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Literature / The Pillars of Reality

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The Pillars of Reality is a series of Fantasy-ish (perhaps Science Fantasy) novels by John Hemry (aka Jack Campbell). They mark a departure from his more normal straight Science Fiction work (such as The Lost Fleet). So far, there are seven books set in this world — the original series had six books, and a follow-up series called The Legacy Of Dragons is still in progress.
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The original series consists of:

  • The Dragons of Dorcastle (2014)
  • The Hidden Masters of Marandur (2015)
  • The Assassins of Altis (2015)
  • The Pirates of Pacta Servanda (2016)
  • The Servants of the Storm (2016)
  • The Wrath of the Great Guilds (2016)

The sequel series (The Legacy Of Dragons) so far consists of:

  • Daughter of Dragons (2017)

The world (called Dematr) is dominated by two rival Guilds, the Mages and the Mechanics. Each Guild guards its secrets jealously, while insisting that their enemies are frauds and charlatans. Both hold the commons (people who aren't part of either guild) in disdain, and are in turn greatly resented. They exercise strict discipline over their members; joining isn't optional, independent operators are eliminated, and questioning official doctrine results in harsh punishment. The system is beginning to crack, but the Guild leaders are more likely to shoot the messenger than try to fix anything.

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The story starts off when Mari, a Mechanic, and Alain, a Mage, are thrown together in the aftermath of a bandit attack. They're forced to work together to survive, and from their interaction, they start to learn that a lot of what their Guilds have told them — especially about the other side — is untrue.


The series contains examples of:

  • Accidental Marriage: On one side, anyway. Alain doesn't realize that the paperwork that Mari is having him go through is part of a civic wedding ceremony until it's over.
  • All Trolls Are Different: Dumb brutes summoned by magic, used as heavy infantry.
  • Ancestral Weapon: Most Mechanics Guild guns are old, with rifles commonly being over a hundred years old.
  • Anti-Magic: Magic doesn't work on humans, so technically, all people have this. It's only a very limited protection, however, since the effects of magic aimed elsewhere can still be transmitted to people. For example, heating the air next to a person will burn them.
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  • Anti-Mutiny: The Librarians
  • Bad Powers, Bad People: Dragon Summoners are considered little different from their Dragons.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Storm has been avoided and the Great Guilds destroyed, but the Empire really only lost some soldiers and some islands and otherwise continues to rule, the countries of Dematr are already beginning to compete with one another for power, and it's clear Mari and Alain will never truly know peace.
  • Bond Creatures: Mages with Rocs absolutely adore them, and create the same Roc over and over again, rather than create different Rocs. The Guild will make the fliers dismiss their Rocs as soon as possible due to their bond making the Roc mages less reliable.
  • Briar Patching: Prince Tien is removed by his sister by manipulating him into declaring a no-holds-barred duel to the death. The court-raised fop who set the terms of the duel is then promptly taken apart by the hardened veteran.
  • Catch-22 Dilemma:
    • Asha's beauty is a sign that she's not properly detached, but trying to mutilate herself to remove it would prove she wasn't properly detached.
    • Mari is assigned a watchdog from the guild. If she does anything questionable, it will be reported and she'll get in trouble. If she doesn't do anything questionable, the guild assumes that she subverted the watchdog and still gets in trouble for whatever they think she did after doing so.
    • The survivors of Marandur wish to be restored to citizenship in the Empire. To do so, they must present a petition to the Emperor. But as they are not recognized as citizens of the Empire, they have no right to present him with a petition.
  • Catchphrase: Alain- "Nothing is Real" (in EVERY SINGLE BOOK. Mari finds it extremely annoying.)
  • The Cavalry: The Army of the New Dawn sends in grenadiers on Roc-back and gunmen on horseback to lift the siege of Dorcastle just as the Empire's legions were about to assault the seventh and final line of defense.
  • Chosen One: The Daughter of Jules, who is prophesied to break the Great Guilds. Of course, since the prophecy was made during Jules' lifetime, all of her children were raised in obscurity to prevent the Guilds from finding them. Between that and the fact that she died centuries ago, it's impossible to prove or disprove the theory that anyone is a descendant of Jules.
  • Computer Virus: Computers are rare, so viruses (called "contagions") are even rarer. Only a few people even know that such a thing can be done, let alone how to fix it, so when one is discovered, its very existence is perhaps more alarming than what it was actually doing.
  • Colony Ship: The Demeter is still in orbit, although mostly stripped. It's the reason the Mechanics Guild forbids astronomy
  • Defector from Decadence: Mari.
    • Later, all of the Mechanics who leave the Guild to join her and the New Day.
  • Dungeon Bypass: When Mari is captured and locked up, Alain breaks into the dungeon simply by walking right through the walls with magic. However, he then lacks the strength to do the same for their escape, leaving him stuck in the dungeon too. He admits that he didn't think it through properly. Fortunately, he does have enough strength to create a hole big enough for Mari to tamper with the lock.
  • Emotion Suppression: The Mages teach their people to suppress all emotion (and indeed, that everything to which someone might emotionally react is just an irrelevant illusion anyway). Alain starts to lose this when he's forced to interact with someone outside his Guild, though he still remains The Stoic.
  • Enforced Technology Levels: The Guild of Mechanics has a lot of advanced technology, including rifles, radios, trains, and rudimentary computers. However, it is quite insistent that nobody else can have this stuff, which naturally generates a lot of resentment among people who have to live with medieval-ish technology. Part of the plot of the first book deals with a city which tries to defy its enforced technology level.
    • Revealed in books 2 and 3 the guild is working from a series of backup texts designed for the Demeter in case technology was lost, they picked a certain level they felt could be maintained and keep the population under control, but the guild is slowly losing the skills needed to maintain a limited base, and not allowing anyone to read the texts as much of it is forbidden
    • Astronomy is banned by Mechanic's Guild edict because the Demeter is still in orbit and can be found with even a small telescope
  • Enemy Mine: Mari and Alain start out thinking of each other as enemies who have to work together to survive. As they get to know each other, however, they begin to realise that they're only enemies in the first place because each of their respective Guilds are either wrong or lying about the other.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Prince Tien sincerely cannot understand that Mari's image is not an act on her part. He does not even consider the possibility that Mari actually loves her husband, Alain, assuming it is merely an act.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: While a lot of the population don't have much more than medieval technology, the Guild of Mechanics has rifles and pistols. The various governments of the world can pay exorbitant fees for a small number of guns, but the Guild ruthlessly suppresses anyone's attempts to make their own.
    • A well stocked guild house may have 20-30 rifles. Having 50 or more is considered crazy. And the ammunition is so rare that it's frequently mentioned that gunners are essentially firing gold coins due to how expensive bullets are.
  • Feed It a Bomb: In Book 4 works well on dragons - if you don't mind needing to comb bits of dragon brain out of your hair.
  • Forbidden Friendship: Members of the Mages' and Mechanics' guilds aren't even supposed to interact with each other, let alone be friends. When Alain (a Mage) and Mari (a Mechanic) have to work together as the sole survivors of a bandit attack, they're both essentially told that they should have left the other to die. As such, the fact that they continue their friendship in secret is decidedly dangerous for them.
  • Giant Flyer: Mages can summon Rocs to fly on. However, Roc mages are considered unreliable due to them acting as Bond Creatures
  • Genetic Engineering Is the New Nuke: Mages were genetically engineered
  • Gone Horribly Right/ Gone Horribly Wrong: Both in a matter of speaking. Mages were presumably created by the Demeter's geneticists in a bid to stop the Mechanics from taking over the world. It sort of worked for a while, with Mages and Mechanics going for each others throats every time they laid eyes on their enemies. What the geneticists failed to take into account is what might happen if the people who rely on the philosophy that "Nothing is Real" for their powers start to wonder "If nothing is real why should I care what happens to other people?". Thus the Mage guild came to be and an uneasy truce with the Mechanics, with the latter unable to destroy the former, and the former not caring to keep going after the latter. And then Mari was born.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Mari finds it hard to believe that Asha is just Alain's friend.
  • Grenade Launcher: Works great on Dragons.
  • Human Weapon: Fire Mages are relatively rare, but the most clear cut mages for combat. Lighting Mages are more ideal for an assassination.
  • Invisibility: One of the powers that nearly all mages seem to manage.
  • Left-Justified Fantasy Map: The official map
  • Legally Dead: Everyone was ordered to leave Marandur on pain of death by order of Emperor Palan. Thus, anyone still living there is dead in the eyes of the Empire. Anyone who disputes their vital status with the guards surrounding the ruined city is shot until they are no longer able to do so.
  • Lost Colony: The Demeter project
  • Lost Technology: Gradually. The technology possessed by the Mechanics is better when it's older (provided it has been maintained), because newer attempts to duplicate it tend to be inferior. Each succeeding generation has less and less understanding of it.
    • the Library is full of broken technology from the original ships
  • Love Confession: At the end of the first book, Mari thinks Alain is about to make such a confession, but he's actually just going explain the prophecy about her. She cuts it short by saying that she already knows (without saying what she knows) and defers the discussion, therefore missing some important information.
  • Love Is a Weakness: Mage Guild Wisdom says all emotions are weakness, with mages falling in love being the greatest danger to their powers. The Power of Love actually seems to be increasing Alain's Power
  • The Magic Versus Technology War: The Mages and the Mechanics are the world's dominant powers, one using magic and the other machines. However, it's more a cold war than a direct conflict, with members of each Guild taught that members of the others are just frauds and posers who aren't even worth challenging.
    • A war happened about a generation after landing resulting in the current guild structure
  • Mad Bomber: Mari's friend Alli builds and maintains munitions for a living. She was most miffed when the Guild reprimanded her for reinventing the bazooka.
  • Magic Versus Science: The Mages and the Mechanics each teach their students that the abilities of the other side don't really exist, saying that it's just tricks, illusions, and sleight-of-hand.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Mari and Alain keep getting sent on life-threatening missions. After a while they work out that their Guilds are deliberately trying to get them killed.
  • Medieval Stasis: The Mechanic's Guild exists to keep outsiders from understanding technology, and to keep anyone, including their own members, from developing new technology. This, combined with the occasional loyalty purges, results in their equipment becoming more crude every generation, as the people who know how to maintain the previous generation die out.
  • Military Mage: Mages with combat orientated magic like Alain are mercenaries under the control of the guild.
  • Muggle Power: There are a lot of ordinary people who resent the power of the Mages and the Mechanics, and some of them want to do something about it. The first major attempt is attempting to secretly reproduce the technology of Mechanics' rifles.
  • The Mutiny: The Mechanics Guild was founded by crew Mutinying against their orders on the Dementer, the Commons and Mages were passengers
    • In Book 4 Mari's piracy of a Guild ship quickly becomes a mutiny against the guilde
  • Never Trust a Title: Every title is misleading
    • The Dragons of Dorcastle There are no dragons, its a "Scooby-Doo" Hoax
    • The Hidden Masters of Marandur are University Masters literally hidden within a dead city
    • The Assassins of Altis The assassins come to Altis
    • The Pirates of Pacta Servanda Mari's faction are the pirates, and they're relieving the siege of Pacta Servanda, not attacking it or operating out of it.
    • The Wrath of the Great Guilds: Actually completely accurate. Though when facing Mari's superior technology and tactics, it's a lot less impressive than it sounds. It takes them a solid week to overrun a city with a force at least twenty times larger than the defenders, giant dragons and other Mage powers, and a ready supply of explosives and naval weaponry. And in the end, they still lose.
  • Not That Kind of Mage: Most mages seem to have a specialty, while the guild doesn't always make clear to outsiders that not all mages can do all magic. Alain is pretty good at fire, and all mages so far can do invisibility or make holes, but summoning, lightning and message sending are all specialties, with summons being even limited by the summoners personality.
  • Obvious Rule Patch: Shortly after Mari became the first teenage Master of the Mechanics Guild, the Senior Mechanics rewrote the requirements for mastery to include time in service so that nobody will ever be able to do that again.
  • Odd Couple: Mari and Alain; even setting aside the fact that each of their respective Guilds consider even speaking to members of the other to be treasonous, their personalities are a case of Emotions vs. Stoicism.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Dragons exist as creatures summoned by Mages; in this world, they're non-winged and non-flying, and don't breath fire; their danger just comes from their size and strength. And then there's one of the "dragons" encountered at the end of the first book, which seems to have some odd qualities but turns out to be a Mechanical contraption rather than a Mage summoning.
  • Parental Abandonment: The Mechanic's Guild intercepts and destroys all attempts at communication between their common-born apprentices and their families to make the apprentices think this has happened, and adopt the Guild as a replacement family.
  • Personality Powers: Summoners powers are based on their personalities. Those who summon Rocs tend to seek freedom, while Dragon Summoners are as nasty as their dragons.
  • Pirate Girl: Mari in book 4
  • Playing with Fire: Alain is able to do fire magic, and considered strong and rare due to the obvious potential for direct combat.
  • Psychic Link: The Thread between Mari and Alain
  • The Purge: The senior mechanics have been purging dissident mechanics. they've been doing this for generations, contributing to the Lost Technology when major purges happen every 50-100 years.
  • Remember When You Blew Up a Sun?: Mari has killed two dragons as of the start of the second book, and the story precedes her wherever she goes.
  • Running Gag: If Alain and Mari get on a train, or even go to a train station, expect things to go horribly wrong.
    • Alain actually becomes frightened of boilers because Mari keeps blowing them up. He comes to believe boilers will inevitably just explode on their own.
    • Alain believes Mechanic vehicles and devices, like trains and boilers, are creatures. When told they're not, he likens them to spell creatures like dragons and trolls which are also not truly alive in a strict sense. He also point out they eat (fuel), they breathe (needing air for fires), do work, can 'die' or get 'injured', and that Mechanics often develop emotional connections towards them.
  • Schizo Tech: Much of the world seems to have medieval-like technology, but the Guild of Mechanics possesses steam trains, rifles, and even radios. They keep the relevant knowledge strictly secret, and it derives from Lost Technology rather than uneven advancement.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The Mage's Guild is convinced that Mages under twenty can't cut it, so they send them on impossible missions that could get them killed to reinforce this belief.
    • The Senior Mechanics believed that Mari would one day challenge there authority, so they set out to kill her. You know what happened after they failed? She did exactly that.
  • Shock and Awe: Some mages may use lighting attacks.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Asha
  • The Sociopath: Prince Tien.
  • Summon Magic: Mages can summon various kinds of magical creature; trolls and dragons, for example. When Alain sees a steam train, he mistakenly assumes that it's a creature somehow "summoned" by the Mechanics by a parallel technique.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Alain and Mari
  • Start My Own: The New Dawn
  • Straw Nihilist: The Mages teach their acolytes that nothing is real and that nothing matters. However, even Alain (who starts out pretty indoctrinated) realises that their philosophy has holes. He notes that the senior Mages never seemed to think that failures on the part of their acolytes "didn't matter", for example.
  • Teen Genius: Alain and Mari start at seventeen and eighteen, which is incredibly young for their proven levels of proficiency in their guilds (to an unprecedented extent in Mari's case). Their youth is a plot point: because they're so young, they still ask questions instead of blindly following guild dogma at all times, which is why their guilds see them as a threat. Their youth is also probably partly responsible for their friendship and eventual relationship - they're young enough for their hormones to have a stronger drawing-together effect on them, especially in Alain's case.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Members of the Mages' and Mechanics' guilds have been taught to hold each other in contempt, so after Mari and Alain become the sole survivors of an attack, their initial interactions are full of suspicion and tension. They improve.
  • They Call Me Mister Tibbs: Master Mechanic Mari is young for her rank, and many people (particularly those senior to her) either forget it or deliberately snub her by pretending to. However, the rules of the Guild allow her to insist on it, even to people she would never get away with correcting on other matters, and she does.
  • Track Trouble: In the first book, the train on which Mari and Alain are traveling runs along the top of some coastal cliffs — parts of which turn out to have collapsed. It looks like it could be natural, but it actually deliberate sabotage to get rid of Mari and Alain.
  • The Treachery of Images: It's part of the teachings of the Guild of Mages that everything (and everyone) else is really just an illusion. It might look like the world exists, but to actually believe so is a grave error that must be beaten out of acolytes before they finish their training. It's part of how they do magic; as far as they're concerned, they're just changing an illusion. However, the belief can cause serious problems for people around Mages, because Mages will feel free to treat "mere illusions" however they like.
  • Thought-Controlled Power: Magic requires the mage to impose their will on the world. It requires the mage to think about what they want while gathering power.
  • Uriah Gambit: The second book starts with both main characters being sent on suicide missions by their respective guilds. When they realize that's what had happened, they desert.
  • What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: Due to the Mages having a strict policy of Emotion Suppression, Alain has trouble with the concept of being in love. For that matter, he has trouble with the concepts of friendship, gratitude, thanks, and help.
  • Written by the Winners: Mechanic's Guild history bares little resemblance to what actually happened. From a long history of purges reducing their technical level, to a series of civil wars, to the true nature of their guild as Crew on the Demeter
    • At points in the first book Alain examines various historical monuments and compares what they depict to what out-of-town historians claim really happened. He notes that the war memorials of Ringhmon (which tends to win wars because of the logistical difficulties of invading from the opposite side of a desert) have glorified themselves with exaggerated tales of valor, which Dorcastle (where wars involve fighting in the streets) tends to memorialize events in a much more subdued and accurate manner.
  • The Wrongful Heir to the Throne: Prince Tien of Tiae. He only shows up after his sister does all the work of restoring order in his country, and then not only doesn't thank her for doing so, he claims she's an imposter so he can remove the threat she represents to his rule, which he would never have gotten without her efforts. He's also a sociopath who planned the same sort of casual abuse to the people that started the rebellion that reduced Tiae into anarchy in the first place.
  • Young and in Charge: Mari and Alain are only 18 and 17 when the series begins, but are leading the New Dawn in part because they're young enough that they haven't had to ethically compromise themselves for the glory of their guild

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