One of the fun things about writing fantasy is that you get to build worlds from the ground up. Since you’re not playing with reality necessarily you can do just about anything you want. It also means you have to do a lot of background sketching to fill in your world. John Scalzi once wrote that he tried to go two questions deep on world building, which makes a lot of sense. It’s important that your world be well rounded (pardon the pun), even when it comes to things that don’t necessarily drive the narrative.
Which is to say that when I was building the world of The Water Road I had to decide what role religion played in it. Even though I’m an atheist, religion fascinates me and I think part of any well developed fictional world would be religion (unless the complete absence thereof was what you wanted to explore). In fact, one of the first things I wrote for The Water Road is the Altrerian creation myth. It’s not actually in any of the books, so this seems as good a place as any to let it see the light of day:
In the time before time, the Maker of Worlds saw a void in the firmament of the heavens. She decided that it must be filled, lest the other stars and planets be drawn into the void and lost forever.
So the Maker of Worlds cupped her hands and dipped them into the Lake of Eternity. She brought the water up in her hands and breathed on the waters while molding it into a ball. When the swirling churning waters had been shaped into a perfect ball, the Maker hung the ball in the firmament and filled the void.
But when the Maker of Worlds looked at the ball of swirling water in the firmament, she was not pleased. She plucked the young planet out of the heavens and set it in front of her. The Maker thought for a moment and pondered what was missing from her new creation.
After a time, the Maker took the sharpest knife she could find. She took the blade in her left hand and held her right palm out over the swirling waters. In one quick motion, the Maker of Worlds sliced across her outstretched palm and the blood of the Maker fell into the churning, swirling, and empty oceans.
As the blood of the Maker of Worlds fell into the oceans, it began to become solid. The more the Maker bled, the larger the stain on the oceans would become. Before long, the spots of blood began to come together and form The Land. As the land formed, the churning seas beat upon it, breaking off small parts which became The Islands.
The Maker of Worlds healed her wound and surveyed The Land. With her breath, the Maker calmed the rough seas. With her lips, the Maker gave the new world a kiss of life – to The Land, to The Islands, and to the seas. Weakened by her work, the Maker hung the now living planet back in the firmament, where she forgot about it.
Eons passed before the Maker of Worlds remembered her watery creation with the one continent upon it. In the time that had passed, The Land had become full of life. Not only animals and plants, but intelligent beings, who lived together in communities and created a society. The Land was rich and plentiful, but its inhabitants still found things to fight about. They constantly warred, on upon the other, seemingly without end. When the Maker saw what had become of her world, she was depressed. And she was angry.
In her anger, the Maker of Worlds lashed out at her creation. She drove a single finger into the soil on the east side of The Land. Then, she drug it across the entire breadth of The Land, changing it forever. In the wake of the Maker’s finger came Great Basin Lake and The Water Road. To the south of the river, great mountains heaved up from the soil, all the way south to the cold southern seas. To the north, The Land cracked and two great rivers were formed as water rushed into the fissures. The far north, beyond the reach of the waters, became barren, dry, and inhospitable. The people of The Land were likewise shattered, north and south, divided by the Water Road into Neldathi and Altrerian. Many multitudes died.
When the Maker of Worlds realized what she had done, she howled in pain. After all, she was a creator, not a destroyer. He had lashed out in anger because her children had disappointed her. Her anger saddened and disgusted her. As she held back tears, the Maker of Worlds took the wounded world and gently placed it back in the firmament. She vowed never to touch it again and let her children be.
And then, history began . . .
The Neldathi and the Altrerians were both polytheistic and shared the same pantheon of deities, but interacted with them in different ways. The Altrerians treated the gods as a group, beings that were all involved in the order of the universe. By contrast, each of the Neldathi clans had one god as a protector and venerated him or her over the others. The Maker of Worlds, in spite of the creation myth, wasn’t really part of the pantheon.
At the time The Water Road begins there’s been a seismic shift in the way the Altrerians think of the gods. Sometime in the semi-recent past, a Great Awakening swept across the nations of the Triumvirate. Only this wasn’t an awakening of religious fervor, but the emergence of a consensus that the gods actually didn’t exist. How people dealt with this varied – in the Guilds religious belief and observances disappeared in a generation, while the Telebrians hung on to the traditional cultural aspects of belief while largely proclaiming not to believe anymore.
On top of that, among the Neldathi there’s also a new strain of religious thinking. A movement led by a man named Goshen preaches that the gods are all actually different aspects of the one actual god – the Maker of Worlds. He and his beliefs will play an important role in The Water Road.