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Wednesday 26 May 2010

The dying of the light

One of the most imaginative and atmospheric works of fantasy fiction ever written is Oliver Johnson's Lightbringer Trilogy. Each book conforms to a disciplined unity of time, as the titles suggest: The Forging of the Shadows, The Nations of the Night, The Last Star at Dawn. Such evocative names! - don't they send a shiver down the spine? And even within such compressed time-frames, twelve hours per book, an epic story unfolds. In the whole genre of fantasy adventure there is nothing to equal it, except perhaps for Oliver's own The Knight of the Fields, which has yet to be published.

It helps that Oliver has a background in role-playing games, I think, because it's only when you've experienced an imaginary world from the inside that this level of authenticity is possible. Which is not to say that most RPG referees should launch into writing a fantasy trilogy - far from it. Oliver is almost unique in having both the gamer's grasp of detail and texture coupled with a poet's ability to imbue words with visceral, transformative force. When he describes a battle, you are right there.

You can read excerpts from all of the books on Amazon, and an interview here about how they came to be. For example, Oliver describes the thinking behind his extremely scary take on vampires:
"What is it like to know you’re going to live forever? Not very pleasant, probably - wouldn’t the spirit be sapped knowing that there was no pressure of time, no finite end? I remember a Borges story, ‘The Immortals’, which had this as its theme. The gods ended up wallowing in mud pools all day, barely bothering to move, so tired had they become of their eternal life. I’m not a great fan of the svelte, charming vamps we find in a lot of contemporary fantasy fiction. I wanted to explore beings for whom the pursuit of blood was a physiological necessity, like an addict’s craving for a drug."
And to whet your appetite further, here's the overview that Oliver gave us when he started his role-playing campaign set in the Lightbringer world:

Ten thousand years ago, the gods lived on the earth.

Reh, god of the Light and the Sun, Iss, God of Worms and Prince of Eternal Darkness: these two were the principles. They fought together at Shandering Plain. The Earth shook at the roar of the battle; the sky went black for a hundred years. And in the darkness, the gods departed. They now live in the stars and their power is exercised by their human servants upon the earth. The two gods wait for that moment when their subjects destroy the worship of the other. The victor will then return: Reh in his chariot of Fire, in a blaze of light. Or Iss under the blanket of eternal night.

Does that Eternal Darkness come soon? The earth grows old and, with it, the sun. The summer comes slower and later. The crops are sere and brown and die in the fields. The light of autumn even in the height of summer tints the woods and fields with a melancholy umber: there is no vigor, or sap. Each day the sun sets in violet doom. Iss prays it will never return.

But there are some worshippers of Reh who still believe the sun will be reborn. The man you once served, Baron Illgill, Lord of Thrull, was one of these. Yet he brought doom upon his people. He excavated the tomb of Marizian, the great law-giver, and took from it a powerful magic artifact of the gods, the Rod of Shadows. War followed with Iss; soon the Legions of the Worm advanced on Thrull. In hubris, Illgill marched his own legions out to meet them, when he could have withstood a siege for years within the city’s walls. Dark sorcery and the Undead legions who leapt from the soil at dusk defeated the Flame.

Thousands died. Their skulls are now built into a pyramid outside the gates of Thrull. The victor who set them there, Lord Faran Gaton Nekron, Undead Lord, High Priest of the Worm has ruled for six years. The Baron fled to the North and no one knows whether he or his few followers are still alive. Faran Gaton has decreed that the worshipers of Reh will be tolerated, for the moment, as long as they meekly accept their subject status. Once Iss comes, all will see the incontrovertible victory of the Darkness.

Unopposed, the legions of the Worm and the Undead spread over the world. From Tiregand their capital in Ossia they have conquered Thrulland, now they move into Surren. The Great Stepped Pyramids of Iss throughout the earth, once abandoned and overgrown with weeds, are being reoccupied by priests wearing the purple and brown. Where can the true servant of the light go..?

A couple of years ago, Oliver ran a GURPS campaign set in the world of the Lightbringer novels. As you might expect, it was a memorable experience drenched in vivid, brilliantly doom-laden Gothic ambience, as if Lord Byron had got together with the lead designer of ICO to write a set of role-playing scenarios. If there's any demand, and if I can get Oliver to dig it out, we might put it up here in episodic form.


  1. Please, start posting Oliver's campaign as soon as possible!

  2. Well Rog, somebody has to type it all up first. (Like all of Oliver's scenarios, it's handwritten.) But I shall keep pestering him.

  3. I’ve just finished reading the three novels and enjoyed them immensely. Great British dark fantasy. Did anybody get round to writing up Oliver’s campaign notes? I’d certainly love to read them!

    1. Not yet, Mark. If I had any spare time I'd do it myself, and Oliver is currently using his spare time to write a new novel. But eventually...