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.

Art by Aly Fell

Art by Aly Fell

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?

Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

Buy Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

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.

Written by Brian McClellan

Brian McClellan

Brian lives in Cleveland, Ohio with his wife, two dogs, a cat, and between 6,000 and 60,000 honey bees (depending on the time of year). Encouraged toward writing by his parents, he started working on short stories and novellas in his late teens. He went on to major in English with an emphasis on creative writing at Brigham Young University. It was here he met Brandon Sanderson, who encouraged Brian’s feeble attempts at plotting and characters more than he should have. In November 2011, Promise of Blood and two sequels sold at auction to Orbit Books.

http://www.brianmcclellan.com/     @BrianTMcClellan

Discussion
  • Paul (@princejvstin) February 18, 2013 at 6:54 am

    Thanks, Brian.

    When I first heard the tagline and the premise of Promise of Blood, I immediately thought of Napoleon taking control post-French Revolution (and to a lesser extent, Cromwell and 17th century England).

    I also think gunpowder doesn’t often wind up in fantasy because writers often eschew the more complex societies and social forms that in our history went hand in hand with the invention of firearms.

    Its easier to do medieval fantasy than Age of Enlightenment style fantasy that way. There are a few books that come to mind that square this circle (hello, Bradley Beaulieu) but it is a relatively unmined stratum of fantasy. I look forward to what you bring to the table!

  • Don February 18, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Brian,
    Thanks for the insight on this subject! I thought quite a bit about gunpowder in fantasy writing. I always wondered why no one ever tried putting it into their works. Magic and Muskets sounds like it’s going to be awesome! I am going to grab it and give it a read!

    It’s funny you mention Tolkien. He actually used gunpowder in his writings. The Battle of the Hornburg (aka the Battle at Helm’s Deep) Saurman’s Orcs used the fire of Orthanc to bring down the Deeping Wall and open a passage for an assult. Tolkein didn’t come right out and call it gunpowder but the affects were pretty much the same.

  • Alex Tacoma February 18, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Very cool, Brian!

    I love to read how authors are tackling Fantasy and Science Fiction from an increasingly realistic point of view. You obviously put much thought and effort into creating your books, and I look forward to reading them as a result.

    I do want to add that, as a current college student, I come from a generation which has already begun to see some use of gunpowder in Fantasy literature. Two examples come to mind: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. While The Wheel of Time does mystify gunpowder in light of the more culturally accepted magic of Channeling, Turner’s books treat gunpowder as a more natural development and the magic (a pantheon of gods and goddesses very similar to those of ancient Greece) is only really believed in by a select group of characters. Neither series seems to make a direct nod toward the difference in “magics” more than normal, however, and your idea makes me think that your book is somewhat of a hyperaware novel. As I said before, I look forward to reading it!

  • Aidan Moher February 18, 2013 at 9:39 am

    @Don – Just a heads up, Brian’s novel is called Promise of Blood, not ‘Muskets & Magic,’ that’s just the title of this article.

  • Brian McClellan February 18, 2013 at 9:54 am

    @Don and Alex,
    I decided to leave out specific examples because, like Alex pointed out, there are a lot of epic fantasy novels that touch upon gunpowder. But I think it’s a lot more rare to find epic fantasy where gunpowder is the primary method of warfare (Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer series comes to mind).

  • David Lein February 18, 2013 at 10:03 am

    Hi Brian. Sounds really good. R.A. MacAvoy’s Lens of the World trilogy also features guns, gun powder, petards and science, yet is still very much a fantasy.

    Cheers,

    David

  • Brian McClellan February 18, 2013 at 10:35 am

    @David
    I’ll have to read that. Looks like she and I from the same area. I wonder if she still lives in Cleveland.

  • Kal February 18, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Very inspirational. I myself have always just used the excuse that gunpowder was never discovered in my own stories, but your article has made me reconsider and reevaluate my take on guns in the fantasy setting. I will definitely have to check out your book.

  • Paul (@princejvstin) February 18, 2013 at 10:42 am

    @don the movie version of the Two Towers makes it absolutely clear Saruman has gunpowder, but luckily does not have anything more than black powder bombs…

  • Brad Beaulieu February 18, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Great post, Brian. I was already interested in the book after talking with you at ConFusion these past few years, but now I’m even more interested! It reminds me a bit of William Forstchen’s Rally Cry series, a series that didn’t have magic, but did have sfnal elements in the form of a wormhole device that brought a regiment of civ war soldiers to a world filled with human tribute slaves and nine-foot-tall Mongol-like aliens. My favorite part of that series overall (beyond the excellent, tense writing) was the stepwise leaps in technology that were made by the humans and the aliens as their war stepped up, each trying to outdo the other with either sheer brute force or technical know-how. Ever read it?

  • Brad Beaulieu February 18, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    And thanks for the nod, Paul!

  • dad February 18, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    nice post bri; i liked the glimpses of your thought processes and historical discipline. dad

  • Ian Toltz February 18, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    If you haven’t already, check out Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series. It’s all about the effects of technological progress on war, set against the backdrop of a world formerly steeped in magic and superstition.

    You mentioned how gunpowder made things less personal, how shelling the enemy from miles away was less romantic? This is directly addressed in that series. When the series starts, warfare is dominated by crossbows and plate armor. The invention of rifles, then artillery, and then fuel-efficient bombers changes it so that each battle fought is wildly different from the last.

  • Chris M February 18, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    Sounds interesting Brian. Looking forward to reading it. I’ve never really got into fantasy much as I’ve always been more interested in early modern to modern settings. As you say so much changes with the advent of gunpowder and much to the peril of those without it (as South America/Australia et al found out).

    Novik’s Temeraire series and Chris Evans’ Iron Elves series comes to mind that features gunpowder and magic; both are set in a Napoleonic era.

  • Joshua K Johnson February 18, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    It’s definitely great to see this new category growing. While there are a few authors who have ventured into the Gunpowder Fantasy/Muskets and Magic/Flintlock Fantasy arena, it’s always nice to see more!

    It’s also great to see the variation in the level and use of technology, both in the gunpowder weapons and in the general technology, and in the use and power of magic. I’ve read everything from Flintlock Fantasies with very little magic, to Muskets and Magic where magic is the driving force, to Rifles and Railroads where technology has advanced to the cusp of steampunk.

  • Brian McClellan February 18, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    Brad,
    I’ve never read the Rally Cry series. That sounds very cool, I’ll have to look in to it. There is a lot of fantasy out there that I don’t know about (responses to this post are helping me realize that).

  • Tom Lloyd February 19, 2013 at 3:05 am

    I’d second the Tchaikovsky suggestion, very interesting to see the deliberate advanced progress of tech through the series as the arms race goes. I think there’s always been a wariness about gunpowder because it is a levelling element, in that the knight class of any civilisation becomes less significant, and there’s a social and technological change that accompanies it to some degree – one that’s harder to marry with magic and superstition that fantasy’s so closely tied to. I think the tide’s turned though and already we’re seeing more muskets in fantasy as a standard weapon – wasn’t at all intentional on my part (in terms of fantasy norms) but my impending new series has them, seeing the cover of the Django Wexler novel coming in a few months they’re also there and I’d have thought many more.

  • Austin Blanton February 19, 2013 at 5:34 am

    Very interesting article. You have convinced me to at least test out more advanced weaponry in my writing. Also, I believe that Alloy of Law has guns, I’m pretty sure.

  • Don February 19, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    Paul,
    I agree, the movie left little doubt that it was gunpowder. In the novel they called it the “Fire of Orthanc.” Tolkein made it sound more like magic then gunpowder. I just mentioned that because that was the only thing I could think of that came close to being gunpowder.

  • Jeff Long March 5, 2013 at 7:52 am

    I came at this from another point to arrive at the same place. I am history buff military history to be exact and found the changes introduce by black powder to be fascinating. As the fusil was introduced and perfected no man’s land developed. The point of decisions were still often reached by a bayonet charge, but crossing that 100 yards became more and more difficult. These days that range has increased to 300 yards and it is still very hard to cross alive. I find it interesting as a trend that the offensive in warfare is so predominate. I will look forward to how you handle magic in your book in a fusil age.

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