You can tell a lot about a fantasy novel by its glossary

Was just working on the glossary for The Fifth Season. Glossaries are both fun and frustrating for me — fun because a glossary is worldbuilding at its most stark, and frustrating because it’s part of the story, and can enhance or detract from the reading experience if it’s mishandled. The tension between TELL THEM EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, HA HA HA and tell them nothing, nothing, they don’t need to know gets kind of uncomfortable after awhile. That’s why I’ve asked that all of my glossaries be located at the backs of my books, rather than the fronts — because, like maps, they contain unavoidable spoilers to the reader about where the story’s going to go and what it will involve. I prefer for readers to figure that out the way the characters do, by living in the world’s context and immersing in its strangeness.

Still, the Broken Earth trilogy is the, hmm, biggest thing I’ve ever written, and the scope of it is forcing me to do some things I’ve never done before. The Fifth Season is going to have a map, for example. (Yeah, yeah, I’m breaking my infamous “NO MAPS!” rule, lemmealone.) But I needed one while I was working on TFS, which pretty much means readers are going to need one too, so I’ve spent the past few weeks working with an artist on my first-ever fantasy map. That’s been fascinating as hell — the first draft alone is awesome — and when it’s done I’ll tell you more about it.

And the glossary is bigger. I’m editing it down now, because ya know, the glossary shouldn’t be longer than the novel. In the process I’m trying to put myself into the head of a reader who skips ahead to read the glossary before reading the book, because I know full well some of ya’ll do that. ::mom eyes:: That way I can (hopefully) extract any spoilers before you impatient people hit them. :)

So, an exercise! Here’s a random page of the glossary, from which I think I have extracted any spoilery material. There should be stuff here that makes you scratch your head and want to know more, but not anything that would reveal Important Plot Secrets. Warning in advance that I might have failed in this, so I’m putting it below the cut if you’d rather not risk it. The rest of you, if you’re feeling brave, help me out!

Imperial Road: One of the great innovations of the Old Sanze Empire, highroads (elevated highways for walking or horse-traffic) connect all major comms and most large quartents to one another. Highroads are built by teams of geneers and Imperial Orogenes, with the orogenes determining the most stable path through areas of seismic activity (or quelling the activity, if there is no stable path), and the geneers routing water and other important resources near the roads to facilitate travel during Seasons.

Innovator: One of the seven common use-castes. Innovators are individuals selected for their creativity and applied intelligence, responsible for technical and logistical problem-solving during a Season.

Kirkhusa: A mid-sized mammal, sometimes kept as a pet or used to guard homes or livestock. Normally herbivarous; during Seasons, carnivorous.

Knapper: A small-tools crafter, working in stone, glass, bone, or other materials. In large comms, knappers may use mechanical or mass-production techniques. Knappers who work in metal, or incompetent knappers, are colloquially called “rusters”.

Lorist: One who studies stonelore and lost history.

Mela: A midlats plant, related to the melons of Equatorial climates. Mela are vining ground plants which normally produce fruit above-ground. During a Season, the fruit grows underground as tubers. Some species of mela produce flowers that trap insects.

Metallore: Like alchemy and astromestry, a discredited pseudoscience disavowed by the Seventh University.

Midlats: The “middle” latitudes of the continent — those between the equator and the arctic or antarctic regions. Also refers to people from midlats regions (sometimes called “midlatters”). The Midlats are the backwater of the Stillness, although these regions produce much of the world’s food, materials, and other critical resources. There are two midlat regions: the northern (Nomidlats) and Southern (Somidlats).

So now I’m curious: what questions does reading this drum up for you, if any?

28 thoughts on “You can tell a lot about a fantasy novel by its glossary”

  1. Where is the entry for Seasons? Apparently it is a critical time period that occurs on a regular basis and seems to drastically change the order of things but for how long out of a “year” or equivalent time period? What must people do to survive during Seasons when things are different?

    A map will certainly be helpful and I am very curious about this world, its inhabitants, its rules, and its problems.

  2. Paul (@princejvstin)

    What are geneers and Imperial Orogenes and why are they building roads?

    What are the *other* castes?

  3. When reading Innovator, I wonder how much of a meritocracy the society thinks it is–and what they feel is an impartial judge of creativity and applied intelligence.

    If Kirkhusa are carnivorous during Seasons, I’d assume one will become carnivorous and affect plot. Same with mela and insects.

    Metallore is both a discredited pseudoscience and disavowed by the university–someone other than the university folk considered it discredited? Emphasis on negatives makes me assume someone will be using it and thinking of it positively.

    Thanks for sharing this! I love glossaries, but I usually avoid reading them first because most do have some degree of spoil, even if it’s vague/implied.

  4. Specifically looking for spoilers, the only entry that has a strong whiff of ‘story material’ is Metallore, with the sense that “discredited pseudoscience” suggests conflict and potential fantasy material. But, that said, I really wouldn’t guess any plot points or anything beyond that it might be a part of the story to learn that it’s not so “pseudo.”

    My main question would be the difference between Innovator as a use-caste, and Knapper/Lorist as jobs. I would assume a use-caste is different from just any career, but obviously I don’t know how from this entry alone. However, I wouldn’t expect to know everything from a glossary alone.

    I’m intrigued by the Kirkhusa entry, mainly for the shift from herbivore to carnivore (and especially in a pet or guard, I can sense problems!). It’s the entry that really paints Seasons as hardcore. :)

    I’m excited for your new book!! I just have to say that I really love your other books; they are some of the most interesting and original fiction I’ve ever read. I remember finishing The Broken Kingdoms and actually tearing up that I could never write anything like it… but so glad that someone else can! :) Thank you.

    Hope this helps!

  5. I haven’t read the synopsis–I just pre-ordered. With that in mind…

    What the heck is the moon doing to this world that they need elevated roads and there is a great need to avoid areas with seismic activity?

    What is life like during the ‘Season’ that would make an animal go carnivorous?

    It sounds like there is massive flooding during the ‘season’?

  6. What’s a quartent? I feel you have given us a hint about what geneers and orogenes do/are, enough to be going on with, but who does the selections into castes — people from the universities?

    I’m guessing that the Stillness is an (the?) area on this planet with little enough/infrequent enough seismic activity to support a stable sedentary society, but like Jesslyn, I want to know about what’s causing all the seismic events and wondering how even constant earthquakes can turn animals carnivorous and turn melons into root vegetables.

    I mean, I really, really want to know these things. This glossary is an excellent teaser. Can I put in a plea for a pronunciation guide as well?

    Also, I like maps, and don’t consider them spoilers. I always figure that people are going to have some sort of map of their world in their heads, and that’s going to influence the way they think and at, even if they don’t necessarily go to most of the places on that map.

  7. I’m with Natalie, this just really makes me want to read it.

    I guess one question that hasn’t been asked yet is ‘what do they have against metal?’

  8. Hi N. It’s been awhile

    Hmmm, interesting, from what I gather, it appears as if this story takes place after a fall of an industrialized civilization and the fact that rusters are names for those that work with metal and incompetence speaks volumes.

    Couple of other tidbits:
    – Why is “Season” capitalized?
    – Metallore has been discredited? In lieu of what?

    Here’s my question – Are there any glossaries you’ve read that got it right or wrong, in your opinion?

  9. I don’t feel that it is not terribly spoilery. It is comprehensive.

    Compared to, say, Patricia McKillop’s glossary for the Hed book, which, if it had the road listed at all would just say “Imperial Road: highroads (elevated highways for walking or horse-traffic) connect all major comms and most large quartents”, which would be about as much as you could be gleaned from the text, maybe less.

    I do find the Midlats entry quite confusing. It seems that there is a disparaging term for most of the planet. I do assume that this makes sense within the telling of the story.

    Yay maps! I love maps. Partly because my brain doesn’t easily make sense of time and distance so if anyone is travelling anywhere, I like to see a map.

  10. Some definite interest raised (as if I wasn’t interested enough in the novel already…) here. I’m assuming that “comms” are short for communties or something similar, and the very existance of that term makes me happy because one thing a lot of writers of SFF don’t put much thought into is setting-appropriate slang and shortforms. So I love seeing such things when they’re there. I’m very much curious about the other castes, and why they’re use-castes; is the implication that it’s something you choose rather than something you’re born into? There are so many hints dropped in just these few definitions, hints at a much larger world, and it all makes me very curious!

  11. Oh, wow! This is exciting. A pet/guard-dog-like creature that is an herbivore, mostly. I hope someone gets eaten during the Season.

  12. Unlurking for this to squee. Because I was going to get the book anyway, but now the wait is more unbearable. Mmmm, delicious world building.

    I’m guessing that words like comms and geneers, etc. suggest some sort of evolved or debased English. So this is probably happening in our universe in the future, or a close parallel. I’d also assume that linguistic rabbit comes out of the hat very early in the story, so it wouldn’t count as spoilery.

    Also noting the carefully neutral wording around “rusters.” Though the rest of the antipathy towards metal, and pairing knappers who work with metal with incompetent knappers suggests it’s derogatory.

    Are use-castes only active during a Season? “Innovators are … responsible for technical and logistical problem-solving during a Season” seems to suggest that they do other stuff during off-time.

    If Stonelore is grouped with lost history and metal is disdained, what sort of materials are these people using?

  13. What does metallore do, and who benefits from its discredit? (Also, yeah, what *do* they have against metal?) If seismic activity can be quelled, why is it only done on the roads? What happened to the previous six universities?

  14. Another who hasn’t read the blurb or anything, but to add to what others have said: It is somewhat implied that humans too are affected by what happens during a Season, since Innovators have different roles. What causes these Seasons? (Moon, but why?) And how else do Seasons affect humans?

  15. Three thoughts: 1) Sounds fascinating! Very evocative vocabulary. 2) Those Seasons sure sound like serious business. 3) Do they have wildlife tunnels or the like going under the highroads?

  16. I agree with all the folks who have said this makes me REALLY want to read the book, and also, why is metalwork so reviled?

  17. Whoa! Sorry, folks — I recently moved this blog to a new server/ISP, and didn’t realize I had notifications about comments turned off. Had no idea anyone had responded. D’oh.

  18. E_bookpushers, this is only one page of the glossary, and I deliberately left out certain entries. But Seasons — or Fifth Seasons — are something I’ve actually mentioned in other places, so I’ll explain: the world this story takes place on is very seismically active. Lots of quakes, volcanoes, etc., and rather frequent volcanic winters. Sometimes these are Extinction-Level Events. That’s a Season.

  19. Tobias, re glossaries that get it right or wrong — it’s not an either-or thing for me, just a matter of degree. But then, I’m the sort of reader who refuses to read glossaries until after I’ve finished the book, so spoilers aren’t something I notice by that point.

  20. Fabien, sort of. I wrote “Stone Hunger” as a proof-of-concept story, testing the worldbuilding, before I wrote The Fifth Season. There are some minor changes to the world, completely different characters, and the stories are unrelated.

  21. “No Maps”? Silly rule. Any fantasy set in a world that is not ours, that takes place in anything larger than a city requires a map. No exceptions :-) I’ve missed your maps… (I don’t even need _good_ maps, just enough to know what’s in what direction from where).

    The biggest question this raises in my mind is “what is it about metal?” A knapper who works in metal, apparently no matter how good he is, is treated to the same derision as any incompetent knapper. Clearly related to the fact that metallore is “a discredited pseudoscience”, but why?!

  22. Super excited – This sounds like a really fun world to explore through your always excellent characters and narratives. A few technical thoughts that occurred to me while reading the excerpt (warning, extremely wonky):

    – Liability and risk management in a world where things fall down and get destroyed all the time could actually be a fascinating component of the society you are creating. Insurance doesn’t work when there’s this much damage (or possibility of damage) on a regular basis. What is the safety net to help people pick up the pieces and rebuild after these recurring disasters (seasons?)?

    – Along a similar line, what responsibility to society do these orogenes and geneers have if their workmanship or design is shoddy and the structures fail? Is this expected and accepted, or is there a high criminal penalty? The reason I ask is that it sounds like there are good reasons for elevating the roadways, but this creates some significant engineering challenges in seismic zones – any thoughts on how this would be managed (especially without steel)? Light weight and flexible would be a good bet, so perhaps rope bridges with very simple/minimal wood decking? I don’t think structures like the Roman aqueducts would survive in the landscape you’ve described.

    – Last but not least, you are probably familiar with it from your research for the book, but if not – definitely check out the interlocked ashlar stonework and other earthquake resistant masonry details developed by the Inca. Very cool solutions to this problem.

    Can’t wait to get this book!!

  23. I don’t think there is anything “spoilery” in the glossary. The only question it raised in me (and I hope it doesn’t sound strange or negative) was: Is this really a fantasy, or is it science-fiction? “Geneers” just sounds so sci-fiish.

  24. Amazon has the eBook version of “The Fifth Season” listed for pre-order and says it will be available on December 2, 2014! Is this an accurate date?

  25. Amazon has just emailed me saying the release date for the Kindle version of “The Fifth Season” has been changed by the publisher to Dec 9, 2014, which Amazon now shows on their website as well, and I am still wondering if a December, 2014 release is an actuality.

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