Ceres and the Poison Sea

I just finished Chapter 10 of The Demon King, an original fantasy novel about adult wizards making terrible decisions. This chapter is an extended flashback to the time before the apocalypse that created the world of the story. Although I’m still brainstorming the details of this disaster in terms of the universe’s magical system, what essentially happened is that a frustrated researcher with a wealth of funding but no oversight managed to create the equivalent of a miniature sun that exploded into a supernova before collapsing into a black hole. This set off a chain reaction that rapidly accelerated climate change, which in turn significantly raised the sea level and irradiated the ocean.  

The researcher’s tech firm was located in New York. Because of the disaster, the city no longer exists, nor does anything east of Newark Bay and the Arthur Kill Straight. In order to prevent the decimation of the entire Mid-Atlantic region, mages pushed the landmass of Manhattan Island and Staten Island westward to create a mountain range protecting the mainland from the toxic ocean and its storms. This mountain range also serves as a water filtration system that feeds a system of freshwater lakes and rivers to its immediate west, which has become a kingdom known as Whitespire.

Geographically speaking, Whitespire is somewhere in the vicinity of Elizabeth Seaport in New Jersey. Although a great deal of I-95 is underwater, Route 1 still functions as a major trade route, and Whitespire is about halfway between the Northern Kingdoms (Hartford, Springfield, and a bit of Rhode Island) and the Southern Territories (Baltimore and Washington DC). Because of changing climate patterns, everywhere north of Albany and south of Richmond is uninhabitable, as is the land west of the Appalachian Mountains. Meanwhile, most of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania is a wasteland where water is scare and nothing grows.

The Northern Kingdoms are governed by draconian regimes that are constantly at war with one another, while the Southern Territories are lawless and threatened by the steadily rising ocean. Whitespire is the only real civilization left on the East Coast of North America, which has been isolated from the rest of the world by the impossibility of travel by sea or air. The citystate thrives because of its mild climate, access to plentiful fresh water, and relative distance from other centers of power.

Whitespire is ruled by a royal family whose primary duty is to ensure that the system filtering the seawater through the mountains continues to function properly. The bloodline of the royal family is not strictly hereditary, as anyone able to command the necessary magic may be adopted into royal line. Generally speaking, however, knowledge of the kingdom’s secrets and rituals are passed from parent to child. The queens and kings of Whitespire are supported by a religious order dedicated to preserving the magic necessary to protect the kingdom.

Under the stewardship of its royal family, Whitespire has been peaceful for several hundred years, but this doesn’t mean the monarchs have absolute authority. Political power is shared between the noble lines that maintain the rivers and lakes that spread from the Whitespire Castle, and there are occasional disputes over succession, taxes, and territory rights.

Ceres is the current reigning queen of Whitespire. For reasons known only to herself, Ceres’s mother resolved disputes among Whitespire’s aristocracy through strategic assassinations, which eventually resulted in her murder. As a result, Ceres ascended the throne during a political crisis when she was nineteen. She is a supremely competent ruler, but her reign has been marred by lingering political tensions. She navigates this challenge by presenting a wise and virtuous image of herself in public but being crafty and merciless behind closed doors.

Ceres was born to be a queen, and she plays her role with style and grace. Her only concern is that she is entirely ignorant of the vast majority of Whitespire’s deep magic, as her mother never shared the kingdom’s lore with her. To make matters worse, the former queen killed many of the people who were close to her, along with the entire order of priestesses dedicated to the worship of a deity called The Weaver, who supposedly established Whitespire by wresting the primordial world from the control of demons.

Although the truth is more complicated, “demons” are believed to be powerful monsters whose magic can’t be controlled and can thus only exist in a state of madness and chaos. Demons are real; and the eponymous “demon king” Ananth, who has traveled centuries into the future from a time that he considers be the pre-apocalyptic present, is one of them.

Ceres is primarily a foil to Ananth during the first two narrative arcs, but I plan for her to become the main viewpoint character during the third and final part of the story. She befriends Ananth mainly for political reasons as she attempts to prevent a coup organized by operatives from the Northern Territories, but her real interest in him comes from his openly stated intention to steal the hidden relic that’s the key to the magic of the royal family. Ceres needs this relic just as much as Ananth does, so she aids his plans with the hope that he’ll find it for her. As someone who possess powerful magic of her own, Ceres has full confidence that she can fight and kill Ananth if necessary, so she’s completely unbothered by his antagonism toward her.

Ananth doesn’t treat Ceres like a queen, so she returns the favor by not treating him as a demon capable of destroying her kingdom whenever the mood strikes him. As a result, they gradually form an unlikely friendship that gives Ceres a stage to be her best and most authentic self, namely, a strong and self-assured woman who loves drinking and dick jokes. It goes without saying that she’s a joy to write.

The illustration above was created by Doc Hollibee, who is on Twitter (here) and Tumblr (here). Doc drew me a picture of Princess Zelda with a sword (here), and I loved it so much that I asked her to draw Ceres with the same energy. Doc creates marvelous illustrations that depict the women of the Final Fantasy games as beautiful but still powerful and full of personality, and I’m thrilled and delighted to see the same artistic sensibility applied to my own original character.

American Dream, New Jersey

True to my ambition to visit abandoned malls in New Jersey once I got vaccinated, I went to the American Dream mall in East Rutherford.

The mall is located across the river from Manhattan on a gargantuan plot of land that’s been in development since 2003, and you can get a good eyeful of the massive scale of complex while driving on I-95 towards the entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel. From what I understand, the state of New Jersey has been working with various developers to create an attraction that will draw consumer spending money from the city and convince out-of-town tourists to spend the night in a hotel in New Jersey instead of New York, and the amount of money invested is in the billions of dollars. Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, allocated hundreds of millions of dollars of yearly subsidies into the seeing the development completed, which allowed it to project an opening in early 2020… and then the pandemic hit.

Parts of the mall are still under construction, and not all of its retail spaces are occupied, but it’s now open to the public. It is very new and very shiny. The pure white walls and floors gleam under soft white light, and there are fresh-cut flowers and public art everywhere. The empty storefronts and closed-off corridors are hidden by paneling covered in unique and gorgeous graphics, and there are all sorts of interesting pieces of modern furniture in the atrium areas. The soap in the literally sparkling-clean bathrooms is high-quality foam that smells like a garden in springtime.

The shopping seems to be relatively upscale, and the anchor stores are European chains like Primark and H&M. It’s not open yet, but there’s going to be an H-Mart in the basement, which I think is probably a nod to the East Asian retail strategy of having fancy grocery stores in shopping centers. It seems that the mall is also going to have a “luxury wing,” but it hasn’t yet been completed. They’re probably going to charge for parking in the future, but right now it’s free.

What makes this mall unique is that it also has a snowboarding hill, an ice skating rink, two mini golf courses, a Nickelodeon-branded theme park for little kids, and a huge and beautiful DreamWorks-branded water park in a huge and beautiful tropical biodome. There are a few other attractions that are still getting set up, like an aquarium that looks like it’s going to fit the aesthetic of being huge and beautiful and heavily themed in an offbeat artistic way that appeals to younger kids. If I understand the map correctly, the aquarium will have a giant ocean tunnel that will let you walk through a fantasy of a postapocalyptic underwater New York City, which is a bit morbid but still pretty cool.

And this entire place is completely empty. Just, completely empty. Except for a skeleton crew of retail employees at the stores and a few maintenance staff tending to the plants and flowers, there’s no one in the mall. American Dream looks like the international terminal of an airport if humans were to suddenly disappear from the face of the earth – very shiny and modern and clean, but deserted.

Anyway, now I’m wondering how you get the job of being a member of the gardening staff at a high-end abandoned mall that was a ruin before it even opened, because the people I saw tending to the plants and misting the flowers looked very peaceful and happy. It was some next-level Studio Ghibli magic, like Castle in the Sky except real.

If anyone asks, being a gardener in the ruins of capitalism is very much where I would like to see myself in five years.