Teaching Genre Fantasy : One Approach

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What I am going to discuss today is my experience with and attempts to construct a 12 week undergraduate syllabus for the study of Genre Fantasy Literature.

So a couple of very quick disclaimers:

  1. This is not prescriptive; this is a starting point for discussion.
  2. This is based on my experience of teaching in the UK therefore it is a 12 week block comprised of four hours contact time each week, with a ‘reading week’ or ‘independent study week’ occurring in the second half of the semester.
  3. The four hours are divided between a 1 hour lecture, a 1 hour workshop in which the lecture is discussed and questions answered, and a 2 hour seminar discussion group in which the reading for the week is discussed in relation to the lecture and topic.
  4. In the UK system we favour essays over class tests so the examination criteria reflect this.
  5. The focus is on Genre Fantasy literature, not fantastic literature in general, SF, horror, genres of fantasy, speculative fiction. Therefore this is a pretty specific remit that does not take into account mythology, folklore, faerie tale, the Gothic, Weird Fiction, Science Fiction, Space Opera, the Fantastic, Fantastik, Fantastique, and so on.  So there are a great many texts that have been excluded or that don’t fall under the rubric for the class.
  6. As with so many subject syllabi, this was an exercise in practical and pragmatic selection, so a number of texts were chosen for their expediency rather than their status or critical appreciation.
  7. The class is aimed at English Literature Students, it would be an elective module, and would be second or third year undergraduates.
  8. The module follows a thematic overview of Genre Fantasy rather than an historical perspective of the genre, although elements of genre history will obviously be discussed.
  9. Each of the three mini-sections utilises a single key primary text, in addition to excerpts from additional texts, short stories and critical works.
  10. Lastly, the focus of this class was to teach critical awareness of Genre Fantasy, Genre Theory, Literary Theory and to develop skills in textual analysis, and as a result texts were chosen that aided the teaching of the subject and that fitted in with the approach that I wanted to take.

So this is not a typical paper presentation.  I thought I would take you through how I designed a Genre Fantasy Syllabus, and at the end we could discuss the pros and cons of approaching teaching this way.

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Review: Assail by Ian C. Esslemont

Assail
Assail
(Book 6 Malzan Empire) by Ian C. Esslemont

Assail marks the culmination of Esslemont’s Malazan Empire series and is the final chapter of a series that has significantly explored and expanded the narrative universe co-created with Steven Erikson.  In this volume Esslemont has set himself a foreboding task in that expectations are always higher for the final novel in a series, even more so if the book is set in the most mysterious land of the fantasy world that has only ever been hinted at.  Luckily for readers, Esslemont delivers, although not necessarily in the way some might want.

The impetus for the main story of Assail is the revelation that the glacial coverage of the mysterious continent has receded sufficiently that previously impassable terrain is now accessible.  In fact, vast gold-fields have been exposed, prompting a mass rush to the land in order to exploit the natural resource.  As a result, all manner of people and groups are making their way to and through Assail including Imass, the Crimson Guard, prospectors, private armies, and long absent migrants finally returning ‘home’.

Assail
focuses on tying up the story of Kyle, the young guardsman first met in Return of the Crimson Guard, the Crimson Guard themselves and the investigation of their mysterious vow.  Another significant thread concerns the story of the Imass and Silverfox, which has woven through both Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen as well as Esslemont’s series.  Lastly, there are two related threads directly concerning the continent of Assail itself.  The first is focalised through the perspective of Orman, a young warrior, and explores Assail from a native’s perspective, playing with perceptions of culture, tribalism, barbarism and honour.  The other is split between the various prospectors and outsiders hastening to stake claims and set up frontier stations and explores the foreigners’ perspective of Assail.  In particular the story of Reuth, a young navigator tasked with getting his uncle’s ship to the gold fields of Assail. Both the stories of Reuth and Orman parallel one another, while being neat contrasts of the different approaches to life, Assail, and the journey to adulthood.  They also create a strong resonance with the story of Kyle, both his introduction in RotCG, and as a reminder that even as one actor’s story ends, other agents in the world will continue.

However, each of these potentially disparate tales is interwoven and lends itself to a nuanced and balanced investigation of the continent and its cultures and forms a genuinely cohesive story.  Despite the focus on Assail itself as the setting and background of the story, Esslemont has included several sections that focus on the travelling to Assail, most notably the various sea voyages and what that entails for the prospective parties.  This brings a significant diversity of story mode, setting and even genre to the book that otherwise might have superficially appeared to be a fantasy travelogue of a Scandinavian influenced continent.

Starting with some obvious points that nonetheless need noting.  As with the other novels in the Malazan Empire series, the style is once again a narrative told through multiple point of view characters.  While several of these characters are key to the narrative, Esslemont also uses witness characters to provide perspective on the events from outside the key actors’ perspectives.  As a result there is a pleasing change of perspective as instead of always sitting on a hero’s shoulders, the reader now has access to a broader narrative palette.  This is particularly interesting when you consider that this allows Esslemont to demonstrate how the events of the story reach further than just those acting or being acted upon.  Such a broadening of scope has the effect of consolidating the world-building (diegetic reality) and adding to the impression that the story-world is ‘real’.  It also neatly dovetails with Esslemont’s own background as an archaeologist and anthropologist who sees history as an interlocking system of events and not solely the result of the actions of a few great men.

Structurally Esslemont writes true to form with most of the first third of the book being used in set-up and foundational work.  He carefully re-introduces old characters (from his previous novels and from the wider Malazan universe) while also introducing some new characters to the story and familiarising the reader with the new setting of Assail.  By creating a pleasant blend of the familiar with an enticing mix of the new, the leisurely pace means that no reader is left behind.  This is not to say that there aren’t some interesting set pieces and action sequences along the way, but both Erikson and Esslemont are known for their deliberate crafting and building in the earlier chapters of their novels in order to set the board for grand finales.  The second third of the novel starts moving the various pieces around as the characters reach and explore the continent of Assail, tracking their interactions and near misses, and building toward the last third of the novel which handles the convergence of events and the resolution of the story and series.

It is with the last third of the novel that Esslemont both conforms to and defies his standard structural approach.  The last third of the novel contains multiple scenes of battle, action and a convergence of events, but if it is an all-out battle ending that you are longing for, you will be disappointed.  What Esslemont delivers is, in almost every way, far more satisfying.  He brings home multiple story threads and characters from throughout the series in an emotional and narrative convergence that provides a sensitive and resonating narrative closure.  While this is probably something of a risk for Esslemont given the desire in many fantasy fans for blood, gore and battle by the ever increasing bucket full, that he pulls it off should mark his increased prowess and command as an author.

It is of no surprise that the world of Assail is exquisitely realised.  In Blood and Bone Esslemont depicted the sweaty, steamy closeness of a jungle landscape with such clarity that it became a character in and of itself that was integral to the story.  In Assail, the various landscapes, climates and scenic types deployed by Esslemont are rendered in a beautiful cinematic language that gives a visceral quality to the description and helps lift the narrative off the page.  The various landscapes and settings reveal several influences on the book and have been well tied to the various themes and plots running through the volume and series.  Notably, the Odyssey and Sinbad inspired sea and sailing sections, in which several different attempts to reach the continent are described and reveal the dangers of even trying to get to this part of the world.  The wind-blasted, desolate coastline that emphasises the unwelcoming and foreboding nature of the land, but also the isolationist nature of the population and how cut off this is from the rest of the world.  The long rolling prairies and plains of Assail that evoke a sense of Esslemont’s Canadian homeland, a land that appears lush and welcoming, but has hidden dangers, and, like the beaches, emphasises the unwise and unwelcome intrusion of people into a world and space that does not want them.  But it is with the Alaskan and Scandanavian inspired mountains and glaciers that the book really finds a defining landscape that evokes the true nature of Assail.  The terrible beauty of the biting cold, the virgin forests filled with snow, the blues, greens and whites of glacial flow.  This is a harsh, pitiless, unwelcoming world to the human invaders, but a beautiful, sublime home to those people who live in concert with the land.   Each of these landscapes has been rendered with an eye for cinematic description that evokes the transcendentalist sense of nature’s beauty, as well as the brutal reality of inhospitable climes.

This descriptive backdrop neatly fits with the detail of the wider world which is also superbly rendered, in part due to the early books in the series, but also due to Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series which features the same world.   By building on what has gone before, and assuming the reader’s foreknowledge of the world, Esslemont has been able to focus on what lies directly around the characters and this has led to a style that creates a perception of the fictive reality as something witnessed and existing, without needing to utilise endless exposition or overly-long descriptive passages.   The assumed knowledge is not necessary to enjoying the story as it unfolds, but it does add significant depth, breadth and colour to the story that uninitiated readers might miss.  As the narrative builds on this realised world and weaves the characters and their actions into it in order to build a cohesive story that reads and feels ‘real’, ultimately, it results in an immersive reality that the reader witnesses through the perspectives of the various point of view characters and creates a believable, solid weight to the story world that helps sell the more fantastic elements.

Given that the impetus of the story is based on the revelation of suddenly accessible gold-fields, and that the glaciers have retreated and exposed hitherto impassable sections of this relatively pristine land, there is a strong element of the frontier gold-rush myth to some of the storytelling.  While frontier stories are not that uncommon, the parallels to the current attitudes to exploiting natural resources in Canada and the US certainly form a strong undercurrent to this aspect of the story.  Esslemont’s description of the frontier mentality has far less of the noble mythos that has surrounded American gold rush stories, and presents a vicious reality about the unscrupulous plundering of natural resources over the objections of natives and indigenous inhabitants.  There is a strong suspicion that his experience of current mining and oil drilling in Alaska may have influenced some of the elements in the story.

The matter-of-fact destruction of natives and native environments by outsiders, in the name of progress and financial greed, is contrasted and compared to the tribal conflicts of the native inhabitants perpetrated on one another in the name of tradition and blood feuds, which are anything but dispassionate.  Esslemont succeeds in creating a credible series of tribal cultures and relationships that balance the tropes of the barbarian and the noble savage with a more objective perspective in an attempt to convey the complexity of tribal and clan societies without overly venerating or damning them.  These violent, destructive story threads are held up in comparison to the logical extension of their core premises in the story of the Imass and their genocidal pogrom sweeping through the land in an effort to cleanse a perceived racial taint.

As a series generally conceived of as high fantasy adventure epic, these are weighty, divisive and loaded issues that one would not expect to find.  However, part of Esslemont’s talent as a writer is to weave these contemporary concerns into his fantasy narrative seamlessly and make them appear as part of the very fabric of the fictive reality.   Not only that, but many aspects of these issues are presented without authorial comment or overt bias, letting the reader absorb the facets of the conflicts and appreciate the factors that led to characters making these decisions.  There are few obvious antagonists or villains in the story.  Indeed many of the foes faced by the characters are sympathetically or realistically presented in an effort to show the moral complexity of world, while the characters themselves are not always on the side of ‘good’.  Assail is a book of characters, not a book of heroes and villains.  By not directly signalling good or evil, and steering clear of fetishizing violence and idolising dark anti-heroes it may be that Esslemont has created too realistic a moral universe for his readers and some will overlook the actual complexity of morality at play.

Over the last few years Esslemont has faced significant and vicious criticism from many fans of Erikson’s Malazan series.  His work has been viewed or even dismissed as a companion piece to the real series.  His portrayals of characters and places in the world have been dismissed as less than authoritative.  His strengths as an author have been overlooked and his weaknesses have been exaggerated.  Despite this, Esslemont has continued to produce fantasy novels that exemplify the best that fantasy series have to offer and has continued to improve as a writer, an author and as a storyteller.  With Assail Esslemont has written a fascinating, thoughtful, exciting and engaging read.  It is a fitting finale to the Malazan Empire series, and a great book.  He masterfully weaves myth, legend, character, land and story together to create something that fulfils expectations but remains engaged with concerns of our own world.  He has always stood shoulder to shoulder with his co-creator, Erikson, but perhaps now he himself will believe it.

(Originally reviewed in NYRSF)

‘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.

Review: Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

ForgeofDarkness-sm

Forge of Darkness: The Kharkanas Trilogy 1  by Steven Erikson

Forge of Darkness is the first book in a new trilogy by Steven Erikson. While linked to the world and events of his ten book epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen (MBotF), the Kharkanas trilogy is a prequel to those events and is set millennia earlier, in a different land and it explores the mythic prehistory of the enigmatic Tiste race. The story focuses on a turning point in the history of the Tiste, focalised in the city of Kharkanas, the home of the queen and newly styled goddess, Mother Dark. Tensions have developed in the court due to a classic love triangle developing between Mother Dark, her acknowledged consort, the mysterious Lord Draconus, and her politically pragmatic betrothal to Lord Vatha Urusander, former commander of the Legions. Added to this charged situation are the various groups of disenfranchised and ill-treated soldiers of the various armed forces and House guards, each pledged to a specific faction, and the ever present machinations of a powerful, elite and decadent noble class. The blend of political manoeuvrings, a civilisation in decline, the emergence of a new religion and of wide-spread social unrest creates a classic framework for the interweaving of the personal narratives of key players, their supporters and the innocent bystanders drawn in against their will. This story of politics and the collapse of a civilisation is played out against a metaphysical backdrop of realms of magic and Gods that are being forced to change and alter as the destiny of the world reshapes itself. That Erikson never lets the story become overly complicated or convoluted is again evidence of his mastery of this style of writing.

The tone of Forge is strongly reminiscent of Shakespeare, as are elements of the plot and the structure of the story. At times even the dialogue takes on a courtly Elizabethan feel. Yet this does not feel out of place in a Fantasy novel involving courtly politics and the stirrings of war. In fact it adds to the classical style of the novel and the writing itself remains recognisable as Erikson. He continues to write with the weight and layering of a complex short story and almost none of the expositionary excess verbiage commonly associated with fat Fantasy tomes. His language remains deft, economical and rewards careful reading (and re-reading). The structure of multiple and apparently disparate narrative threads which slowly interweave into a narrative confluence and convergence will be immediately recognisable to fans of the earlier series, although as a Book One, not all threads are fully resolved within the novel and plenty has been left for further development. It should be noted that there is plenty of closure within the novel and several sequences in key places provide excellent reader satisfaction. But where many of the books of the MBotF were written as stand-alone novels set in a broader series, Forge is definitely part of what has become a traditional trilogy format in Fantasy storytelling.

As a prequel to the MBotF, in so much as it occurs millennia before the events of those novels, Forge functions as an accessible entry point for new readers, perhaps more so than Gardens of the Moon (the first book in the MBotF). While there is certainly a large cast of point of view characters and participants, this seems less overwhelming in Forge than it did in Gardens and will perhaps prove less daunting to an audience who have been familiarised with this style by George R. R. Martin’s popular series A Song of Ice and Fire (and of course the HBO adaptation A Game of Thrones). Although, in the interests of full disclosure, being familiar with the MBotF may have simply blinded me to some of the challenges faced by new readers. There is, however, a sense that Erikson has streamlined this narrative slightly and has taken some pity on his readers, a result of which is the fact that the story begins at an understandable point of entry rather than right in the middle of a complex conflict, and each of the major figures and focal characters are slowly introduced in sections rather than in a headlong whirl of narrative action. In some respects Forge represents a much more traditional structure, tone and narrative focus than previous Malazan novels, but has done so without compromising the integrity and style that Erikson has developed over the last decade of writing.

Erikson again utilises a tight narrative focalisation through the use of multiple character perspectives to negotiate not only the different story threads but also to reveal a cross section of perspective on the mounting tensions and social unrest. His use of key characters, noble and commoner alike, powerful and powerless, gives a palpable sense of verisimilitude and believability to the world in order to balance the epic and mythic nature of the story. This is not just a story of the great and the good or a band of do-gooding nobles on a quest, but a story concerned with the fabric of a society seen from each of the different factions and levels. As a result, despite many of the metaphysical elements and strange magical constructions, this world feels real. Erikson’s novel creates moral complexity and narrative tensions by narrating the evolving conflict from diverse character perspectives. This both grounds the diegetic reality in distressed and worn realism as well as presenting the metaphysical magically aspects as matter-of-fact and part of the very fabric of reality. As the reader follows the lives of those drawn into this conflict, either at its centre or initially on its fringes, there is never a sense of forced or dictated narrative but rather a sense of exploration and witnessing of a true world event as complex and as complicated as our own.

The strong sense of social inequality and regimented class system of the Tiste could be attributed to Erikson’s time in the UK over the last few years and the British preoccupation with class and hierarchy, but this would be to ignore the applicability of the conceptual stratification to social, economic and racial divides present throughout our modern world. Given that the various conflicts and tensions within the text are predicated on characters acting through either personal agendas or for what they believe is a greater good, there is ample room in Forge to read modern political and economic debates as an analogue of these conflicts. But there is also a strong evocation of the politics and history of Julius Caesar’s Rome. This could perhaps be laid at the feet of Erikson the former archaeologist and anthropologist and his view of the circular nature of history, and the mistakes we are doomed to repeat. Yet this classical connection to Ancient Rome, coupled with the Shakespearean feel and tone signals Forge’s nature as a tragedy, rather than an epic Fantasy romp. So without resorting to stealing a classical setting or specifics from world history Erikson evokes both Greek tragedy and Roman history in this expanding of the mythic backstory. The focus on the leading patrician families, those recently elevated as well as those in decline, in addition to commoners who could unkindly be labelled Rude Mechanicals, certainly adds to the feeling of Classical history being told through a Shakespearean lens. While the by-play of economics, inherited power, political polemic and the treatment of the military as a central theme to the story not only suggests an Ancient Roman influence on the narrative, but also strikes a resonant chord with today’s world. An apt comparison to a modern example would be HBO’s and BBC’s short-lived series Rome which explored the historical narrative through both noble powerbrokers and common soldiers, giving a sense of both the domestic and political world of Ancient Rome, a sense of the epic and the mundane.

The Malazan series is known for its complex morality and lack of clear cut heroes and villains, and a strength of Forge is that it exhibits much of this same moral ambiguity. Every character in the novel feels rounded and developed over time, yet no character is a paragon of virtue or grotesquely evil. The strengths and flaws of each character, coupled with their subjective perspective, personal goals and ambitions, leads to deeply intriguing characters whom the reader is free to like or dislike. Although, as is customary in Erikson’s writing, readers should be prepared to have their opinions of characters challenged on a regular basis. The movement in modern Genre Fantasy toward moral complexity has on occasion been confused with Nihilism, for example in Leo Grin’s articles on Big Hollywood. In some respects Grin is not wholly wrong. There has certainly been a significant move toward increasing numbers of violent psychopathic protagonists, yet unlike many of the ‘gritty’ modern genre fantasy stories, for example Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Erikson does not create dark anti-heroes or malevolent, Machiavellian misanthropes in an effort to make the story darker and more gripping, rather he relies on the moments when characters’ actions create genuine moments of horror, pain or, most often, tragedy. There is no cackling Dark Lord or supernaturally diabolical destructive force behind the action, only people. His fiction focuses on those moments and decisions, seemingly big or small, which, with hindsight, we can see led us on a path of inevitable destruction. As a misspoken command can turn the tide of a battle, or the wrong word at the wrong time can lead to war, Erikson feels no need to invent a devilish villain to create narrative tension. This gives much of the tragic air to Erikson’s writing as the reader witnesses how miscommunication, pride, honour, love and duty collide in an inevitable catastrophic confluence which reshapes the world irrevocably. While some of the characters appear motivated by personal ambition and damn the consequences, others are forced into action as the circumstances dictate, and yet all have understandable, if not always agreeable, motivations. The tight narrative focus on character perspective means that the reader is often faced with a series of actions that they completely agree with, only to have their judgement challenged when the story shifts to the perspective of another faction or character.

Erikson pulls as few emotional punches in his writing as he does intellectual, instead he tends to face emotional and brutal truths of the human condition face on. Forge is no exception in this regard. One scene in particular is particularly distressing and harrowing. Yet Erikson’s depiction of a brutal gang rape and murder is never salacious, never misogynist and never a glorification of rape. He does not sexualise or fetishize one of the most deplorable acts of violence humans are capable of and as a result the scene is disturbing and violent in a way that Fantasy fiction rarely details. That the scene was necessary for the narrative may be a cause of debate among some, others will feel outrage at its inclusion, so those expecting a consolatory tour through fantasyland may wish to look elsewhere. One thing is certain though, those Fantasy readers accustomed to casual sexual violence against women as entertainment will have their perspective radically challenged and will be forced to rethink think the easy way rape is often portrayed in the genre. Yet Erikson’s works have never flinched in challenging readers to confront hard issues. His work is characterised by its complex nature and one of the great strengths of his writing is his ability to challenge reader expectation and complacency. There are no simple answers in Erikson’s world, only the heart rending tragedy of honest, flawed individuals being caught up in a world descending into chaos, victims and perpetrators alike. Again, his use of shifting points of view makes the reader view these uncomfortable truths from multiple perspectives providing insight into aspects of the human condition that we might not otherwise consider.

The world building retains Erikson’s strength of vision and presence, yet the physical locale seems more metaphysical, closer to a mindscape linked to the characters than a geographically fixed mundane world. This mixture of a solid world locale and a more nebulous Faerie realm marks a slight departure from the MBotF which was firmly rooted in a defined reality. An apt parallel might be to describe it as similar to mythic Olympus as it is connected to the concrete landscape of Greece. As the various travellers cross the Realm the reader is exposed to shifting boundaries of a truly mythic land with areas of fixed solidity. Akin to Glen Cook’s Black Company series, the world building of Forge remains thoughtful, detailed and intricately rendered, while at the same time never feeling forced, laboured or overly emphasised. In essence it is a well-crafted world with enough information to fill the mind but not belabouring detail and exposition.

While much of the new book will prove to be a good entry point for new readers, fans of the MBotF will not be disappointed. The prehistory features several of the key characters introduced in the first series who have long remained enigmatic and whose history has been both mysteriously alluded to and yet never fully known. There are a number of ‘reveals’ about key events in this mythic past that shaped the characters that fans have come to know and demand more detail of. In particular, the history and story of Anomander Rake and his brothers Andarist and Silchas Ruin forms one of the central threads of the narrative tapestry in Forge and is a key focal point of the trilogy. An interesting side effect of this strategy of focusing on the familial dimension to a civil conflict is that it not only rewards fans of the previous series, but it also emphasises the import and severity of a civil conflict and how it can pit brother against brother. As expected, characters such as the oft referred to Mother Dark and the enigmatic Draconus feature heavily. Yet Erikson resists the temptation to dictate to his readers and usually presents these figures from the perspective of external witnesses to their actions rather than narrating from their point of view. This discipline serves the dual function of sating fan interest in the history of these key mythic figures while still allowing some mystery and enigma to survive. So while readers new to the Malazan series are given plenty of help to negotiate the story (the lack of which is often a criticism levelled at Erikson’s first Malazan novel Gardens of the Moon) this does not result in pedantic exposition that will alienate fans. Indeed those fans of the series will have a great many questions answered, but as has become a feature of Erikson’s writing, those answers are not necessarily the expected ones and often lead to further questions. But the investigation of Tiste culture, the exploration of Kharkanas and the surrounding environs as well as a more detailed examination of the legendary hust swords are more than enough to sate fans of the series.

Something to note about the narrative frame of Forge is that Erikson has styled this as the telling of the story between one legendary master poet, Blind Gallan, to a younger poet, Fisher kel Tath, who will be a familiar character to fans of the series. In part this returns to part of the focus of Erikson’s novella Crack’d Pot Trail which concerned the nature of storytelling, but it may in fact be a simple defence to forestall criticism that he has altered some of the facts alluded to in the main series. Fans of Erikson’s works are used to the cry of ‘the timeline doesn’t matter’ and in this instance Erikson has the poet admit that he has changed some of the story to fit his poetic sensibilities, ‘what I do not recall I shall invent’(‘Prelude’ 1st page 4th paragraph). However, to simply label it as this would be a disservice to Erikson as this framework fits neatly with the feel of epic tragedy, the Shakesperean tone and the subject matter of the fall of a civilisation. It is also a recognition of the genre’s debt to and evolution from the great epic poems of the past.

For those who have found the length of the Malazan Book of the Fallen to be a daunting barrier to experiencing Erikson’s writing, and those who could not navigate through Gardens of the Moon, Forge of Darkness provides the perfect opportunity to access the work of a unique voice in Fantasy that has grown and developed to true mastery. For fans and new readers alike, Forge is a study in how original, intelligent and astonishing a work of Epic Fantasy can be.

(originally reviewed in NYRSF)