It’s about time we got back to high fantasy, so let’s examine Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan, the first entry in a six-book series.* It’s about 140,000 words, and it’s actually a prequel, set around 3,000 years before Sullivan’s other series. However, the foreword assures me that I don’t have to read the previously published stories first, and I’m going to assume that’s true. Let’s see how the setting holds up.
I’m a pretty critical person by nature, but I really liked Age of Myth’s world.* It feels lived in, a place where people can actually go about their lives when there’s not a plot rampaging through. Just as importantly, it’s intuitive and easy to understand. I didn’t often find myself wondering how things could possibly work the way the narrator describes, unlike certain other books that try to drown me in terminology or tell me about Space Romans with no one to fight.
Stone Age Humans
I’ve written before that the Bronze Age is a tragically underused setting for fantasy stories, and I can only assume Sullivan decided to one-up me by setting his story in the Neolithic. That’s the late Stone Age, if you’re not familiar, where most tools are still made of stone or animal bone, but agriculture is productive enough to allow modestly sized towns. The occasional copper tool is highly prized and, in most cases, possessed by the very wealthy.
Setting a story this far back creates a lot of novelty. Fantasy readers are used to settings inspired by feudal societies, the Roman Empire, and occasionally ancient Egypt. This world is nothing like any of those. Tools must be constantly remade because stone is brittle and prone to shattering. A single bad winter can wipe even the most prosperous villages off the map. All traveling is done on foot, and records are kept only in memory.
For excellent contrast, the various non-human groups often have completely different tech levels. While the world is home to many species, the main non-humans we see in this book are the elves, or Fhrey as they’re called. The Fhrey are firmly in the Bronze Age, so they have technology that humans can’t come close to replicating. In an all-human setting, it wouldn’t make sense for such sharp technological divides to exist between neighbors, but it’s believable that completely different species would remain more isolated.
Despite being called Fhrey, Age of Myth’s elves are unmistakably cast in the Middle-earth mold. They’re tall, graceful, live for millennia, and are almost supernaturally good-looking. Normally, I would ding such elves as being more than a little cliché. However, Sullivan does what I am always advising: he makes them the bad guys.
As villains, every weakness of Tolkien-style elves becomes a strength. Their vaunted speed and long centuries of experience make them difficult to defeat, and their supernatural beauty helps ensure the story doesn’t fall into problematic tropes that can come from using orcs or goblins as antagonists. Elves are perfectly positioned to exercise brutality from behind a screen of civility, and that’s exactly what Age of Myth does.
The elves’ more advanced technology also comes into play here. Humans are treated as lesser beings, banished to the poorest land available. If any humans resist, bronze-armed elven soldiers are happy to put them down. Naturally, the elves take their technological edge as further proof they must be superior, which is both highly realistic and guarantees the reader will cheer for their defeat.
In addition to Bronze Age tech, a number of elves wield powerful magic. To the surprise of all, these elven mages aren’t oppressed. Just the opposite: they’re in charge. While all elves are supposedly valued equally, it’s clear that the mages have nearly total control of the government, military, and civic institutions. We even see nonmagical elves resenting this dynamic, as they are pushed further and further into the margins of their own society.
The reason why is obvious: mages have all the power. They wield greater influence than anyone else because they can literally do the impossible. If all the nonmagical elves united, they might be able to defeat the mages, but they don’t for the same reason that it’s very rare for poor people to unite against the rich: it’s extremely difficult to build a broad alliance of many people against the concentrated power of a few. We even meet an elf who has an unreasonable distrust of magic, but it’s clear this isn’t a threat since there’s no institutional power behind it.
This all demonstrates a much better understanding of power and privilege than a lot of stories I read. Instead of pretending his mages would be mistreated for being so cool and special, Sullivan uses magic to make the villains even more threatening. It’s a trick I wish more spec fic authors would emulate.
Dune’s Fremen and their various imitators are based on the false idea that surviving in a harsh environment makes you better at fighting. In addition to being wrong, this trope also underpins a lot of racist ideas about “warlike races,” so I was pretty nervous when Age of Myth seemed to be doing the same thing.
Early in the book, humans of Clan Dureya are described as great warriors from harsh, resource-poor lands. I braced myself for Neolithic Fremen, but then the book explained further: Dureyan land is poor, so their best chance to make a living is by taking mercenary work from the elves. As professional soldiers, the Dureyans are naturally skilled in warfare because they have the most experience, at least among humans.
Not only are the Dureyans not Fremen, but they’re a powerful subversion of the trope. A harsh homeland doesn’t magically make them better at fighting, but it does make them desperate enough to take on dangerous mercenary work. Other clans typically don’t take such work because they don’t have to. And while the Dureyans’ experience makes them humanity’s best soldiers, they’re also the smallest clan because so many of them die in combat.
This last entry isn’t so much for what Age of Myth did as what it didn’t do. Namely, it doesn’t drown the story in real-world bigotry in the name of gritty realism. Instead, most of the oppression on display is between humans and elves. Human society is a little sexist, but only to give protagonist Persephone some conflict as she rises to the rank of chieftain. This storyline doesn’t require a cavalcade of sexual violence or racial slurs, and so the book doesn’t have any.
Unfortunately, the book fails to get a perfect score because of some random slut shaming thrown against a side character. Nothing about this is required for the story; in fact it’s largely portrayed as harmless banter rather than the misogyny that it is. That’s seriously disappointing, but it’s still better than most of the other books I’ve looked at on this worldbuilding series.
I really hope that we’ll soon reach a point where this lack of unnecessary bigotry isn’t worth commenting on. It’ll just be the norm that everyone is expected to meet. Until then, I’ll keep pointing it out so aspiring writers know that Game of Thrones isn’t the only model out there.
Whew, all that praise took a lot out of me. Time to relax with some good old-fashioned critique, just like Grandmother used to make. No matter how much I might like a story or its worldbuilding, there are always flaws worth discussing.
Age of Myth’s mages aren’t oppressed, which is great. What’s less great is how absurdly powerful they are. Magic in this setting is called “the Art,” and if there are any limits on what it can do, we don’t see them. Mages can reshape the landscape, control the weather, shield themselves from harm, and wipe out multiple enemies like it’s nothing. Granted, most of the mages we encounter are described as being very powerful, so weaker mages might have more limits. But it’s also clear this story is about an epic-scale conflict, so the magic system needs to work for master sorcerers as well as apprentices.
The first problem with such powerful magic is that it’s difficult to create meaningful problems for mages. In one scene, a mage laments that she could be attacked while asleep, since she has no one to guard her. But we’ve already seen her turn a river into a flower garden without breaking a sweat, so why doesn’t she just summon a stone safe room before she goes to bed each night?
When mage fights mage, it’s difficult to get invested in the battle because magic has no limits. When a mage throws a house at his opponent, is that a threat, or can the Art easily deflect houses? No one knows! It’s even worse for non-mages, who basically have nothing to do when a mage is around. They can’t meaningfully contribute to a magical battle, and their mage friend can easily solve any other problem that comes out.
Worst of all is when Sullivan wants mundane characters to defeat mages. Since magic is so powerful, his only option is to deploy contrivances. The first time, a mage just happens not to shield the back of her head so she can get hit with a rock. The second time, a mage inexplicably target’s the hero’s anti-magic shield with a lightning bolt, when all his previous battle magic consisted of big area effect spells.
Speaking of anti-magic, this setting also has special runes that make magic stop working like a toggle switch. If the only way to deal with your magic is to turn it off for a while, that’s a sure sign it’s overpowered.
Unclear Magic Origins
Beyond being too powerful, Age of Myth’s magic is also frustratingly vague, especially in the area of who gets it. We’re told that of all the elven tribes, only the Miralyith have magic. As best I can tell, any elf with magical talent automatically joins the Miralyith. The book never actually says this, but since the Miralyith were apparently founded about one elven generation* ago, that’s all I can think of. If elves aren’t joining the Miralyith from other tribes, then it would still just be the founder and her immediate family. This also fits with another character who mentions that she joined the Miralyith but doesn’t say why, and it explains why we never meet a nonmagic Miralyith.
The problem with this explanation is that it doesn’t make any sense. It’s difficult to believe the other clans would agree to hand over their magical children, and even if the Miralyith founder forced them to, those young mages would still retain cultural ties to their former tribes. Instead, we’re told that the Miralyith act as a unified political front, something that just isn’t possible if their ranks are filled by unwilling conscripts. This is all very important to the plot, as Miralyith dominance is the main political conflict happening in elf town.
Later on, we discover that humans have magic too, and it raises even more questions. Most importantly, why is this only being discovered now? The human in question is self taught, which makes it hard to believe that there haven’t been human mages before. Even her relatively weak powers are extremely flashy, letting her set a bear on fire, among other things, so this kind of talent would definitely have been noticed. Of course, it’s always possible that something in the setting has changed recently to allow for human mages, but none of the characters act like this is a possibility. Instead, they act like they’ve just discovered that humans have had magic the whole time. Oh, and goblins have magic too, but it’s weaker than elven magic, for some reason. That’s probably not important enough to explain, never mind that a major conflict hinges on it.
This book pitches itself as the beginning of a war between elves and humans, which is a great premise. Nothing gets the blood pumping like a tale of humans rising up against their pointy-eared overlords. We even have a protagonist named Persephone whose main goal is to unite the fractious human clans. She clearly has her work cut out for her, as the elves are very powerful. Perhaps too powerful.
When the book opens, there are ten human clans that make up the entire species, as far as anyone knows. Before the story has even really started, the elves have completely wiped out two of those clans without breaking a sweat. We’re then told that less than a dozen elven soldiers is enough to overwhelm a town of 2,000 humans. With odds like that, fighting the elves seems entirely pointless, and this is before magic gets involved.
The one point in humanity’s favor is that they supposedly outnumber the elves, but this has two problems. First, if twelve elves can defeat thousands of humans, then numerical advantage is a moot point. Second, it doesn’t even seem like there are actually more humans. Humans live in small villages and walled towns, while the elves live in an urban metropolis. The book never gives exact numbers, so it could always be a very small metropolis, but that’s certainly not the impression one gets.
It’s always possible that this is supposed to represent the human’s skewed idea of what elves can do, rather than reality. Perhaps the elves actually took serious casualties when they wiped out the human clans, and maybe a dozen elves would have been useless against a large human town. But if so, there are characters in the story who would know better and presumably say something. Since they never do, we can only take the facts at face value.
The Bronze and Stone Age technology is a major selling point for Age of Myth, but the way it portrays weapons leaves a lot to be desired. Right off the bat, we’re told that the protagonist has a copper sword that he inherited from his father. At first, I thought the narration meant bronze, which is a copper alloy, but later it’s clarified to be pure copper. This doesn’t start things off well.
While it’s technically possible to make a sword out of copper, it wouldn’t be of any use. Copper is both heavy and soft. It can work for small cutting tools, but a sword would bend far too easily. At the same time, it would barely hold an edge, and you’d usually be better off with a wooden club.
Then we get to the elven swords, which actually are made of bronze. At least, that’s my best guess. The book never specifically says what the swords are made of, but it identifies bronze as a metal only elves use, and it sounds like only the setting’s dwarves have access to iron. That’s not inherently a problem, as bronze swords can work just fine.
However, we then see that elven swords can cut through human spears and shields with no effort at all. That’s not how bronze works. It’s not how any metal works. Wood is tough, and hacking through it is no easy feat, which you can test if you have an axe and some spare branches. Unless the elves are secretly wielding lightsabers, there’s no way their swords can work as described.
Bears Do Not Work That Way
Finally, we have what is probably Age of Myth’s weirdest bit of worldbuilding: an invincible bear. At the start of the story, we’re told that eight hunters went after the creature, and that it soundly defeated them, killing two in the process. Later, the same bear nearly batters down a stone wall before getting bored and running off. The creature remains a significant threat throughout the story, with numerous characters convinced that it’s unkillable.
In a serious story of politics and rebellion, this sticks out as being extremely silly. Brown bears are serious business, and even a well-armed human is in for a bad time against one. But bears aren’t magic. Against eight experienced hunters, all armed with spears, a bear would have no chance. Likewise, the idea that even a large bear can batter down the stone wall of a dwarven safe house is absurd.*
Near the end, it’s revealed that the bear in question didn’t actually do most of the feats attributed to it, but that’s too little too late. The otherwise-knowledgeable heroes accepting that a bear can do all these things is nearly as bad as the bear actually doing them. These characters are familiar with wild animals, so we’re left unsure if the bear’s supposed deeds were supposed to be plausible or not.
What We Can Learn
We’ve gone over the pros and the cons, but what can we learn from Age of Myth? Is it an epic of the ancient past, or will following in its footsteps take our stories back to the Stone Age? Let’s find out.
Call an Elf an Elf
Age of Myth has many of the classic fantasy ancestries that you’ll recognize from other stories. In the first book alone we meet humans, elves, goblins, giants, and dwarves.* That’s standard enough, but you’ll notice that they aren’t all referred to by those names. Elves are called “Fhrey,” dwarves are “Dherg,” giants are “Grenmorian,” and goblins are “Ghazel.”
This is a bit confusing as you’re trying to figure out which fantasy species is which, but it also comes off as more than a little pretentious. If you’re using strange and unique fantasy creatures, then by all means, invent strange and unique names for them. But these ancestries are all totally familiar to anyone who’s read a fantasy book since 1954. Calling them unusual names doesn’t add anything to the story; in fact, it obscures what the story is actually doing.
Oddly, the book goes back and forth for goblins and giants. Sometimes it calls them by the names we’re all familiar with, but sometimes it uses Ghazel and Grenmorian. It’s possible this could be a split in what other groups call them versus what they call themselves, which would be interesting if it were properly established. But the book never uses “elf” or “dwarf,” so now the whole thing sounds inconsistent as well as pretentious.
Fantasy Needs More Overt Diversity
As fantasy novels go, Age of Myth does a decent job avoiding the overt bigotry so many other novels employ. However, it still has a serious problem: everyone is white. At least, that’s the impression it gives. Technically, the narration is very vague about what everyone looks like. We know Raithe is tall and broad, we know Malcolm dresses fancy, and we know Suri is very skinny. We can’t say for 100% certain that they’re all white.
Unfortunately, this is where “white as default” comes in. When a character’s race is left uncertain, most readers will assume they’re white. The same thing happens with pretty much all privileged identities. Characters are assumed to be straight unless described as gay, abled unless described as disabled, etc. Writers need to understand this problem and take steps against it.
In some ways, Age of Myth is already there. We know one of the characters is queer because she talks about her ex-girlfriend. We know another character is disabled because the story describes his health issues. Granted, that’s one disabled character and one queer character in a very large cast, but it’s still better than the nonexistent description of race.
Fantasy has a long-running reputation of being overwhelmingly white. We can’t fix that unless (white) authors step up and unambiguously show us that their stories have characters of color. Being vague on description is almost as bad as describing everyone as blond-haired and pale-skinned.
Villains Can Be Too Threatening
Most of the time, I encourage authors to make their villains more powerful. A powerful villain is more threatening, which raises the story’s tension. However, Age of Myth shows us how that advice can go too far. The elves are so powerful that it’s impossible to imagine defeating them in any realistic scenario. Our heroes only manage to do it because of some incredibly unlikely coincidences.
When a villain’s threat gets too high, it actually reduces tension. Tension comes from uncertainty, and when the villain is too powerful, their victory seems certain. That’s dismal, but it’s not tense. Some readers will put the story down, as nothing the heroes do seems to matter, while those that stick around will be bored until the inevitable twist arrives.
If your villains are so powerful that the heroes can’t possibly defeat them in battle, the best move is usually to craft a plot where that isn’t required. In A New Hope, the Rebellion isn’t trying to take down the entire Empire yet; they’re going after the Death Star. That’ll be really hard, but it’s conceivably possible because they have the Death Star’s technical plans.
Take Full Advantage of Your Setting
Age of Myth benefits a lot from its unusual setting. Not only is the Neolithic world strange and unusual, but the tech difference between elves and humans is a stark illustration of who’s more powerful. But we also see where Sullivan passed up a golden opportunity to drive home the advantage of bronze over stone.
Currently, the story tries to illustrate that advantage by having elven weapons slice through human ones like butter, but that’s not how swords work and it feels more than a little silly. To demonstrate the real advantage of metalworking, Age of Myth should have shown us stone spear points shattering against bronze armor and humans having to remake or replace their far less durable weapons after each battle.
The story couldn’t do either of those things because its aesthetics are all wrong. The elves avoid damage with ninja flips and Matrix dodges, not with anything so gauche as armor. And even though several subplots focus on supply shortages, there’s never any problem finding new weapons. Age of Myth would have benefited from being just a little more realistic, as that would have allowed Sullivan to show off the difference that bronzeworking can make.
Culture Flows From Material Conditions
The most important lesson Age of Myth has for us is that sapient beings are influenced by the world around them. That sounds obvious, but a lot of spec fic stories feature things like vast empires without any agricultural land to feed them, or desert tribes whose skill at finding water somehow makes them great at fencing.
Instead of repeating those mistakes, Age of Myth builds its cultures by considering where they find themselves. The Dureyans take dangerous mercenary work because they have no choice, leaving them with a short life expectancy and a bitter outlook. Other human clans have stability from their agriculture, but they have little experience in warfare because most adults spend every daylight hour in the fields, so there’s no time to train with weapons.
This applies to the elves as well. They have the richest lands, and they’ve been around longer, giving them more time to develop advanced technology. Their magic makes them even more powerful. They don’t oppress humanity because individual elves are evil* but because their greater power makes it easy to do so.
The result is a believable world that, other than its vague and overpowered magic, is perfect for the story Sullivan wants to tell. Age of Myth’s elves may be familiar, but the Bronze and Stone Age tech places them in unfamiliar circumstances. And while the magic itself has issues, the mages’ position within their society makes perfect sense. It’s so intuitive for mages to be at the top that it’s sometimes a surprise to see how many authors try to cast them as oppressed.
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