The Sven Kingdoms
... is a place that really exists. It must do, look - there's a map and everything!
It is a continent of swords and horses and kings and queens, and a lot of ordinary people doing ordinary, and sometimes extraordinary things to try and get along despite the greed and incompetence of their supposed betters. Life is a messy business and so are the Sven Kingdoms. Some grow and take over bits of others and sometimes the kingdoms fight each other and sometimes they fight themselves, but there have always been seven.
The Unfortunate Kingdom takes place in Hewslez with that spindly and slimy character Yoozurp in charge. No one expected him to be king, and few actually want him to be king, except perhaps his main henchman General Cuttemup who does the evil bidding of his master and is rewarded handsomly for it.
Will there be more Sven Kingdoms books? Yes!! The Unexpected Consequence, and then The Unfinished Business.
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Who's Who in The Unfortunate Kingdom (at the time of King Yoozurp)
Cachelot - King Peyup and Queen Laundra, Kreem - Princess Regent Godley, Hordinaire - King Norman and Queen Audrey,
Whupz - King Le Ardy and the Queen of Hart, Littlebung - His Most Reverand Eyeam, Nomessina - Prince Fernando and his fiancée Sharmina, Hewslez - King Yoozurp.
The Others (in Hewslez)
Kitchen: Ogbar (head chef), Edna (prinicpal assistant), Franc (assistant chef), Colin, Myrtle, Hammy, Barry, Mary, Midge and Bolshi (kitchen workers), Tony the Terrible (former head chef)
The Palace: Barbara (Edna's great grandmother), Clod and Darren (jailers), The Last Meal Cook, Harold the Herald
Miscellaneous: Clara (Colin's aunt), Brian (a trader) and his wife (an innkeeper), General Hugh Cuttemup
Let us take a tour of the Sven Kingdoms, as they stood at the time of our story. There have always been seven, though at times one or more have been subsumed by more powerful neighbours or shrunk due to conquest. And most of those are composed of smaller lands, sometimes fiercely independent yet pledging their allegiance to one of the seven.
You would likely arrive on the continent from the south, after a long voyage across seas becoming more perilous as you went. You may have come from warm, beautiful islands full of clever tribes and nations who built houses on stilts and sang enchanting songs about the sea in strange languages, accents thick with the sound of the waves and mountains that point towards their gods in the sky.
If you were to arrive in the east, which is the most probable, as it sticks out into the sea, you would encounter the land of Hordinaire. This is not a great introduction to your experience of the Sven Kingdoms. It’s not a moment of wonder and awe at a new land. There is no ‘Aaah!’ moment. The land slopes very slowly down into the sea. There are few harbours for boats. Mostly, a huge tidal sandy bay greets you. A grey-brown expanse of not much at all. There are a couple of rivers heading inland if you can find them. Mostly people tend to avoid the monotony of Hordinaire and head for Stentch.
Oh, hang on, you want to know more about Hordinaire? Are you sure? Oh well, for the insatiably curious (and don’t say I didn’t warn you) here goes …
The land continues to rise very, very, slowly. Once you get past the endless grey-brown coast (“beach” makes it sound too appealing) you are on the Plain Plains. Rumour has it that these are the cradle of civilisation on this continent. But common sense has it that whoever was here left a long, long time ago. There are a few hardy farmers ploughing acre after acre of moderately good soil, supplying wheat, corn and sprouts to the cities in the north, but they are very eccentric people, driven half-mad by the infinite view of flat ground around them. They are visited by traders, also driven half-mad by the arduous journey across empty ground with nothing to see. It’s true, there are some grapes grown on the gentle southern-facing slopes in the Grenwii region further inland that make wine, or ”Vanne” as the locals call it, but Vanne Hordinaire is not greatly regarded amongst the connoisseurs of the other kingdoms. Many of the Hordinarians only use it to dye their clothes an insipid shade of pinky-red.
If you survive the journey over the world’s most uninteresting landscape you arrive at the most uninvaded cities ever known. No other nation has ever invaded and stayed for more than a few weeks. They just seem to settle into a routine that grips them and empties their soul. In Hordinaire people are born, they wander around a bit, play the odd game of Who-can-spot-the-most-crows, go to bed, work a bit, get up, point in fascination at the odd foreigner, get old and die. Sorry to be so blunt but that’s about the gist of it. Hordinaire is a hotch-potch collection of peoples who decided just to give up and have a quiet life (perhaps not a bad decision given the nature of the other six kingdoms). Yes, there’s the odd spot of culture in the cities, interesting bits that pop up desperately trying to break the boredom (who can forget the craze for one-legged feathered all-singing, all-dancing pirates that took the country’s theatres by storm briefly a few years ago?), and there are some difficult accents and some frilly clothes, but really, if you’re a tourist in this land, you’re better off heading east. Hold your noses, we’re off to Stentch..
If you’re coming from Hordinaire into Stentch you’d first have to cross the great river Rarg. This angry, flowing torrent of water is the first indication that you really are going somewhere different. The water is thrown down – spat out with venom – by the glaciers and mountain tops on the other side of the border. Quite how these two lands have ended up next to each other is the sort of thing that keeps geologists awake night after night. The explanations that most people accept involve gods with nothing better to do than amuse themselves by creating landscapes to confuse the little people who live amongst them, or even forgetful ones who get distracted halfway through their creation by the smell of dinner and leave the job half done.
Whatever the truth of the matter it has left Stentch to be a forbidding place. If you make it over the craggy cliffs surrounding the river Rarg you are greeted by the smell of sulphur - that pungent, eggy odour that permeates the rocks of volcanic landscapes. You certainly need a stout pair of legs, or a sturdy donkey, to get around most of Stentch. In the tamer parts it is rugged. Craggy and challenging to get through, any wars that have taken place here have been lengthy affairs as they usually involve a lot of hide-and-seek. The native tribes of Whupz have usually prevailed as they know the look-out points and the short-cuts. They can travel for months, always one step ahead of their foes, until finally said foes either get lost and starve, get lost, give up and settle down with the natives and get lost and go mad and end their days running round in circles, wearing sheepskin and waving sticks at each other cursing the valleys, rocks and the smell which surrounds them.
Of course, maybe all the invaders have been eaten by dragons. It’s exactly the sort of place that inspires such stories. Legends of the Lava Lords prevail. Stout dragons that buzz around volcano tops eating balls of fiery orange rock, firing it at hapless wandering souls who happen to stumble into their realm. But maybe it’s all a story to scare people away from certain places. Or is it? Maybe it isn’t. But maybe it is. Or it might not be. But then again …
Anyway, it’s not all madness and legends and volcanoes in Stentch, there are more sensible places; cities and towns in valleys and the foothills of the mountains where normal(ish) people do normal(ish) things - though they are ruled by a self-deluded pair of flatulent spoilt brats with only slightly more personality than the king and queen of Hordinaire. Being a country made up of many tribes it is customary to change the ruling tribe every two generations. Currently King Le Ardy is a Petay, as was his father. Both their queens came from Hart (and yes, she does live up to her name). Next, Hart will take over and the king or queen will have to marry one of the Ghuffs. However, we continue clockwise (which is a nice, orderly and therefore appropriate way to proceed) to Littlebung.
Littlebung is by far the smallest of the Sven Kingdoms, but thinks itself the most important. At least its ruler does. This is a country of the personality cult. Loyalty to His Most Glorious Reverend Eyeyam The Self Appointed Forever Leader is demanded. It is obligatory. It is a pre-requisite for life. Basically if you don’t show your devotion to The Glorious One you’re dead. Unless you work in the silver mines that provide their mad leader with his cash. Then you could show your anger towards him as you’d probably be a slave or a criminal anyway, a condemned person with nothing to lose.
No one goes to Littlebung on holiday, and no one ever thinks of moving there. The borders are closed both ways, except to a few hardy traders and merchants who are prepared to have permission slips filled out in triplicate, sent off, checked and stamped, returned, queried, finally passed and then have their goods thoroughly inspected and prodded. Oh, and of course, a big fat bribe to whoever’s on border patrol duty also helps.
The Littlebungians need the trade because they can’t grow everything themselves (despite living in supposed heaven on earth). They need the cotton for their uniforms. They all wear the same thing: dull grey tops and trousers with no frills. Those who work for the government get to choose between light brown and even lighter brown. But his Gloriousness wears brightly coloured fancy cloths, swirling with many colours made by the finest Nomessinan tailors. Just so you know who he is. He certainly would make an easy target for an assassin.
The towns of Littlebung were all pulled down at the start of his reign and replaced by tidy, ordered ones, built along straight lines; the houses all of the same size and design. In fact, let’s not go on about it, let’s get out of here quick, we have Nomessina to the north, and that’s where it gets really interesting.
Aah, Nomessina, the centre of civilisation and culture and corruption. It benefits from the warm sea currents to its east so its summers are as warm as the centre of Hordinaire but its land thrice as fertile and fifty times as pretty. The hills are dotted with stone villages and rows of vines, its people making use of every patch of land – tomatoes and beans dripping from sunlit back porches where young and old gather to eat and drink, fortunate enough to have the best ingredients and the best recipes. This is the land of the long lunch, afternoon snooze, the long dinner followed by sing-songs in the village square or a trip to the theatre in the city. The many palaces are adorned with art both ancient and modern – statues and paintings decorating impressive columned buildings that speak of power, intelligence and culture. Inside the cities your head will be filled with the cacophony of daily life as carts full of goods clatter through the narrow streets and bells ring from towers, but mostly as people chatter, shout and gesticulate at each other, elbows flying and heads nodding. However, in the countryside, on the small farms that dot the hillsides you can stand in deserted, silent orchards, hearing the occasional swoop or chirp of a bird and the dozy background noise of a million contented insects.
But … well, there had to be a but didn’t there? All sounded too good, too easy. What is life actually like for these supposedly lucky people?
Their long lunches are spent discussing the waste of money by their royal family and the bribes they have to pay to get anything done. And the songs they sing are laments for their lost ones, those who have died in another pointless military campaign. Nomessina has seen fit to wage war with all its neighbours at some point as well as in futile expeditions across the vast treacherous seas to conquer far-away lands, most of which it turns out either never existed or are full of very fierce and well prepared people who don’t like the look of invading hordes wearing the latest fashions to come out San Martino (the Nomessina capital).
Still, the Nomessinans are an engaging people, forever flailing their hands about in the air when making a point and never backing down in an argument. Whilst they will complain to the ends of the earth about their country they will insist that it is the best at everything. You may ask an old lady where she got her bag of lemons and she will say “From dat-a crook Luigi in-a da market, I had-a to pay heem even more than-a last week cos he a-say dere is-a new taxes. Dat is all lies!” And you’d enquire as to whether there were some cheaper ones in the market, maybe from the next town? She tuts. From the other side of the country? She scowls. From abroad? She howls – “Mamma mia, dey make-a da lemons in a nudder country? Don’t-a be a stupido! Luigi grow-a best-a lemons in-a all-a Nomessina. I no eat-a da lemons from abroad. I rather go die!!”
It is a land full of paradoxes – baking summers and cold winters, snow topping the mountains that rise in the middle of the country and along its northern border; contented but complaining people, an abundance of food and culture that is counterbalanced by pointless endeavours on behalf of the elite. Still, at least they have the best looking royal guards in the world. They stand outside the palace in their shiny leather boots, not a crease in their beautifully stitched clothes and not a hair out of place. However, this all means that if a baby was snatched before their eyes they wouldn’t move a muscle – that would spoil their look!
Once you climb over the (very smart and handsome) mountains of Nomessina you will arrive at the huge land of Cachelot. Unlike Nomessina there is no waste here. Efficiency and efficacy are the words used in government here (as long as it benefits the government). No one’s quite got it right yet in the Sven Kingdoms; you know, happiness for all, sharing the wealth, looking after those in need. All that is left to the ordinary folk to do to each other as best they can. This is definitely the case in Cachelot. The top job here is tax collector or accountant – collecting money and then counting it, those are the things King Peyup encourages. And most of it seems to flow to him. Much like the rivers that charge down the mountains towards the capital city New Newtown, and then meander through the forests, lakes and vast plains beyond.
Cachelot is blessed with great geography – mountainous, rugged borders and a huge expanse of land on its side. The coast is dotted with thousands of islands and many harbours from which to launch fleets of warships and merchant ships. The watery land seemingly goes on forever, heading West and East and into the freezing North. The population dwindles as you fan out from the capital and surrounding towns and instead the land is filled with legends. Yet again, there may be dragons, and there may be large furry people. And strangeness abounds in the emptiness. Some travellers fall asleep and wake in different places, different times, even speaking different languages. The nights go on forever in the winter, driving out all but the hardiest. There are tribes who have been on the Northern Isles for thousands of years, virtually alone. They are mostly led by wise women, the hunters and leaders of their clans. It’s said that while they do not speak your language they may read your mind, and can summon unimaginable beasts to their aid. Who knows? Not many go there - far safer to stay in the South; much warmer though quite wet, but the towns are well organised and people work hard for a living (well, they have to, to pay all those taxes!).
If you make it through the wilderness and past the herds of gnow deer and wyenut bison (and you might spot the fabled mostly-striped wokaroons) you’ll come to the coast. In parts you won’t really know where the coast is due to the great deltas, where the rivers fan out and eventually join the sea, or the fjords, where the rivers carve deep gorges forming lochs and lakes that merge with the sea. But, eventually you will notice the waves and the saltiness of the air, and the islands before you that dot the maps of the West and the North. The city of Try inhabits the whole of one of these, every inch of it covered with life. It is the main trading post with the lands way way beyond across the oceans, and with much of the other Sven Kingdoms. While smallish, its people are fiercely independent, much to the annoyance of the current regime.
Most islands, however, are uninhabited, getting sparser and more treeless as you travel north, where the sea can freeze in the winter. Cachelot goes on and on heading north and west – lakes, plains, rivers, forests, mysteries – until it stops. If you’re at its North-Western edge you’ll have to head back down towards civilisation and border patrols and towns and mines and commerce. There is one more country that overlooks the sea. Much longer than it is wide: the arrowhead-shaped land of Kreem.
Luckily for the people of Kreem their border with Cachelot is just about manageable, being heavily forested and hilly. It takes a long time to get through, and seeing as no one’s exactly sure which bit belongs to which the safest thing seems to be not to bother going in there. This is where the secretive Rolux live. Whether they are human or not is debated. From what has been observed they are smaller than people but much more nimble, preferring to make intricate homes in the great trees, connected by swaying bridges that ordinary people would find unsafe. Some say they are perfectly friendly but far more tell tales of them capturing and roasting lost humans, and it is these stories that keep the forests clear. Any hostility between Cachelot and Kreem is much more likely to be diverted a very long way round, circling the swamps, and the province of Webble inside Hewslez (more of those later). In fact, it’s such a long way round that either country is much more likely to make a day of it and just invade Hewslez first before proceeding to the other.
Kreem is a lively place. Like the Nomessinans they like a good sing-song and a fight, though their art and clothing isn’t quite up to the standards of their rivals to the West. They are a bawdy bunch, more likely to fight with each other than anyone else. It takes a very strong leader to unite them. Any sign of weakness in a king or queen is dealt with quickly. Which is why the rightful king, Phd, has been deposed by his cousin. The Princess Regent Godley reigning as regent, knows how to deal with insurrection and division (and who has dealt with the king by imprisoning him). She likes things tidy and simple - hers is the only way things are done, and such an arrangement makes the people happy. It means they don’t have to make big decisions, they can get on with drinking, eating, singing, bargaining, hunting and fighting, which is what they’re good at. Unlike Hordinaire or Littlebung this is not the place where you will find orderly queues or quietly attentive theatre-goers. If a Kreemian doesn’t agree with you you’ll know about it pretty quickly, and if they want the last bag of sausages in the shop they’ll do everything to get it first. They might actually share the bag of sausages with you if they like the look of you, but, most importantly, they want to be the one who got it first and shared it out to you.
The north-western tip of Kreem is flat, much of it below sea level, which means the locals have had to build defences against the tides. If they didn’t they would be swamped twice a day by the rushing water. To combat this they have built stone walls, wooden walls, earth walls, houses on stilts, anything they can. But their best defence seems to be to shout, point and wave their fists at the sea. It’s actually the perfect place for them. Many other Kreemians travel there every few years to stay and have a good bawl at the tide and help their compatriots throw some more soil or fix some more stones into a wall, which always gives more excellent opportunities to complain about the weather and the world and to boast about how their bit of the wall is staying up while so-and-so’s (which they probably sabotaged) is collapsing and now it means that they’ll have to help out and show them how it’s done properly and what is the world coming to that someone from Kreem can’t do a job properly it’s not like the old days we all used to work together and oi do you mind that’s my rock for my bit of wall get your own!!
They are very tricky to deal with and sometimes you can’t work out whether they’re being serious or not. They are somewhat like their weather – changeable. Generally wet and windy in the north and warm and windy in the south, and everything else in between. It makes them jack-of-all-trades make-do-and-mender types, always moaning, always joking, but proudly standing up for themselves. They may actually be the happiest nation in the continent. They have a lot to complain about it and they love doing just that.
Lastly and leastly we have to end on hapless Hewslez, stuck in the middle. The only non-seafaring nation. The most invaded, divided and downtrodden of the Sven Kingdoms. Luck is not its middle name, Hewslez only has one name, and Hewslez says it all. At least Hordinaire tries, and does produce the finest sprouts. At least Littlebung has a system and at least Cachelot has plenty of money. But Hewslez, what does it have? It has rivers, many of them running off the great river Rarg, that fan out like a delta into its territory, making a boggy land full of islands of communities that shout at each other across the ditches and dykes. It has dark forests, some hills (which aspire to, but never actually become mountains). It has swamps, and it has rebellions and dischord where once it had hope and poetry.
Its capital city (uninspiringly simply called Capital) is criss-crossed by rivers, both above and below ground. In Nomessina there is the city of Ullefzi which, similarly, has a network of canals, with pretty bridges and water taxis. The water strolls through the city on its pre-ordained paths and out to the sea to join its larger family. In Capital, in the middle of the land mass, the water stagnates. Often it stops, and filling with the dirt and grime of the city it rises, poisoning the unfortunate residents. On cold days it oozes odorous fogs, full of unnatural stench. Yet still people flock through its bursting gates in search of work and protection from marauding foreigners.
It's hard to be certain of the borders of Hewslez since they are breached so many times by all other nations (save lonely Littlebung). Its saving grace is that it seems no one wants to take charge of Hewslez. Which is a shame. Its people could do with some cheering up, some brightness and jollity in their grey lives. Instead they cling on, surviving, doing what they can to cheer themselves with their own company. In their nature they are an industrious people, just waiting for the chance to shine. At some points in their history it has looked like the light might break through and they would stand up for themselves and offer the world a positive way forward. But it hasn’t really happened. In recent years the best that they had to offer was a thriving pig farming industry. It wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but even that was struck down by bad luck (or bad practice) as disease ravaged the herds of porkers.
The topography makes it difficult to get anywhere fast, what with clumps of rivers, clumps of forests, clumps of hills and so on. But among them traditions and ancient peoples cling on. The western finger of land that is surrounded by Stentch, Littlebung and Nomessina features a colourful bunch of peoples, the Fiddling Fruit Growers, so called because they grow apples and pears and play the fiddle to the cider they make from it, singing and chatting in their thick accent, miles from the mayhem of the big cities. The charming people of Webble, so put upon by their ruler, so crushed and dispirited from trying to fight back against the tyranny. And the dark and forebidding swamps of the North-East, inhabited by large, strange creatures who never venture out. That is, until one was discovered one day on a battlefield ...