Every Thursday, for the last two years, Nathan over at Fantasy Review Barn has hosted a weekly party inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’ hilarious book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. The goal of Tough Traveling was to explore all the tropes from speculative fiction stories.
As of last week, Tough Traveling ended as an ongoing event, but in its honor (because it was a favorite of mine) I will be going back to complete all the topic which I missed. Hope you enjoy these homage posts, and please visit my Tough Traveling page to let me know what books or characters I totally missed.
26th of November, 2015 – ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS
Ancient Engineering Projects tend to litter the landscape in some parts of the continent. Most of them are quite mysterious, and all of them are made of some substance not known to the present inhabitants, often of a greenish colour, or matte black, though white is not unknown. They will be gigantic. Most of them will be pillars that touch the clouds, but ROADS and broken BRIDGES are common too. It is unknown quite what challenge caused earlier people to make things that were so very large. Most of them are no use to anyone.
I have to admit this is one of my favorite tropes. Perhaps my love of ancient history is the root cause or the fact Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings programmed me to expect it out of fantasy books, but whatever the reason, all my favorite stories seem to contain ancient engineering projects. So be prepared, this might be a LONG list.
A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE by GEORGE MARTIN
The masterpiece of modern fantasy has to be on every list, and this time I’m not ashamed to admit I totally forgot to include it. (Special thanks goes to one of my author friends for pointing it out to me.) I mean, how could I totally forget about that huge wall where Jon Snow winds up at? I shouldn’t have. And that is just the most prominent of the ancient projects Mr. Martin utilizes in this epic yarn.
BLOODSOUNDERS ARC by JEFF SALYARDS
This ancient engineering project is a bit different from our definition, but certainly is deserving of inclusion. Basically, the gods deserted mankind a millennium ago, using magic to erect a huge barrier across the world: the Godveil! What is it? You have to read the trilogy (Scourge of the Betrayer, Veil of the Deserters, Chains of the Heretic) to find out.
CITY OF STAIRS by ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT
Placing this novel on the list was fairly easy, because it is set on a continent recently ruled by the gods and in their capital city of Bulikov, from which they ruled the entire world. Okay, I’ll admit most of the glories of the gods are gone, but as the story progresses, we see that there are more than a few divine engineering projects still around . . . and still working.
DARWATH by BARBARA HAMBLY
Darwath is a series filled with ancient engineering projects that no one — not even the greatest wizard in the world — understands. From the implanted memories of the royal house to the strange, obsidian cube named the Keep of Dare to the machines in its interior, one of the main elements of the tale is for the survivors of the rising of the Dark to understand what these ancient devices are and use them to somehow drive their tormentors back underground.
ECHOES OF EMPIRE by MARK T. BARNES
This series (The Garden of Stones, The Obsidian Heart, The Pillars of Sand) is a worldbuilder’s dream come true, since it includes more ancient engineering projects than you can keep track of. From ruins of ancient civilization to mesmerizing places of knowledge, Mr. Barnes constantly emphasizes the age of this world and the remains of past cultures which exist side-by-side with the current ones.
NIGHTFALL by ASIMOV & SILVERBERG
Okay, this science fiction classic doesn’t have engineering projects in the fantasy sense. Rather, what we have is ruins which are being scientifically excavated. The twist is that relics being unearthed are perplexing the archaelogists, because the civilization they are uncovering is much older than they first thought and ended in a dramatic fashion. The question is why? And while the ancient engineering is only one part of the story, it is a very important piece of the puzzle.
PERN by ANNE McCAFFREY
From a fantasy series with dragonriders to a science fiction classic, Anne McCaffrey definitely used the trope of ancient engineering to its fullest, unveiling archaeological digs, ancient relics, and a forgotten history for the world of Pern. And, somehow, it all makes perfect sense in the end.
ROMULUS BUCKLE by RICHARD PRESTON, JR.
In Romulus Buckle (City of Founders, Engines of War), a steampunk world has arisen over the bones of its modern predecessor. The cause of the annihilation of earth is still visible as huge pillars dot the landscape, reminders of a time when aliens came to earth and destroyed the electrical world. “But that isn’t an ancient engineering project?” I see some of you mumbling. Well, no one said it couldn’t be alien engineering projects, right?
SEVEN FORGES by JAMES A. MOORE
This fantasy series mixes epic, sword and sorcery and horror themes together into a delicious brew. One trope that Mr. Moore deftly uses is ancient engineering, as the series (Seven Forges, The Blasted Lands, and City of Wonders) constantly dangles the prospect of wondrous relics left over from an ancient age — specifically something still functioning at “The Mounds.”
SHATTERED SEA by JOE ABERCROMBIE
There are examples of ancient engineering projects littered all around this Viking-esque land. Naturally, they aren’t labeled relics, but rather Elf Magic, which just happens to be long lost technology. There are even forbidden cities. So, yeah, Mr. Abercrombie just subverted some more fantasy tropes with his “grimwhine” masterpiece (Half a King, Half the World).
THE BROKEN EMPIRE by MARK LAWRENCE
In his “grimdark” masterpiece, Mr. Lawrence doesn’t hide the fact that everything is taking place in a post-apocalyptic world, which has seen the end of modern civilization and the re-emergence of a Dark Ages-like world. So, naturally, there are ancient engineering projects littering the landscape. From the thermo-nuclear storage facility in Prince of Thorns to the Builder spirit in King of Thorns to the Builder facility in Emperor of Thorns, ancient engineering makes more than a few appearances.
THE DARK TOWER by STEPHEN KING
This fantasy favorite is a series awash with ancient engineering. There are subways, trains, slowly decomposing cities, robots, and many, many more examples. And I loved discovering every one of them throughout this wild ride that began with such high expectations in The Gunslinger only to end with a groan in The Dark Tower. But now isn’t the time to complain about the ending, right?
THE DEMON CYCLE by PETER V. BRETT
Mr. Brett’s ongoing series (The Warded Man, The Desert Spear) is another fantasy which takes a cataclysmic past and sprinkles in tidbits of ancient engineering to remind readers of it. Of course, here the engineering is along the lines of wards to allow humanity to fight and kill demons, but that is still engineering, no matter how you look at it.
THE IRON SHIP by K.M. McKINLEY
This novel starts off as if it is going to be a magic filled fantasy of epic proportions, then it makes a sudden turn into the realm of steampunk. All of which means that this is a genre-blender piece which contains tropes from different types of fiction. One trope which The Iron Ship definitely uses to its advantage is ancient engineering, as great projects from lost civilizations begin to appear in the narrative. And it seems these relics of a forgotten past are only going to grow in importance in future books, since there is a scientific mystery brewing right under the surface!
THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. TOLKIEN
Tolkien might not have invented the fantasy trope of using ancient engineering projects to lend a sense of agelessness to a fantasy world, but he definitely mastered the technique. Throughout the Lord of the Rings, Frodo and his companions are constantly confronting ancient engineering. Whether that be elven ruins or the ruins of the Men of the West, these constant examples of ancient engineer teaches them (as well as readers) that Middle-Earth has been around a long time and holds many secrets.
THE RIYRIAN SERIES by MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN
Michael J. Sullivan has carried on Tolkien’s tradition of using ancient engineering to give a fantasy world weight. In The Riyrian Chronicles (The Crown Tower, The Rose and the Thorn) and The Riyrian Revelations (Theft of Swords), there are constant examples of unremembered ruins, perplexing towers, and lost cities; all of them playing a role in the slow unveiling of this world and its forgotten history.
THOMAS COVENANT by STEPHEN DONALDSON
Okay, okay, I know many people hate this series and the main character, but this is a list of ancient engineering projects. You do remember that, right? And with this narrow criteria in mind, Thomas Covenant definitely deserves to be on this list. I mean, the Lords of the Land are attempting to discover the hidden lore of the Lords of Old even while they reside in Revelstone (built by ancient methods no one can now duplicate). And that is just one example of the amazing engineering projects scattered around this world.
TIME MASTER by LOUISE COOPER
I will be the first to admit that there are not a lot of ancient engineering projects in this trilogy. However, most of the narrative takes place on one magical engineering project which is so ancient, so shrouded in mystery that no one (not even the main characters) truly know what to make of it. And due to the Star Peninsula, this series has to be here.
WHEEL OF TIME by JORDAN & SANDERSON
In my mind, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is second only to Tolkien in its extensive use of ancient engineering. I mean, you can’t go anywhere in this fantasy world without coming across ruins, ancient relics (and I mean the massive monument kind), or other visible signs pointing out how old this place really is. Just wish it hadn’t been so damn boring in the middle.
So tell me what did I miss?