Background Notes: The Summer Isle

29 Dec

Just a little bit of background for the Bookworm sequel series.

The Summer Isle is a large island nation off the coast of Andalusia. Politically, it is divided into the Summer Isle proper (the south), the Northern Realm (the north) and the Wildlands (the east.) The Monarchy of the Summer Isle – the Line of Summer – claims feudal overlordship of all three kingdoms, but the Northern King is unwilling to acknowledge it and the Wildlands have no real monarch. (They’re basically clansmen, willing to fight as mercenaries, but not willing to bend the knee to a weak monarch.)

Unsurprisingly, the Summer Isle claims a glorious past. There are stories of great kings and sorcerers who unified the island and then turned it into a base for the good guys during the Necromantic Wars. Just how many of these stories are actually true is debatable. There are quite a few places – mainly in the north and east – that were touched by dark magic, but the truth has long since been lost to the shadows of history. Only the last five hundred years have been documented to any reasonable standard – and really, the Summer Isle was little more than a backwater during that time, once it was absorbed into the empire. The Court Wizards – and the empire behind them – effectively froze the island in stasis.

King Edwin, the Last of the Summer Line (groan), is regarded as very weak indeed. His fits of madness – encouraged, some say, by his wife – have only intensified in the years since the Golden City’s fall. Even without it, the Crown Lands are very limited – the king’s army (and hired sorcerers/sellswords) might be able to crush one set of rebellious noblemen, but in doing so will weaken himself and unite the other noblemen behind him. In truth, the king’s writ doesn’t really run outside the largest (and most cosmopolitan) cities.

The largest city on the Summer Isle is Allenstown, supposedly named for the first king of the line. It rests halfway up the Summer River. It is also closely followed by Georgetown and Robin’s Bay, both trading cities with commercial links to the rest of the empire. Allenstown is technically ruled by the king, but in truth the magnates have stolen most of the king’s authority. The other two major cities are ruled by their councils.

The king does not have a heir. Queen Emetine is reported to be sterile – after being cursed during the endless aristocratic feuds – but the king cannot put her aside and take a new wife because of her powerful connections (see below). The question mark over the succession has been getting worse as the king becomes incapable of making decisions. Rumour has it that Edwin has promised the throne to King Garwood of Andalusia, if Edwin dies without heir. It is not clear if the Gathering – the assembly of noblemen – would crown a foreign prince if asked.

Below the king – and outside his control – the powerful noblemen scheme and struggle for dominance. They have powerful armies and control taxation within their domains, while plotting to crush their rivals and make a bid for the throne. Indeed, the only thing that kept them in check was constant manoeuvring by the king and the threat of naked intervention by the Golden City.

The most powerful noblemen are the Earls of Hereford, Goldenrod and Oxley. Hereford, probably the single most powerful nobleman in the isle, is the older brother of Queen Emetine. It was originally intended that Emetine’s child would take the throne (putting the family in control), but her failure to bear a child scuppered that plan. Now, Hereford and his family intend to claim the throne themselves after Edwin’s death.

The Earl of Goldenrod is his enemy (believed to be responsible for Emetine’s sterility, among other things.) The Earl of Oxley is the weakest of the earls – he tries to steer a path between the other two.

Below the earls, there are hundreds of noblemen who owe homage to their superiors and have hundreds of other aristocrats – and commoners – below them. The interlocking chains of feudal obligation are so complex that working out who owes loyalty to whom is a nightmarish task. It’s possible for a nobleman to be caught between two competing oaths and loyalties. Indeed, over the last few years, the earls have been working to sever the ties between their noblemen and the crown.

Economically, the Summer Isle is a mess. Outside the big cities, there is almost no middle class at all. There’s almost no industrial base at all. The island doesn’t trade that much with the rest of the (now gone) empire. There are no iron dragons, save for a single line linking the cities together. In theory, the highways are meant to be maintained and expanded by the nobility, but large sections have fallen into disrepair over the last five years. (This makes it harder for a central power to move troops from place to place.)

Education is a joke. The nobility has private tutors and the middle class has a handful of schools, but the remainder of the population is largely uneducated. (The handful of commoners born with magic are generally adopted into an upper-class family, sent away to the mainland or merely killed before they can become a potential threat.) There is no school for magicians on the Summer Isle (some adopted children get private training), nor is it famed for producing any great sorcerers. (Although, as always, there are vast and sweeping stories of great deeds in the past.)

Most commoners are effectively serfs or freemen – the former are not technically slaves, but there’s very little difference between slavery and serfdom. Unlike other parts of the empire, both freemen and serfs are permanently bound to the land and nobility – they cannot leave without permission. There’s no right to flee (and freedom, if one remains ahead of the bailiffs for a year and a day). Most commoners, male or female, struggle to draw a living from the land, knowing that their masters will take over half of their produce. Denied weapons or training, they have little choice. This doesn’t stop the occasional violent uprising that is brutally crushed.

And now King Edwin is dead …

6 Responses to “Background Notes: The Summer Isle”

  1. Scott December 29, 2016 at 2:03 pm #

    Sounds like a fun place to vacation……
    And a great setting for a series..

  2. Patrick M December 29, 2016 at 9:03 pm #

    So looking forward to this…

  3. Max Million December 30, 2016 at 3:41 am #

    Seems to be a place that might encourage quasi weapon martial art development among the freemen (flails, picks, spades, etc and hand to hand) as well as possible poaching in the king’s distant lands (illegal archery) and hidden magic training, The freemen will hate to be regarded and treated like serfs and be accordingly rebellious. Over time they will learn to avoid issues that previously caused them to fail and exploit the weak points of their social superiors and guide their social inferiors against common oppressors.
    Peasant rebellions only go away when peasantry disappears.

    • chrishanger January 3, 2017 at 8:53 pm #

      Yep. Peasant revolts are a common problem.


  4. Anarchymedes December 30, 2016 at 11:20 am #

    ‘Unlike other parts of the empire, both freemen and serfs are permanently bound to the land and nobility – they cannot leave without permission.’
    Then what’s the difference between the freemen and the serfs? I don’t pretend to be a Medieval history hotshot, but it seems to me that in XI – XVII Century Russia, at least, even the serfs had a chance to choose the master. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an English-language Wikipedia article on the subject, but here is the Ukrainian-language one, and here is the Russian-language article. Hopefully, Google Translate will help!

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