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GUEST POST | Industrialization in Epic Fantasy by Brian McClellan

The Industrial Revolution was a time of great change in our history. There were immense technological breakthroughs as well as wave after wave of political and social reform. The class system was breaking down and kings were being pulled from their thrones. Unprecedented economic growth swept across large parts of the world.

This most important of times in human history is often either maligned or ignored by epic fantasy.

The precedent for this seems to have been set by Tolkien. In his Lord of the Rings series, industrialization and technological advancement only seems to happen among the orcs. This is portrayed very well in the film where we can see great clouds of toxic pollution hanging over Mordor, and in Sarumon's lands he tears down the ancient forests to fuel and make room for belching factories to arm his Uruk-hai.

Tolkien focuses on the negative aspects of the industrialization, and why wouldn't he? During the Industrial Revolution people were crammed into dirty, overpopulated cities. Streets overflowed with trash and raw sewage. Rivers became toxic with the filthy runoff. Mining and logging on a large scale destroyed the countryside. All of this industrialization created a world in which it was possible to equip armies for world wars—a fact that Tolkien saw first hand.

There are plenty of others who focus on the disadvantages of technological progress in their epic fantasy. The starkest of these are post-apocalyptic epic fantasy; these are fantasy worlds that take place on a future Earth after nuclear war. Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire trilogy is one example, while Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman's Death Gate Cycle is another. In these worlds we see the ultimate endgame of industrialization—near annihilation.

In Promise of Blood, I wanted to treat the Industrial Revolution differently. Not as the means of evil, as Tolkien did, or advancement toward a nuclear holocaust, but as the simple wheels of progress. There is no inherent evil in industrialization—only what man decides to do with the results.

So I asked the question. "What place does magic have in an industrializing world?" The answer I found: a big one.

In my novels, the old school of magic—the Privileged with their elemental sorcery—are deeply entrenched in the nobility of the world. Along with the nobility they oppose this new rising middle class of capitalists and the factories and unions that come with them. At the same time they don't mind getting rich off the backs of the working man, or the canal being built over the mountains that will enable the import of more luxury goods.

The new powder mages, with their sorcery based on gunpowder, embrace industrialization. How better to produce more gunpowder and flintlocks? Factories help the Adran army become the best equipped among all the Nine Nations. The greater population density of the cities make it easier to find and recruit more powder mages.

Then there's the Knacked and their talents. The sorcery of the commoners is turned to whatever use they can find for it. Inspector Adamat uses his perfect memory to aid in his investigations. Olem becomes Field Marshal Tamas' bodyguard because he doesn't need sleep. The commoners adapt. They use their magic to better themselves in an increasingly complicated world.

There are some that might argue that industrialization takes the "epic" out of "epic fantasy." They might say that writing in this time period goes against the whole spirit of the genre. I don't agree. I think there are magic and heroes, good and evil, adventure and intrigue to be found in an industrial world and that the Industrial Revolution opens up a whole new set of possibilities for epic fantasy. Magic does not fade with technological advancement. It adapts along with the people that use it.


Brian McClellan 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). He began writing on Wheel of Time role playing websites at fifteen. 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. Brian continued to study writing not just as an art but as a business and was determined this would be his life-long career. He attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp in 2006. In 2008, he received honorable mention in the Writers of the Future Contest. In November 2011, PROMISE OF BLOOD and two sequels sold at auction to Orbit Books. It is due out in April of 2013. More info can be found on his website or on twitter.

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Paul Weimer said...

Thanks, Brian.

Although few authors have explored this idea, have you read any of the authors who have tried to get Industrialization and Magic mixed together, as you have?

Brian said...

There wasn't really room to talk about it in the blog post, but the only place you see industrialization in fantasy is steam punk (which is obviously different from epic fantasy).

Mad Hatter Review said...

I've read a few books that have both guns and magic in them, but none really even comes close to combining the two as Promise of Blood does.

Paul Weimer said...

I was thinking "early Industrial Revolution" (18th century) rather than Steampunky 19th.

Jennifer Fiddes said...

Anyone who knows Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman's Death Gate Cycle is a friend of mine. Nice thoughts on the subject, and I'll keep an eye out for your book.

Mad Hatter Review said...

@Paul The closest I can think of is Chris Evans' Iron Elves series, but the magic was kept separate. Promise of Blood really integrates the industrial aspect well.

Brian said...


I haven't read anything that mixes industrialization and magic. I only found out about Chris Evans when I started my blog tour and he kept coming up in the comments and I don't know to what extent he mixes them.

Stienberg said...

This is a cool look at mixing magic and industrialization. I was originally intrigued by the idea when playing the Fable series of games and it seems like you've got some great ideas for combining them!

banotti said...

What about Shadows of the Apt series from Tchaikowsky?
Btw. cannot wait to read Promise of Blood!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this background. Promise just jumped to the top of my TBR pile.

It's a different approach but Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt presents industrialization well too. Majic mostly takes a back seat for the first few books but it builds some momentum later on.

Anonymous said...

As a History major, this is something I've learned and work to incorporate in my own writing. Great article (the last article I saw by you was great as well, by the way).

Robin Lythgoe said...

I am totally intrigued by this concept and appreciate your thoughts about it. I have to wonder if you're at the forefront of a new fantasy sub genre. "Industrial Fantasy" sounds kind of heavy; what do you think? Better hop on that! Heh. Very much looking forward to reading "Promise of Blood."

Rhowaan said...

Try The Corean Chronicles by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.