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Literature / The Legends of Ethshar

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The Legends of Ethshar is a fantasy series by Lawrence Watt-Evans.

The series takes place in a world loosely based on the Roman Republic. Currently, the most influential country of the world is the Hegemony of Three Ethshars, which defeated the evil, magic wielding Empire of the North, while the former Ethshar (Old Ethshar) split into hundreds of tiny kingdoms. There's trade, war and pirates...

But above all there are magic users. Ethshar is home of dozens of magic specialists and various kinds of magicians - there's six most powerful ones, and dozens of lesser ones like necromancy or alchemy.

Wizardry - Wizardry taps into essentially the Chaos of the World, and therefore is thought to be the most powerful kind of magic. A skilled wizard can, if he knows a specific spell, turn frogs into princesses, create illusions, enchant swords, create castles in alternate dimensions or achieve immortality. Most of their spells use a magical dagger called an athame, as well as material components like blood of a virgin or dragon's tongues.

Sorcery - Sorcery uses the Order from outside the world and is based on creating enchanted objects that cast spells. They manufacture many powerful devices that can sometimes be used even by the mundanes. Some resemble high-tech devices, others are simply magical.

Warlockry - Warlockry is essentially sufficiently advanced telekinesis, extending to manipulating small objects, or even on the molecular level (electrokinesis, pyrokinesis). They also have some Psychic Powers related to sensing the structure and presence of matter. Warlocks derive their power from a mysterious Source, but when they become powerful enough, it summons them, never to be seen again.

Witchcraft - Witchcraft is psionics - including mind reading, telekinesis or pyrokinesis - which doubles with warlockry. The power is derived from witch's own strength; doing something by witchcraft is exactly as tiring as doing the same task by mundane means. Consequently witchcraft lacks raw power. On the other hand, witches can use their power in more subtle and efficient ways since they have better extra-sensory perception. Furthermore, witchcraft is quite versatile - witches can even use some basic spells! Unusually, witchcraft isn't gender-specific; both male and female practitioners exist and both are called witches.

Theurgy - Theurgists can use prayers to ask gods for specific favors. Actual faith is not required and prayers resemble spells. Most theurgists are priests, but the gods aren't really interested in worship.

Demonology - Summoning demons and forcing them to do your dirty jobs. Technically it's not illegal (except in some of the Small Kingdoms) nor evil, but it isn't nice. Most demons require souls or blood sacrifice - a few require killing a victim.

    Novels set in Ethshar 

Ethshar novels with their own trope pages include:

The other novels in this series provide examples of:

  • Addiction-Powered / Addictive Magic: Warlocks tap into a supernatural broadcast and are able to use that power to do magic. Which makes the broadcast easier to hear and understand that it wants to be used, which gives them more power. But the better they hear and use it, the more powerfully it attracts them. Any warlock who uses too much power ends up being irresistibly summoned to the Source.
  • Alas, Poor Villain:
    • At the end of The Spell of the Black Dagger, Overlord Ederd, having been restored to his throne, refers to Tabaea, the woman who overthrew him and seized control of the city and then died in a failed effort to save it (the city was saved, but not by her) as "that poor girl" and "poor little Tabaea." It is clear that he means it.
    • In The Unwilling Warlord Sterren, the protagonist and Vond's only real friend, weeps for him after he is finally Called to Aldagmor. It's unstated whether this is out of relief that the unstable warlock has finally gone, sympathy at the unknown horror that awaits him, guilt at having helped drive him deeper into the Calling in order to stop his reign—or all three.
  • Anti-Magic: Ellran's Dissipation permanently cancels wizardry's power in a large area. Forever. Since the majority of the world operates by magic, the spell has been cast exactly thrice in the history of the world: once on discovery, once as a Deadly Prank against a wizard in a flying castle, and once to negate a universal solvent that was likely to destroy the entire world if unchecked. (Note, however, that it only applies to wizardry; the other half-dozen or so forms of magic are fundamentally different, though less powerful, and so are unaffected.)
  • Beat Still, My Heart: Wizards can remove their still-beating heart from their body in order to protect it from harm and allow them to survive otherwise fatal injuries. This magic is also used as a protection against warlocks, who usually kill by telekinetically inducing a heart attack.
  • Benevolent Mage Ruler: In The Unwilling Warlord, Vond the warlock uses his might to annex the Kingdom of Semma and several others into a single vast empire with himself at the head and a council (including Sterren, the actual protagonist) making all the decisions. He spends most of his time experimenting with his magic and enjoying himself—until the Calling makes him paranoid and unstable.
  • Blood Magic: Different types of blood are used in many wizard spells. One example is the dragon blood, which is used in some powerful spells and is pretty expensive. Some spells need even more exotic kinds of blood, such as, for example, blood of a gelded dragon. Unusual in that there's no moral stigma associated with this, and there (usually) no Human Sacrifice involved: if a wizard needs blood of a virgin, for example, he just pays a virgin to donate the blood.
  • Cast from Hit Points: Witchcraft uses a witch's own personal energy, with "harder" abilities such as telekinesis and making light taking more than "softer" uses like Psychic Powers. It can be difficult for a witch in a trance to tell how much energy they're using until it's too late.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience:
    • Red kilts are apparently restricted to the military, and blue ones for sailors.
    • Demonologists and warlocks typically wear black clothing.
    • Wizard's apprentices typically wear gray robes.
  • Compelling Voice: Warlocks get their Mind over Matter powers from a signal emitted by a mysterious Source located somewhere in the country of Aldagmor. As they use their powers, the connection to said Source becomes stronger, as does the compulsion to use their powers whenever they can. At some point, when they grow powerful enough, the warlock begins to hear the Source compelling them to come to Aldagmor, which becomes stronger as they do. Sensible warlocks accumulate as much money as they can in their career until The Calling becomes a problem, move as far away from Aldagmor as they can so the signal becomes too weak to bother them (much), and try to use their powers as little as possible.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Demonologists wear black robes and summon demons, but they're no more likely to be evil than anyone else.
  • Deal with the Devil: Practically the entire modus operandi of Demonology. The demonologists summon demons to perform needed tasks and pay them with, for example, animal sacrifices. Due to the treacherous nature of demons demonology is a dangerous business: it is stated that sometimes demonologists just disappear...
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Punishments for crimes include being lashed or sold into slavery.
    • Typical feminine wear includes an ankle-length skirt, and exceptions (e.g. Irith the flyer and her breeches) are unusual enough to be given special notice, although not condemned.
  • Deus ex Machina: Literally - when the demonologists of the Empire started summoning demons to use on the battlefield, it violated the pact between Heavens and Hells, and gods themselves counterattacked, winning the war overnight. That also renewed the pact and allowed only theurgists and demonologists to use holy/demonic magic.
  • Discard and Draw: Warlockry is incompatible with wizardry and theurgy, with wizards who become warlocks losing their ability to perform all but the simplest spells and former theurgists no longer being recognized as human by their gods. Some regard this as an unfair trade.
  • Disciplines of Magic: There are six major types of magic users (like wizards and warlocks) and dozens of minor ones.
  • Due to the Dead: If a dead person's body (or at least their head and heart) aren't burned, their soul remains trapped on earth, possibly for years. In this state they're vulnerable to being enslaved by ghost-catchers, eaten by night-stalkers, or captured and sold to demons by demonologists.
  • The Empath: One of the effects of witches' magic.
  • Engagement Challenge: Played with in With a Single Spell where the erstwhile dragon-slayers were promised a bag of gold and a princess for defeating the dragon. Upon returning successfully, one of the heroes tries to refuse the princess and take the gold - only to find that it's a package deal. There are too many princesses and the gold is her dowry.
  • Exotic Extended Marriage: In Ethshar, it's considered strange but not unacceptable for a man to have two or (rarely) three wives, although traditionally he's expected to be able to support his whole family.
  • Expospeak Gag: Wizards can get answers to yes-or-no questions by using the Spell of the Eighth Sphere, which makes runes appear in a black crystal globe. In other words, a Magic 8-Ball.
  • Eye of Newt: Wizardry uses ingredients like this — a raindrop caught in midair, for example, or the blood of an unborn child. There's even an expert — a man named Gresh — who looks for such things and supplies them to wizards for a living.
  • Flat World: The entire world is said to be the end-cap of a cylinder.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Many warlocks went from zero to powerful magicians during a single night, aptly named the Night of Madness. Later, moderately-powerful warlock Vond attunes to a new Source of warlockry and becomes virtually unstoppable.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Sorcerers are a fantasy equivalent of this, harnessing magic through talismans and other artifacts, rather than having any magical talent of their own.
  • Having a Blast: Thrindle's Combustion usually just ignites something flammable, but add it to fire and you get an explosion.
  • Healing Hands:
    • Witches do this by speeding up the body's natural healing process.
    • Warlocks just jam everything back together.
  • Hold Your Hippogriffs: "The pebble that sank the barge" is a substitute for "the straw that broke the camel's back", probably owing to a severe lack of camels in The World.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Rudhira the warlock, Fiery Redhead and former streetwalker.
  • Immortal Immaturity: Eternal youth spells freeze someone at that point in their maturity, and immortal wizards who revert themselves back to youth note that a younger body makes them act differently (especially as regards the libido). One immortal who's been 15 for 200 years is eventually dumped by her 16-year-old beau as being too young (emotionally speaking) for him.
  • Inept Mage:
    • Tobas of Telven's master died before he could teach him more than one spell.
    • Annara of Crookwall was so bad at magic she ended up homeless.
    • The titular Frog Wizard was only ever able to learn a spell to turn people into frogs and used masterful sleight-of-hand to cover his ineptitude. It's mentioned that the frog-turning spell is extremely difficult for everyone else, but he picked it up easily.
  • Literally Shattered Lives: Lord Faran dies in Night of Madness when he is turned to stone while in midair.
  • Lost Technology:
    • Thanks to the Great War a great deal of knowledge about sorcery was lost, and most people who use sorcerous devices are using ancient relics. Only about half of practicing sorcerers produce their own talismans.
    • The countercharm to the Seething Death has been lost, making its use incredibly dangerous.
    • Ellran's Dissipation was lost for centuries, until a retrocognition spell was cast to retrieve it.
    • The purpose of the Cult of Demerchan is to gather and study knowledge from all over the world, including magics thought long-lost.
  • Love at First Sight: Deconstructed in Taking Flight, where Kelder falls in love with the Glamour-ously beautiful Irith the Flyer. He then spends the rest of the book getting to know her, and gradually falling out again as a result.
  • Love Martyr: Fendel's Infatuous Love Spell turns its subject into one of these, leaving them hopelessly besotted and servile to the caster...and it doesn't wear off.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: The author is very good at following established magical rules.
  • Magical Incantation: Used pretty much in all wizard spells, and also in some witch spells.
  • Magical Society:
    • The Wizard's Guild is incredibly powerful and keeps wizards and other magic users in check.
    • The Council of Warlocks does the same, with a focus on warlocks, naturally.
    • Witches have a Sisterhood and a less-influential Brotherhood, who seem to be social clubs as much as anything.
  • The Magic Goes Away: In The Final Calling, the Source of the warlockry flies away, depowering almost all warlocks.
  • Magic Fire: The Tower of Flame is a column of magical fire that's burned for centuries. It originated when a wizard was using a simple spell to light his camp fire, and sneezed at the wrong moment.
  • Man in a Kilt: Kilts in solid colors are de rigueur clothing for adult male commoners in Ethshar, breeches less so.
  • Mass Super-Empowering Event: The Night of Madness, when...something...fell to earth and turned a portion of the population into warlocks.
  • Master of One Magic:
    • Tobas of Telven starts his story only knowing one spell: Thrindle's Combustion, but he's an absolute master of it. He eventually learns more.
    • The Frog Wizard is a wizard idiot savant of some sort, who quickly learned the incredibly difficult spell of turning someone or something into a frog—and nothing else.
  • Megamanning: The main ability of the titular black dagger from The Spell of the Black Dagger. The wielder of the dagger gets some abilities of whoever or whatever is killed by the dagger: good hearing and low-light vision from a cat, boost of strength from a bull or a strong man, etc. The dagger can even steal magical ability—but not corresponding knowledge, just raw magical talent.
  • Micro Monarchy: Old Ethshar split into two-hundred-and-four of these during the war. Some of them seem to be mere city-states.
  • Mundane Utility: All over the place. After all, if a wizard can make some money magically cleaning sewers or repairing someone's precious vase, why not?
  • Mutually Exclusive Magic: The primary restriction on magic-users is that the source of each type is different. Theurgists pray to gods; demonologist bargain with demons; sorcerers manipulate talismans; wizards manipulate reagents; witches manipulate their own magic; warlocks manipulate a foreign magic. Learning how to use even one school can take a lifetime so very few have the ability or interest to try and study another school.
    • It has been noted that many warlocks were originally users of other magics, but either lost the ability or interest to use their original magic during the Night of Madness.
    • While Wizards are incapable of using any other kind of magic, they are powerful enough to make it illegal to practise multiple forms of magic (or to practise magic while a noble) on pain of death - with the Wizard's guild as judge and executioner. The boundaries between magics aren't always clear-cut either - some therugists occasionally find prayers answered by demons, and both Witches and Herbalists brew potions.
  • The Needless: The Spell of Untiring Nourishment, cast upon a bloodstone, allows said bloodstone's bearer to go without food, water, or oxygen for the duration of the spell. It's rumored to have ill-effects on one's health if used for too long at a stretch, however, and breaks instantly if the bearer eats or drinks anything.
  • Omniglot: Since the two hundred known languages of The World descend from the same mother tongue, one still in active use, it's easy for the average person to become one of these with a bit of effort. One author's note describes it as someone who knows Spanish learning Italian.
  • One-Steve Limit: Somewhat averted.
    • The name Kelder is very common in Ethshar - almost to the point of being a Running Gag. Practically every novel has some character named Kelder (although so far only two of these Kelders were protagonists, and one of these two usually was called simply Kel).
      • Sarai is almost as common a girl's name, again appearing in most stories. Irith is also said to be a very common name—"Kelder and Irith" or "Uncle Kelder and Aunt Sarai" are used as generic expressions for ordinary folk.
    • Also thoroughly averted with a city name. The Hegemony has three capitals, and all three are called Ethshar: Ethshar of the Spices (where most of the novels' events take place), Ethshar of the Rocks, and Ethshar of the Sands. And that's not all: there was earlier a kingdom called The Holy Kingdom of Ethshar, or Ethshar for short. (Now it's referred to as Old Ethshar.) Later this kingdom split up into many small kingdoms, many of which claim to be the only rightful heir of Old Ethshar. One of these small kingdoms is called Ethshar of the Plains.
  • Order Versus Chaos: On a certain level the war between the North and Old Ethshar was based on the division of Chaotic Wizards and Good Theurgists at Ethshar's side and Order-backed sorcerers and Evil demonologists.
  • Our Demons Are Different: In Taking Flight a demonologist, defending a caravan from robbers, summons a horde of smallish bloodthirsty creatures. Word of God states that he summoned the demon called Ansu of the Many Bodies. Yes, the whole horde was one demon.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Apparently dragons were either created or heavily-altered into what they are today during the Great War. They're smart, but don't gain human-level intellect or the capacity to speak until adulthood.
  • Pet Baby Wild Animal: Rich Ethsharites sometimes keep dragons as pets. In "Sirinita's Dragon" at least, it doesn't end happily.
  • Punny Name: Most of the gods' names pun on things in our world—e.g., the two twin gods of healing are Blukros and Blusheld.
  • Resist the Beast: A non-monster example with warlocks. Their power wants to be used, and the urge to do so grows stronger as they do, until they end up struggling (and like as not failing) to keep from using it at every possible occasion, even without meaning to. Even in their sleep. The Calling grows stronger as well, until it can no longer be resisted.
  • Ritual Magic: Almost all systems of magic are like this to some extent (the big exception being warlockry). More specifically:
    • Wizardry: all the spells use specific incantations, gestures, and ingredients.
    • Witchcraft: similar to psionics, but some spells do need specific rituals.
    • Theurgy: uses prayers to ask favors from gods. Prayers must be specific to attract the god's attention (and even with a right prayer, god might not hear theurgist's timbre of voice!).
    • Demonology: uses invocations to summon demons.
    • Sorcery: not exactly ritualistic, but uses magical devices for casting spells.
    • Warlockry does not need rituals. Pity it's incredibly addictive.
    • Ritual Dance: Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Screw You, Elves!: We don't get any detail, but elves are apparently extinct in The World, a fact which is regarded as a very good thing.
  • Shapeshifting Squick: Unusually, the shapeshifter is the one being squicked. In Taking Flight, a man is enchanted to love and desire Irith the Flier, who is a shapeshifter with seven different shapes. It turns out that no matter the Irith's shape, the man still lusts after her, even when she assumes a shape of a horse. (By the way, one of the seven shapes is a housecat, so yeah, a cat is fine too.) Irith is seriously squicked by that.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The spell Felshen's First Hypnotic is presumably named in tribute to Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell from Jack Vance's Dying Earth series. Also, wizard Fendel is a homage to Archnecromancer Phandaal from the same series (Word of God on the subject here).
    • In The Spriggan Mirror, a spriggan—a smallish magical creature—once promises the protagonist Gresh to answer twenty questions, and counts his answers. Eventually:
    Spriggan: Went other direction when water got in the way. Ten.
    Gresh: Water? You mean the ocean?
    Spriggan: Mean big, big water, great big huge water. Is ocean? Ocean's eleven.
    • The Misenchanted Sword has a passing reference to swords that devour souls.
    • In Portrait of A Hero, villagers discuss possible ways to get rid of a dragon. The protagonist suggests simply attacking it, and another villager asks sarcastically: "With what? Your bare hands?" The protagonist is momentarily tempted to answer "Yes", but thinks better of it.
  • Sorcerous Overlord: Usually averted, thanks to Wizards' Guild. The Guild's rules expressly forbid any magician, wizard or not, to occupy any ruling position at all (the only exception are those positions that explicitly require magic, like that of a court magician). Punishment for breaking this rule is death. Shame about Vond the Warlock, though. Vond became very powerful much too quickly, conquered a kingdom and even managed to build a small empire.
  • Squishy Wizard: Averted. Although there is a stereotype for this in-universe, some spells have aspects that actually require wizards to be in pretty good shape, such as the one that requires them to stir a mixture in a bowl for a straight hour without interruption.
  • Summon Magic: Demonology. Also, some wizard spells can summon otherwordly creatures, too.
  • Taken for Granite: There are at least two spells for that. Bazil’s Irreversible Petrifaction turns someone to stone permanently, while Fendel’s Superior Petrifaction can be reversed with the right spells (that's why it's considered Superior). Both spells can be used in magical combat, but the reversible spell has some other, more exotic uses. In The Vondish Ambassador it is used as a protection from a magical assassin.
  • Talking in Your Dreams: The Spells of Invaded Dreams allow a wizard to do this, with the Lesser Spell only sending a one-way message and the Greater Spell allowing a proper conversation.
  • Tabletop Game: There isn't an official one, but Word of God states that many varieties of Ethshar magic, with their rules and limitations, were invented by Watt-Evans for a homebrew Tabletop Game. (And the idea of the novel With a Single Spell came when one of the players asked the author: "What is the minimum number of spells for a newly-generated wizard?" The answer was "One".)
  • Unequal Rites: While there're half a dozen major varieties of magic in Ethshar, usually their rivalry is quite mild: higher-ups spy after another guilds, guilds compete a bit... and that is pretty much it. However, when a new and quite powerful variety of magic with previously-unknown limitations—the warlockry—turns up, tensions immediately run very high. Some wizard hotheads even consider just killing all the warlocks as the best solution.
    • During the Great War, the Northern Empire had better sorcerers and demonologists, and made such extensive use of them that even hundreds of years later some stigma against them remains, at least in Ethshar.
  • Vancian Magic: Wizardry can be like this. In Taking Flight, two fire-and-forget wizardry systems are introduced, both with severe drawbacks. The first one lets wizard prepare any one (but only one) spell in advance, to be used once at his convenience, with practically zero casting time. Can be useful, as some spells need days to cast. The drawback is, until the spell is used, the wizard cannot do any other wizardry. The second system is a plot point: wizard prepares about a dozen of spells, to instantly cast later as many times as he likes. The drawback? No other wizardry ever for that wizard, except for these spells.
  • The Wall Around the World: Rather, the yellow fog/gas around the world.
  • Wizards Live Longer:
    • There're wizard spells for that, up to and including immortality (Type II) and eternal youth.
    • A powerful warlock, due to molecular control over his or her body, has a perfect health (except, possibly, Calling-induced headaches) and doesn't age.
  • You No Take Candle: Spriggans talk like this.

Alternative Title(s): Ethshar