Tough Travels – The Big City

Tough Travelling

Every week, Fantasy Review Barn runs a feature where they seek out examples of fantasy tropes. Other bloggers are welcome to join in, finding their own books to match the given topic.

This week’s topic is The Big City:

There has to be somewhere in Fantasyland where everyone comes together. All roads lead to Rome after all. A place where traders prosper, politicians scheme, and criminals thrive.

This is trope is one that is far more common in games than books – so many RPGs have a single central city, where all of civilization seems to be focused. Neverwinter, Baldur’s gate, Mass Effect’s Citadel – all of these are the hubs of their respective worlds.

Books, I find, tend to diversify a bit more, perhaps because the size of their world is not constrained by computing power. Books are free to have as many detailed cities as they would like, moving characters vast distances to meet the next distilled cultural idea – desert nomads, or wild northeners.

As a result though, I struggled to think of more than a couple of cities that actually met the full prompt – places that sit at the center of the worlds, that everyone naturally gravitates towards.  Even lots of books set entirely in a city don’t make the city a major part of the narrative, keeping them as just a backdrop – like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City, or C.S. Lewis’ Cair Paravel.

For my examples, I tried to think of cities that genuinely are the focus, at least partly, of their respective texts – cities that are gathering points for diverse cultures, even species, cities that have a distinct character. It took me a while, but I found a few.

1. Ankh-Morpork – Terry Pratchett, various

More than any other example I could think of, Ankh-Morpork typifies this trope. Ankh-Morpork is the city on the Discworld – a massive melting pot where humans, dwarves, even vampires can engage in free commerce and petty crime. It has everything – a university, catacombs, a warehouse for storing future pork. Anything could, and often does, happen in Ankh-Morpork.

Countless distinct and fascinating characters and places share the streets, all swirling together to create a vast and insane profusion of buildings stacked one upon another. Revolutions, riots and wars rage through the streets, but the city still stands; no one can attack Ankh-Morpork, because Ankh-Morpork lent them the money to raise an army, and is happy to call in the debt.

Jam New York into Victorian London, add magic and the fall of Rome, then add almost anything else you can think of. Ankh-Morpork is a bustling metropolis, a Dwarven homeland, the social, economic and political hub of a world that actually has a hub.

2. Chryellos – David Eddings, The Sapphire Rose

Part way through the third book of David Eddings’ Elenium series, everyone congregates on the Vatican-equivalent city, Chryellos. What follows is several chapters focusing on the election of the Archprelate (essentially the Pope); it’s probably in my top-ten fantasy depictions of papal elections – not that many authors manage to make counting votes a particularly exciting read, but its definitely my favourite part of this series. There’s double dealing and intrigue and it’s all set against the backdrop of Chryellos, Eosia’s richest city.

Chryellos is a city of schemers, where cardinal-equivalents vie with each other to have the most magnificent palaces. It’s a city obsessed with status, where even imminent invasion doesn’t prevent people jockeying for status and minor power. Chryellos is the center of everything, the place where speeches are made that decide the future of nations, the place where kings gather and gods speak to the assembled clergy. The series may focus on a small kingdom, with lots of excursions to barren wildernesses, but Chryellos is where people go when they want to change the fate of the world with a single speech.

3. Sanctaphrax – Paul Stewart, The Edge Chronicles series

I’ve mentioned The Edge Chronicles multiple times for “Tough Travels” posts, though not as often as I’ve mentioned Pratchett. It’s a series with incredible depth and variety in its setting, providing so many exciting and original examples of so many things.

Sanctaphrax is the Edge’s floating city, built on a giant lighter-than-air rock kept tethered to the earth by a giant iron chain. In Sanctaphrax itself, squabbling colleges of academics study the sky; at the other end of the chain, undertown squats on the landscape, a bustling maze of streets filled with those who serve and supply the academics in their (sometimes literally) ivory towers. Skyships flit about the twin cities, bringing in cargoes from the Deepwoods, or heading off to chase storms that blow in from Open Sky.

One of the best things about Sanctaphrax and Undertown is that they evolve: The Edge Chronicles is not a series that stagnates, and the actions of various factions and characters have massive consequences for the world; new towns are founded, vast new building projects change and scar the face of the world. From book to book, you can chart the ways in which it all changes, and nothing shows the changes more than Sanctaphrax itself. The chain is strengthened, reinforced, propped up and cut, while academics wield policy and then weapons against each other.

It’s the Edge’s only real city, and it’s the Edge’s entire focus. Everything moves towards the floating rock.

Yet again, I’ve struggled to find relevant examples. I don’t know whether that suggests that I should increase the breadth of my reading, or that fantasy is a more varied genre than popularly perceived. Hopefully the latter – fantasy has a terrible reputation for being shallow and clichéd, and it would be mice to think that this was an outdated perception.

The post on Fantasy Review Barn is here, and in addition to that list, there are links there to many other bloggers with their own take on the idea. Next week’s topic is Mothers.

4 thoughts on “Tough Travels – The Big City

  1. Fantasy is as broad of a category as there is. That it is shallow is definitely an outdated (if it was ever valid, which is worth arguing about) conception.


    1. Once you start categorising, the genre’s breadth becomes obvious, but I think there has definitely been (at points) a perception that fantasy was a rather shallow genre, full of farmboys on quests. Obviously, that’s never been even close to a full, fair picture, yet there was some truth in it – The Tough Guide is partially satirising a mainstream trend.

      What I was trying to say was that I do like that that perception falls down the moment you start to examine it – fantasy opens up into this huge and multi-faceted genre, and it becomes obvious just how few books match the stereotype in any meaningful or vital way.


  2. I love that your game examples are a list of BioWare RPGs! Excellent choices :P I think there tend to be more gaming examples because they tend to have somewhere you need to return to over and over to sell your loot, buy or upgrade stuff, craft, wander around scanning keepers…. you know, that sort of stuff.

    I haven’t been tough traveling for very long, but it’s interesting that while there are a few worlds which come up pretty reliably (LOTR, Harry Potter, Discworld, ASOIF) the other examples tend to vary a lot every week. I would agree that that speaks to the diversity of material in SFF, and also to (most) authors not being over-reliant on the tropes of the genre.

    Liked by 1 person

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