Monday, 11 August 2014

In Stranger Skies: An Insider's Review

 The skyship Star Phoenix flies low over Glorathon in the Kingdom of Meryath, Calidar: In Stranger Skies
First draft cover design, with art by Ben Wootten
A few hours ago, I completed and submitted the last tiny diagram for +Bruce Heard's Calidar: In Stranger Skies.  In Stranger Skies is the name of the first book for the +World of Calidar — hopefully the first of many more to come.  The layout phase is drawing to a close, and any day now Bruce will submit the book to the printers.

Now that my work on this book is done, I'd like to share my impressions of the project — an insider's review, so to speak.

I've seen a draft, and I have to say, it looks wonderful.  More importantly I have read through everything three times while proofreading, and the truth is that this is why I am so excited about the project: the writing.

Yes, I have been a fan of Bruce's writing and maps for more than twenty five years, and a member of the Mystara online community for seventeen of those, so sure, I'm biased.  But I'm also a picky and discerning reader.  I know what I like and what I don't like, and by extrapolation what is good and what is not.  (As always when it comes to opinions, your mileage may vary.)

Calidar is good.

I always enjoyed the Voyages of the Princess Ark series.  Every month I looked forward to its release, and indeed I bought Dragon solely for that one article.  The months when it didn't feature, I was not happy.  To be fair, I was also looking for articles for BECMI, but the Princess Ark was always my favourite.  Bruce's quirky humour and very current genre references made me smile every time, but the stories also served a purpose in introducing new areas.  The fiction brought everything to life, allowing readers to sample the flavour of a culture, which made the gazetteer sections all the more interesting.

I guess you could say I'm a fan of this rather unique pairing of fiction and gazetteer.

Well, the thing is, Bruce's writing style has matured and improved over the last twenty years.  In Stranger Skies is very much the spiritual successor of the Princess Ark, and there are many similarities.  Some will undoubtedly call it a reboot, although I wouldn't go that far myself.  You see, it's much more than just a reboot: it's a whole new thing of its own.

With Calidar, Bruce has created a whole new universe with its own themes and tropes.  It has some very interesting themes and plot devices built into the story and the setting, such as the Vortex, which allows a limited form of travel between realities; world souls as a source of magic and life; skyships and space travel, including multiple ways to travel the Great Vault; as well as some rather interesting dynamics which shape the relationship between mortals and their gods.

Calidar: In Stranger Skies, Great Caldera, Araldûr, dwarf, Kragdûras, fantasy map
An excerpt from the Great Caldera poster map.  Bruce came
up with a new language, Kragdûras, for the names.
You can see some of this in the short stories which Bruce has already released — and if you haven't already read them, you should — but it'll become apparent just how much there is when you read the main story and its gazetteer.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention another of Bruce's talents: he is great at coming up with names.  Any Mystara fan can attest the linguistic richness and logic of place names in Mystara.  It's no secret how he does this, by adapting real world place names, but it's also something that's very hard to get just right.  For me, as a Tolkien fan as well as a Mystara fan, I have been completely spoiled with great place names, and it's something that continually holds me back from enjoying many other fantasy worlds.  I'm sure I'm pickier than most in this regard, but suffice it to say that Calidar's names just fit.

So yes, the story is wonderful, and the gazetteer section is great.  In fact my only complaint about them both is that they're too short, and left me wanting much, much more!

John Dollar art Calidar: In Stranger Skies Gumboyle Moffeecot Mama Goo
Art by John Dollar showing the ship's cook — sure to be a fan favourite.
Moving on to other parts of the book: the art is sumptuous.  A total of four artists contributed to the book: Ben Wootten painted the cover art; John Dollar and Savage Mojo did interior art; and Pierre Carles drew the astrolabe which has become the Calidar Publishing logo.  All of these artists have contributed wonderfully to the look and feel of In Stranger Skies and indeed the whole World of Calidar.

Calidar: In Stranger Skies, Great Caldera, Kingdom of Meryath, Glorathon, Royal Domain, topographical map, fantasy map
My new topographical style in its most zoomed in form.
Obviously when it comes to the maps I am totally biased, but I hope you will enjoy them, too.  As my blog's subtitle suggests, I have made every effort to make Calidar's maps as accurate and consistent as possible.  Every town and city has its own latitude and longitude coordinates, and there is even a special coordinate system for each planet in the Soltan Ephemeris.  I have tentatively called Calidar's "Calidar 2014", although perhaps "Calidar 1512" would have been more appropriate.  You can see these things in the maps with graticules (latitude/longitude grid lines).

I have also developed my own original style for Calidar's topographical maps, which you can see on the Great Caldera poster map, as well as the in-book Kingdom of Meryath map, and the local map of Glorathon's Royal Domain.

Calidar: In Stranger Skies, Great Caldera, Kingdom of Meryath, hex map, fantasy map
Close-up of the Meryath poster map, with all new hex art.
For fans of hex maps, the bonus poster map shows the Kingdom of Meryath in glorious hex format.  It's 100% compatible with all the other maps.

I chose an appropriate projection for each of the maps: Stereographic for the Great Caldera, to show its shapes undistorted; Equirectangular for the world maps, to provide a familiar view; Albers Equal Area for the Meryath maps, including the hex map, to facilitate demographic calculations; and so on.

Of course, none of this matters if you just want to enjoy the maps for what they are.

Looking at everything together, I truly believe that Calidar: In Stranger Skies is a great product.  I am seriously looking forward to talking Calidar with all of you in the coming weeks and months.

You can bet I'll keep you updated on the release schedule.

Thanks for reading!

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