Emelan itself resides on the northern shore of the Pebbled Sea, the fictional equivalent of the Mediterranean sea. Its location parallels that of Greece on the world map, extending a peninsula surrounded by many islands of various sizes into the sea. However, Emelan seems to extend over a larger and more diverse territory.
All countries between Namorn in the north and Tharios in the south were once a part of the Kurchal Empire, and the language common to these areas is still called Imperial or Imperial Kurchali. Chammur seems to be the exception to this, since in Street Magic Briar Moss takes pains to learn the Chammuri language, and debates about whether or not he should teach his student Evvy to read and write it. This may be for the same reason that Sotat does not enforce its sovereignty over Chammur, since it's located in a distant, mountainous desert. As well, the fall of the Kurchal Empire gave rise to the term "K.F." after the listing of a date, such as 1041 K.F., as frequently mentioned in The Will of the Empress. This probably refers to the term A.D. (in comparison to B.C.) in the Western world.
Emelan is a sovereign duchy with an extensive noble class. The inheritance of the ducal throne seems to be combined with a merit system; references in The Will of the Empress reveal that Duke Vedris IV, the current ruler of Emelan, has the power to choose his own heir, through rumors that he is considering displacing his third son (Franzen fer Toren, mentioned in passing and listed in the book's glossary) in favor of his grand-niece, protagonist Sandrilene fa Toren.
Most countries in the Emelan Universe have monarchic systems of government: Namorn is an empire ruled by Empress Berenene dor Ocmore, Yanjing is an empire(possibly based on China, as it is called the Empire of Silk) with an unknown ruler, Chammur is an emirate and the noble class is abundant almost everywhere. One prominent exception to this rule is the city state of Tharios, which is ruled by an Assembly, although it, too is an oligarchy effectively ruled by the first and highest caste. The caste system in Tharios operates on a principle of divine privilege similar to the one nobility works on.
Known conflicts in the world of Emelan include:
The culture around the Pebbled Sea is strongly based on that of the Middle East. While most locations visited in the books are ethnically mixed, showing characters of apparent Chinese, black, caucasian, Indian, Middle Eastern and multiracial enthnicities, some of the clothing and most of the food consumed in the region have a strong Middle Eastern flavor. The cuisine favors chickpeas, "flatbread", couscous and baklawa, among other things.
By contrast, the Namornese culture has a distinct Russian overtone, and the culture of Tharios is mixed; its city state status and democratic tradition have roots in ancient Greece (as well as many Tharian words being very similar to Greek words - shenos/xenos, kyten/chiton), the caste system is based not on the Indian caste system but on the Japanese Burakumin, and the pleasure district of Khapik is based on traditional Japanese geisha.
The temple of Winding Circle belongs to the fictional religion, the Living Circle. It is a polytheistic. nature-worshipping religion, based on the classical elements system of air, fire, water and earth, with two gods, one male and one female, dedicated to each element. A temple is dedicated to each of the four elements within each Living Circle temple-city.
The philosophy of the Living Circle is based on harmony and balance, and opposition of fanaticism. Liberal about sex in general and homosexuality in particular, Dedicates of the Living Circle are not celibate, but are discouraged from pursuing either marriage or children at the expense of their devotion to their gods.
While the Living Circle doesn't discourage sex (though some Air temple devotees, particularly the most purely intellectual ones, don't go for it because it messes up their thought processes, and they spend their days trying to become purely creatures of the mind) (no, Crane is not one of those--he likes plants, remember!), the temples do discourage handfasting/marriage and having children, because legal relationships and children tend to distract the mind and spirit from complete devotion to the gods. Moreover, such ties to a particular place mean that a dedicate is not free to simply go where s/he is ordered to go. This wasn't an issue in the first Circle quartet because the dedicates we knew were bound to teach the four, but most dedicates--including ours, in the past--were sent anywhere the temple council saw fit to send them. A spouse and kids would interfere.Tamora Pierce on the Living Circle, SheroesCentral, June 28, 2005.
The whole point to taking vows is that you dedicate yourself first and foremost to the service of your gods, then to your temple, then to the Living Circle. All other attachments come after that. If you can't live with that, you can resign your vows honorably.
In many ways it resembles a mix of Buddhism and Shintoism, with its acceptance of the broad and often contradictory panapoly of life and human relationships, and its belief that the only real morality is in harmony and balance with your world.Tim Liebe on the Living Circle, SheroesCentral, January 3, 2004.
Various minor, specialized gods exist alongside the worship of the Living Circle. These include trickster gods dedicated to thieves such as Lakik, gods of law enforcement such as Harrier the Clawed, and other professional gods.
Tharios worships the All-Seeing, and an assortment of minor gods.
Academic magic follows the traditional fantasy genre rules for use of magic. It is a potential that only exists in some individuals, born mages, which can be detected by magic sniffers, sight-mages who specialize in discovering children with magical potential. Magical education may take place in temples, such as Winding Circle, or universities, such as Lightsbridge. At some point during the training the mages choose their own specialty, and once their training is complete they receive a certificate in the form of a medallion bearing their specialty and the names of their primary teachers.
Mages are also entitled to choose new surnames for themselves that will declare their specialty to potential employers. Niklaren Goldeye chose his name because his specialty is seeing things that most people, even other mages, cannot see. By contrast, all four protagonists of the series have chosen to keep their given names--although Briar Moss merely kept the name he chose when Niklaren found him.
Ambient magic, although it also exists as a potential from birth and cannot be manufactured, operates on a dfferent principle. It is tied to a specific craft, power or raw material, ranging from carpentry to dance to weather. Ambient mages can only work with the craft their magic is tied to. Ambient mages are rarer than academic ones, at a ratio of about one to four. Both the Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens series focus on the mechanics of ambient magic, shifting viewpoints to show several different types.
The existence of ambient mages is one of the reasons why magic is such a commonplace thing in the Emelan Universe. It manifests as just another aspect of an artisan's expertise, and exemplifies the philosophy that magic exists in all things, no matter how seeingly mundane. This distincts it from other fantastical magic systems, which often manifest as fire or lightning, but rarely as weaving, smithing and other daily crafts.
Canonical novels set in the Emelan Universe.
The Circle of Magic quartet:
The Circle Opens quartet: