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Today’s post is a little bit special, as I’m not going to be reviewing a book or a novel, but talking about a different fiction project that has caught my eye, The Ballad of Distant Reaches.
Ballads of the Distant Reaches is a shared fantasy universe with a constantly growing story-world. Twice a month, subscribers receive a new piece of short fantasy fiction written by some of the most talented genre authors and screenwriters working today.
We are going to be following the Conclave of Bards, which is summoned once each ten years in the Amal Empire, where the different trobadours and artists narrate their stories, trying to win it and receive a binding boon from the Emperor, the Wielder of the Diamond Scepter himself.
From a reader perspective, it’s cool to know that each two weeks you get a small piece in your email, so you can enjoy and see how the world is expanded via the small stories and songs. Illustrations are outstanding, and I personally enjoy the different voices in each issue, as each issue is redacted by a different author. Give it a try, suscribe and enjoy it.
Interview with Benjamin
Benjamin took a time with me, so I had the opportunity to interview him and make him some questions:
1.- How would you describe the Ballad of Distant Reaches?
Ballads of the Distant Reaches is a fantasy storyworld. The centerpiece is the bi-weekly anthology of short-stories which we publish on DistantReaches.com. All of these stories take place within the universe of the Distant Reaches and the Amal Empire. The narrative follows an event called the Conclave of Bards, which is a gathering of all of the greatest storytellers in the empire. So each short story we publish is really a story within a story, kind of like the Canterbury Tales.
To guide these stories, we’ve developed a deep compendium of Lore, which provides the writers with background on the history, politics, cosmogony, magic system, economy, etc. of this world. We have many fantasy and genre authors contributing stories to the project. We’re able to maintain the integrity of the world and it’s lore, while also working with a ton of writers who have their own unique creative styles and interests, thanks to the story within a story format. It’s very flexible and allows us to really showcase the different authors while exploring the Distant Reaches universe.
2.- What inspires the world on which Distant Reaches is situated?
We wanted to create a fantasy world that felt expansive but also rich and grounded in history. We were also keen to create something that felt really American, as opposed to the European or vaguely British worlds that are most common in fantasy. (I use the term “American” to refer to all of the Americas in this context, not just the United States).
In practical terms, we looked at the Roman, Persian, and Aztec empires, as well as the United States and Mexico in the early 19th century, for inspiration in designing the history and political systems. The magic system is something we created from whole cloth, but together with the pantheon of gods, it allows us to explore monsters, enchantments, and mythology.
Technologically, I think we did something really interesting. The Amal Empire is a society stuck in the early days of the industrial revolution, with technology and magic constantly competing or complimenting one another. For instance, one idea we’ve been exploring recently is the idea that they have steam-powered locomotives, but the water is boiled and steam is created by magical means. Of course, some tycoons are interested in whether coal can be used more cheaply, and this is a real source of conflict.
3.- The first thing that caught my eye once I entered, it’s the illustration that appears in each issue, can you tell me a little bit more?
Oh yeah! The art is really incredible. Very early on, we started working with Eisner Award-winning artist Shay Plummer to establish the look of this world. (The Eisner’s are kind of like the Oscars of comic books.) Each short story we publish is accompanied by an original illustration. These illustrations are something the writers and the readers have really connected with.
4.- I saw different authors in each issue, how do you work on it?
Co-editor Robert Frankel and I assign and edit all of the stories. We rotate who edits each story, but we’ve worked out the frame narrative—the Conclave of Bards—for our entire first cycle, which will run through summer 2023. For each story, we provide the authors with a prompt—two or three items of lore or themes—and then ask them to pitch a couple of story ideas from this. Then we help them develop our favorite one into the final story. The process is similar in some respects to how a TV writers room works.
5.- Why did you decide to publish it on Substack?
What’s funny is that a creative project like this winds up involving a lot of aspects of starting a business. Robert and I committed early on to the idea that we would pay our writers and artists from day one. We debated about building our own site, but decided that rather than commit our already limited resources to that at the beginning, we would use Substack. It’s a very stable platform and has most of the functionality we need right now. Most importantly, it’s free to use, and it will allow us to add a paywall, which will be critical for the long-term success of the project.
6.- Which is the internal lore behind the world of Distant Reaches?
We have a lore document that covers more or less any questions a writer might have about this world. It’s quite thorough, and we spent the better part of a year developing it. It’s also constantly growing and changing. When the writers have questions about the world that we need to answer, those are often subsequently incorporated into the lore. For right now, we’re keeping this internal, but theoretically, it’s something that could be published (perhaps as a book).
7.-Any particular issue you think we should wait to see?
I’m really excited about August 23rd’s story. It’s by Robert and is our first exploration of the world’s mythology. We’ve also got a humorous piece coming up in early September, which will be a lot of fun.
8.-Might this become in the future a sort of omnibus with a certain number of issues?
Totally! We’ve planned this in one-year cycles, with each cycle following a single Conclave of Bards. These could be assembled and published as a book. We’re also exploring the possibility of doing novella anthologies exploring particular historical moments more in depth.
9.- What can we expect from you and from your partner in the future?
The short stories are only part of this, and we intend for it to really be a cross-platform storyworld. We’ve already started experimenting with this by expanding stories and lore onto Twitter and Facebook. The content there isn’t just reposts of the stories, a lot of it is entirely new. Long-term, we plan to launch a narrative podcast, novelizations or novellas, and potentially streaming video. But first, we need to find our audience. We really love this world, and we hope our readers will too!
About the creators
Benjamin Reeves — Creator & Co-editor
Benjamin Reeves is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and journalist. Across platforms and genres, he seeks to tell high-stakes stories about people confronting the seen and unseen forces of power, wealth, and influence in the world.
His feature screenplay Kane won the 2020 Big Apple Film Festival’s science fiction and fantasy competition and was an official selection of the 2020 Stowe Story Labs. His debut film, a sci-fi short called Crossing Acheron, which he wrote, directed, and produced, premiered as part of the 2021 NYPause Film Festival.
Reeves’s journalism has appeared in publications ranging from the Los Angeles Review of Books to The New York Times. In 2021 he wrote his first book, The Global Elite, An Introduction, for Abbeville Press. Reeves earned an MFA in screenwriting from the Brooklyn College Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, an MA in Experimental Humanities from New York University, and a BA in Latin and History from Knox College.
Robert Frankel — Co-creator & Co-editor
Robert Frankel is a queer writer, filmmaker, and Air Force veteran. His work has been placed at the Austin and Nashville Film Festivals, as a finalist in the ScreenCraft and WeScreenplay competitions, and twice in the top 15% of the Nicholl Fellowship. His feature screenplay Bitter Root was an official selection of the 2021 Stowe Story Labs, and he is an alumnus of the Writers Guild Foundation’s Veterans Writing Project. His short film, May I Speak, Now?, was a finalist for the Best Comedy Micro Film Award at the 2021 Portland Comedy Film Festival. He tells stories about wonder, passion, and cruelty.
Frankel earned a BA in Economics from the University of Washington, Seattle, and an MFA in screenwriting and producing from the Brooklyn College Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema.