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created a more extensive geography and history for that world which I used later in two other books, and also in the unpublished FF Deathlord”.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 The other is the unpublished Darksoul (come on Andrew, let's see it published!).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.


  1. Awesome work (also your posts on Gundobad and Arkand)! I wrote up Gunderwals as the Desert Lizard Man (Kajn) steeds for Beyond the Pit.

    1. Thanks Andy! Oh, and yes, of course, you did include Gunderwal in BtP - brilliant! Even more reason to speculate what Khul might be like if 'Ashkar' is included in it.

  2. I've always meant to read through Ashkar the Magnificent again and comb out the good bits, but you've already done a great job! I think everything in it should be considered canon (pending Andrew Chapman's blessing of course!) unless it directly contradicts something from the FF series. The only real spanner in the works that I can recall is that Ashkar has a green moon? But hey, the effects of chaos can do weird things, right? And if the Twin Sun Desert/Gundobad are now officially part of Titan, then anything's fair game, right?

    1. I've put some things on Titannica, using a separate heading 'In Ashkar the Magnificent' to show that the information is different in nature from what's in the FF books.

      I can't recall the green moon, but I wouldn't be surprised (there might even be more than one moon, or am I thinking of something else?). In any case, I'm not so much thinking about co-opting Ashkar into Titan, as using Ashkar as source of info what one version of what unexplored and underexplored parts of Khul might be like.

    2. I've had a look, and in the 'earth' that Ashkar is set in, there are two small moons, green Peon and blue Fey.

  3. Well, now I have to buy this novel!

    Really nice work.

    1. It's definitely worth having for any FF fan, even though it doesn't really feel like an FF book.