Friday, 1 February 2013

Research Corner #3: Welcome to the Castoval

Marrakesh, just off Dancers Way.
I'm not by nature very good at geography.  In fact, the only thing I learned from geography classes at school is that the land should be coloured green and the sea should be coloured blue.  Get it the wrong way round and bad things happen.

Thus it was that when I started creating a setting for Giant Thief, geographical logic wasn't exactly the first thing on my mind.  I was determined that it wouldn't be yet another thinly veiled Northern European landscape; as a Fantasy reader, I'd grown tired of those.  I also knew I wanted a recognizably real-world setting, not an alien planet or any such completely alternate reality.  Lastly, I didn't want the setting to dominate the story too much; I was more interested in building the characters and keeping the plot rolling than spending page upon page describing trees.

In short, I was after somewhere familiar, but not too familiar.  So rather than take any one country for a model, I decided I'd pick and choose depending on what I needed at any given moment.  My only real limitations were a vague notion of climate - warm, but not tropical - and a desire to keep things simple.  A river valley seemed a safe bet for the latter, and putting it all together allowed me to throw in dense forests, high mountains and even a few stray cacti (cactus? cactuses?*) with abandon.  Mediterranean Europe was a big influence, as was Mexico, and North Africa supplied a lot of my architecture, especially the bigger buildings.

Outside Marrakesh.  Or possibly Muena Palaiya.
It was only after Giant Thief came out that I began to wonder if I'd got it right; I'd spent so much head time in what by then was the Castoval, got so used to its eccentricities, that the question of whether it would be believable for anyone else had largely been pushed out of my mind. Then my marvelous Crown Thief copy editor Anne Zanoni expressed concern at some of my more out-there geographical ideas, particularly the small, random desert that is the Hunch - and I started to worry in earnest whether my patchwork quilt of a setting really made a great deal of sense.

So it's with considerable relief that - thanks to the miracle of my retrospective research trip to Marrakesh, as detailed here - I can reveal that, rubbish though my geography may be, the setting of my Damasco books does just about hang together.  And, if there had been a real-world model for the Castoval, its neighbouring country Pasaeda and the far-northern land of Shoan, (home of a certain invading warlord and set to play a very big part in Prince Thief), it would have been Morocco.

The Atlas mountains, south of Altapasaeda.
To my surprise, just about everything I describe in the Damasco trilogy can be found within a hundred miles of Marrakesh (which itself has a lot in common with both Altapasaeda and Muena Palaiya), up to and including a stunning river valley, high mountains, a coast, numerous cacti, a barren plateau, at least one town built on a hillside and many a dense forest.  So much so, in fact, that there were a few eerie moments when I wondered if I hadn't accidentally booked tickets on some kind of magical, fictional reality-entering plane.

Needless to say, if I'm every asked about any of this, I'll strenuously deny it and claim that the Castoval was based on Morocco all along.

* Strictly speaking, grammatical fact fans, all three are correct!


  1. So if I'd known about Morocco's landscape... well, that's pretty cool. :)

    I think I was looking at the deserts in China. That sticks in my head for some reason.


  2. Perhaps it was the random rice paddies? I'd be fibbing if I said that Morocco had those ;)

  3. =snickers= I think it was for China's deserts.

    But I could be wrong. I was also looking up mountains a lot last year, and I think it was for you and someone else's story as well.

    If you can find a rice paddy in Morocco, I want to see it. 8b


  4. Challenge accepted!