A. is fond of saying that I have never lost interest in anything; I just accumulate interests on top of my old ones. She’s largely correct, as usual. Eight years elapsed between my initial realization that Pirates of the Caribbean was badass and my actually learning to use a sword. I played pretend as a child and I play pretend as an adult.
However, some of my fascinations do occasionally go dormant, only to explode forth again with all their old force. Such was the case when, at the end of August, I visited the beachside town of Lincoln City, OR, with friends. Exploring the village, we happened upon a bookshop filled with World War II aviation parts and books that taught the secrets of craps, along with literal magic.
I am convinced this bookstore was larger on the inside and would be a blank wall if I went back today. But I’m on a tangent. The point is, I picked up a copy of a book called Vox, and, reading it through, was reminded of a greatness I hadn’t thought about in a while. Though it sounds like an anarchist manifesto, Vox is actually an installment in a British children’s series called The Edge Chronicles, a weird, wonderful, vividly illustrated family saga that has had more of an influence on my fiction-writing life than anything between The Amber Spyglass and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
A quick introduction before I start fanboying, which, just to be clear, is all I’m going to do in this post. The Edge Chronicles is a series written by Paul Stewart and illustrated by Chris Riddell, currently consisting of 12 main books and a couple spin-offs, all set in the eponymous Edge fantasy world and all revolving around a member or associate of the Verginix-Barkwater dynasty. The Edge is what it sounds like: a stone overhang the size of Russia upon which a whole civilization thrives.
Most of it is taken up by the Deepwoods, a forest so uncharted and densely primeval that the characters treat it like an ocean. Clinging to the edges of the Edge are the Twilight Woods, a hazy faerieland that makes you simultaneously immortal and insane; the Thorn Forests, which have a bunch of thorns; Riverrise, the closest thing to a sacred religious site the world possesses; and Undertown, a wretched hive of crime and disgusting beer whose citizens gaze up at lofty Sanctaphrax, a city of feuding college professors built atop a gigantic floating rock chained to the very tip of the Edge.
Populating these memorable places are innumerable races of goblins, trolls, trogs, telepathic waifs, birdlike shrykes, and the humanesque fourthlings. Not to mention enough hideous and terrifying creatures to fill a new edition of the Monster Manual. Presiding over all is the Gloamglozer, a demonic entity with a surprising origin who casts a long shadow even over books it doesn’t appear in.
You’ve probably gathered from reading this far that the Edge is not a happy place. In fact, if you meet a fan of the Chronicles, they’ll likely tell you two things: first, that Chris Riddell’s illustrations are amazing, and second, that for books which present themselves as middle grade to young adult, things get dark. Slavery and racism are prominent themes. Villains are analogous in both ideology and action to everyone from Joseph McCarthy to Jeffrey Dahmer. If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself as the hero, you’re as likely to be eaten by a tree as you are to have your marriage fail over several agonizing decades.
The darkness is not, however, of the grim variety. The people of the Edge are constantly striving to make something better out of their fallen world. There are the sky pirates, who sail over the Deepwoods conducting illegal trade under the noses of the plutocratic Leaguesmen. Librarian Knights protect scrolls of ancient knowledge deep in the sewers of Undertown, while the Freegladers unite to create a new society based on harmony, honest work, and the wisdom of sages who sleep in giant cocoons that give them prophetic dreams.
The reason you may not have heard of these books is that they are far more popular in the United Kingdom, and never made their way across the Atlantic–likely owing to the lack of movie adaptations or any real media presence beyond idiosyncratically-covered book installments. That doesn’t make me too sad, though. While pretty much everyone loves Harry Potter, meeting another Edge fan is like finding another member of a secret society. Both of us always get excited. And though there may never be Edge movies, at least there will also never be Edge memes.
Without further ado, unless you consider this entire post to be ado, I want to dive into a few of the deeper reasons that The Edge Chronicles continues to inspire my own worldbuilding.
1. There is a massive amount of sheer imagination on display…
Fantasy literature, along with all genre fiction, often gets accused of being derivative. In some cases, this has merit–witness the genre of time-travelling Viking Navy SEAL romance I was just informed exists, and the absolute flood of Tolkien imitators that bubbled up after The Lord of the Rings became an unexpected smash hit, most of which are justifiably forgotten today.
But then there are the other cases. People talk about the need for “innovation” in literature, a term I really don’t like, since it makes the sacred act of storytelling sound like whatever wrist-mounted-heart-monitor-cum-government-listening-device the jagoffs in Silicon Valley have decided we need this week. I prefer “imagination,” or what the fantasy-ranter Limyaael calls “go out and make stuff.”
To me, telling a truly creative story has almost exactly the same steps as a child would follow to come up with something they thought was cool. No considerations of genre or market success or snarky trope-hunting–use influences, of course, but just to feed your own ideas. It’s how I tried to make the settings for The Valley of Steel, The Glass Thief, and Rafter’s Rats, and is very clearly how Stewart and Riddell worked as well.
Frequently, Riddell, the illustrator, would have the ideas first: he’d sketch something awesome, and then Stewart would work it into the story. Pirate ships that fly around using temperature-sensitive rocks, gigantic hovering worms, floating lake towns and beehive cities, storms that blow in from the endless void of “open sky” and generate the material the economy is based on…it’s about as far from a Tolkien clone as fantasy gets. And while there are many ways to get away from Tolkien–China Mieville, Susanna Clarke, Ursula K. LeGuin, and George Lucas are all equally distant fantasists along wildly divergent paths–there’s no denying the unique power of the Edge.
2. …But the stories and world are also grounded and familiar.
With a world this overstuffed with imaginative detail, new dangers arise. Stories told in the Edge might easily overshoot the mark of fairy-tale resonance and wind up in Wonderland territory, where everything is goofily absurd and none of it really matters. The first volume, Beyond the Deepwoods, shows signs of falling into this trap. But soon the creators’ careful hands imbue everything with weight.
First and foremost, there’s the internal consistency. The Edge doesn’t have a “magic system” so much as it has alternative science, but it always works the way it’s meant to and never twists to accommodate the story. Flight-rocks always rise when cooled and fall when heated–The Winter Knights uses this as the basis for the entire plot, as an eternal winter threatens to rip Sanctaphrax free from the Edge. Stormphrax is lighter than air in light and astoundingly heavy in total darkness. Oakelves never move their nests, Woodtrolls never stray from the path, and a sky pirate’s talent is always inversely proportional to the coolness of his name.
Second, there’s the way that consistency evolves over time while maintaining its core. Take stormphrax: initially it’s used for two purposes, purifying water and weighing down the Sanctaphrax rock. In this first age, airship captains go “stormchasing,” to pluck it directly from the hearts of storms before it sinks into the ground and is lost. Nine books later, when Xanth Filatine (more on him later) invents a method of using it to power airships, far more is required, but the storms that produce it have stopped coming. But technology has marched on, and miners now dig through the ground under the Twilight Woods, retrieving stormphrax once thought lost with the help of powerful lanterns. In fact, the hero of The Immortals starts out doing this job.
But most of all, the grounding of the Edge comes from its characters. These books are no didactic fables telling morality stories at children. They’re about real people that dream and suffer and fall short and keep striving. Quint and Maris have a storybook romance, but when they’re forced to abandon their son in the Deepwoods, their marriage can’t survive the strain. Their son Twig falls in love as well, but when Maugin is stranded at Riverrise, Twig spends decades trying desperately to return–eventually having a child with another woman, one he apparently also loves. Cowlquape Pentaphraxis spends much of his life imprisoned for doing the right thing. Xanth Filatine’s attempts to reform lead him to face bigotry from the otherwise progressive Freegladers. And so on.
The Edge Chronicles books are not as interested in dealing directly with everyday unhappiness the way Lemony Snicket’s books for the same age group are. But they still are books for children where bad things happen to good people, then good things happen to bad people, then good things finally happen to the good people, but not always the good things they wanted. At the core of this world of flying knights and shapeshifting demons and endless meteorological feuds is a vein of pure humanity.
3. The characters are not just realistic, they’re interesting.
Xanth Filatine is a character in the trilogy of novels starring Rook Barkwater, a dark age of the Edge that begins with the Gloamglozer-induced stone sickness and ends with the establishment of the Free Glades. Raised as a true believer in the autocratic Guardians of Night, Xanth is sent to the Librarian Knights as a spy, but begins to see things from their point of view. His turn to the side of good takes time, though, with many false starts and secret angsts.
It’s a character arc that could be called the Prince Zuko Special, complete with Rook and Magda as Aang and Katara, Orbix Xaxis as Fire Lord Ozai, and Cowlquape as Iroh–though the first book to feature Xanth, The Last of the Sky Pirates, came out in 2002, and Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired in 2005…not making any claims, just saying that inspiration comes from all kinds of places.
The point is that all the things that made Zuko so compelling are realized in Xanth as well–most prominently, the chance for any villain to become good again. Redemption has a far deeper attraction to most people than revenge. In Freeglader, when he struggles to purge the evil from his soul, Xanth easily steals the middle part of the novel from Rook.
On the other side of the villain coin, let’s look at Vox Verlix. A young bully turned genius civil engineer, he builds the Second Age of Flight out of whole cloth, so absorbed in his ambitious projects that he ignores their consequences. As a result, slavery and bloodshed come to rule Undertown, and Vox himself winds up a powerless prisoner, gradually becoming poisoned with the evil he previously only committed by accident.
There are so many questions to ask about Vox: Does his brilliance give him a free pass to ignore the implications of his work, turning the Tower of Night into a nuclear weapons allegory? Does he squander his own shot at redemption because he doesn’t believe he’s done anything wrong? Does his accidentally helping the Edge in the long term justify unleashing the Dark Maelstrom? Does he betray the Librarian Knights because being constantly betrayed himself has taught him he has no choice but to strike first?
If there’s a central theme to the villains in The Edge Chronicles, it’s this: those who are single-mindedly devoted to their grand projects inevitably fall to darkness. Those who take life as it comes, who study the world and try to excel at their small tasks, always become the heroes. On the Edge, great good is only accomplished by acts of love, on the large and the small scale.
And why do I keep bringing up villains? Both because the series has an amazing rogues’ gallery and because…well, I love Harry Potter, but despite directly stating that “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters,” the story goes out of its way to disprove that. Compare a character like Vox, Quove Lentis, Amberfuce, even the Gloamglozer, to Voldemort or Umbridge. The latter look like mindless hate sinks and killing machines. Anyone the heroes don’t like turns out to be on the side of the Wizard Nazis, even the random executioner from Prizoner of Azkaban, who for that book at least was really just doing his job.
Morality doesn’t always come in complex forms in young adult literature. The Edge Chronicles just isn’t interested in drawing hard glowing lines.
4. The vastly epic scope is everything I love about books.
Earlier, I called The Edge Chronicles a family saga, and that’s truly what it is to me. Earliest in the chronology, in The Curse of the Gloamglozer, a teenage Quint is still dealing with the grief of losing his entire family save his father in a tragic fire, and is thrust into the alien world of Sanctaphrax with only the aloof Maris as an ally.
The books sweep through their adventures and romance, through Quint’s father’s death in an Ahab-like quest for revenge, through the birth and abandonment of their son Twig, through Twig’s own coming-of-age and his vastly altering the Edge to create the world in which his grandson Rook must survive.
In The Immortals, 500 years later, we are recognizably in the same world, but everything has gone through everything it possibly can. It’s got by far the widest scope of any young-adult or middle-grade series I know of, and if there’s another, I would love for somebody to tell me. This is what I mean when I say these books have inspired me: not just in my worldbuilding, but also in my ambition. They’re how I learned to take my characters to the end of the world and the end of their wits.
5. They are not perfect.
By no means am I saying The Edge Chronicles is a flawless work. I can point out many flaws. The main characters of each story tend to be the least interesting, with Quint, Twig, Rook, and Nate being far more compelling once they become supporting characters than as somewhat bland protagonists.
Furthermore, representation is a problem: the women of the Edge don’t get nearly as much of a chance to tell their own stories than the men, and Stewart and Riddell have an unfortunate tendency to reinforce the trope that beauty equals goodness. I really wish, for example, that Vox would quit going out of its way to remind me how fat the title character is.
But that’s all parcelled up with everything else. Among young-adult serial fiction, The Edge Chronicles may not be as universally beloved as Harry Potter or as mythically resonant as The Chronicles of Prydain or The Dark is Rising. Its language and humor don’t sparkle like A Series of Unfortunate Events, and its social commentary isn’t as direct as that of The Hunger Games. It may not be as relatable to the target audience as Pendragon or Percy Jackson and the Olympians.
For me, though, the flaws of The Edge Chronicles are first and foremost an expression of its grand scale and massive imaginative force–and are second a product of it aiming for a different target than any of the ones I mentioned above. No matter where I am, in the world or in my life, reading Stormchaser or Clash of the Sky Galleons reminds me of what it was like to be young and dreaming without limits. They mix in darkness, on human and social scales, in order to both help us understand it and to reassure us it can be overcome.
A sky pirate, say these books, is not just something you shouldn’t let the world tell you not to be. Fighting to salvage the good in the world is the sky pirate way. Don’t give in to the temptation to ride out on crusades–instead, shelter and protect knowledge, love the people beside you, respect everyone. There are far worse legends to teach with, far worse worlds to tell them in.