In The Collarbound, we get to discover a complex world, with khers and mages, fleshbinding and mindlink, lightborns and long-lost giants. I’ve picked this excerpt because it’s a good example of how worldbuilding can be woven into the plot without slowing it down.
This piece is from Tatters’ POV. For the moment, we know little about Tatters except that he is a mage, and that he has a voice called Lal speaking inside his head. We’ve met the head of guards, a kher, and we’ve learnt what khers look like: they’re humanoids with reddish skin, often tattooed, who have long horns that grow out of their foreheads and curve around their skulls, like a ram’s horns.
That’s where we’re at when Tatters and the head of guards meet. She brings him to the watchtower to check he’s on the Nest’s records (he’s trying to sneak into the castle that is the Nest without being invited), and she starts laboriously looking through the entries in chronological order.
The kher glared at him, as if he were wasting her time on purpose. She pulled the only stool of the room towards her to sit down. She rested her horned head in her hands and started scrolling through the ledger, with the grim slowness of someone determined to do this right.
Tatters stood and waited. After a while, he picked up a knucklebone and had fun bouncing it on his fingers, swapping between the back and front of his hand. When she didn’t stop him, he took a handful, increasing the difficulty of the juggling.
I like to introduce characters by contrast: the fact that the head of guards is going to do this boring, long task as slowly as is necessary tells us something about her. The fact that, despite this situation being risky for him, Tatters starts playing as soon as he gets bored also tells us something about him.
He kept at it until she snapped at him to stop.
‘Couldn’t you at least try to remember the day you were brought to the Nest?’ she grumbled.
They sank into a sulky silence. The only sound was the rasp of vellum pages as she turned them.
‘Aren’t you a bit old to be doing this?’ he asked.
She didn’t even glance up from the book.
‘Don’t pretend you can tell,’ she said. Khers’ faces were always smooth-skinned, unwrinkled. To humans, they seemed stuck at twenty years old, enjoying the beauty and health of youth.
This is a way for me, as a writer, to do two things: tell the readers that khers seemingly don’t age, and that Tatters knows more about them than the average human.
Orson Scott Card says giving exposition is like watering a plant: too much and it drowns, too little and it dries out. So this scene doesn’t dump exposition in a paragraph, but breaks it up with dialogue, and introduces new concepts as and when characters need them.
The saying went: Grow up, not old – no wisdom, but bold. Khers were supposed to be brave, strong, and as thick as the walls of the Nest.
‘I can,’ he said. ‘I’m not any old flatface.’
The word ‘flatface’ caught her attention, at least. She stopped turning the pages and looked up.
Another engaging way of doing exposition: throw words at the readers and let them work out what it means from context. From the way it’s used, we can guess that ‘flatface’ must be a derogatory term for humans, without needing to go into in-depth explanations.
‘The horns are on the inside,’ he said, tapping his forehead.
He’d heard Mezyan say that often enough. She lifted an eyebrow. Obviously his kherer-than-thou technique wasn’t working. He picked up three knucklebones and wedged them between his fingers on his left hand.
‘Surprise me,’ she said. ‘How old am I?’
If she’s a longlived, you’ve had it, said Lal.
Thanks for your support.
Another made-up word! But I think ‘longlived’ is pretty self-explanatory. We get to meet a longlived kher later on and find out more.
He watched the kher. She had an elegant face, with sharp features. She was thin and wiry, but handsome nonetheless, like birds are, despite the jutting bones.
From the horns’ curve, she must have lived two-thirds of her life, more or less. Often khers in the last third of their life didn’t start anything new, especially not a job. He quietly counted the annulations on the horns. If they were growing at a normal rate,
she was probably fifty years or so. Which meant she had another thirty to go before the horns looped back towards the front of her face and started growing through her head, eventually breaking the skull and piercing the brain.
Khers died when their horns killed them. They didn’t age from the inside out, but from the outside in.
This is an idea I had early on for the khers: what happens when a species can tell when they’re going to die – and are at peace with that?
And what happens when fantasy species don’t grow old the same way humans do? After all, not all animals go wrinkly and grey with age. The physical attributes that show an animal’s age are different from ours, so it should be the same with an imagined species.
What if she’s tampered with her age by sanding down her horns? asked Lal.
Most khers don’t, he argued. It goes against their traditions.
But she’s a city-kher.
Tatters shook off Lal’s thoughts. He threw the knucklebones and caught them, to keep his hands busy. ‘I’d say you’re fifty, give or take five years.’
He knew he’d got it right when she shrugged and turned back to the book.
‘Someone told you,’ she said.
She was rather cute when she sulked.
Ah, is there something more than just getting inside the Nest going on here?
By the underworlds, if you start flirting, I’ll puke.
Sometimes sharing thoughts with Lal was wonderful. And sometimes it wasn’t. Give me a break, he thought. I’m not flirting. Plus, you can’t puke.
And good old Lal is there to stop things getting sappy.
I love writing Lal. She’s the ideal foil to Tatters, and she’s always around to add a wry, cynical outlook to whatever is happening.
In any case, he wasn’t sure the kher would be interested in a human nearly as small as she was, with the tell-tale size and gait of someone who was underfed as a child. Sometimes, to tease him, Hawk would lean against him, putting all her weight on his shoulders, and say he should call himself Gnarled, not Tatters.
She would ruffle his red hair – not bright red, murky red – and comment on his eyes – not blue, murky brown.
I prefer it when main characters aren’t too clean, too perfect, too built-up like Hollywood actors. A male hero who isn’t very tall, who is a bit wiry and thin and physically non-standard, is important for me. The same goes for female characters!
And yet Hawk liked you well enough, at the start, said Lal.
He turned to the kher. ‘Your mother told you how to count people’s age too, didn’t she? I’m sure you did circles with your friends, trying to guess strangers’ ages, betting on who’d get it right.’ It was a stretch, but Mezyan had described his childhood in those terms, so Tatters assumed it was true for most khers.
We’ve had mentions of Mezyan – who we know must be a kher – and Hawk, but only in glimpses, so far. Tatters is very cagey about his past, and only reveals it to the reader in drips and drabs, slowly letting us know what happened and why it matters.
Children were the same everywhere, after all. Tatters continued playing with the knucklebones.
She put one hand across the pages of the book, fingers spread out. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘Who taught you how to do it?’
Tatters put the knucklebones down. He pretended to pick at something underneath his nails. ‘What does it matter?’ It was nice to have her watching him, for a change. Then, to rub it in: ‘Have you found me in there yet?’
‘No.’ She tapped her fingers across the thick page.
On impulse, Tatters said, ‘Not a betting man, but I bet you can’t get my age right.’ It was a little-known fact that khers also found it difficult to work out how old a human was. Wrinkles and small marks on the skin weren’t something they were taught to look out for. They could tell very withered and crooked humans were old, and very smooth and smaller humans were young. But they couldn’t do much better than that.
I like to reverse assumptions. It’s nice to remind readers that people don’t always know the same things as them, and don’t take the same things for granted. Why should a kher know anything about human aging, after all, just because the reader does?
For example, in this world khers bury their dead – something we take for granted as a ritual – but humans don’t, so Tatters finds graves especially creepy and weird.
Also, betting your way into the castle is as good a strategy as any.
She narrowed her eyes at him. ‘You’re…’ She paused. She studied him more closely.
‘If you get it wrong, can I go in?’ he asked.
Can’t hurt to be a bit cheeky! And I like it when characters are quick-witted and not afraid to show some repartee.
She shook her head. ‘I’m not risking my job on a bet.’
‘Why? Worried you’ll lose?’
Case in point!
She snorted a laugh. She brushed her horn, as humans pass fingers through their hair. ‘You won’t get me like this. I’m not a child.’
He gave her time to think about his age. He sensed Lal’s shifting moods inside him, impatient and worried, annoyed that he was playing, relieved that the kher wasn’t looking too closely at her ledger. He focused on his breathing, keeping his thoughts
and hers distinct. He watched the kher’s frown, the way she rubbed her eyebrows with her thumb. Now that he had time to admire her tattoos, he saw that the overlapping shapes were mimicking the knots of a tree’s bark. Black squares were filled with slim, flesh-coloured curls, to figure shoots and young leaves.
Kher tattoos are an important part of the story, so this is a good time to start looking at them closely. Isha, the other POV character, has a kher tattoo which she doesn’t know the meaning of. Anything we can learn about them is useful at this stage!
‘Sixty?’ she said at last.
He couldn’t help but laugh. ‘That is not a compliment. Nope. Half as old as that. Well, more than half, maybe, but close enough.’
Tatters doesn’t mind some self-depreciating humour and isn’t easily offended. This is a good chance to showcase this, and enjoy two people’s easy banter.
She ran her finger down the ledger, not really looking at it. ‘How old are you exactly?’
‘Who knows?’ He smiled. ‘I’ve not been keeping count. And I haven’t got a reminder growing out of my head.’
The kher got up from her stool and closed the register.
‘If I ever find out that you lied to me,’ she said, ‘I’ll kick you over the Edge.’
He bowed to her. ‘Much obliged.’
A tentative friendship is formed, and of course this is the setup for the inevitable conflict when she does find out he lied his way in.
Rebecca Zahabi’s The Collarbound is out today in the UK, published by Gollancz! Here’s the synopsis:
A MAN MARKED BY MAGIC. A WOMAN MARKED BY HER PAST.
On the other side of the Shadowpass, rebellion is brewing and refugees have begun to trickle into the city at the edge of the world. Looming high on the cliff is The Nest, a fortress full of mages who offer protection, but also embody everything the rebellion is fighting against: a strict hierarchy based on magic abilities.
When Isha arrives as a refugee, she attempts to fit in amongst the other mages, but her Kher tattoo brands her as an outcast. She can’t remember her past or why she has the tattoo. All she knows is that she survived. She doesn’t intend to give up now.
Tatters, who wears the golden collar of a slave, knows that this rebellion is different from past skirmishes. He was once one of the rebels, and technically, they still own him. He plans to stay in the shadows, until Isha appears in his tavern. He’s never seen a human with a tattoo, and the markings look eerily familiar…
As the rebellion carves a path of destruction towards the city, an unlikely friendship forms between a man trying to escape his past and a woman trying to uncover hers, until their secrets threaten to tear them apart.