Character Death and the Afterlife

Where do characters go when they die? If there’s an afterlife, what effect does it have on a fantasy (or paranormal) story? The presence or absence of an afterlife that has any sort of impact on the fantasy world is a subtle yet core aspect of any fantasy mythos.

Ahmbren is different from most fantasies in that the Ahmbren Chronicles never has any evidence of an afterlife. While other fantasies and mythologies that include active gods, religious magic, celestial heavens and hells assume life after death for at least the faithful, Ahmbren offers the same view of “the other side” as we get in the real world: it’s a persistent mystery, and the only thing living characters have to go on is faith, or skepticism.

There are undead in Ahmbren: zombies, revenants, liches, vampires, and even ghosts. However, in the case of all of them, their souls have been magically preserved after the body’s death, and their minds have not been allowed to decay. There are zero cases in Ahmbren where an ancestor contacts one of their descendants and offers guidance. There are zero cases in Ahmbren where a character truly dies and returns. Dead is dead. Undeath is the magical prevention of death, not a return from actual death. What happens (or doesn’t happen) after death remains as much a looming mystery as it does in the real world.

This does not mean there is no afterlife in Ahmbren. Different characters have different views, guided by their feelings, and their personal convictions of faith. The reader has freedom to interpret the matter of the afterlife with different characters, and different readers will have different experiences of the books.

This is the schtick of sorcery and demonic magic in Ahmbren is that the sorcery tradition teaches: there is no afterlife. The ancient sorcerer lords journeyed to Dis and saw for themselves: there were no souls of the damned, only demons. In Ahmbren, when a sorcerer makes a pact with Dis to acquire a demonic servitor, they don’t sign a contract that says, “when I die you can have my soul.” The demons tell them there is no afterlife, so there’s no fear of what happens after death. The sorcerer gives the demon lords a piece of their soul right then and there. The price is immediately paid, and the demon lord crafts a servitor from that soul’s piece for the sorcerer.

Necromancy is another sorcerer tradition, but unlike traditional necromancy it is neither a way of raising the dead or contacting the dead. The dead are dead. In Ahmbren, Necromancy is a sorcerer tradition that allows the person to tap into the latent power of dead soul matter that’s floating in the ether. When a person dies, as their body decays, their soul disintegrates and decays too, floating in the ether in the land where they died. Certain sorcerers are able to draw power from the dead soul matter, like batteries, giving them further evidence (in their mind) that there is no afterlife. They see what happens to souls, so they know there’s no life after death. (A character of faith would argue that the souls are but etheric bodies for the mind and spirit, and those move on to the next world.)

This worldview, “there is no afterlife”, guides Anuit’s perspective through the books. When the narrator makes statements that no such afterlife exists, the reader should not take this as authoritative… the narrator is fused with the POV, and speaks only with the best knowledge and understanding of that POV character.

Of course, the majority of Ahmbren’s peoples believe in some sort of afterlife, informed by their cultural and religious traditions. When loved ones dies, most live in the hopes that they will be reunited with loved ones in the next life, in the halls of their respective gods.

From a storytelling and worldbuilding perspective, I’ve committed to the idea that there will be no evidence for an afterlife, and I’ll leave it up to characters and readers to decide what they believe about Ahmbren. This has an impact on the kinds of stories I can do: no ancestors intervening, and just as importantly, no reincarnation. The “past life” memories of Ahmbren are of a different sort altogether, but it never comes from having lived, died, and then coming back to be reborn again.

I love a good reincarnation story, and a good ghost story, and ancestor spirit stories. However, overuse of afterlife narratives can also have a negative impact on storytelling. If the plot constantly brings the readers with characters past death, then death starts to lose its meaning. Where is the risk, or fear involved with the great unknown? For this reason, I decided to make a “no discernible afterlife” policy one of the defining characteristics of Ahmbren.

Until next week!
Kyle

2 thoughts on “Character Death and the Afterlife

  1. One of the things I was most intrigued by in your first book was Anuit gaining her Necromantic powers and learning that there was no afterlife. I was sorry not to see her again in the book!

    I agree that the soundest policy regarding the afterlife in fantasy is ambiguity. Unlike your Anuit, my own Necromancer does consult the dead about things they knew in life, but he never gets to find out what goes on “behind the curtain”. It’s the great unknown in real life. Any explicit reveal is sure to disappoint.

    • Thanks Rita! I really like Anuit’s character too. She’s definitely been a fan favorite, and of the three leads (Anuit, Arda, and Aradma), it’s usually a toss up with the betas whether Anuit or Arda is the favorite. I promise you, in the last two books of the trilogy, there is much, much more for both Anuit and Arda. Aradma doesn’t even make an appearance in Covenant until part 2. The tradition of sorcery is also delved into in more depth, and in Book 3 we really get a look at the demon city of Dis and insight into the dawn of the sorcery tradition.

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