it could be that it is a frozen wilderness.
  • Likewise, we know very little about the geography of the ancient continent of Irritaria, and no part of it looks like the map in CotP.
  • One place on the CotP map (Kalamdar) has a similar name to a place in Khul (Kalagar).
  • The coastline of Khul in the neighbourhood of Kalagar is very similar to the coastline in the CotP map of the lands around Gundobad, with Kalagar and Kalamdar lying in exactly the same position.
  • The mixture of Asiatic honorific ('Pasha') with a Germanic personal name ('Vulfolaic') of the emperor of the lands around Gundobad looks quite Khulian (compare the Vizier of Kazan and the barbarian horse-lord, Khan Gyorgir, of the central Khulian plains).
In the Fantazine article, I suggested that Kalagar and Kalamdar were the same place and the reason for Gundobad not appearing on the maps in Titan was that this part of Khul had simply not been developed at the time Titan was written (in the same way that various other areas developed in later FF gamebooks don't feature in the Titan maps). Whether the resemblance of the coastlines around Kalagar and Kalamdar in the Titan and CotP maps was an accident or was intentional (though perhaps muddled by the committee) still remains unknown, but the idea that Kalagar = Kalamdar and that Gundobad is in Khul seems to have been well received by the online FF community. So much so, in fact, that Andy 'greyarea' Wright has written the new FF bestiary, Beyond the Pit, under the assumption that Gundobad is in northwest Khul (see here). So it looks like Gundobad has found a home at last in the Fighting Fantasy world.

In the Fantazine article, the editor, Alex Ballingall, drew a map of the Kalagar/Kalamdar area showing where places like Gundobad would lie in Khul. This was based on a Paintshop job I'd done on Steve Luxton's map of Khul from Titan, which I thought it would be nice to share with you:

I think this looks like just the spot for Gundobad, with its woods, hills and barbarian overlord.

Oh, and in one other intriguing cross-over between the lands of CotP and the continent of Khul, we have a scene which appears in both The Warlock's Way and in Seas of Blood, also by Andrew Chapman (thanks to 'Vastariner' for pointing this link out). In The Warlock's Way, you may catch a merchant ship from Kalamdar to the Isle of Orcmoot (not marked on the CotP map) via the kingdom of Peleus (also not marked on the map). The ship is waylaid by pirates, and the captain surrenders his passengers and cargo so that he and his crew can go on. You can either surrender to the pirates (and be sold into slavery), or use magic or some artefact to scare the pirates off or escape. One option given to you is to summon a SHADE to attack the pirate captain; unfortunately this leads to several pirates firing their crossbows at you, resulting in your death (para. 266). In Seas of Blood, your pirate ship may be sailing in the middle of the Inland Sea, between the isle of Enraki and the Shoals of Trysta, and you may encounter a heavy laden merchant ship travelling from the Eastern Rim to Kish. If you attack the ship (with your crew of pirates who wield scimitars and crossbows), "a hooded figure, obviously a Warlock or Magus" steps forward from among the other terrified passengers and summons a SHADE to attack you (para. 391). If you defeat the SHADE, the other passengers on the merchant ship seize the Warlock, tie him (he is identified as male) up, and throw him into the sea to his doom (para. 252). The merchant ship captain places himself and his ship at your mercy (and you are in fact fairly merciful).

Although the two episodes are very similar, they are not quite the same, and it's impossible to square their geography. No doubt this is just Andrew Chapman having a bit of fun, but it's another interesting link between Gundobad and Khul. Anyway, the placement of Gundobad in Khul means that there's another part of the Dark Continent we now know something about. If we add this to what we know from the other FF gamebooks and Titan, the projected location of Arkand, and what we can conjecture from Andrew Chapman's Ashkar the Magnificent (which I'll return to in a later post), a pretty detailed picture can be reconstructed as to what the geography of Khul might be like.

*I never heard about Clash of the Princes when it first came out. In fact, I was totally oblivious to its existence, having never seen Warlock Magazine where it was advertised and having never seen it listed amongst the gamebooks inside the front cover of any Fighting Fantasy gamebook. In about the year 2000 or 2001, just before I got involved in the online FF community, I was browsing through a collection of greenspines in a second-hand bookshop in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and found a copy of The Warrior's Way. How could there be an FF book I've never heard of?! I had dreamt of such things, but it was a big surprise to find such a thing for real. I soon bought The Warlock's Way on ebay to complete the set.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Various bits of Fighting Fantasy-related news

I've been swamped with work lately so things have been a bit slow around here, but here are a few bits and pieces of news relating to the world of Fighting Fantasy:
  • Issue 13 of Fighting Fantazine (website currently down due to server malfunction seemingly) is out, featuring an interview with Lord of FF Darkness, Peter Darvill-Evans, a Western-themed FF adventure by Gaetano Abbondanza, author of the Tin Man gamebooks Slaves of Rema and Sultans of Rema (this link's not working either right now; what the hell is wrong with the internet today?!), and loads of other stuff.
  • Dave Morris keeps us dreaming of what might have been over on the Fabled Lands blog with his outline of the 'lost' FF gamebook, The Thief of Arantis, which ultimately became the Virtual Reality book Twist of Fate (now the Critical IF book Once Upon a Time in Arabia). More Arabian Nights themed action in southern Allansia would have been a lot of fun!
  • Steve Luxton, master of the FF map, has produced an amazing MapMaker package which allows you to draw your own fantasy maps using over 200 predefined map symbols drawn in his inimitable style. I've had a brief play with it and it's a doddle (and pleasure) to use.
  • Jon Green has arranged the first ever Fighting Fantasy convention, to take place in Ealing on the 7th of September, 2014 (cost £50). Guests will include Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, and the convention will also see the official launch of Jon's eagerly awaited history of FF, YOU are the Hero.
I'll be back soon with more FF news, analysis and comment.