A while ago on Fantasy Faction I attempted to answer the question: is winter in fantasy always evil? The conclusion I came to, in short, was no – but its arrival is almost always a double-edged sword: sometimes beautiful and enchanting, sometimes dangerous and sinister. An unnaturally cold or prolonged winter in particular signals dark forces at work, and the season does seem to spawn more fictional evil than any other (prime examples being A Game of Thrones and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). This makes sense, given the challenges winters have long presented for humankind, particularly in medieval Europe, which inspires many fantasy settings.
So I expressed my doubts as to whether the phrase “summer is coming” could ever strike fear or foreboding into the hearts of fantasy readers. But this got me thinking… wouldn’t it be interesting to see a focus on other seasons running rampant, instilling fear, or being manipulated in a fantasy world?
Other Potentially Perilous Seasons
It’s hard to imagine transitional, mild seasons like autumn or spring being particularly malicious if intensified or extended, but if you look to tropical or subtropical zones of the earth for inspiration, you expand your array of possible seasons. Many of my examples are going to be Australian because that’s what I know, but I’m sure there are examples from other countries too:
Soaring temperatures, heat waves, baking sun… there are places in the world where temperatures get so high in summer it’s dangerous to spend too long outside (Dubai is one example that comes to mind). What if those summers were prolonged? Hotter? With our world warming it’s sadly not an entirely fantastical concept.
The Dry Season
Some regions have a season marked by little or no rainfall… and it’s hardly difficult to imagine the devastating effects the prolonging of such a season would have on life and crops. Dry conditions could cause famine and water shortages, and make the outbreak of fire more likely.
There are seasons when fire is likely to rage across the land. In Australia, some local plants adapted to cope and thrive, but fires can still be devastating, especially for humans, animals and property. Indigenous Australians traditionally performed burn-offs to promote new growth and prevent large fires, and still manage some landscapes this way.
The Wet Season ( Storm Season / Monsoon )
Storms, hurricanes, lightning, flooding, thriving parasites, mouldy food, maddening humidity… a prolonged or intense wet season could present many perils. In Northern Australia the period of pre-monsoonal build up inspires the local phrase ‘mango madness’ (it’s the time of year when mangoes are harvested) because temperatures soar, clouds hang overhead and humidity peaks, but rain doesn’t always arrive to break the tension, a combination which can affect people’s mental health.
This is fantasy, after all, so who says there have to be four seasons? In a fantasy world seasons might be different to those in the real world, or the locals might describe them differently. To use another real-world example, in Kakadu National Park the traditional owners divide the year into six seasons. Maybe in another world there are seasons marked by high winds, dust storms, migrating beasts or magical weather phenomena.
Do Other Seasons Ever Steal the Limelight?
So are there fantasy stories where other seasons have been given the same focus, the same malice, the same ominous portent as winter?
Sure, there are fantasies where characters struggle through deserts or firey volcanic wastelands, but these are often permanently hostile places. I’m talking about actual seasons that are prolonged, or intensified, or feared, or personified. I’m talking about a changing of weather patterns that prompts characters to take action, or signals that all is not well when an otherwise ‘normal’ landscape is plunged into an extreme by an overlong, unnatural or bitter season.
I did find a few that fit to some degree:
In Kim Wilkins’s The Autumn Castle, passage between the real world and the faery world becomes possible when the seasons of the two worlds align, and it’s on an alignment of two autumns that the story takes place. This alignment happens rarely, so for the first time in many years characters are able to travel back and forth. While autumn is not a sinister force in the story, it does enrich the mood and setting, and also creates time pressure, since characters will end up stuck in one world or the other when the season ends, and have to decide in which world, and with which people, they want to live.
In Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archives the world is plagued by violent ‘highstorms’ that sweep through from east to west, and follow a complex pattern only skilled stormwardens can predict. While not like traditional seasons, these storms are regular, violent occurrences that seriously affect life and follow certain patterns. The Mistborn series also suggests a world with prolonged weather disruption caused by evil forces, with ash blocking sunlight and mysterious mists forcing people to periodically stay indoors, though the seasonal element is less obvious.
I’ve encountered the phenomenon of magical storms in several series: Lightbringer (where an imbalance of magic creates violent storms), Bitterbynde (where ‘unstorms’ or ‘shang’ sweep through and feed on psychic energy, replaying chaotic ghost images of emotional or traumatic moments imprinted in past storms) and The Old Kingdom / Abhorsen (where winds blowing from a magical kingdom stop technology from working in a non-magical one). All these storms weren’t seasonal as far as I can remember, but were a marker of things being out of balance, or of magic running rife in the world.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels also have some interesting seasonal goings-on, given the world’s flat disc shape and rotation, with each year having two summers and two winters. Ankh-Morkpork is a decidedly unpleasant place to be any time of the year, but particularly in summer, when the heat and stench is a its highest. I can’t, however, think of any Discworld novels where a season other than winter plays a prominent evil role, but I haven’t read the whole series so I might be wrong.
In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, the Dark One does seem to be able to cause extreme weather patterns, including a long winter but also extreme heat. Again, I haven’t read the whole series so can’t say if a particular ‘season’ stands out.
Obviously some sci-fi series, like Dune, focus on planets with interesting seasons and weather patterns, and the repeating 12 hour pattern in Catching Fire present some interesting man-made ‘seasons’, but I’m trying to keep the focus on fantasy here.
Room for More
There are some good examples out there, but I think there’s room for more. Fantasy villains have long made use of winter, whether by harnessing its power, locking worlds into it, or simply taking advantage of it… so maybe it’s time for a few other seasons to take centre stage. Don’t get me wrong, I love tales of beautiful and perilous winters, so I wouldn’t want people to stop writing them… but there are other seasons that could also provide ominous or intriguing scenarios and enrich fantasy worlds.
- Could a fantasy character worry not about the passes being snowed over for their journey, but about the yearly flood waters blocking the roads, or the raging fires that sweep through every cycle?
- Could characters not fear the approaching cold, but instead the blistering heat of a near-intolerable summer looming on the horizon?
- Could there be more than four seasons, or seasons we’ve never heard of?
There are probably some great examples of storytellers who have already done these things, and I’ve missed them simply because I haven’t read or seen them, so feel free to mention these in the comments if you know any.
On the whole, however, I still feel like the genre would benefit from a little more creativity when it comes to seasons… if anything, to see what new ideas, stories, and worlds a different approach might generate.