Review: Blackdog by KV Johansen

Blackdog

Blackdog by KV Johansen (Pyr, 2011)

Whilst an established Canadian author of children’s sf and fantasy novels, Blackdog marks Johansen’s first foray into epic fantasy. The novel focuses on Attalissa, a goddess re-incarnated as a young girl, and her protector, the titular Blackdog, a spirit that possesses human hosts, as they attempt to deal with the threat of a powerful evil wizard who is attempting to consume the goddess’s power.

On the surface, it appears to have all the elements of a great epic fantasy: cosmic conflicts between good and evil, multiple character perspectives interweaving into a grander narrative tapestry, fascinating hints of legendary backstory and a diverse world setting. Unfortunately Blackdog does not quite live up to its promise since these elements never quite cohere. The story does not seem to know which it would rather be; a gentle, intimate tale following the coming-of-age of the young goddess incarnate or an epic battle between vast supernatural forces. In trying to be both, it has succeeded at neither.

An illustration of this concerns the Blackdog himself. While he is the eponymous character, the narrative vacillates unevenly between his role as guide and protector, reducing him to the position of supporting companion, and the exploration of his ‘curse’ and his repetitive struggles to overcome it.  Indeed, even the character development concerning Blackdog will disappoint most, as all the twists and turns are heavily foreshadowed and never surprise.

Disappointingly, the world and story are told to the reader, rather than shown, resulting in a feeling of thinness and lack of texture. For a book of some 540 pages there is a surprising lack of detail, as plot, action, world building and character development are sketched rather than explored. The plot itself is simplistic, banal and so heavily foreshadowed that there are few, if any, surprises. The shifting of narrative focus between the personal narratives and the larger plot leads to both feeling lamentably underdeveloped. The climax of the plot is overly neat and split between the straightforward coming-of-age narrative and the obvious, underwhelming grand battle. When the disparate elements finally collide, it creates a sense of forced artifice rather than natural convergence.

In terms of action, there are few battles or fights and those included are hastily passed over and never approach ‘epic’ in nature. There is little tension in the short sequences and almost no sense of the viciousness of battle or the emotional repercussions of loss and death. While great authors can evoke much with simple descriptions, Johnasen never gives the reader the page length to fully immerse themselves in the action, and seems more inclined to skip over action sequences in favour of more bland character interaction.

This blandness affects the world itself as there is no real distinction drawn between the various locales, regardless of the radically different terrains.  For a novel that traverses various locales, including desert, steppes, foothills and mountain tops, there is almost no real variance in how the world appears or is described.  In fact how the characters interact with their surroundings and feel about the various landscapes is uniformly mundane.  No matter where they are, each of the characters acts in exactly the same way, and it is seems a missed opportunity to explore the richness of the world that Johansen has built.

The characters are rarely distinctive and very few are developed beyond stereotypical or function-driven roles. Those few interesting characters are inevitably underused and underdeveloped. However, a major point in Johansen’s favour is her treatment of sexuality as she seamlessly integrates non-heterosexual characters into her world in a subtle display of acceptance without the use of gratuitous sex scenes or heavy-handed narrative underlining.

Two minor characters in this novel, Moth and Mikki, are the most interesting of the bunch, primarily because something is left to the reader’s imagination and their backstory is not painstakingly delivered as exposition.  However, due to the fact that they are indeed minor, they are not really a selling point of this novel, although seeing them in later books would be great.

While Blackdog is not good as it falls short of both YA and Epic fantasy, it is inoffensively mediocre and tediously predictable rather than truly abysmal.

(Originally reviewed in Vector)

Review: The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron

Eli Monpress

The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron (Orbit, 2012) p.949

The Legend of Eli Monpress is the omnibus edition of Rachel Aaron’s brilliant debut trilogy which follows the adventures of the eponymous hero thief, Eli, his two companions, Josef and Nico, and their dogged pursuer, Miranda. The trilogy is comprised of The Spirit Thief, The Spirit Rebellion and The Spirit Eater, each published in 2010 by Oribt. Thankfully these novels far surpass the tedious, stereotypical sounding blurb and the garish individual covers. Monpress is anything but a boring, by-the-numbers foray into a fantasy heist adventure; this is a trilogy well worth reading.

The titular hero, Eli Monpress, is an irrepressible thief, and apparently motivated, not by greed, but by a desire to become the most infamous thief in the world with the largest bounty ever offered. Yet this only touches on his much deeper motivations and fascinating back-story that are hinted at and slowly revealed by Aaron over the course of this first trilogy. Eli’s character becomes increasingly complex and rounded over time while remaining consistent and likable. His darker characteristics are countered by his optimistic outlook and cheerful demeanour. His capers both entertain and provide structure for the narrative without overshadowing the broader story.

This same thought and consideration on Aaron’s part can be seen in Eli’s companions, the taciturn Josef Liechten and the tragic Nico. Josef could have simply been the bodyguard to Aaron’s hero, but she gives him his own mission, his own story and his own character. A swordsman who wields the world’s most powerful magical sword, the Heart of War, Josef travels with Eli as a means to find challenging duels and chances to prove himself. Eli is not adverse to taking advantage of this situation, but the mutually beneficial relationship again illustrates Aaron’s command of her world and narrative. This is not some plot driven need or convenient story function, Aaron neatly creates a natural rationale and convincing backstory for the pairing. The relationship between Josef and Eli, while that of friends and companions, is not without tension and incident lending yet more veracity to the tale.

The demonseed, Nico, adds an element of tragic darkness to the group. A young girl who has a demon growing inside her, Nico possesses supernatural abilities that complement the group dynamic and further their spectacular heists. However, it is the very darkness inside her that makes her stand apart from other fantasy characters of this ilk. Her life is a constant struggle against her inner demon, literally.  It struggles for supremacy, threatening to overwhelm her personality and destroy everything she cares for. As a result she is both a great fantasy character to read, as well as a fascinating literalised metaphor for reader and critic alike to engage with. The potential danger posed by Nico, to both the world at large as well as her companions, cuts through the potentially stereotypical appearance of the group and demonstrates Aaron’s attention to detail. Indeed, in addition to the narrative tension that Nico’s very existence adds to the stories, her nature also adds to the world building and provides several plot hooks and developments.

The last major character of note is Miranda Lyonette, the Javere to Eli’s Valjean.  Miranda, a Spiritualist (mage), has been set the thankless task of pursuing Eli in order to bring him to justice. At once Eli’s implacable adversary, Miranda is also a significant point of view character and provides a welcome broadening of the perspective. Aaron deftly weaves Miranda’s backstory and motivations into the story, and her companion spirits, including a sardonic magical ghosthound named Gin, flesh out her narrative sections. While an embodiment of duty, law and order, Miranda’s character is rounded-out with a sense of practicality and pragmatism as well as a healthy dose of common-sense. Miranda provides another view of Eli and forces the reader to reconsider Eli’s actions from a different perspective. This combines to both widen and deepen the world for the reader and to provide tantalising glimpses of the broader fantasy setting. The exasperated frustration Miranda feels in her pursuit of and interactions with Eli supplies comedy and drama in equal portion and adds to the narrative verisimilitude.

The world Aaron has created is rich, textured and beautifully rendered.  Her world-building is both intricate and delightful. In particular, the ‘magic system’ of spirits feels innovative, inventive and intuitive. Every object, plant, animal and natural feature possesses a spirit. These spirits can be bargained with, commanded, manipulated and coerced by wizards (Spiritualists) in order to create magical effects and perform incredible feats. An ancillary benefit is that they also provide a host of secondary characters and some of the novels most memorable scenes.  One of the earliest examples can be found in the first chapter of book one, in which Eli literally charms the door of his prison cell into letting him go.  “Indecision is the bane of all hardwoods.” It is this sense of fun and humour that permeates the entire trilogy.

This balancing of elements reveals the strength of Aaron’s writing as there are few aspects of these stories that appear ill-thought out or only partially considered. For a debut fantasy trilogy this is almost unprecedented. Aaron’s world is both familiar and unique. A party of adventurers touring fantasyland stealing treasure and getting into fabulous scrapes is hardly groundbreaking, but this very familiarity simply eases the reader into the world and setting Aaron has created. No doubt the subject matter of Aaron’s trilogy will invite comparisons to Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series, yet Aaron has written something which reads as fresh, inventive and unique.

This trilogy is suitable for adults and children alike, and will also entertain both audiences. The Adventures of Eli Monpress is the rarest of creatures, an almost pitch perfect fantasy trilogy. It is a welcome antidote to the plethora of dark, gritty and violent fantasies dominating the market and it possesses enough heft to engage the brain as well.

(Originally reviewed in Vector)

‘Awards or Bust’ Guest Blog by Steven Erikson

erikson_fiAwards Or Bust

by Steven Erikson

A commentary on the World Fantasy Awards Committee’s decision to replace the Gahan Wilson H. P. Lovecraft bust.

This past weekend I sat at a table during the banquet and awards ceremony at the Saratoga Hilton, as Guest of Honour for the 2015 World Fantasy Awards.  This was where the announcement was made official: the WFA was bringing to an end the H.P. Lovecraft bust given annually in recognition of a host of exemplary accomplishments within the field of Fantasy literature and related media.  The bust’s replacement is yet to be determined, and without doubt will be selected with the WFA’s philosophy of inclusiveness and diversity foremost in mind.  The applause in response to this announcement was loud and effusive.

In a fit of contrariness I had elected to attend the convention without my laptop, and with my phone on the fritz I found myself essentially incommunicado with everyone but those whom I met and hung out with at the convention.  Returning home, however, I found on my Facebook page a commentary on the WFA’s decision, written by the multiple WFA winner Steve Jones.  Accompanying the commentary was a photo of three Lovecraft busts.

I quote his comment here:

“I am inordinately proud of my three World Fantasy Awards. I am proud of the work and the body of work that I won them for. I am proud that they are a stylised representation of H.P. Lovecraft – one of the most influential and creative writers of imaginative fiction the genre has ever known. I am proud that they are nicknamed the “Howie” award after that other influential giant of fantasy literature, Robert E. Howard. And I am proud that they were designed and sculpted by Gahan Wilson, a founding member of the World Fantasy Convention and one of our most talented artists and authors in the field of the macabre. It is an honour to own and display these awards in my home. What I am not proud of is the World Fantasy Convention Board and their cowardly response to a small but vocal minority of people who have no sense of history or tradition. Censorship – in all its malicious and insidious forms – is always reprehensible. Let him (or her) who is without sin cast the first stone . . .” (Steve Jones)

This statement earned plenty of ‘likes’ and the reply stream was extensive, with a mostly unanimous rendition of ‘hear hear’ and similar affirmatives.  And among those replies I found the common list of such terms as ‘social justice warriors’ (and indeed, even ‘social justice bullies’) as well as ‘political correctness,’ both used in their modern pejorative meaning.  The contempt and disdain veritably dripped.

Over my morning coffee, I sat at the desk, laptop open before me, and simply stared, dumbfounded.  My wife took note (that in itself a miracle of sorts) and asked me what was wrong?  I stumbled to answer, and in the end could only shake my head.  It’s now a few days later, and Steve Jones has since added to the topic with a poem, further indicating his objection to the WFA’s decision, and yet more replies and ‘likes’ have piled up on that post.

Normally, it’s in my nature to let these debates slide past me, to leave people to their opinions.  Most of what I have to say, I say first and foremost through my fiction, and even in that context, not in terms of opinions or agenda, or didactic polemics disguised as fiction.  I am by nature inclined to question and hold to a deep-seated suspicion of certitude, especially when it comes to human affairs.

That said … holy crap.

Symbols are potent things.  Before I expound on the relevance of that statement, let me first make the following distinction, because not only is it important, it is also essential to the point I am about to make.  The past winners of the WFA are among a select few: their accomplishments in the field are exemplary and impressive.  Steve Jones (and all the others) earned their awards for their extraordinary talent and effort to advance Fantasy (and related) literature – as writers, editors, publishers and as fans of the genre.  This is not in question, and nothing related to the Lovecraft bust should in any way degrade or discount their exceptional merit as recipients.

But I will say it again: symbols are potent things.  As the physical, durable manifestation of a community of peers’ recognition for achievement, they should in every way reflect the inclusiveness, the diversity, and the unmitigated adherence to merit above all other considerations.

Lovecraft was a poet and storyteller of the macabre.  He was loyal to his friends and supportive of their efforts.  He was also a white supremacist.  This detail was not relegated to his private life, either, hidden away like a disreputable habit.  In his poetry and in his fiction he evoked the racist creed, labelling people of colour as inferior versions of humanity.

Some might raise the observation that Lovecraft was a man of his time, and therefore excusable for his objectionable views on race.  Of course, there were other men (and women) of that time, who were not racists.  Some of them, indeed, were neither white nor male.  Accordingly, to those apologists attempting the ‘historical context’ argument, it just doesn’t fly, folks.  The proof of that is plain enough and I’ll state it here: those who seek to apologise for the beliefs and attitudes of people in the past invariably do so in defense of the egregious and the objectionable.  Nobody apologises for those people in the past who held virtuous views, do they?  No, they laud such people and name them unusually enlightened.

Lovecraft had neighbours who were not racists.  The historical context argument is bullshit.

Among the replies to Steve Jones’ first post, a WFA winner was mentioned as being perhaps a principal advocate for change in voicing her offense at the Lovecraft bust, eventually leading to the WFA Committee’s decision to retire it.  To which the venerable and Lifetime Achievement award winner (and friend) Ramsey Campbell chimed in to point out that this particular winner was unaware at the time of the racist fug surrounding Lovecraft the man, only later making her objections after being informed by someone else.

What a curious statement!  I do adore you, Ramsey, and at the very real risk of burning a bridge I’d rather not burn, what on earth was the point of that observation?  That her objection can be dismissed based on her ignorance of the man that bust portrayed?

Let’s indulge in a scenario here: a man is pulled out from some previously isolated, utterly unknown tribe in the depths of, oh, say the Congo.  He is brought forward to receive the highest award possible for his achievements in whatever – let’s go for Genetic Purity: after all this guy’s got the oldest genetic sequence on the planet.  Humbled and delighted he graciously accepts this strange bust portraying some strange man he knows nothing about.  A short time later, he’s sitting at a café, sipping espresso, with the bust standing before him on the table.  And he’s thinking, how lovely and generous and wonderful of those people at the Gene Sequencing Association, to think of me for something like this!’  At which point a fiercely frowning man walks up to his table and in a furious voice asks: “why do you have a bust of Adolf Hitler?”  ‘Well, stammers the poor man, ‘he was big in the field of genetic purity.  Wasn’t he?’

Culpability rests not with the unknowing recipient, but with those of us who know better.

In the shoes of that fictional man, I’d be stalking the hall of the Gene Sequencing Association, statue in hand and ready to bust some heads.  Ramsay, would you blame me?

Steve, your objection seems misplaced, or at least the product of some strange misapprehension.  You have the right to be proud to have thrice won the WFA.  Nobody’s attacking your pride or sense of accomplishment: certainly not me.  You have indeed earned it.  My beef isn’t with any of that.  It’s with Lovecraft as a symbol of the WFA’s appreciation and recognition of its peers.  And this so-called ‘small but vocal minority of people who have no sense of history or tradition’ thing … really?  Minority in what sense, exactly?  Their objection to a white supremacist?  No sense of history or tradition?  Whose history?  Whose tradition?  Well, presumably, the correct one?  The nineteenth and early Twentieth Century White Racist American one?

As for your objection (and poem) decrying censorship, I’m sorry, but who exactly is being censored here?  Lovecraft’s more egregious writings are all available to be read by anyone.  If you have the stomach for it.

I would humbly suggest that conflating the meritorious award with the bust that represents it is a mistake; to fuse your rightful pride in winning those awards with some sort of pride in the literary accomplishments of a talented but odious man, is a decision of dubious merit.  Please reconsider.  Your view of history and tradition (as inherently good things) is highly selective here, and it doesn’t wear well at all.

Before I leave this, I have to comment on three statements made (by people I don’t know) in the replies to Steve Jones’ post (acknowledging here that such replies do not necessarily reflect Mr. Jones’ own opinions or beliefs).  I will quote them verbatim first:

David J. SchowIt’s another cowardly cave-in to the PC police, who would gladly censor the writing as well, so long as some sensitive little snowflake doesn’t get all butt-hurt. It disrespects the award and insults everyone who ever adjudged it. Dostoyevsky wasn’t all that swell of a human being, either — where does it stop? Answer: It DOESN’T stop until everything is ashes and pabulum. The Mystery Writers of America award a trophy in the image of Poe; is that the next target? Now sit back and enjoy the feeding frenzy in this chum bucket, as folks fight to choose between (1) a bust of somebody who is totally, utterly inoffensive, and/or (2) a stylized safe-zone choice that will undoubtably [sic] resemble a dildo. Or a butt plug. Which would be (ahem) fitting.

Adrian Cole I agree wholeheartedly with you, Steve. I’m sick to death of all the recent political correctness for one reason or another. Bollocks! This award is not about racism. We’re getting too soft. Too particular, too sensitive. We don’t need to be. Life’s too fucking short.

Lawrence PersonDamn straight Stephen! This perpetual SJW culture war is driving people out of the field.

I’ll address these in order.  Schow’s opening line establishes the nature of the perceived enemy (to freedom, one supposes), invoking ‘cowardly’ and ‘cave-in’ and of course the ubiquitous ‘PC police,’ and then, having done so (said act of reading by yours truly implying a knowing nod and tsk tsk), proceeds to expound on the nefarious plans of these PC police in censoring ‘the writing’ (Lovecraft’s?  I guess so), and things close out with the contemptuous dismissal of these ‘sensitive little snowflake(s).’  What follows is a highly contentious statement that eagerly invites the conflation of the award with the bust of Lovecraft, as if the two were one and the same.  In effect, to disrespect Lovecraft is to disrespect every WFA award winner, and to insult everyone who adjudged it.

Uhm, who says so?  Am I unique in ‘disrespecting’ Lovecraft (as a symbol of merit in Fantasy) while sincerely respecting all award winners?  As for the insult to those adjudging that award, I have been one, and I’m not insulted in the least.  Am I the only one?

We then move on to the bad habits of other writers in the past, leading to the outrageous notion that from now on every award should be symbolized by … what?  Oh, ‘somebody who is totally, utterly inoffensive.’  Good grief, what a crime that would be!  To think, an award symbol that doesn’t offend anybody!  What will they think of next?

As for the dildo and butt comments … never mind.  To each his own.

Adrian Cole chimes in to rail against political correctness and points out that the World Fantasy Award is not about racism, and he’s right.  It’s not.  So why symbolise it with the bust of a racist?  We are then chided on getting ‘too soft’ and life’s too short to be ‘particular’ and ‘sensitive.’  In other words, this life, being so short, is better spent being insensitive, hard of countenance and dismissive of the particular.

Well, in the interest of fairness, if that’s your life, Mr Cole, you are welcome to it.

And now we come to Lawrence Person.  Let me quote him again here: “Damn straight Stephen! This perpetual SJW culture war is driving people out of the field.” 

I’m curious, who exactly is being driven out of the field?  Please list names.  Or never mind, it’s only Facebook, after all.  What really interests me about this comment is the usage of this ‘perpetual SJW culture war,’ which appears as a lingering echo to the Sad/Rabid Puppy fiasco at the Hugos.

Clearly, there exists a group of people for whom Social Justice Warriors are the enemy.  The descriptive is used pejoratively, demonstrably in tones of disdain, dismissal, disgust and a whole host of other disses.  Similar to its antecedent, ‘political correctness,’ the common usage (as pejoratives) asserts the idea that such advocates have laid siege to freedom of expression.

But you see, I get hung up on the descriptive itself, because I am invariably led to ask myself: Who is against those who fight for social justice?  For the moment, only two possibilities come to mind, and both are, at their core, idiotic.

  1. The self-avowed enemies of social justice are against social justice, and therefore for social injustice.  Presumably, such people dream of some ideal fascistic state of tyranny in which they are the oppressors rather than the oppressed.  You know, like how it used to be.  Accordingly, they’re not interested in ‘freedom of expression’ at all.  I assume we’re talking a serious minority here, but to use Steve Jones’ own phrase, they are a vocal minority.
  1. The self-avowed enemies of social justice are not enemies of social justice at all. Rather, they are enemies of a particular brand of social justice, one diametrically opposed to their own brand of social justice.  In which case, their use of SJW as a descriptive of contempt is akin to unleashing a stream of sneering and invective at the (slightly altered) face in the mirror.  Which makes their continued usage of the term sound, well, stupid.

Hey, the webscape is indeed a battlefield, and warriors patrol their ideological borders with zeal, and on each side there is a kind of amorphous sense of social justice.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s fine.  Have at it and let loose the dogs, etc.  It’s all good fun, until somebody starts up with the threats and bullying and all those other defenses most eagerly employed by the losing side.

And let’s face it, one side is indeed losing.  The world is moving on.  It is discarding objectionable attitudes, prejudices and intolerance.  All good things, yes?

The time was long past due on getting rid of that bust.  And at the table at the banquet at the World Fantasy Awards, I made my applause loud and sustained.  And as for the Lovecraft pin I wear to conventions, indicating a past nomination, I’d love to see a new version.  In the meantime, however, I will continue to wear it, not in belligerent advocacy of H.P. Lovecraft, but to honour all past winners of the World Fantasy Award.

In my mind I can make that distinction.  That I have to lies at the heart of the problem with having Lovecraft as our symbol of merit.  To all future nominees and winners, you won’t have to face that awkward separation, and for that, you can thank that ‘vocal minority,’ who perhaps have not been vocal enough, and who are most certainly not a minority.  Not in this field, not in any other.

Steven Erikson

Note: Edited to correct the name to Jones from Stone.

World Fantasy Award – The Saga Continues

WF Award 1

For those outside the SF and Fantasy community the current strife within SF and Fantasy fandom might seem ludicrous.  With names like Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, terms like Social Justice Warriors, and the increasing levels of online harassment, vitriol, hatred, and threats of violence, it can seem like a bad soap opera in which stakes are raised ever higher over insignificant things.
For those outside fandom, the ink spilled on these issues seems a waste given all the other things the media could be covering, although whether or not Actor A is dating Actor B has never really struck me as an important news story anyway.
But for those of us within SF and Fantasy fandom, academia, and publishing, these incidents are not insignificant, they are not mountains made out of mole-hills, but are very real arguments.  The threats of violence are real.  The online harassment is real.  The hatred is real.  And the behaviour of some people, who I am sure are nice people once you get to know them, is about as disgusting and reprehensible as you can get.

This all seems to be happening as SF and Fantasy try to make their way into the 21st Century.  To attempt to recognise that the literary landscape of the new millennium is broader, wider, deeper and far more diverse than it was before.  That fandom crosses genders, politics, sexualities and interests.  That authors are coming from more and more diverse backgrounds and trying to articulate ever greater points of view.  And there are those who would prefer to have the genres remain static, never changing, trapped in perfect amber, and coloured by nostalgic (and at times fairly racist and misogynist) rose-tinted glasses.

The latest/current kerfuffle arises over the decision to no longer use a bust of renowned horror writer, and racist, H.P Lovecraft, as the trophy for the World Fantasy Award.

I know, I know, it is hard to believe that anyone would be upset that the bust of a long deceased horror writer is no longer going to be used for a fantasy award in the 21st Century, but apparently some people feel pretty strongly that this is a snub to H.P Lovecraft.  Unfortunately, due to the fact that he is long dead, he wasn’t available to comment.  However S.T. Joshi, a prominent advocate, editor and scholar of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, was quick to announce his displeasure at this decision to stop using the bust of an author to represent achievement in the entire field of fantasy in the modern era, and announced that he would be returning his two World Fantasy awards.  Given that he is such a fan of Lovecraft, and that now he will no longer be able to get new ones, you would think that he would want to hold on to them.  But apparently even he doesn’t really want them in his house.

Nnedi Okorafor eloquently wrote about her discomfort over the award (to put it mildly) nearly four years ago  (http://nnedi.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/lovecrafts-racism-world-fantasy-award.html) and Jason Sanford (http://www.jasonsanford.com/blog/2015/11/of-their-times) recently outlined why a bust of Lovecraft is not really the kind of symbol any self-respecting fan of SF or Fantasy would want as an award.  So I recommend you read those blogs if you want further details.

And, to be honest, there is not really much more that can be added to their observations.  Lovecraft was racist.  Yes, he wrote a load of books that many of us have devoured and enjoyed, or at the very least interrogated and examined.  But just because he wrote a load of horror stories in the early 20th century, and was a significant pulp author, doesn’t really answer the question as to why he should continue to be the symbol for a fantasy award in the modern day when, quite frankly, he represents a deeply troubling aspect of our culture that upsets a significant number of fans and authors.

I am fairly sure we can come up with a better award statue that doesn’t piss people off.  And, if people so desire, I am sure they can set up a HP Lovecraft Award and use the bust design for that.  I am not sure what the criteria would be though… racist, homophobic horror literature that belongs in the past?

So that brings us on to what the new award should look like.  The World Fantasy award should probably reflect two major things.  Firstly ‘World’ and secondly, ‘Fantasy’.  There is a third aspect that might have some bearing and that is that most of the categories are literary, so some aspect of literature might be nice to work in there.

So here are a few ideas and comments.

Avoid using the bust of any other author, no matter how popular or influential.  It isn’t worth the hassle, and no one author can truly represent the breadth and depth of fantasy writing in the modern day.  It also has the problem that some people will think that author is awesome, while others won’t be as impressed.  You can’t please everyone.  Plus, linking the award to a physical person will run the risk of real life intruding, once again, into what should be an award for current work, not what the award is modelled on.
Suggestions like a ‘sword in the stone’, while iconic fantasy, are really only representative of a particular type of fantasy, and that myth is located firmly in the Western Anglo tradition.  If we want an award that represents the world then we might have to think a little harder about it.

The iconic nature of dragons could also be a sticking point for some given that Eastern Dragons, Western Dragons, Feathered Serpents and so on, have ties to specific cultures.  So having one might, and I say might, be seen as excluding the others.

I did see a suggestion that the award take the form of the discworld from Terry Pratchett’s work.  As much as I am a fan of his books, I don’t think that tying the award to a specific author’s work is the way forward.  By all means have a Terry Pratchett award and use it there, but for World Fantasy can we possibly have something that is not tied to any one work or author?

We could have the globe as the major aspect of the award with a crack forming in it as if it is an egg with the snout of a draconic thing emerging.  That would tie into the World aspect, as well as represent the fantastic element as the fantastic emerges from the world.  Given that only the snout would be visible it would be hard to say if the creature was from one specific culture.

A globe held in a fantastic talon.  Hard to tie talons to specific cultural stories, and if the globe spun on an axle the winner could decide what countries faced out.

A book with a wand lying across the pages.  The book could have the word fantasy written in multiple languages across its pages.

A wizard’s staff lying across a spell book.

A book with claws, tentacles and such escaping the pages.

A tree with fantastic symbols and icons hanging from its branches.  The symbols could be taken from different mythologies and cultures.  The tree could be stylised or completely unreal to avoid promoting any one specific mythology (I am looking at you Norse Mythology).

A map scroll partially rolled with an adventurer’s pack with potions and a spell book. Throw in a wand, a staff, or anything else you want for good measure.

The more I think about it the more I realise that even if Lovecraft wasn’t a racist, his bust was completely inappropriate for the award anyway.  There are so many different symbols, icons, and aspects of fantasy that can be used that it is ridiculous that we used his head for so long anyway.

An initial intrusion becomes an accepted reality: Narrative slippage in Urban Fantasy series

Harry-dresden

Urban Fantasy Series, such as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, and to some extent Charlene Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries, illustrate a weakness in current critical approaches to fantasy series.  Put simply, when a fantasy narrative is part of a series rather than a stand-alone, a trilogy or a closed narrative system, many of our critical approaches to fantastic narrative break down.  Urban fantasy series almost invariably begin with what Mendlesohn has termed ‘Intrusion’ fantasy, however, as each series progresses, the narrative shifts towards another of Mendlesohn’s taxonomic terms ‘Immersion fantasy’.[1]  The fantastic elements of the world building have a tendency to become more complex and feature more prominently leading to a distinct change in style of narrative, no longer does the fantastic intrude upon reality, the fantastic becomes the reality.

Early instalments in the series feature intrusions of fantastic elements into the relatively mimetic diegetic setting or story world.  These intrusions lead to the hero protagonist engaging with elements of the fantastic and resolving the problems created by the intrusion, Dresden defeating an evil wizard, Atticus fighting off faerie, and Sookie dealing with the repercussions of vampire Bill moving into the neighbourhood.  Later instalments in these series move further away from this structure of intrusion and rectification toward a more accepting or immersive stance toward the fantastic and a more active exploration of the fantasy elements.

Dresden routinely leaves the environs of Chicago to frequent exotic locales and other planes of existence, Atticus abandons Arizona in favour of visits to Tir Na nOg and Asgard, Sookie spends less time in the domestic settings of Bon Temps and begins to engage with the complicated politics and social structures of the supernatural world.  In each case, the base line diegetic reality becomes more fantastical and less mimetic.  Fewer mundane characters feature prominently, and a substantial portion of the dramatis personae are magical or fantastic in some way.

Framing this in structural narratological terms.  Rather than narrative tension being created through confrontation between the hero and an intrusive fantastical element, the narratives derive tension and impetus from interaction with and exploration of wider supernatural and magical realms.   The hero is no longer preoccupied with the defence of reality from a magical intrusion, but rather the hero is engaged with a broader reality, it is just that the reality in question has now become fantastic.

This then poses a question, if these series transition from intrusion fantasy to immersion fantasy whilst retaining a reader base and remaining ‘true’ to the series with no apparent or significant alteration of plot, story, character or type, what does the identification of intrusion or immersion really highlight and illustrate?  Or perhaps less aggressively we could ask, given that these fantasy series are a continuation of an existing narrative, how can this transition be explained?

What are the narrative structures being discussed?

A standard structural approach to analysing narrative is to locate the source of the driving force of the narrative, the narrative tension.  This can usually be found as existing between two opposing forces:   The protagonist’s goal or desire acting in one direction and driving the narrative toward that, and a counter force that exists to thwart or counteract this put in play by the antagonist’s goal or desire which places obstacles in the hero’s path, or vice versa.

The Heroes want to destroy the ring, Sauron wants to reclaim the ring.

The detective wants to solve the murder, the serial killer wants to go on killing.

The Martians want to invade Earth, the Heroes wish to repel the invasion.

It is a nice, straightforward, if slightly reductive way, to visualise narrative tension.  Of course there are other ways of framing this conflict that take into account broader concepts.   Vladimir Propp created an outline to a hero’s journey in his work Morphology of the Folktale.  Simplistically put, he suggests that a lack or wrongness initiates a call to adventure, the hero then journeys and passes trials before redressing this lack and concluding with a restoration and healing of the world order.  Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth[2], posits a similar narrative trajectory that moves from a diegetic story world that has been disrupted, the rising of a hero to counteract this disruption and the resolution of the adventure in which the disequilibrium is negated and the world order is restored.  John Clute, in The Enclyopedia of Fantasy suggests the concept of the ‘Full Fantasy’ which posits that the adventure begins with a wrongness of the land, which, following the successful hero’s journey, is redressed, and the land is healed and restored.  So despite the variants and intricacies of each of these approaches, there is apparently an underlying pattern here of the supposed structural narrative paradigm of a fantasy adventure.

How does this then relate to Mendlesohn’s concept of the intrusion fantasy?

The trajectory of the Intrusion Fantasy is straightforward: the world is ruptured by the intrusion, which disrupts normality and has to be negotiated with or defeated, sent back whence it came, or controlled.[3]

It seems that each of these approaches is highlighting much the same thing, and in terms of Urban fantasy we can view it as the following:

A mimetic reality is placed into disequilibrium/wrongness/lack by the intrusion of a fantastic element which does not belong.  So in effect, the mimetic, mundane world has been disrupted by a fantastic intrusion.

The hero then seeks to remove or resolve this by attempting to remove/defeat/contain the intrusion and return the world to the status quo, therefore returning the world to normalcy and mundanity.  So far so good.  It all seems straightforward.  All these models seem to agree. Rather suspiciously one might feel.

So is that what happens in Urban Fantasy Series?

Consider Book 1 of the Dresden Files – Storm Front

In the case of Storm Front, modern day Chicago is under magical attack, the police are out matched and don’t really understand what is happening, and the only wizard listed in the phone book is Harry Dresden.  Harry, who is perceived as a charlatan by a number of the characters, acts as a private investigator and consultant to the police.  He eventually tracks down the evil magic user and defeats him, thus saving the city, protecting the mundanes from knowledge of the supernatural world, and returning to his apartment to await the next case.

So the majority of the narrative focuses on Harry’s efforts to track a supernatural killer on the streets of modern day Chicago whilst hiding this information concerning the fantastic from the police.  In effect, Harry acts as a supernatural guardian protecting the mundanes from a fantastical world they are not ready to, nor capable of, accepting.

The narrative tension is created through Harry’s drive to protect the innocent civilians of the city, solve the case, prevent himself from being killed by the intrusion of an evil fantastic element that does not belong in his city and to bring the villain to justice.

A fantastic intrusion disrupts the mundane reality.

The Hero seeks to correct this wrong.

The Intrusion is contained, normality resumes and the narrative ‘resets’ ready for the next adventure.

So far Mendlesohn’s, as well as Campbell, Clute and Propp’s, narrative structures hold true.
The next example is Book one of Kevin Hearne’s The Iron Druid Chronicles – Hounded.

Attitcus, the 2000 year old or so last remaining Irish druid, is living peaceably in modern day Arizona.  Some faerie characters arrive having finally tracked him down, including some of the Sidhe, they cause havoc as Atticus attempts to counter them and protect the locals from being exposed to the supernatural elements, he defeats them and ultimately the world returns to normal at the end of the book.

So clearly the arrival of an unwanted fantastical element, the faerie and the Sidhe, create the narrative tension in the book, or to put it another way, the fantastic intrusion creates a disequilibrium which much be opposed and thwarted by the hero to resolve the problem and return the world to normalcy.

So in the case of Book Ones… or should that be books one… Mendlesohn’s taxonomy, like that of Campbell’s, Clute’s, and Propp’s, appears to be an accurate narrative template.   They each describe what is happening within the text in solid reasonable and identifiable terms.  A wrongness, lack or intrusion begins the tension.  The hero progresses through trials and adventures before ultimately repelling the intrusion and righting the wrong.  The world is returned to equilibrium.

But, what happens when we consider later books in these series?

While initially these series appear to begin as intrusion fantasises with mundane mimetic realities which have been invaded by fantastical elements, the later books have embraced the fantastic reality and there is a more active exploration in the narrative of the magical or supernatural potential in these story worlds.  Or more accurately, the fantastic has become normalised and magical or supernatural has become matter of course.

In Changes (book 12) of the Dresden Files as the title suggests marks a radical change to the main series and signals how the series will transition.  Harry’s points of connection to Chicago, his car, his apartment and his office are destroyed.  Harry’s hitherto unknown daughter has been kidnapped by Red Court vampires, and even with the resolution of the narrative Harry cannot become a father to her and thus fully embraces a magical existence.

The narrative culminates in a journey with his faerie godmother (faerie with an ‘ae’), his apprentice Molly, his brother the White Court succubus Thomas, a magical dog, two half-vampire vampire hunters, and another group of wizards as well as mercanaries strongly linked to Norse Mythology, to Chichen Itza via the Never Never, to battle hundreds of vampires, their familiars, servants and vampire masters.  It is a full blown epic battle, in an exotic location with only a passing resemblance to the real world locale, populated by hundreds of magical and fantastic characters.

Many of the major aspects of the novel focus on the politics of the supernatural realms such as the vampire courts, the council of wizards (The White Council), the Faerie courts and the holy knights of the church.

Few of these aspects are directly explained to the narratee, as there is an assumption that with the 12th book in the series readers will already be familiar with each of the concepts.  The tone and style are clearly immersive given this assumption of knowledge.  And there is a shifting of the tension from a passive counter-action in response to an intrusive element to an active journey and quest adventure to battle fantastic elements in a magical locale.

This is a quest to find and rescue Harry’s daughter, not to stop the intrusion of Red Court vampires into Chicago.  The destruction of the Red Court vampires does not reset the world ready for the next adventure.

So what has changed and how do we explain this?

So firstly let’s examine the function of the mimetic setting.

The mimetic setting, be it Chicago, Illinois or Tempe, Arizona establishes a base line diegetic universe or setting for the reader.  It suggests a diegetic reality that is easily understood and negotiated given its cultural verisimilitude and implied ‘rules’.  It is an easy to understand reality about which the reader can make a series of assumptions and educated guesses.  Gravity will function, police and fire trucks will respond to emergencies, characters have to pay taxes.  In effect, it eases the reader into a state of assumed security and comfort which can then be intruded upon by a fantastic element to unsettle, entertain, or entrance the reader, depending on the author’s intention.

By establishing this base mundane norm, any fantastic element will seem ‘more fantastical’ by contrast.  But it will also create certain expectations about how the fantasy elements will be explained within the setting.  There must be a rationalisation of the fantasy.  For instance, if dragons exist and are flying around, why have they never been seen (an issue with the Harry Potter universe).  If vampires exist, why have they never been caught, and so on and so forth.  There must be a reason to explain their existence in ‘our’ reality.

The author must find various ways and means to allow the reader’s perception of reality to coincide with the diegetic reality created but make the inclusion of potential fantastical elements both believable and credible.

This is a clear distinction to secondary world fantasy in which entirely fantastical worlds can be created that function perfectly rationally according to entirely different rules and versimilitudinous norms.

The reader’s understanding of reality can then be subverted or played with by the author in order to create the desired effect.  In horror, sinister, frightening or disturbing elements may be emphasised.  In urban fantasy it tends toward the more wondrous end of the spectrum.  To put it in the vernacular, Excitement, adventure and all things that a Jedi does not crave.

In essence then, a mimetic setting provides the initial cultural, geographical context for the narrative, as well as implying a number of base norms about the diegetic reality that function as a shorthand notation to explain the rules of the diegetic universe, leaving the author to explore and explain only those aspects that do not conform to our base reality.

Therefore the appearance of an initial mundane reality circumvents the need to establish a base norm as it is already implied. It avoids the necessity of explaining how the world functions.  It also provides a mundane contrast to potential fantastical effects to heighten the impact of the intrusion and create wonder.  And lastly, it provides a continuous and re-usable setting for fantastic stories.  Our world keeps on spinning and so too does the diegetic reality of a series.

We then have the altered structure of ‘series’ to consider.  Series are part of an extended narrative – There is no ‘conclusion’ to the narrative or story world that results in true resolution, but there must be a meaningful end to the episode to provide closure and to resolve aspects of the story.

But series are ongoing adventures.  Each building on the last.  So we commonly have an Escalation in each subsequent instalment and a desire for the new, be it adversaries, locations, concepts or effects.  As each episode ends there is a desire to level up characters, give them new powers, to ratchet up peril, tension and goals for the next story.  To use an example from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  In the first episode a single vampire can be a challenging foe, by the end of season 3 ‘normal’ vampires are now incidental villains that can be easily dispatched.  Heroes grow more powerful and adept as they grow and therefore their challenges need to escalate to match that, which is very much a concept borrowed from RPGs and the idea of character levelling.

Practical matters of the author reader relationship also need to be addressed.  Unlike with a book one or a standalone narrative, there is an established readership who are already well versed in the reality as the series progresses, therefore there is no need to re-explain the base-line reality each and every time.  Thus the style of the narrative can become much more immersive as there is an assumption of narratee knowledge and understanding.

A reusable setting or diegetic world, is a necessary part of a serial narrative.  Should the world be healed and resolved then there are only a certain number of times and ways it can be re-imperilled without sounding contrived or trite.  An example of this problem can be found in David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon quintets, in which the world ending narrative of the first five books is essentially repeated in the subsequent five book series.  He then repeats this pattern with the Elenium trilogy and its sequel, the Tamuli trilogy.  In each case he simply repeats the narrative pattern and structure of the first story in the sequel with minor variations in setting and character.

Linked to the concept of escalation is the need to cover new territory, visit new locales, introduce new and more exciting characters, abilities, magical creatures.  The fantastic reality that intruded in the first book, now must be explored, mapped, codified and tabulated in an effort for the fan to understand all there is to know about that world.  The author in a series often adds new storyworld material as a way to create

Fundamentally then, the series has transitioned from a closed narrative system to one that is open-ended and that must continue to evolve and grow, adding new elements and greater threats.  The hero must become more active and seek out adventure rather than passively wait for an intrusion to disrupt normality.  In fact, as the series progress, they become more and more like portal quests conducted over many instalments.  This results in many of these series becoming immersive, portal quest fantasies that alternate between passive and active reactions to Intrusion in a cycle of escalating power dynamics.

An interesting aspect of the move toward immersive fantasy is that heroes gradually accumulate several magical helpers and allies, resulting in the construction of a balanced party of individuals which is of course a trope of the portal-quest or the quest adventure.  They end up touring various new lands and finding more acquisitive plots rather than the defence of an established territory.  Therefore, series are fundamentally different to assumed closed narratives and the existing critical paradigms we use.

Given the recurring use of setting, the continuing development of characters over the course of a series, the need for new adventure after new adventure. In effect, the need for new interesting developments, growths, settings, locations and adventures, there can be no closing of the narrative to allow for the traditional ending and resolution of the story.

The fantastic intrusion is too passive a structure for the acceleration of growth of character and development and exploration of the diegetic reality.

[1] Rhetorics of Fantasy

[2] Joseph Campbell The Hero with a Thousand Faces

[3] Mendlesohn Rhetorics p.115

(Originally presented as a paper at ICFA 34)

Review: A Guile of Dragons by James Enge

GuileofDragons

A Guile of Dragons : A Tournament of Shadows Book 1 by James Enge (2012)

A Guile of Dragons marks James Enge’s fourth novel featuring the ever more popular character Morlock Ambrosius. Those familiar with Enge’s work, through the previous novels (Blood of Ambrose 2009 (nominated for Best Fantasy Book of the Year), This Crooked Way 2009 (an episodic narrative of linked short stories), and The Wolf Age 2010) or his short fiction in Black Gate magazine (BG14, 12, 11, 10, 9 & 8) or the Swords & Dark Magic (Harper Voyager, 2010) anthology may remember Morlock as the crotchety alcoholic, sword swinging, master maker (wizard). However, Guile is a prequel to the established novels and shorts and is part of Morlock’s origin story.

James Enge sets himself a doubly hard task in A Guile of Dragons. Firstly, it is book one of a trilogy, and, secondly, it is a prequel. Both present distinct challenges. Book ones need to capture attention, give the reader something to engage the imagination and stimulate interest, and provide narrative satisfaction while still leaving something for the rest of the series to develop. This is not easy at the best of times. Prequels also have a few paradoxical conditions all of their own. Fans of the previous books want to delve deeper into a character’s past and backstory, while at the same time see hints and foreshadowing of later events, rewarding their loyalty and knowledge of the series. Narrative tension is harder to maintain when the reader already knows that there is a distinct lack of peril. The story and world must be accessible to new readers but also not bore fans of the earlier works who already know and understand the world and characters. It is therefore a testament to his growing prowess as an author that Enge walks this fine line almost effortlessly.

Enge’s development as a writer can also be seen in how he has moved his story away from its stereotypical mythic roots. As the continuation of a world and series, Enge can’t quite escape the Arthurian influences and connections in his earlier Morlock stories, nor the resemblance to the world construction and cosmology of Zelazny’s Amber, but in Guile, as in The Wolf Age, he has managed to create something that seems much more his own voice and vision. The world of Guile possesses an individual quality and originality that is somewhat missing from many of Enge’s previous narratives too heavily derived from earlier sources. So while Merlin is still Morlock’s father, and some Arthurian elements and aspects remain, he manages to evoke an engaging world that stands on its own as a fantasy creation and setting. What is more impressive is that his short story writing has honed his ability to conjure detailed worlds, characters and societies without resorting to bald exposition and overly long descriptions.

While the Werewolf city of Wuruyaaria formed the central locale in the last book, the majority of the action in Guile occurs in and around the Dwarven nation of Thrymhaiam. As a nation and a race, Enge has given the Dwarves distinct characteristics and characterisations removed from that of Tolkien’s defining creation or even Markus Heitz’s updated version. Unlike previous authors’ attempts to reinvent an established fantasy race, Enge actually succeeds in making the Dwarves both recognisable in their Dwarvishness and yet feel fresh and naturally developed. Their love of mining and gems is explained simply and yet effectively. Their gruff manner seems natural and understandable given their code of honour and intractable devotion to family and clan. These core aspects of fantasy Dwarves are made to feel simple, straightforward and, paradoxically, original. A revelation toward the end of the novel cements this vision of the Dwarves as unique and provides a wonderful rationale and explanation of their entire world view.

In The Wolf Age, a major strength of Enge’s approach was to design a unique language and culture for the werewolves utilising his academic expertise for exploring and explaining ancient languages and cultures and combined it with his storytelling and inventiveness. A disadvantage to this was that while it was consistent, logical and fascinating, the lupine language was exceptionally difficult to read leading to a frustrating experience trying to understand and articulate character names. The language made logical sense and was a brilliant stroke, but visually (and indeed aurally) it was a major stumbling block for those without his background in classics and ancient history (or an inability to mimic wolf sounds). This has been substantially redressed in Guile. The same attention to detail and creative talent has been utilised to give the Dwarven language and culture an authenticity that hasn’t been seen since Tolkien, but he has taken pity on his reader and minimised the use of the specific language constructs. The Dwarven names are relatively short yet, despite the rare outright appearance of the Dwarvish tongue, this depth of design permeates the entire culture. From subtle nuances such as the method for navigating the deep mines (thankfully not relying on a special power or Dwarvish ability) to more overt cultural aspects such as the clan hierarchy emphasising blood kinship there is both a consistency and originality to the Dwarven race.

As an origin story, the reader becomes privy to the mystical events that lead to the strange and mysterious birth of Morlock. The result of which is that the young baby Morlock is fostered by the ruler of the Dwarves. Understandably this leads to some resentment of not only his birth parents, of whom he is ashamed and resents, but more subtly of his adopted ‘race’ due to his feelings of alienation and difference. Given how this character has been represented later in his life in the other stories, this psychological development and scarring sow the seeds for Morlock’s later dysfunctions and ‘outsider’ status. Yet Enge cleverly weaves this overt character origin story with an exploration of the origins of the Dwarvish race. As the story progresses the reader follows Morlock as he slowly uncovers aspects of his personal history as well as that of his adoptive family. The blending of the two plot lines in this thematic fashion, melding Morlock’s feelings of abandonment and betrayal on both a personal and racial level, adds depth to the narrative and provides a conceptual theme that links the various story elements neatly and effectively. In particular, the leitmotif of betrayal forms a consistent touchstone that Enge returns to again and again to great effect. This combination of recurrent theme and concept permeates the entire narrative providing an effective consistency to the narrative without being heavy handed. Indeed there are very few elements of the story that feel disparate or unconnected which can be a problem in long fiction written by short fiction authors.

As with previous work, Enge does not focus solely on Morlock’s perspective, allowing the reader to view the character from external subjective perspectives. This subtle reframing of the narrative focus encourages reader engagement with other characters, the prejudices and problems of the various cultures and societies, and adds to the sense of verisimilitude of the fantasyland. An additional benefit is that Morlock retains his mystery and mystique as the narration does not delve too deeply into his thoughts and opinions but gives just enough to emphasise Morlock’s point of view and his status as the central character. However, this leads to a discussion of some of the, albeit minor, weaknesses of Guile.

The secondary character of Earno, while initially an important and thought-provoking character perspective, is dropped almost entirely from the narrative at a certain point for little discernible reason. The inclusion of further secondary Graith characters Aloê, Naevros, Noreê, Illion, and Jordel also seems forced and arbitrary. No doubt this signals their importance for later development in the subsequent sequels, and Enge probably wanted to familiarise his readers with them, but ultimately they feel unnecessary and distract from the main thrust of the novel. Another character that doesn’t quite live up to Enge’s originality is the pater familias of the Dwarven clan, Thyr. While a likable and interesting character, a gruff Dwarven king, who is honourable and has a deeply affectionate side, and who also acts as a surrogate father to the hero, Thyr could have stepped straight from the pages of fantasy cliché. Weis and Hickman’s Flint Fireforge from their Dragonlance series, or R.A. Salvatore’s Bruenor Battlehammer from his Forgotten Realms novels, are equally representative of this cliché, but given Enge’s originality in almost every other aspect of this novel, it seems worse that he fell back on this overused trope.

The most disappointing aspect of Guile may also be one of its strongest selling points for other readers. There is a distinct lack of epic action. The majority of the novel focuses on lesser moments of action, when they are included at all, and Enge prefers to explore the build-up to and aftermath of battles and fights from a personal and individual narrative perspective. By keeping the focus so close to a single character in these sequences there is no real overview of the vast, epic nature of the conflicts, and some of the most important action sequences happen off page. As a result, while the story features dragons and undead warrior kings (definitely not barrowwights… well ok so there are still some elements of Tolkien that Enge ‘borrows’), the conflicts feel small and underdeveloped despite their epic ramifications and the scale of the threat. This leads to the dramatic ending of Guile feeling underwhelming and dissatisfying.

On the whole, the strengths of A Guile of Dragons outweigh the minor plotting weaknesses, and the lack of overt epic action is as much a stylistic choice and strength as it is a weakness. James Enge delivers a fascinating and original perspective on Dwarves and has successfully crafted an engaging and entertaining origin story for his signature character, Morlock Ambrosius. This book promises great things for the rest of the trilogy and the continuing development of Enge’s fantasy setting.

(Originally reviewed in Vector)

Do Chainmail Chicks Suffer From A Glass Ceiling? Just Desserts or Just Desserts for the heroines of fantasy?

Leelee Sobieski as Joan of Arc

Unfortunately the title is much catchier than the paper itself, but I am playing on the preconceived notions about women in fantasy.  We are all too aware of the so called women’s roles in fantasy; the love interest, the witch, the femme fatale or temptress, the lonely warrior maiden, the ice queen etc. etc.  We are also aware of the usual female versions of the traditional male fantasy roles; huntress instead of hunter, princess instead of prince, sorceress instead of sorcerer, enchantress instead of enchanter, warrior maiden instead of warrior, assassiness instead of assassin… well the last two don’t actually fit, but it is interesting to note that it appears you can’t be a female warrior if you are married and have kids.  Apparently there are a few gendered roles and then some non-specific genderless ones that can be performed by either sex equally well.  Assassin, thief, spy are all exceptions to the male/female dichotomy and yet all are morally ambiguous characters who may or may not be heroes and all prize stealth and agility over physical strength.

Even the term ‘heroine’ is problematic in this sense as it appears as inferior or lesser than the assumed male ‘hero’.  It conjures up images of damsels in distress, princesses needing rescuing by the big strapping young farm boy who is also secretly a long lost king.  So perhaps I should instead be speaking about female heroes rather than heroines.  Certainly my intention is to discuss female protagonists and female characters that are central or integral to the plot and additionally are on the side of good rather than evil which is a whole other paper entirely.

As I said earlier this is part of my on going research about the representations of gender in genre fantasy and in part I owe a great deal of the paper to Sylvia Kelso’s article in the New York Review of Science Fiction entitled The King and the Enchanter.[1]  In this she addresses the problem of the powerful magic users of fantasy who seem to go out of their way to find the missing progeny of Kings and train them to assume the throne, and asks the question why don’t the mages do it themselves?

Part of her discussion deals with the role of the king and of kingship in fantasy and links it to the idea of hegemonic masculinity which she suggests is the norm in genre fantasy.

To quote her here “[…] this norm emerges most clearly through the numerous stories of male protagonists who learn to become king […] a fantasy king must learn to restrain heroic, individual violence, accept counsel, and avoid tyranny […] once crowned, the good king marries and sires an heir.” P.1

But during her article she also mentions a few characters as examples of this argument and the short shrift they receive in terms of fantasy rewards for their actions.  In particular her discussion of the female enchantress characters stood out for me and started me thinking about the rewards of all female heroes in fantasy, not just the enchantresses.

To begin with I want to lay out very briefly a sort of reductionist hero template for you.  Let us take the standard fantasy hero.  When constructing a hero is there a physical template that we adhere to when we think of how they appear? It seems that the ‘standard hero’ at least until the last few years, has been a blonde, blue eyed, white, Anglo Germanic male.  We even presume that the hero is a male.

When we think of the trials of the hero the most obvious adventures are those of monster slaying, a quest to find a magical object and fighting some great big evil.

In terms of the rewards that a hero receives at the end of the tale we expect him to be rewarded with a throne or position of nobility of some kind, a bride (usually a princess) and a magical item, which in most cases is a sword.

Now I realise that there are more than a few genre fantasy texts that do not conform to this template.  As I said it is a reductionist point of view and as such not entirely accurate.  However, there are enough fantasy books out there that conform to this set to hopefully make it recognisable.  I think most people here can see this as roughly representative of a stereotypical heroic format.

Now taking this as a model lets see if we can apply it equally well to the female characters and female heroes of fantasy.

Physical description:  What do female heroes look like? Well in terms of actual physicality there isn’t a lot of consensus, certainly we have Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland which highlights many of the stereotypes being used, but there isn’t really a physical template for a female hero unless we take into account slightly non-specific or aesthetic attributes like beauty, athleticism, ravishing eyes, fiery temper, and porcelain skin.  But at this juncture we could easily list far more texts that do not conform to this than we could do with the male template.  It just seems to be that there is a stereotypical physicality to the male hero that isn’t present in female heroes, they tend toward stereotypical emotional and aesthetic traits rather than physical.

Trials of the heroine: If we have a female hero does she undergo the same trials as the male hero?  In my opinion you don’t have the same degree of standard trials, there doesn’t appear to be a template for the trials that a female hero goes through.

Now on this point I think you have to make a distinction between the structural narratological perspective provided by a Proppian analysis, which could quite easily point out various connections between donor functions, complicity, violation and interdiction and so on.  I am not arguing that the trials of the female hero provide different narratological meanings, simply that in terms of plot they are different trials.

For a start one of the major differences is that female heroes, certainly in recent genre fantasy, seem to undergo some form of sexual abuse which is rare in cases of a male hero.  In Hobb’s Liveship series, two of the central female characters suffer various levels of sexual abuse, including rape, in Feist and Wurts’ Empire Trilogy Mara of the Acoma is physically and sexually abused by her husband and threatened with rape repeatedly by various villains, and even in Eddings’ Belgariad, a favourite of young readers, we encounter the character of Taiba, who suffered rape, sexual abuse and violent attacks in the slave pits.

And in terms of monster slaying it is rare that the a female hero is sent out to do this, so my basic point is that yes there just as many trials to test the female hero, but in terms of event, they generally appear as distinct and specific to the heroine, rather than the generic male events.

Quest Rewards: So finally we get to the area that I really want to discuss.

Again, the standard quest rewards for male heroes does not seem to translate directly to female heroes.  When we think of the male quest rewards it was fairly easy to think of the standard responses, the bride, the throne, the sword.  But it is much more difficult to think of similar rewards for female heroes.

But there is a curious recurrence of fantasy rewards for these female protagonists.

At the end of the quest or adventure the female hero can expect one of or a combination of the following:

  1. Love
  2. Marriage
  3. Domestic Harmony
  4. Children
  5. Retirement from adventuring.

Ultimately these are usually combined into one overwhelming principle:

  1. A good man to look after her and treat her right.

Am I overstating the case here?  To illustrate this point I am going to relay some examples but as I do so I want you to consider two questions.  The first “Are the following rewards for the female hero appropriate?” and the second “Should the rewards for a female hero be the same as those of the male?”.

Ok then, the case studies or more accurately some examples.

Polgara the Sorceress

Polgara is one of the main characters of several of David (and Leigh) Eddings’ books.  She appears in the Belgariad series, the Mallorean, Belgarath the Sorcerer and of course her own title, Polgara the Sorceress.

So a little about her then.  In terms of physicality she is beautiful, although her beauty is often termed as regal or proud, so we know she is not drop dead gorgeous but has a stately grace.  She has dark hair, so dark it is almost black and a near luminous white lock at the front.  She is over three thousand years old and is also a twin.  Her twin sister, Beldaran, is described as effortlessly beautiful, blonde, blue eyed, gentle, caring and loving, and who was given as a bride to a young noble who had completed an epic quest.  Polgara wasn’t.

Of her sister the character of Polgara says, “She was to be the vessel of love; I was to be the vessel of power!”

During the course of the Belgariad Polgara is an enormously important character, she has acted as surrogate mother to the hero, she has protected him and his ancestors for much of her greatly extended life (although her exploits read as a litany of failures) and on the quest she wields great magical power and deals with the semi-evil priestess Salmissra so that the men don’t have to fight a woman.

However Polgara’s role in the ultimate confrontation between the evil god Torak and the young hero Garion is as follows.  She has to refuse to be the evil god’s bride.

The wisest, oldest, most powerful woman in the world aids in the fight against evil by refusing to marry.  She has been reduced to a prize to be fought over.

Not only that, the only reason she is able to find the strength to resist Torak is because Durnik, whom she has realised is her one true love, has just died and it is the anguish and pain caused by this loss that sustains her and she has to be reminded of this by the central hero Garion.

So what is her reward?

For refusing Torak’s proposal Polgara is given a husband and the chance to raise a family of her own.  She retires with her husband to a small cottage in the country where she looks after a young foundling and eventually gives birth to twins of her own.  In some respects this is a just reward, she has spent the greater part of her life guiding and protecting other people’s children and families and now has the chance to have her own now that her ‘job’ is done.  However, a duchess of immeasurable power and influence, regal beyond the ken of normal humans, has just been consigned to a small cottage in the middle of nowhere so she can raise rug rats.  Is this really the proper reward for thousands of years of service and sacrifice?

In comparison Durnik, Polgara’s husband, seems to do a little better out of the deal.  Not only is he resurrected gaining a new lease of life, pardon the pun, he has been given magical powers comparable to hers.  So his reward for participating in the quest is having his lifespan extended to match hers, magical powers that match hers that he learns to use in a matter of days rather than the centuries it took her to acquire them, a powerful beautiful wife and ultimately children.  He gets the traditional male quest rewards whilst she is left being his prize.

Ce’Nedra

Ce’Nedra is another example from Eddings’ fantasy world.  Throughout the first series she is a childish, spoiled foil to the young hero Garion.  Her contribution to the quest, in addition to being the love interest for the hero, is to raise an army to distract the forces of evil a la Tolkien.  However she raises the army in Garion’s name and it is his power that she is wielding rather than her own.  She does not command the army in so much as she is a figurehead for the army to rally around.  Her reward for the quest is to be Garion’s bride.  True she gains a kingdom and a marital partner much like the traditional male hero and he generously deigns to give her co-rulership over his domain, yet he retains the title of Overlord of the West whilst she remains his queen and so he is still politically her superior.  She also is promised the birth of a son to be the new heir to the restored throne, before she can have any female children.

So again the female reward is actually to be the reward for the male hero.  Garion in this case gains a bride, a son, a throne and a magical sword.

Mara

Mara of the Acoma is an interesting case.

In Feist and Wurts’ trilogy set during and after Feist’s Riftwar trilogy, we are introduced to a fascinating female character.  Mara of the Acoma.  She is a young girl about to take religious orders and effectively become a nun when she is rushed home to assume the mantle of rulership over her house/family. Although not a standard quest narrative Mara has to undergo several adventures and political machinations to strengthen her weakened political position.  Like many female heroes she is a woman fighting to survive in a male arena.

She uses sex, manipulation and astute planning in addition to a great deal of luck and sacrifice to win out over her rivals.

She sacrifices love, relationships and integrity to ultimately bring peace to the land, a stable  ruler to the throne, remove the absolute power wielded by the male cadre of magicians, frees women to study magic, and helps improve relations with the Kingdom across the rift.

Ultimately her sacrifice puts her son on the throne of the empire and she achieves power and respect.  She has protected her house, restored the honour of her ancestors and forgone individual advancement for the greater good.  A self sacrificing hero.  She becomes the ultimate power behind the throne.

However her true reward at the end of the third book is when the long lost barbarian love of her life returns to claim his place as her lover and father to their child.  She throws off the reserve of her people, defies tradition and is brought true happiness in this love match.

So lets look at these rewards, it is her son that becomes emperor not her.  And in terms of Kevin, the ex-slave, he has been given a male heir who is the ruler of the most powerful land on two planets, the love of a beautiful and powerful woman, a noble title and lands.  Once again the males seem to get everything whilst Mara gets to have domestic bliss.

My last example is that of Hobb’s Althea Vistrit.  One of the central characters of The Liveship Trilogy, and initially framed as the central protagonist.  Althea sets out at the beginning of the series to become a good sailor worthy of captaining the family Liveship, the Vivacia.  She disguises her gender in order to sign on as an anonymous sailor and receive the training and experience she needs, during the course of which she also becomes an expert at skinning animals.  This basic training in the general skills of a common sailor, combined with her navigational skills and command experience gathered whilst being on board as the Captain’s daughter make Althea an excellent all round sailor and a potentially great captain.

However by the end of the book, she forgoes control of the family liveship and ends up being promised marriage by the love of her life who is now the captain of his own liveship.  She ultimately sacrifices her own goals to be his wife and first mate aboard his ship.

At the same time her nephew, Wintrow, who throughout the books has disavowed a life on the sea, is granted control of the family liveship, is to be surrogate father to the future king of the pirate isles and ultimately marry the king’s mother.  He is rewarded in a slightly roundabout way with a throne, a child, a bride and a magical item in true heroic fashion.

So can we see female heroes as recipients of rewards or are they always the prize?  The fantasy genre seems to lean towards a patriarchal bias and the style of writing lends itself to male gendered stories and until this changes I fear that women will always suffer from a glass ceiling in fantasy land.

[1] The Kelso article is “The King and the Enchanter: gender, power and authority in Patricia McKillip’s fantasy Novel”.  Kelso, Sylvia The New York Review of Science Fiction No.210 (Feb 2006) p.1, 8-12

(Originally presented as a paper at ICFA28)