How can you introduce a fantasy world to your readers? In the case of my book, The Adventures of Siskin and Valderan, I began the story with a terrifying weather event. The idea was to show as much of Lirara, the main city of the stories, as possible. One thing that I have tried to do in the book is not to explain too much. These days, with the Internet, we can get answers to almost any question instantly. Part of the fun of my stories is to imagine a world where information is more scarce, and where events just happen without the detailed analysis and journalistic breakdown that is now so familiar to us from the evening news. It’s time to bring a little mystery back into life.
Here is the opening to the novel:
A strange mist had settled on the city of Lirara. It had arrived a week before, sweeping in from nowhere in the middle of the afternoon and blotting out the sky. Some thought that ‘mist’ was the wrong word to use for this sudden pollution, for it was more like dust than water vapour. The cloud was composed of a fine powder that permeated the air, sprinkling a layer of dust over the slate rooftops and the cobblestone streets. Anyone caught out in it suffered greatly, for the powder got everywhere. Eyes were bloodshot. Noses became inflamed and ran. People rubbed fingers in their ears to try to dislodge the fine grains that collected there.
Most of all, the powder reached inside the clothes, so that no one could move an arm or a leg without feeling the dust scratching inside the fabric. It caught in the hair as well, turning the young people as white as their grandparents. When they ran their fingers down their faces, they left pink streaks shining through the covering of white.
Since the dust caught in the throat, it was almost impossible to set foot outdoors. People hid inside with the shutters closed and the curtains drawn. Draughts still blew faint flurries of powder under the front door. This then span in the corners of the room, like a living thing that wanted to get out and roam.
Some were not so lucky and protected their homes too late. These Lirarans found the dust on their wooden tables, as white and smooth as a tablecloth, and on their stools, their candles, and clogging up the fireplace. It permeated the larder too, seeping into the food, so that every mouthful tasted the same. It was the dry, bitter taste of the dust that the people were coming to know so well.
With little other choice, the Lirarans waited out the storm, whilst keeping out an ear for the town criers, the City Watch, the bells of the temples of the Gods: anyone in authority who could bring them some news. Alas, throughout that week, no news came.
Far away, on the other side of the city, the Doge passed the time in his palace, safe beneath its twin onion domes. An old man now, Doge Domenech XV had lost the fire of youth and the hunger to do great things, to struggle against the monsters of the world. In the face of this natural disaster, Doge Domenech did nothing.
Like many of the citizens, he had watched the cloud’s approach. Blinking with his rheumy eyes across the canals and wharfs before his palace, he saw the fog rolling in from the south, a fierce spectacle, throbbing and billowing above the waters of the lagoon. While others shouted and his stewards screamed, he sucked on an apricot with his few remaining teeth and felt the juice run over his winkled fingers.
Only when the storm was almost upon the palace did he order the gates to be shut and the blinds drawn down. Sheets were stuck beneath them, and the interior went dark. Then, gliding on his silk slippers over the red and white marble floor, he went to his bedchamber, swapping his ducal hat for a nightcap. He had decided that he would do nothing but lie in bed, grow a beard and eat a bowl of prunes, for the Doge liked fruit very much. Courtiers and barons and the Council of Six came to him with powder pouring from them, like statues from an ancient and hated regime that had lain discarded for decades in some forgotten dungeon. The great and the good begged him to take a lead and tell them what to do. However, the Doge was not one to be rushed by the over-excitable demands of youth.
“All things will pass,” was all that he would say with a wave of his liver-spotted hand. “We shall wait out this storm. Why tell the people anything? We know nothing. There is nothing for us to say.”
Taking their lead from the Doge, the authorities sent no messages to the population at large. Seven long days passed in which lonely old women died, infants sickened, and invalids starved in their beds. Many renounced their sins and converted. Some months later, hundreds of young women found themselves in the family way.
Eventually, the foul fog lifted, as quickly and mysteriously as it had come. A weary, bleary, coughing populace shook open its shutters and gazed at a city transformed. The dull wooden town houses were painted anew with the remains of the powder. It lay fully three inches thick underfoot. The more industrious housewives tried to sweep it away from their doorsteps with thick, wiry brooms. Even they soon gave up, for if they moved the dust in one direction, it soon drifted back from another. Those red-faced, thick-skinned, greasy-aproned women were forced to surrender to natural forces, whose persistence was greater than their own. It was a fate that they did not appreciate. Arms crossed, they stood on the threshold with sour faces, and dreamt of taking the laundry to the public washing place, a square stone bath in every neighbourhood where the wives and mothers cackled and gossiped through the best part of the day.
Fortunately, even filth must yield some time. By the end of the second day, the north wind had come to Lirara. It blew the dust to the port, soon accompanied by lashing bolts of rain. Along with straw and manure, apple cores, bread crumbs, broken shards of clay and fragments of cloth, the dust was washed to the sea front, grudgingly forced down gurgling drains. Though they remained as agnostic as ever, the housewives were well pleased at this turn of events, and they gave a glance to the tops of the temples, to the God Curlin, Lord of Dance and Weather. After making a kissing symbol with two fingers held to their lips, they returned to burping babies, whipping wild children and scolding their useless menfolk. Even the Doge felt energised enough to get out of bed, and chew a slightly overripe pear.