Sleeping Dragon’s origins lie more than ten years in my past, to a weekend break my wife and I took to Venice back in the autumn of 2007. This was just three months after our wedding, but full disclose compels me to admit that this was the result not of some romantic gesture by me, but of an impulsive purchase of bargain flights by my wife on some last-minute type site.
I arrived with in possession of a degree of scepticism, but that scepticism was blown away by the reality of Venice. I found it both beautiful and inspiring, though not perhaps in the way it is commonly portrayed.
To me, Venice appeared akin to the clichéd English stately home, once grand, but now crumbling, with its once wealthy owners living amidst the faded grandeur of what had once been – but with Venice, this was repeated a hundred-fold. To take a trip along the Grand Canal is to take a trip past crumbling palace after crumbling palace, the peeling paint on the epic visages revealing that this is a place that was fabulously wealthy once, but now isn’t.
Somewhere during that visit, the vague dust cloud of ideas that had been orbiting my brain’s creative centre for several weeks began to coalesce into a rounded planet of an actual idea, that idea being the “fast-forwarded fantasy world” of Sleeping Dragon. And orbiting that planet of an idea was a satellite moon of a plot-point location: a Venice-like city that sat not in the sea but instead floated in the clouds.
This is what I wrote about Upabove in Chapter Twenty-Five of Sleeping Dragon:
Upabove was an obsolete relic that shone with the light of ages past; a name that conjured up images of wealth, intrigue, and decadence. It had been founded a little over three hundred years ago by a group of refugees fleeing the carnage brought by the Empire’s Great Succession War. Desperate, they’d set out by carpet across the Middle Sea towards the independent lands beyond; a destination far beyond the range of that era’s early and crude flying vehicles. Reaching safety would require them to ditch in the sea while their vehicles’ mana stores recharged, in carpets not designed for ditching.
Many refugees undertook those sorts of desperate journeys, and many were never seen again. But fate, chance, and geography smiled upon this particular group, for at the halfway point of their journey they encountered a unique and hitherto unsuspected anomaly: an area a mile or so across, around five thousand feet above the surface of the sea, in which the background level of mana was more than five times the standard. The downward progress of the charge needles in their carpets, which had been moving relentlessly towards zero, halted, and then reversed. The needles began to rise, and within hours were sitting at the top, fully charged. The refugees realised they were sitting atop some kind of flaw in the world’s mana field that leaked mana like a volcano leaks magma.
People with lesser ambition, or who were less blessed in imagination, would have waited until their carpets were fully charged, and then resumed their journey, thanking the gods and fate for the good fortune that had spared them a risky and possibly terminal ditching. But these were not such people. Instead, they took the older and slower carpets and lashed them together, building a temporary shelter for the children, the old, and the sick. Then a group sped back to the Empire, returning with supplies, building materials, and people. From those ramshackle beginnings they built a floating city that they called Upabove.
Upabove grew fabulously wealthy in its first two centuries. Its skilled magical artisans were able to use its high background mana level to create items that were both better and cheaper than those produced elsewhere; its position at the centre of the Middle Sea allowed skyships and carpets to travel directly across the sea rather than around its periphery, stopping at Upabove to recharge.
Upabove was never technically an independent state; in fact it was never a state at all, consisting legally of nothing more than a collection of skyships, tethered together. But its inhabitants used their wealth and power to gain a de facto independence, registering their floating palaces under a succession of flags of convenience with border principalities on the fringes of the Empire. They called their state a republic, and themselves merchant princes. But then, some hundred or so years ago, a series of advances in magical technology rendered Upabove obsolete. Improvements in mana storage and more efficient motors meant that skyships and carpets could now fly not hundreds of miles on a single charge, but thousands. And new techniques for magical item production allowed finer items to be crafted using far less mana.
On Upabove, little appeared to change. The merchant princes continued to party as decadently as before, but now the money was flowing outward, not inward. It was said by some that it had taken the inhabitants of Upabove two centuries to earn their fortunes but less than one century to squander them. Others joked that while Upabove was now bankrupt, its inhabitants would notice this only when the drinks tab ran out. Like a neglected gemstone, Upabove started to tarnish. The magnificent palaces, now old and their maintenance neglected, showed signs of rust under layers of peeling paint. Meanwhile, Upabove’s hard-earned quasi-independence grew fragile, maintained only by the inability of surrounding governments to agree on what its new status should be. People whispered of mortgage defaults and hostile takeovers, and talked of an invasion by stealth.
But through all of this, the merchant princes partied on. Upabove might have been a relic, and a bankrupt one at that, but it was still Upabove.
And it was still magnificent.
A little late on, when Dani arrives, I’m able to give a description of Upabove itself, in an infodump made possible by virtue of a talkative cabbie:
Upabove was built like a spinning top, albeit one made from hundreds of separate pieces that merely floated in formation, connected by a spider’s web of walkways. The “disc” consisted of a ring nearly half a mile in diameter, with a rounded outer surface sculpted to deflect the strong winds that blew at this altitude; and an inner surface terraced into gardens, balconies, and public walkways. Floating inside the ring were hundreds of separate buildings, some squat, others shaped like long, thin cigars set on end with their tops and bottoms extending far above and below the ring’s protected inner space.
At the centre of the “disc” was a long, thin needle that extended both further above the ring and further below than every other part of Upabove. At its bottom were clusters of docking ports, connected to which were more than a dozen large skyships, including the one that Dani had just arrived on. At the needle’s top, a forest of communication dishes and antennas sprouted. And somewhere in between was the long narrow platform of the cab rank, upon which Dani now found herself.
A line of carpets painted in yellow and black checkers floated next to the platform. Dani stepped carefully into the first of the waiting vehicles, which was piloted by a slightly chubby man just this side of unkempt. “Far Clouds Hotel, please,” she told the cabbie. “But could you take the long way? This is my first visit here and I’d like to see a bit of the place.”
“No problem love,” the cabbie told her. “I’ll take a loop around the hoop.” The man smiled, clearly pleased with the rhyme.
The carpet glided away, passing over the floating buildings that made up Upabove’s “disc”. The cab pilot started pointing out various features. “That building there, the one that looks like it’s covered in gold – that’s the casino. And see that group over there that form a square? That’s Founders’ Place, where the Opera House is.”
Dani looked further down, at the docking platforms below. “A friend of mine said her skyship was docking at Platform Twenty-Seven. Do you know which one of them that is?”
“Ain’t any of them, love. Twenty-seven’s over there.” The cab pilot hooked his thumb back at somewhere the other side of the central needle. “It’s not down there on the hub. It’s a private platform attached to one of the buildings on the eastern side. Think your friend must have got her numbers mixed up.”
“Really? I was pretty sure she said twenty-seven.”
“Yeah? Tell you what, I’ll show it to you.”
So that’s Upabove, inspired by Venice, but subtly different: not merely a floating Venice but instead a product of the World of Sleeping Dragon’s culture and technology. I hope it sounds intriguing, and if it does, please considering pre-ordering the Sleeping Dragon at the links below.
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The Sleeping Dragon is now available for pre-order on Amazon Kindle at an introductory price of 99p in the UK and 99c in the US (it’s also available in all the various international Amazons at the equivalent price in local currency). If you like what you’ve read here, then please consider pre-ordering it.
The Sleeping Dragon will be published in February next year, in both Kindle and paperback formats.
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