Aw man, it's another tough one. I didn't make it any easier on myself by reading it so slowly, but in my defense, I tried my best. A coworker got covid and I've been working literally every day since my last post. And it was during the Juco tournament, one of the hotel's busiest times. My average of ~20 pages a day (and the pace on this was surprisingly regular) was actually pretty good, if I do say so myself.
So my memories of the three books in this boxed set are all over the place. I look at the first page of my notes and see the mysterious word "Vasgothians" and I'm like, "wait, do they mean Visigoths? No, they can't, this whole setting is antediluvian, taking place in an alternate magical history of central Europe, 8000 years past, so having any connection at all between the Vasgothians and the Visigoths would be as absurd as saying that the 'exotic' land of Indrisa, with its 'ferocious war elephants' and capital city of Calcutana is somehow related to modern India."
Which is kind of a roundabout way of saying that this book establishes Thera (the setting's designated Evil Empire) as a global civilization (they even crossed the Atlantic ocean to find a "mysterious land" of hot and humid jungles), but it doesn't quite make the globe interesting enough to justify it.
It's a bit of a disappointment, really. Earthdawn has consistently impressed me with its nuanced, empathetic descriptions of traditional fantasy creatures, but somehow Africans . . . sorry, the "easily enslave[d]" "dark-skinned local peoples" of Anzan . . . can't get quite the same treatment. Maybe it's just a matter of space concerns. Anzan did only get a single paragraph to both describe its features and establish its existence in the setting for the very first time, so maybe an Anzan supplement would have proceeded with the same complex humanism that I've come to expect from this series.
Or maybe not. I think, in attempting to describe Thera, that Earthdawn has discovered its Achilles heel. Following the line's usual practice of considering its characters' circumstances and points of view, Skypoint & Vivane comes dangerously close to both-sidsing slavery.
And this is an awkward subject for me to talk about, because the book is from 1995, and I have documented proof that young John Frazer was doing similarly bad takes as late as 2002 (the NWO fan supplement I wrote has a "the American founders were men of their times" passage that absolutely mortifies me and I hate that there's nothing I can do about it now), but it's still a little gross to see a passage that describes a Theran raid that "killed all the old-folk and children and enslaved the able-bodied adults" and then, literally one page later
"While the majority of non-Therans sincerely believe that the Empire represents an evil that must be eradicated, a certain percentage of more sensible folk recognize that Therans cannot be lumped together as a single entity."Where's the contradiction, folks? But also, the next page has a passage written, in-character, from a Theran point of view that runs down the typical list . . . slavery had a salutory effect on the slaves, the Theran values of curiosity and cultural openness are worthwhile additions to the world, and besides it's not like Therans invented slavery, there are actually a lot of local forced-labor customs that could fairly be described as slavery, so it's kind of hypocritical to focus on the Therans, maybe it's because you hate science and civilization . . .
And it might occur to you to wonder where they could have found inspiration for such a realistically depraved defense of the institution of slavery, but the depressing answer is that all they had to do was ask nearly any white American.
Which is really the heart of this. Thera is the United States of America. I'm certain this wasn't an intentional parallel. I'm guessing that if the authors were asked to name the area of their setting most inspired by the USA, they would probably say the liberal capitalist dwarfs of Throal. I think it's more likely that Thera is an archetype that lurks deep in the white American subconscious and is always in danger of rising to the surface - "yeah, they practiced slavery, but they also arguably saved the world, so . . . even?" That it keeps showing up is accidentally revealing.
And I do think it's accidental. The chain of logic is pretty clear - they're attempting to humanize their villains. There's no such thing as an entire society of monsters, so you can't characterize a whole society entirely by its worst traits. They must have virtues of their own, accomplishments and beliefs that express the fundamental greatness and goodness of all human beings. At the very least, the average member of that society is probably just a regular schmuck, who does nothing worse than keep their head down and try to make it day to day.
To try and see people that way is an impulse that expresses a fundamental decency. It indicates an unwillingness to scapegoat and oversimplify. But it also runs the risk of erasing the victims. For example, we never learn the individual name of any single "pleasure slave."
I don't want to lean too far into psychoanalysis here. I could close-parse the campaign suggestions and conclude that "freedom fighter" is in scare quotes rather than title quotes, just because Barsavians are "likely to regard the Therans as wicked, enslaving imperialists." I mean, I regard the sky as blue, but it's a little weird to phrase it that way. But that would be ungenerous. Later on, the Theran perspective "Barsavian barbarian terrorists"is definitely in scare quotes.
(Although, if I were in the mood to psychoanalyze, I might be very curious about the choice of the word "terrorist" - it's such a conspicuous anachronism, perhaps they were more aware of the Thera = USA connection than I'm giving them credit for).
I suspect the big culprit here is 1995. I look at, say, White Wolf books from this period and there's that same reluctance to pick a side. Thera and the Technocracy are undergoing the same arc, just offset by a couple of years. Fighting the fascists didn't have the same sense of urgency we feel now.
Yet you look at the laws of Vrontok, the mercantile town built in the literal shadow of the book's titular Skypoint, and it has a 50sp "guest tax" that visitors have to pay, or be enslaved. And if you try and flee, you have to pay the 30sp "exit tax" or suffer the same fate. There's no way you write that and think "these are a people with a healthy society."
Except Vrontok isn't actually a Theran city. It's run by Barsavians who sell slaves to the Therans. The Therans look down on them for doing it, which struck me as a hilariously on-point observation about the human condition - since the people of Vrontok "would sell their own kin as slaves, [they] are plainly lacking in every decent moral code, and therefor their living conditions and behavior need not concern an uprighth Theran."
It's a good bit of characterization, but part of an unfortunate pattern - collaborators and non-Therans who climb the hierarchy are invariably "weak and craven" or "an over-awed little stooge." The Therans themselves mostly get to be the cool, competent sort of fascists. There's no real way you can use this book to portray the Therans as heroes (and, indeed, even the Theran-apologist "Playing Theran Characters" section doesn't do much more than say that they're not much different than regular people anywhere), but it does wind up feeling oddly like Theran propaganda. I guess there was no way to know in 1995 that fascists would take the Darth Vader comparison as a compliment.
Leaving aside all that stuff I just said Skypoint and Vivane does feature some memorable imagery and useful plot hooks. There's a fortress where the Therans commemorate the slaying of a Horror with a statue that they periodically cover with the flayed skins of condemned prisoners (because they're ultimately no worse than you or me). There's a bar that caters to the undead, The Dead Man's Hand. Some soldiers wield crystal spears filled with elemental fire.
Also, the Brotherhood of the Bone.
No, you don't get any other context to that one.
And, of course, Skypoint itself is kind of a neat fantasy location. It's a fortress/airship landing area built atop these 800-foot-tall pillars. There's a cool picture of it. It looks like a sky-scraper-sized kitchen table that straddles a small medieval city, and it's got a bunch of little castles orbiting it (Theran airships look like castles instead of sailboats). It's something that is unique even among this borderline-science-fiction magitech fantasy subgenre and I would have liked to see more stuff like that and less advice to "take a neutral stand on slavery and portray the Therans as simply misguided." I mean, call me old-fashioned, but I say that if you're going to make your setting have a group of magitech fascists, you should just own that shit.
Ukss Contribution: I wouldn't say this book actually crosses the line into slavery apologism. It gets rough at points, and I think it's fair to say that it's the weakest Earthdawn book yet, but it's really more awkward than wicked.
So my choice is the Brotherhood of the Bone . . .
No, just kidding. They're not that interesting. They're just a group of military comrades who all wear the same type of magical brooch that's fashioned out of a bone. I just like saying the name.
I'm actually going to go with the Petals of the Lily. They revere a certain hallucinogenic flower and want to spread it everywhere. The book describes them as "eccentric," but I think they could be a properly sinister cult. Maybe something closer to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers than Cheech and Chong. (Or hell, maybe halfway between both).