I've been trying to write this post for about 18 hours now. Literally 20 seconds ago I just completely discarded about 500 words, because my first approach got deep into the weeds of "proper nouns are hard," and while that's true (this book has a lot of fucking proper nouns, only two of which I actually remember), it's not all that big a deal. I was just cranky because it's been 4 months and 27 books since I last read Denizens of Earthdawn, Volume 1, and all the T'skrang-specific jargon was making me feel like I failed a test. I have a feeling that if I read this book back in March, I'd be busy singing its praises.
Because it's kind of exactly what I've always said I wanted - a guidebook to a fantasy species that doesn't treat them as a monoculture, but shows deep and significant differences between rival groups.
Like the Theran-collaborater House, K-something (oh, fine I'll look it up - K'tenshin) is in a perilous position of having cut ties with their imperial overlords in the wake of Thera's defeat in their first attempt to reconquer Barsaive, and despite entering into the Free Trade Compact with the other T'skrang Houses, is beginning to harbor imperial ambitions of its own and still relies heavily on slavery to drive their economy. That's an interesting fantasy society (even if, like Thera, their sections tend to treat slavery as a background cultural element rather than as an ongoing atrocity for heroes to topple). And it could not be more distinct from House Syrtis (a name I remembered without needing to go back and look at the book, yay!), who are full of ancient dignity, claiming descent from mythological figures in T'skrang folklore and being the only aropagoi to assign positions based on aristocratic lineage .
And here I have to take a break and whine about something - Earthdawn has invented this term for the largest unit of T'skrang organization, "aropagoi" which supposedly has a specific and nuanced meaning, not easily translated (it's kind of like a corporation whose CEO is an ecclesiastical leader and whose shares are distributed by ethnicity), but then when it comes to giving them specific names, they're all called "Houses." Why not say "t'skrang are divided into houses" instead of "t'skrang are divided into aropagoi?" Or, failing that, call the individual houses by their setting-specific names, i.e. "K'tenshin Aropagoi" instead of "House K'tenshin."
Oh, wait, I'm slipping back into the proper noun rant. Let's move on quickly.
I suppose the question this book raises for me is "exactly how much diversity is necessary before you can say that a monoculture has been successfully broken up?"
The aropagoi are presented more or less as different nations. They have capital cities and controlled territory and different methods of selecting key offices. There are different cultural values and fashions and architecture. Yet they also have a lot in common - the top leaders of the aropagoi are all shivalahala - wise women who have inherited the memories of all their predecessors. All of the aropagoi are divided into nialls (powerful extended families) that specialize in some vital trade or another (House K'tenshin, for example, has twelve nialls, including Abanos, the slave-traders, Zeugmani, the glass-blowers, Meru, the farmers, and Gamaroon, the underwater farmers). They all ply the rivers with magical fire-driven paddleboats whose designs they jealously guard against non-T'skrang (even pirates and outcasts will keep this secret). They all revere brashness and derring-do. So what, exactly, constitutes a "culture?"
I can't help thinking of medieval Europe. You wouldn't call France and England the same culture, but they both had kings and emperors, nobles and peasants. At least up until the reformation, they had the same religion, with Bishops that answered to the same pope. They had knights and castles, and they both told stories from the same Arthurian canon. And, of course, their ruling families were often directly related, even in times when one wasn't trying to conquer the other. The aropagoi are at least as distinct. So where's the line?
I think you could make the case that culture manifests in a hundred different things that exist below the resolution of rpg supplements - cuisine and fashion, the decoration of weapons and homes, musical styles and the specific curation of a shared canon. And when you talk about large-scale and powerful things, like the feudal system, you can cite the advantages of having a compatible understanding of governance and borders and diplomacy and property rights. And, of course, cultures influence each other all the time, so that it makes sense to talk about distinctly English and distinctly French cultures, but also a broader European meta-culture that stems from centuries of interactions from all over the continent.
But if that's the case, then why are the T'skrang's shared cultural elements confined to the T'skrang? Shouldn't there be at least one human aropagoi? Shouldn't there be elf pirates who follow the custom of Bakshevas (a kind of toll-by-force with its own formal rules for ship-to-ship dueling that limits escalation of hostilities and where the loser pays the winner a double toll, even if they were initially the aggressors)? The Adept's Way did imply that learning a Discipline also carried with it some of the originating culture's particular quirks, but on a larger scale, this has not yet made an impact on the setting. The Serpent River is almost entirely about the T'skrang, and though non-T'skrang are mentioned as living in the T'skrang cities and even having important roles (one of K'tenshin's nialls is made up of Theran defectors and is only about half T'skrang), there is little sense that what's being presented is a Serpent River meta-culture. Really, it's the T'skrang's world, and everybody else is just living in it.
I'm going to call this one a near miss. There are a lot of good details, but it felt less like they were developing a region of Barsaive and more like they were fleshing out their completely original fantasy species of swashbuckling semi-aquatic lizard people.
Ukss Contribution: Don't let my unsatisfiable expectations for Earthdawn fool you - this book does some great worldbuilding. All of the major capital cities are pretty great locations. House K'tenshin has a city of 16 towers, connected by rope bridges. House V'strimon is headquartered in a floating city, built on a platform of woven, still-living reeds. But my favorite was House Syrtis, who rule the ancient Cliff City of Lalai Gorge. It predates the Scourge and has still not recovered its former population. It has room for 60,000 residents, but only a tenth of that maximum actually lives there, giving the streets an eerie, haunted feeling that well suits the intrigues of the the decaying nobility of the Syrtis aristocracy.