I was reading the new biography of General Lee (Clouds of Glory, well worth a read) and I started to have an idea. Then a few more ideas …
There’s a fantasy world where magic exists (yeah, surprise, surprise). Magic needs a talent to use, but once you have that talent you can call on the Mana and use it to power your spells (a little like The Magic Goes Away, but I’m not sure if Mana can be actually depleted on a global scale or not.) Generally speaking, you need lots of practice to learn how to use magic on a large scale safely, with an increasing risk of madness the more power you channel (there are ways to speed up the process, but they also result in increasing the risk of going bonkers.)
There aren’t actually that many magic users, as magic tends to kill its practitioners if they’re not very careful. Those that do tend to survive do so because they were taught by another magic user, who shares his carefully-acuminated knowledge with his apprentice in exchange for service of one kind or another. Magicians rarely share knowledge outside the master-apprentice system, as they see their private discoveries as something to trade, not to give away freely.
For generations, therefore magic has largely run in a handful of bloodlines lucky enough to have enough magicians survive long enough to master their powers.
Once you get enough knowledge, there are plenty of options, from ‘conventional’ magic to making bargains with demons and suchlike.
The principle power unit in this world, at least for the story, is the High Kingdom of Unnamed (I haven’t started working out the nitty-gritty.) Roughly 200 years before the start of the story, a monarch of a small kingdom launched a series of wars against his neighbours, rather like Alexander the Great. He succeeded in uniting around forty kingdoms, assorted minor political units and suchlike under his banner. Surprisingly, he managed to pass the kingdom down to his eldest son, who proclaimed himself the High King.
There’s something of a gap between the two halves of the kingdom, however. The east is very traditional – it borders various other independent kingdoms, so it tends to think in terms of land power and keeping the peons under control. (Think of France or Russia in 1800). There’s no such thing as social mobility in the east – everyone knows their place, from the serfs working the lands to the nobility in the high castles.
The west, however, is built around smaller kingdoms with access to the sea. Think the Netherlands or Britain in 1700-1800. They have a far more open mindset, greater social mobility and a vigorous approach to innovation. There’s not THAT liberal by our standards, but they’re definitely more open to people rising as far as their ability will take them.
This has had a major impact on magic, starting with the introduction of what we might as well call disciplined magic. Basically, some low-power magicians set up an academy (a cross between a school, a university and a research lab) into how magic actually worked, pooling their knowledge and building on it. This new scientific approach to magic, studying how mana actually worked, allowed them to develop a certain form of magic technology (magitek?) which revolutionised the world. The West loved these innovations – the East hated them.
East-trained magicians tend to be more powerful, West-trained magicians tend to be more numerous.
As of now, the High King is dead (probably assassinated, though I’m not entirely sure.) There is no male heir – there are only a pair of sisters, Princesses Alpha and Beta. Alpha is legally the heir, as there are no male heirs, but there has never been a High Queen before and many of the power elite are concerned about allowing a female to take the throne. (Britain went through something similar when a female ruler stepped up to the plate more than once.) The nobles of the East see this as an opportunity to reverse the changes of the past – they want to capture and marry off the princess to one of their number and crush the free-thinking West. The West sees this as a chance to change the ways of the past still further.
The East attempts to mount a coup. It fails – and outright civil war breaks out between the two sides.