I’m returning to my Book Blogger roots for one of my favorite writers in the history of my reading life!
Matt Wallace’s latest book, the epic (in all forms) Savage Legion, is out July 21st and my little site is one of the stops on the book tour. Take a second to pop on over to Amazon or Bookshop to preorder your copy and then dive right into his guest post about two of our shared most-favorite things in the world: worldbuilding and booze!
Warriors drink ale. Nobles drink wine. That’s the way it always was and for twenty-plus years I never questioned it.
I read my first stabby magic novel (or epic fantasy, or swords and sorcery, or whatever the hell you want to call it) when I was eleven, and I never looked back. Throughout my formative years, I read whatever was on the fantasy shelf of the nearest big chain bookstore. For a long time I didn’t know enough to look beyond that shelf, or understand why it was important and incumbent upon me to do that work, especially if I ever hoped to write this stuff myself.
Realizing now how homogenized and whitewashed fantasy, like all genre fiction, has been in mainstream American publishing for so long, I see all the cracks in those piles of books and endless fantasy series I grew up reading. Millions of cracks, an endless spiderweb of them in a mirror reflecting my own faulty hardwiring and false and persistent centering.
Right now I just want to talk about the booze, though.
Hundreds of books I read, and in virtually every single one of them, whether it was human warriors in a tavern/inn, or highfalutin’ elves at a classy banquet, they poured the same brown ale into the same mugs or the same grape wine into the same gilded goblets. Hundreds of authors all channeling the five fantasy novels they grew up reading, ceaselessly regurgitating these among many other details, regardless of what original ideas they had or were attempting to offer the genre. Hundreds of entirely different made-up worlds, yet all soaked in the same bland-ass wine and ale.
And it trudges on unyielding to this very day. Wine was the most consistent and well-developed character throughout all seven seasons of Game of Thrones (my math on that is impeccable, by the way).
Why? And why does it matter?
Let’s do a quick pub crawl.
Six thousand years before the first feast after a jousting tournament, the Egyptians were already brewing beer (although the Sumerians invented it, even if they got no love from the Greeks who wrote the history). In fact, beer is widely regarded as the first known recipe. The Egyptians called it heqet, and not only was beer a form of currency, it was a source of nutrition and sustenance for the entire household, including the kids. Fun fact: Women were the first beer brewers in ancient Egypt, producing it on the daily alongside their baked goods.
The Chinese have been distilling the modern form of baijiu since the Ming Dynasty. It’s clear and colorless (which would present a unique challenge for the many archetypal poisoners in your favorite epic fantasy series), distilled from a fermented grain called qū, and blended in batches. It’s traditionally taken with food rather than on its own.
Chinese rice wine stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Turkestani grape wine as the most popular imported spirit in the Mongol Empire, and even Genghis Khan didn’t fuck with the grape wine, considering it too strong. He was all about kumis, a fermented mare’s milk, which was as much laxative as liquor, and weak on the booziness besides. That didn’t stop it from being so popular that Möngke Khan included it alongside mead and rice and grape wines at the capital’s drinking fountain.
Booze is as varied as every other aspect of this world of ours. Grapes don’t and can’t grow everywhere, and that’s never stopped anyone from getting sauced to the gills.
Your epic fantasy world never existed. It emanates solely from the bottomless expanse of your imagination. Everything that happens and every moving part of that world occurs and exists because you will it to be so. And we are all largely the sum of our influences. There are so many creative choices we make simply because our basis for them in reality was/is so singular.
It’s worth asking yourself: why is your questing party being served ale by the same surly white apotheosis of all fantasy barkeeps? Why aren’t they ordering heqet from a Black woman who brewed it herself that same day? One is as arbitrary as the other when we’re talking about worlds that never existed, and we’ve seen the former thousands of times before.
You want to demonstrate the class differential between your aristocratic and peasant characters? The most baller amongst your nobles could exclusively imbibe caracosmos, a dark-as-night form of kumis fermented from the milk of rare black mares.
Is it time to write that big feasting scene? Why is all that wine they’re pouring made from grapes instead of rice?
There’s more to the libations of our world and history than grapes, malt, and hops, just as there’s vastly more than a narrow, apocryphally white medieval Europe from which to draw for your epic fantasy setting. And that’s the point. None of these beverages exist in a vacuum. They are all part of larger cultures, histories, and environments. If your wine is made from rice instead of grapes, that rice has to come from somewhere. It has to be cultivated, farmed, and harvested by someone. They have to come from a community. Who are they, how did they get there, and how has their culture developed over time? Suddenly you’re telling a different story than you were when the wine was stomped from grapes, one that speaks to people who weren’t going to be included in the discussion you were previously having.
I’m not saying swap out the ale and wine in your story for something you think is more “exotic” (and fuck that word, too), call it a day, and award yourself diversity points. I’m saying when you change one seemingly innocuous detail, you open a door to a world of influences and ideas beyond the cloistered sphere of cherry-picked European history on which most of us grew up reading takes. I’m saying none of the details are, in fact, innocuous. They all represent something larger. They all speak to your reader and their own experiences. They all make a difference to your world. They all connect to broader themes and threads, and they can all take your story and setting somewhere more inclusive and needed and fresher than what came before.
Start with the booze. See where it takes you. Respect the real cultures and places and times from which you choose to draw. Do the research. Do the work. Know the difference between inclusion and appropriating stories that aren’t yours to tell. All these nuances will probably make your brain hurt if you’ve yet to consider them, but it will be worth it to your writing, your story, and your audience.
Matt Wallace is a retired professional wrestler and the author of the Sin du Jour novella series (Tor.com Publishing), as well as the Savage Rebellion series (Saga Press). His debut middle-grade novel, Bump, is scheduled to be released in 2021 by Katherine Tegen Books. In 2018, alongside co-host Mur Lafferty, he took home the Hugo Award for their podcast, Ditch Diggers. In addition to writing for several television series, Matt has also done extensive narrative work on video game titles for publishers such as inXile Entertainment. He currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife, Nikki, and maintains a steady Twitter presence @MattFnWallace, as well as a more sporadic presence on YouTube with his channel, Angry Writer.
Now, I’m nosy so… for a shot to win a copy of Matt’s Savage Legion, leave a comment below with a recommendation for your favorite libations! Whether or not you’re boozing it up while you’re getting bookish, I’m interested to know what you like to drink in your downtime… and if it’s something sold at a Total Wine near me!
In ONE WEEK, I’ll announce the winners here and on @stitchmediamix (you don’t have to follow me there, it’s mostly an update account!)!
Stay thirsty, folks!