Every fantasy world is a mixing and changing of real-world elements. Corenwald, the setting of The Charlatan’s Boy, is different in which elements are chosen. Unlike most fantasy worlds, Corenwald is more American than European, more modern than medieval.
A few things in Corenwald do sound British – the constables, the public houses. But the alligators are decidedly American, and if any other fantasy book I’ve read mentioned watermelons, I don’t remember it. American figures come wandering through, re-dressed in Corenwald guise. The traveling snake oil salesman has a firm place in the American imagination, and the good old boy coon-hunting with his dogs has a firm place in the American South. More shadowy is the mountain man, but we’ve heard of him, too. He used to roam the Rocky Mountains.
And then there are the drovers, one of my favorite parts of Corenwald. They tend herds of cattle, and regularly drive those herds long distances to sell them for beef at market. In our own day we called them cowboys. In the book itself the drovers are called “cowmen” a few times. Not that they stand to be the brothers of America’s cowboys so much as their cousins. It’s the same trade, but seeing how each generally pursues it, the drovers lack the organization and sophistication of the cowboys. And if you think that was a little strange to read, I found it a little strange to write.
The drovers are awash in the roughness and lawlessness of the Wild West (mythical and historical). I saw another archetype of the Old West blended into them: the rustler. I will say that the blend was done with a fine and unexpected touch.
There are other elements that also give The Charlatan’s Boy a pre-Industrial feel. Schoolmarms teach in one-room schoolhouses, blacksmiths labor at the bellows, horses and wagons dominate the roads. There are miners, farmers, and shopkeepers – but no factory workers. The constables, with their blue uniforms, nightsticks, and stations, look more modern yet.
But there are two things that break the pre-Industrial mien. For one, the weaponry is bows and arrows, swords and spears. For the other, the good people of Corenwald were seriously told by their forebears that another race lives secretly alongside them, and they are not too far away from believing.
Another thing Jonathan Rogers did to build Corenwald – one of the best things, in my opinion – was to create a Corenwald dialect. Great writers have demonstrated to us that a distinctive speaking style can make a character (“Thief! Baggins! We hates it forever!”). Rogers demonstrates that it can also go a long way to making a culture, and a world, and an atmosphere.
Other reviewers have noted the southern style of the dialogue. I would note the set of unique words and expressions. (When the drovers made a bulge for the field, Grady ran like all nation.) Discombobulate is thrown around a few times. I knew this word beforehand: It was my example of words that should no longer be used. Most people don’t know what it means, and so you’ll discombobulate a lot of your audience if you use it. But even more than that, the word sounds a little ridiculous. Discombobulate discombobulate discombobulate …
But in The Charlatan’s Boy, it really does work. (The Dictionary informs me that discombobulate is “probably a whimsical alteration of discompose or discomfit”. This may be why it works.) There were a number of other unusual words whose meaning could be understood from the context – which is a good thing, because you couldn’t find them in the Dictionary. They appeared to be alterations of real words: jobbed (jabbed), jubous (dubious), caterwampus (catawampus), haint (taint, an old Scottish word for a spirit or ghost).
The Charlatan’s Boy made little mention of religion, and on that count Corenwald is hard to judge. Someone remarked on a boy’s “God-given ugliness”, a huckster sold a praying machine, and sincere, earnest prayer was mentioned. One could, I think, read a general monotheism from all this, but nothing more.
All things taken together, Corenwald is foreign but awfully familiar, and the reader slips in comfortably. Corenwald feels complete, genuine. It doesn’t dazzle like other fantasy worlds, but it does charm. Corenwald is one of the accomplishments of The Charlatan’s Boy.
Now for an addendum, placed last for reasons of efficiency, not importance: Jonathan Rogers graciously offered to answer a question or two from the reviewers on the CSFF Blog Tour. I had already been thinking about the resemblance between Corenwald and parts of our own world, so I asked him about his inspiration for the feechies, and whether there were any real-world legends behind them. Here is his answer:
You asked about feechiefolks. They’re really just a personification of wildness. They’re sort of an exaggerated version of some of the wild old boys I knew growing up in Middle Georgia. There was one guy in particular, named Jake, who used to go out in the swamp with some dogs and catch wild boars and carry them out on a pole. (I’ve told his story on my blog here: http://jonathan-rogers.com/?p=239). I never knew anybody who was so blissfully unaffected by civilization. It occurred to me that people like Jake were running around all over the place. I began to imagine Jake and them as if they were a tribe of swamp-dwellers living in parallel with the civilized world…which they kind of are anyway.
As for real-world legends, there are all kinds of stories of elusive forest people who are there but never seen–sprites, elves, gnomes, Sasquatches. But a better parallel is probably the North American Indians who could be very skilled at hiding. I remember hearing stories about settlers who never knew if they were being watched by Indians who were hiding in the forests just beyond the clearing. I’ve always thought that was a great setup for narrative tension.