Brown River Queen cover art

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Breaking the Law

One of the rare delights of being a fantasy author is taking a good hard look at the immutable laws of physics and, after careful and studied consideration, thumbing one's nose at them.

With the exception of the Wistril stories, I'm not one to have a wizard wave a staff and lay waste to whole landscapes. No, I prefer for my magic to make some sort of sense -- after all, the kinetic energy required to lay the aforementioned waste had to come from somewhere, right? If not, well, there goes Conflict, right out the window, because if my wizard can flatten armies with a wave and a word, what problems does he really have?

I tried to base the magic in All the Paths of Shadow on a feature of our world with which I am familiar. Electricity. Electrical current. The 'holdstones' Meralda uses are magical batteries. In her universe, magic flows like electricity, using many of the same conductors, in fact. That's why she's always winding copper wires around things.

And it's also why she can't mutter a few mystical words and send enemies flying. Yes, she can build marvelous devices, but they have limits. She has to be smarter than the bad guys.

Since I just finished the new Markhat book, and I'm letting a talented and fearless Beta reader have a look, I've dived right into my next book, which will be the sequel to All the Paths of Shadow.

Entitled All The Turns of Light, this new book will chronicle the further adventures of Meralda and Mug, as they take to the skies in a truly massive airship I am now designing.

I'll post drawings when I draw some I'm not ashamed of.  But that's not what I'm here to crow about.

Here's the deal. I need my airship, the HMS Intrepid, to be capable of a non-stop one-way voyage of some twenty-five thousand miles.

As you might imagine, that presents a few engineering problems, even if the story takes place in a world where magic works.

Now, airships aren't anything new to Meralda's world. I mention them frequently in the first book. It's even stated they've been flying passengers and cargo about for fifty years. They use 'lifting gas' which is obviously hydrogen, and they move using 'fans,' which are obviously propellers. I didn't go much deeper than that because we never boarded one in All the Paths of Shadow.

But the airships were always on my mind. I established that Meralda was familiar with steam engines. Heck,  she invented the electric motor on her world, along with electric lights. So we have access to steam engines and electricity. Still, what drove the airships, I wondered?

The Realms don't have petroleum. I considered and rejected alcohol based combustion engines as too inefficient. Steam engines are also out -- heating that much water to those pressures requires lots and lots of onboard fuel, and when your choices are wood or coal, you're in trouble.

I was leaning toward electric motors running on straight-up batteries when a better idea popped into my head.

And here it is!

The Intrepid's fans are powered by steam engines. But instead of boilers and heaps of coal, they're using what we would call quantum entanglement, which works like this:

Cast a hollow steel block with very thick walls, an inlet, and a steam escape valve. Call it Boiler A.

Using magic, pair this with an second block, which is identical in design and dimensions. We'll call this Boiler B.

The magical pairing is an expensive and meticulous undertaking, and it's why the Steam Guild is so wealthy.

Now, the fun part. Fill Engine B with water and heat it, burning coal or wood or the angry emails I'll get from environmentalists about burning coal. In our universe, Boiler B would boil, while boiler A sat there and looked confused.

But in Meralda's world of magic, if you build a fire under Boiler B, it's Boiler A that actually heats up.

So yes, something must be burned to generate the heat. And yes, there are losses involved in the transference from B to A.

But the airship Intrepid can take to the skies without having to haul a few hundred tons of coal around. And I feel like this 'works,' because I'm only cheating a little bit.

It's entirely possible that only a hardcore geek could get excited about applying the Law of Similarity to a fictional airship engine. But I'm a geek and proud, baby!

So be on the lookout for a new Markhat novel and a new Meralda and Mug! And by the way, if you haven't read All the Paths of Shadow yet, it's only $3.99 at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Okay, back to work for me!

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