Worldbuilding: Kabaneri and a Sense of Scale

By way of a friend, I was able to see Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, and I absolutely adore it. But I think I adore the anime for some of the same reasons it gets a lot – a lot – of bad reviews.

It’s not epic.

And it’s not really horror, zombie-vampires or not, and there’s not really fanservice, but… mainly, it’s not epic.  It is, specifically, action-adventure on a very small, personal scale. Think Firefly on a train with a bigger cast of characters, you won’t go too far wrong.

Which suits me just fine. I’m kind of burned out on epic. There’s only so many times a writer can go, “The fate of the world is at stake!” and still not leave my suspension of disbelief spindled, folded, and mutilated.

(Dresden Files, I’m looking at you. And don’t get me started on the Wheel of Time. I gave up on that series… five or six books in, I think.)

Epic fantasy and SF fills the bookshelves in stores. It sells. A lot of people like it. More power to them.

I want something smaller. Something quieter. Something without vast Armies of Evil moving across the helpless towns of the kingdom, or thousands of faceless souls dying to show how depraved and evil the bad guys are. Something where it’s not the fate of the world at stake, it’s the fate of the characters’ personal world that’s at stake.

You might say I want something cuddlier. People caring about each other. Fluff.

Andre Norton stories; P.M. Griffin’s Star Commandos, Susan Dexter’s Wind-Witch. Those are the stories I come back to, again and again. Stories that are about people, and how they dig deep to find the grit needed to keep going, whatever the world throws at them.

Kabaneri’s going in that pile.

(Also, the art is made of Awesome. Seriously, the sky-scapes in Kabaneri ought to be framed.)

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35 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Kabaneri and a Sense of Scale

  1. Have you ever read Barbara Hambly’s Darwath series? It’s a ‘fate of the world’ story, but so far it’s a very personal book. Gil, one of the main characters, goes from being a scholar to being a guard in the Wath. It’s explained best in the filk song by Leslie Fish ‘Gil-Shalos’ “Hunger and fear have stiffened your spine, pain is a fact of life. Sleep brings uneasy dreams, waking brings trouble and strife. … Twas no magic that forced the change, just agony, laughter, and tears.”

    Not very far into the series yet myself, but it is proving to be somehow juggle ‘epic’ and ‘personal.’ It’s madness. ^_^

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Dennis L. Mckiernan has a duology out called the Black Foxes series, which does some very interesting things. And he plays with scope and scale. He does the VR Death Game before Kayaba. And the background! He builds this background of global disasters, and never mentions them beyond background.

        So, the main characters are facing world altering/ending crisis. And there are true lethal consequences. Yet the world isn’t in danger. If they fail? The world will continue on. Just without them in it.

        He is such a masterful author.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. By the time I got to the duology, he’d renamed it to Shadowtrap. And put it to ebook. The only thing that upsets me is that the only series of his that made it to audible is the Mithgar series of which there are mixed reviews. And as we have no bookstore in my town, and the library has the worst parking I have ever seen, online as audio or ebook are all I can get. Darn it.

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  2. Yeah.

    I kinda of burned out on epic scale . . . largely because a lot of it doesn’t make me care enough about the person (people) doing the epic quest and/or the world itself. Like, it’s hard for me to get invested in the fate of a world or people when I don’t know much about them, barely got to spend any time with them, and/or what little time I got involved everyone being such a complete jerks that I feel like the bad guys might have the right idea wiping these people off the face of the multiverse . . .

    And it’s difficult from a writing stand-out, because after you have threatened to blow up the world – you can’t really go bigger without paying some price. Either you have to keep building until you get ridiculously big like the entire universe or the fabric of reality itself scale – and that’s even harder to get invested it because (1) it’s too big and (2) it’s sounds very silly and/or almost automatically makes your suspense of disbelief chew through the straps and run away yelling very impolite words . . . OR you just keep threatening to blow up the Earth which gets dull because after all a while, no matter what the threat, we know the writer isn’t going to destroy the world and the hero is going to save the day and survive the save the world next book so there is no tension.

    One of the writing books I read actually recommended scaling back after you have threatened to destroy the world to something personal scale. Because as long as your readers are invested in your hero, it doesn’t matter that the stakes are smaller – they care about what happens in this smaller conflict because it matters to the hero.

    To use an example, let’s say that in an ‘Around story somebody manages to capture Morgan. They aren’t a world-destroying bad guy. It’s not going to destroy the world or anything if they fail to rescue her (or rather help her rescue herself). In the grand scheme and scale of the cosmos, it doesn’t matter – but it does matter a great deal to Alan, Aladdin, and the others who love Morgan. We care, even through the scale is smaller, because the characters care, it maters a lot to them, and we are invested in them so . . . .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, exactly! If The World Is Always Doomed (ah, MiB, you did it right), then what’s the big deal? Yawn.

      And heh. That’s exactly what I have in mind for a follow-up story to Seeds of Blood; something that’s very, very serious to the individual characters involved, but not world-shaking.

      *Nod* If the character doesn’t care, why should we? Whereas if someone’s most beloved is in deep trouble (and not always from monsters!) we care very much indeed.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. One of my favorite lines from your Airwolf/SG-1 fan-fics (can’t remember which one) is when Michal points out to himself that most people don’t really care about large abstract problems like saving the country(world). What they really care about is saving the concrete things/locations they care about that just so happen to be in the country (world). I’ve never been able to take characters who only care about abstract concepts completely seriously since then. Or at the very least, I’m always pretty sure they’re lying to themselves about what they really want in some way…

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    2. I’m waiting for the day someone writes the book where the hero blows it, and it turns out it’s the ghost telling the story to someone in the Afterlife Waiting Area. With the Grim Reaper as the HR of the Afterlife, and a very ticked secretary because “You had one job!”

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s a really cool idea. I feel like it would have to be the premise of a book where the hero spends the rest of the time figuring out how to A) come back to life or B) save the world from the after life, because no one wants to devote hours of their life to finding out how someone tried their best and it wasn’t good enough the end. Well, I say no one, but there is always someone. Still, it would be a pretty niche audience. Maybe a book where the hero managed to save the world but died in the process and you find out right at the very end that the hero is telling their story from the afterlife.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Come to think of it, I’ve come across stories that fit in all those categories. A and B were YuYuHakusho and Danny Phantom, respectively. And the last was a book by Dean Koontz. He’s a bit of an odd writer. Good, but odd. And speaking about epic verses personal stories, a lot of his books manage to combine deep characterization, with a lot of exploration of personal motives and the relations between characters, and eldritch-type lovecraftian horrors, so relevant to the original topic. Yay!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Intimacy. Some of my favorite books/stories just cultivate a sense of intimacy with the reader, and that’s what makes them stand out. Yuri on Ice does it pretty well, IMO. Is ice skating kind of trivial compared to the Chitauri? Sure. But emotionally? I am there for those ice skaters falling in love. Not so much for some of the MCU.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love Yuri on Ice . . . I was snared by the animation – it’s so pretty . . . and it’s so hard to animate movement like that but still stayed because I got caught by the characters . . . and appreciate that it has re-kindled my interest in figure skating. I used to watch it all the time when I was a kid but drifted off . . . now I’m back.

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    2. The best part of the MCU is the snark, the comedic one-liners and double takes. Saving whatever needs to be saved in any particular film is purely incidental.

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  4. I have to agree, I don’t mind if the world needs to be saved, but I need to feel some connection to the world. Interesting characters, who have goals beyond ‘saving the world’, a world that captures my attention (so world-building is required), and some twist on the basics. I enjoyed the Black Jewels books (original trilogy), since it was more about personal issues than saving the world directly.

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  5. Bishops Black Jewels : There’s a lot of child abuse and violent dominance stuff played out sexually. One of the good guys is knows as the sadist. Another is Satan, lord of hell….

    And the focus is really Mary Sue, but OTOH, the set up is she’s born to be the embodiment of what is needed and wanted so it’s not really objectionable, except if you’re totally allergic to Sues. This is more like the author deliberately making a Sue character and running with the implications of such a person on other characters who have been wanting to see such a person for eons.
    (the time scale is implausibly long.) The OP is right, the focus is definitely on the personal. And the good guys – they’re all related – have a screwed up relationship with each other, but care about each other anyway. It’s good to see men caring about each other without it being slashy.

    I’ve read them, I’ve sometimes wondered why I finished them, but there was a good story there. I think a lot of it is hurt comfort, too, which I didn’t realize lo those many years ago, and that I do find squicky on its own. I also really wanted maps, or a better description of the world, because I couldn’t tell if there was just geography or multiple planes of existence all of which seem to have normal landscape/geography stuff. I prefer her duology that starts with Sebastian rather better. Less icky and better geography. (there was a third book. it wasn’t interesting.)

    Related to something else that went by above, My Teen just waved a short story under my nose and said ‘help me figure out what is WRONG with this.’ And it was a hero dies but still has to save the world story. I’m glad it was a short, and we did figure out what was wrong: both the metaphysics as described; the writing that didn’t make the divine-stuff impressive; the guy who was all “i have to save her’ oh, and the rest of the world, but it was all ‘for her sake’ in the icky way. And it has to be me, and I’m going to mope and not say what I’m moping about because (obviously) only I can do anything, even though I’m in heaven and there may be other options…. gaaah.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, ick. I was thinking more along the lines of “I screwed up, but I took them out with me. But I messed up because I was supposed to survive and now I’ve created a snarled mess and have to sort it out from this side.” A shift from front liner to gopher for the admins. Less ‘Harry Dresden’ and more ‘Rincewind.’

      I have an appreciation of farcical humor, and I grew up on Terry Pratchett. Which has, apparently, led to the development of a British sense of humor in an American.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I get it. I don’t think I could reread the Bishop trilogy now.

    Have you run across Deborah Coates’ trilogy that starts with Wide Open? This started knocking on my memory while reading this thread, so I’ll mention it…..

    Those looking for intimacy in their fantasy, although there are epic scale things at stake might want to check it out. I’d say it’s a rural take on the urban fantasy genre, set in S. Dakota. In my reading of it, the focus is on people and relationships, and the fact that the walls between the world of life and death are breaking (in #2) doesn’t override the personal concerns. Hallie, the main character, acts because she and people she knows are hurting, not because she has to save the world

    Not a lot of emoting. This is a setting where men come to a funeral and ask for the widower so they can go find him standing by the fence and join him, never saying a word.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. A children’s series, the H.I.V.E. books by Mark Walden, have an interesting twist on the ‘fate of the world is at stake’ thing. The premise of the book is that children are enrolled in the Higher Institute of Villainous Learning, or HIVE, and learn how to be evil overlords or minions or what have you (it’s pretty cool, if obviously a reaction to the Harry Potter series). The school is run by a panel of the most powerful villains in the world whose main objective is… keeping villains in line. No heros exist, but the villains are a self limiting problem by choice. Because destroying the world sounds cool and all and it’s definitely villainous, but it’s where we keep our stuff too, so no. It addresses an issue I’ve always had with a lot of the ‘fate of the world is at stake’ books, and the writer is good – though not great – at what he does, so it’s always been a fun read for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. This sounds like a looking-for-book-recs post, so I’m going to go ahead and say that the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane is pretty good at balancing the world-saving and the personal levels.

    …Um. It’s hard to summarize any of the books without their sounding really weird. There’s a lot of fluff and development of interpersonal relationships in the quiet parts, though. (It’s not /my/ fault that the giant tomato-loving six-legged alien lizard wizard whose whole species was forced to cannibalism in order to survive their planet’s drastic climate change is so cute!) The books tend to alternate levels of action, but the foreshadowing across the whole series keeps paying off.

    The first book, “So You Want to be a Wizard”, has main characters Nita and Kit discovering wizardry, making a couple of nonhuman friends, and then teaming up to save Manhattan without many people noticing. (Yes, they did it before Percy Jackson. The living statues and blue food? Convergent evolution.)
    The way wizardry works is that, if you discover it, you can choose to take the wizard’s oath “in Life’s name and for Life’s sake” to slow down entropy/the heat-death of the universe. This gives you access to the Speech, a language for talking to (and understanding) the universe, and enacting spells. (While you can use and know about the Speech without being a wizard, you can’t do spells.) This can lead to interesting situations such as, say, helping trees negotiate over territory. Or helping a white hole get over its hiccups. Or defeating the inventor of death and entropy as the worlds know them.

    A lot of it is about choice. Sometimes it’s about chocolate.
    Generally features interesting nonhumans (wizard and nonwizard alike), accurate (at the time of writing) astronomy and geology, healthy families, an intergalactic “airport” (it uses portals)-slash-shopping-mall, Grown-Ups Who Actually Do Things, and the Transcendent Pig.

    Side note: I’d recommend the currently-ebook-only New Millennium Editions, which are frequently on sale at the author’s website Ebooks Direct, over the originals (for the most part) for a more coherent timeline and a /much/ better handling/understanding of autism. (The series was begun in the 1989s.)
    There are currently 10 books in the main series, with the 11th in the works and extant spinoffs and short stories.

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