Magic is often used to keep the status quo, until it becomes accessible to the common man and suddenly turns the world upside down.
You don’t see a lot of gunpowder in fantasy.
It’s there, especially in historical fantasy. But it’s not as common as one might think. Most fantasy seems to take place in a pre-gunpowder period despite gunpowder having been around in our own world since the middle ages. I think this has a lot to do with what we read when we were kids. Many of us grew up on medieval fantasy. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis dominated my childhood. When I was old enough to go looking for books at the library, I read David Eddings, Tracy Hickman, and Robert E. Howard. None of the stuff I read had any gunpowder in it and when I first started writing all my settings were medieval.
So beyond mere habit, why don’t we see much gunpowder in fantasy? I think that magic, in a lot of ways, fills in for gunpowder. It’s something mysterious. Perhaps it can be used by the common man, but the common man doesn’t know the secrets behind it. Only a few people can master those. It can be volatile and dangerous, used for both good and evil. Magic is often used to keep the status quo, until it becomes accessible to the common man and suddenly turns the world upside down.
Gunpowder can also make things impersonal. Shelling the enemy position from eight hundred yards is not nearly as romantic as leading a cavalry charge up a hill to break your foe. The same goes for infantry lining up opposite each other at seventy paces and then firing until one side breaks and runs. This adds a layer of problems which aren’t terribly difficult to surmount, but I can see some authors just not wanting to deal with. When your hero can kill the bad guy from a great distance you have to compensate for that within the plot in much the same way as urban fantasy authors today have to figure out to keep their hero’s problems from being solved with a cell phone.
So what happens when we do introduce gunpowder to a fantasy?
First we can ask: what happened to our own world when gunpowder was introduced? Everything changed. War, predominantly. We developed countless new and interesting ways to kill each other. The face of a battle altered drastically: fortifications and siege techniques, weaponry and armor. The noise and the chaos increased. We even see things like the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 where a small group planned on destroying the entire House of Lords and the king. The capability of destruction available to man increased by orders of magnitude. This caused a trickle-down effect that changed politics, economics, and every day life, all the way down to the way we hunt.
I had to take all of this in to account when I wrote Promise of Blood because I was setting it in a world that was the technological equivalent of Napoleonic Europe. I wasn’t just writing historical fiction, though. I was writing epic fantasy and from the beginning I wanted magic to be a strong aspect of that world. I decided to approach the question of how gunpowder affects a magical world in two ways.
What if gunpowder wasn’t just a chemical explosive but something that could give people extraordinary powers?
The first was gunpowder as a basis for a magic system. What if gunpowder wasn’t just a chemical explosive but something that could give people extraordinary powers? Powder mages are faster and stronger than regular men. They can manipulate gunpowder to shoot bullets the entire length of a battlefield or around corners. They can ignite nearby gunpowder with a single thought. How does that affect a traditional line combat? Would they be more like snipers as we think of them today?
The second approach I took was examining how gunpowder affects the existing status quo. There is an established hierarchy of sorcery in place with Privileged at the very top. They are powerful elemental sorcerers, some of which are strong enough to slaughter entire armies with the twitch of the finger. They are rich and powerful and report only to the king; they are nobility in their own right. How would they react to a caste of mages that are not their equal in power but that can put a bullet in their eye from a mile away?
It’s a fascinating game to play as a writer and one which the reader may only see the very tip of the iceberg. Behind what you see on the page is an entire history of Privileged fighting against the weaponization of gunpowder, then pogroms against the powder mages and powder mages assassinating Privileged and seeking favor with the king.
Introduce gunpowder to a magical world and everything changes. The same changes that happened in our own world with the advent of gunpowder, but there is now the extra element of magic to consider. I think that gunpowder opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for fantasy authors and we will be seeing a lot more of it in the coming years.