Convenient Magic (and Other Fantasy Fiction Sucker Punches)
DISCLAIMER: I realize that this essay (rant) is completely, utterly and totally subjective, according to my own sensibilities, based on my own opinions, and I do not mean to disparage any of the authors that I use as examples, nor do I mean to offend anyone who believes that these authors walk on air. I also respectfully invite anyone to disagree with me, and I realize that some folks might read this and call me a twit, or worse. I won’t agree, but I’ll allow them their opinion.
I’ve read quite a bit of fantasy fiction, from JRR Tolkien to China Miéville and a lot in between. I’ve read highbrow stuff and flocked to the more popular titles; sometimes I’ve enjoyed the “trash” more than I have the decorated works. I’ve also been very pleasantly surprised to find that some authors who are sensationalized are, well, sensational, and I’ve been disappointed in more than a few “must buys” that have turned out to be the books that I’ve purposefully left behind in airport bathrooms. I’ve had books that I couldn’t put down, and multi-volume offerings that I’ve stalked the bookstore waiting for the next installment to arrive. But I’ve also put books aside that I started but never finished, and read two books in a trilogy but simply couldn’t stomach the third – some that might surprise you.
The last time this occurred was by a fairly popular, “newer” writer, with lots of marketing savvy surrounding her works. Quite a few times I had stumbled over the cunningly illustrated duet of dove-tailing books bursting with accolades. Having read an earlier work of hers, I knew that she had a pleasant writer’s voice, and a pretty good grip on a nice story arc populated with a few rather interesting characters. So I bought Volume 1 of a two volume set, and prepared myself for a fun journey.
By the end of the first chapter, I was nervous (heck, by the time I was finished with the first page, I was nervous). By the time I had finished the third chapter, I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to like this book. By the end of the book – for I did finish it, even though I could have walked away from it easily enough – I had no intention of buying the second volume, and probably would think twice about reading anything else of hers unless someone I knew and trusted recommended it.
Why this disappointment? What is it that immediately turned me off to the point of near rejection? Well, there are a few conventions that crop up all too often in fantasy fiction, whether they be historical, epic, or space/science, that I simply have a hard time accepting as a reader. I consider these conventions cop-outs, and the hallmark of a lack of talent (or lack of follow through for those who have proven talent). Let’s start with what I believe is the most prevalent of them: convenient magic.
Now, magic in fantasy writing, especially epic fantasy, is pretty much a standard. Not required, no, but pretty standard. You’ve got your warriors, then you’ve got your mages. You’ve got your scholarly magic, your inherent magic, your inherited magic, your bestowed magic, and your unwilling magic. Sometimes you even get perceived magic in the guise of technical advancement.
And why not? Magic is fun, it gives writers the ability to break out of what is to what could be (hence, the fantasy, eh?). And I love magic. I don’t care if it’s a grey wizard and/or his awakening apprentice, or an elven civilization entuned with the natural world, fae folk, sorceresses or druids, even “ordinary” folks with extraordinary abilities. I do love reading about burgeoning magical skills, uncovering magical skills and insights (whether it be Harry Potter or Kvothe), and I love when a social aspect of a story encompasses the magical (what would Jacqueline Carey’s world be without the Maghuin Dhonn, or JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth without Gandalf and Galadriel?).
But what I can’t abide is when magic is used to allow something to occur unexpectedly, simply because the author wants it to happen, even if it makes no sense that it’s happening. “Hmmmm…. I need to get Zither from Point A to Point B, but I don’t really know how to do it, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time getting him there. What to do, what to do…. Ah, the heck with it, he’s a mage. A special powder and bang – he’s there!” I mean, c’mon! The implications of instantaneous travel? Where’s that magic powder the next time Zither is facing a slobbering Cankerbeast, eh?
Far fetched, you say? How about a “real life” example.
In Marie Brennan’s Warrior, witches can knock out others just by singing (a great deal of their magic comes from singing). Some of them can change their looks at will, or heal the gravely wounded. Even new witches can command great power taken from the elements around them, such as explosive fire. Yet their magic can be very subtle, as well. They can set perimeter spells to alert themselves of intruders, they can levitate objects as big as tables and chairs (with people sitting in the chairs). They can bind contracts by blood-oaths where the breaking of the contract (including failure in carrying out the contract) ends in death. This is done by drawing blood from the contracted into a silver bowl, then having the blood rise up into the air and be absorbed into a humming crystal. Witches can summon elements, such as wind, but also physical items, such as, say, a fish. They can communicate to others over distances through mirrors, and can “spell” to each other. And in a very imaginative flair, witches can communicate interactively over distances with non-witches with whom they have an ongoing need by means of a special tablet in which messages can be written and replied to, with the text disappearing after it has been read. And get this – physical items can also be sent via these tablets, so if, say, an entrance token is needed by the non-witch to access a witch’s cottage, that token will just – poof! – appear out of thin air!
Yet with such command at their disposal, they must travel long distances via horseback, archive using stacks of paper and conventional libraries, and the world they interact with is full of fire-in-hearth (no advanced mechanics), knife wielding (no firearms or advanced weapons), tavern visiting (no entertainment venues), simplistic, agrarian, rustic persons who have a distrust of the witches but no open animosity. I dunno…. Seems awfully convenient to me. For a sisterhood (no men allowed) to have command over time, space, and materials both corporeal and mystical, one would think that the witches would be more advanced and/or more ostracized, due to fear and resentment. But this is not the case. Witches remain separate from society, but they are not absent from it, and they travel freely through the land without acknowledgement brought on by admiration or superstition. While Brennan stays consistent throughout her narrative (the saving grace), the entire thing just felt very shallow and not well thought out to me. Either make the magic less dynamic, say – don’t include the ability to move or summon physical objects but stick with summoning elements and illusions, and this world would have been far more believable, even if the greatest of witches could have harnessed instantaneous travel. I could have accepted that perhaps the strain of eliciting such power would have prohibited it from being used in all but the most extreme cases. But there was very little of this restraint in the book, and far more of things just happening because they made it easier if they did.
Now, Marie Brennan is a good writer. I thoroughly enjoyed her novel Midnight Never Come (and have picked up a copy of her newest historical fantasy, In Ashes Lie), finding the magic in that work to be entirely consistent and appropriate, almost exquisite. I think this was a contributing factor to my disappointment in Warrior – I was expecting the same, and got what I felt was far less. Maybe it’s because Midnight Never Come had a historical context that kept it grounded, whereas Warrior did not. Or maybe it’s because in Warrior, she also violates another one of the cardinal sins in my personal canon of undesirable conventions (or as I think of them, sucker punches to a reader’s intelligence). She’s in vast company with this one: her heroine is the epitome of uber leetness*.
Ah, yes. The drop dead gorgeous female protagonist with a killer body, incredible athletic skills, amazing reflexes and senses, impeccable timing, an almost supernatural ability to ward off attacks or not feel them when they do land, superbly disciplined (which makes it more charming/terrifying when she does lose control), with strength, grace, and endurance that allows her to fight/travel/climb/etc. when a normal character would have no chance… silently, if needed. She’s usually quite intelligent, keenly perceptive, somewhat caustic in humor yet extremely witty (when she does speak), and did I say, drop dead gorgeous? Usually with cascading hair. Often red cascading hair. With green eyes – like emeralds. Or blue like sapphires. Or brown like the depths of … well, you get the idea. And with a killer body – don’t forget that. Yet heaven help the man who tries to hit on this lady.
Male characters fall into that stereotype, as well. They may have a bit more latitude, but they still fit the same mold: well proportioned and muscular, with eyes that shadow the depth of the pain/knowledge they carry, usually with some kind of scarring. He also has incredible athletic skills, amazing reflexes and senses, impeccable timing, an almost supernatural ability to ward off attacks or not feel them when they do land, is superbly disciplined (which makes it more terrifying when he does lose control), with strength, grace, and endurance that allows him to fight/travel/climb/etc. when a normal character would have no chance… silently, if needed. Keenly intelligent. He’s usually quiet instead of gregarious. Women are drawn to them, even though he spurns or doesn’t even acknowledge them (or beds them and then rides away before they are awake).
Now, yeah, we all want our heroes to be, well, heroic. We want them to be the best. But it’s that aspect of the best in everything that trips my trigger. Do they have to be absolutely stunning in appearance AND incredible warriors AND keenly intelligent? Can’t they simply be heroic?
For me, the most memorable heroes have been the ones that don’t fit this stereotype. Look at the characters that inhabit George RR Martin’s incredible Song of Ice and Fire series – none of them fall into the uber leetness trap. The most gorgeous of them (Jamie and Cersei Lannister) are morally bankrupt and their vanity leads to their downfall (well, the die has not yet been cast on Jamie). The most honorable – Eddard Stark, his son Robb, his bastard son Jon Snow – are handsome, but not overly so (at least not that much is made of them) and while they may be good soldiers, they are not uber leet; they can be and are defeated on the field. The smartest character, Tyrion Lannister, is a freak of nature, a hideous dwarf. And one of Martin’s most compelling characters brought in at the later books is Brienne of Tarth, a formidable female warrior/knight (if women could be knights) whose appearance is large, florid, and “horse-faced”. She is often ignored or even openly mocked for her ugliness, and yet she is strong, focused and honorable. The passages between her and Jamie Lannister are amazing.
Tolkien’s heroes may have been mighty, and some (especially the elves) may have been beautiful, but this was not a factor of their being (except for the elves, where it was a cultural factor). They had weaknesses, and they were not unto themselves; but were intrinsically part of a fellowship. It was the least of them – a short, hairy creature – who endured the most and was the most heroic. Jacqueline Carey’s Phèdre nó Delaunay is beautiful and intelligent, but she is not a fighter. Her companion, Cassiline Brother Joscelin Verreuil, is handsome, highly skilled and intelligent, but he is only one man, superbly trained and conditioned, but not an overly uber fighting machine. He can be tricked and overcome. He can be overwhelmed. And sometimes, he is just plain wrong.
But this doesn’t mean a fantasy story can’t have a kick-ass hero or heroine. Brent Weeks’ Kylar (of his Night Angel Trilogy) is understatedly handsome (if even more slight of frame… he’s a ninja-type assassin, afterall), very highly skilled, and intelligent – but he can be knuckleheaded sometimes, he’s conflicted and at times rendered inert by doubt, and his edge comes from a plot development which is acknowledged to be far outside “the norm” – this is what allows his uber leetness (I can’t go into detail because I don’t want to spoil too much for those who haven’t read these books yet). However, in the same set of books, the heroine, Vi, does become a caricature of the uber leet heroine. Why? Because her beauty is taken to the extreme, and that is the point on which her entire being pivots; she doesn’t have the magical advantage that Kylar does. Any kind of personal angst she may profess is completely lost in the fact that she’s drop dead gorgeous. Oh, and she’s got an incredible repository of magical power that she didn’t know she possessed, along with her physical prowess. And did I mention, she’s drop dead gorgeous? Weeks does, constantly. Sorry. Less than successful.
In fact, it seems to me that the more uber a literary character is, the less literary they become. Instead, they become merely one-dimensional cartoon caricatures with exaggerated features and no credibility. Wonder Woman. Superman. (Heck, even Superman had more character development.) Meh. Leave that to the comics, chasing the bad guys and that’s it. Give me a dose of reality in my fantasy literature (yes, I know how strange that sounds out of context), please, something that pulls me in and makes me believe in this character, let’s me feel he/she could possibly be real in some other universe/dimension/world/time. Engage my brain with something I can identify with, not just admire from a distance.
A strong corollary to the uber heroine is the female character written by a man who is clueless about women. So many good male fantasy fiction writers just can’t write a good female character. Take Robert Jordan, for instance. His Wheel of Time books are wonderfully imaginative, and set the barre for many literary endeavors that came after (or so I’m told – I never got past the second book). But his female characters? Pul-eeze. One dimensional, inconsistent, stick-women who were either getting into trouble, or using super powers to get out of trouble. A big reason that I stopped reading the Wheel of Time after The Great Hunt? I simply couldn’t take that triangle of stereotypes any longer: Egwene (the magical virginal sweet thing), Nynaeve (the magical independent bitch) and Moiraine (the uber magical matriarch who seemed to have selective leetness, dependent on how guilty Jordan wanted her to be at not being strong enough to save the day). Or maybe it was just Nynaeve’s hair twisting – that obsessive compulsive action of hers drove me crazy. These women could be strong, frail, smart, stupid, independent, needing to be rescued, devious, guileless, and utterly at the mercy of whatever whim – or plot development – that Jordan gave them. Rand, Perrin, Mat – at least they were consistent.
And he’s not the only male writer with epic books that I feel don’t do his female characters justice, even if they are main characters. Terry Brooks? Hey, I loved Sword of Shannara, too (okay, maybe it had a little something to do with the Hildebrandt illustrations), even though it didn’t have women to speak of. And actually, that might have been a good thing, because when I did read his books with significant female characters, I found those characters to be empty, plot driven avatars (and I soooooo wanted Wren to be special). Terry Goodkind? For all those words he puts out, he never seems to write anything different. Damaged women, finding redemption (with a man), just to have it turn out totally wrong. Raymond Feist? Again, great stories, crappy women – if he even has female characters. Yeah, I actually would prefer that men not put female characters in their works at all, if they can’t make them believable.
Now, before fans of these guys get all up in arms, I will admit that I haven’t read the entire canon of their works, so I’m willing to entertain the notion they may have written some really strong and intelligent, well realized female characters. But I kinda doubt it. I’d be more than happy to have someone tell me that I’m wrong, and suggest a volume that proves it. But please, make sure the women really are great additions to the story – don’t prove my point for me just out of the sake of loyalty, m’kay?
And I reiterate – this does not mean these guys are bad writers…. they just aren’t all that successful with their female characters. (I guess it’s possible to have a female writer who writes her male characters poorly…. I can’t think of an example, but that may be because there are more male fantasy writers than female ones – although that is changing – or that women are more empathetic towards the other sex than me [don’t quote me on that], or that I’m a woman and am more sensitive to the female personae. Or maybe I just haven’t read the “right” books.) I’m not sure I can blame them for not being successful, it may just be one of those things where you either have a empathetic understanding of what makes a good female character, or you don’t. But I, as a reader, can’t keep reading what feels to me to be disingenuous.
Or repetitive. I don’t need to be subjected to the same description of the same situation, even if it occurs more than once in the story line. For instance, I enjoyed Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera fantasy series, at least the first few books (I read three). I really liked the character of Tavi (although he really flirts with that uber leetness) and Butcher’s widely flung stage of Alera had enough twists and turns to keep me interested, even with the characters not having a lot of depth. (Heck, I’m like a cat – keep the story moving, and I’ll follow along.) But what finally kept me from picking up the 4th and subsequent books in this series was the utterly game stopping battle scenes. Except for the circumstances, they were completely indistinguishable from each other – and there were so many of them! The same actions, the same almost-escapes, the same descriptions of the sounds and the smells and the horror and tumult of battle. The same automaton necessity of battle and the same shame and guilt associated with killing, even necessary killing. Now, these are highly commendable sentiments – I applaud the sentiments – but the mind-numbing litany of them had me literally skipping pages of text without even caring about gleaning any kind of nuance from the monotonous action. Why make the effort?
Compare that to the countless battles that take place in the George RR Martin Song of Ice and Fire series. Not one of his battles reads like another, possibly because he isn’t locked into describing the complete battle each time. Instead, he zeroes in on one aspect of the battle, or concentrates on the aftermath of a battle, or even the moments before the battle. He’s not averse to letting the reader fill in the blanks in the action with what has gone on before. Admittedly, Butcher’s series is pretty much a single-character vehicle, whereas Martin’s series covers a much broader scope so he has many more viewpoints that he can access. Still, I can’t help but marvel at how fresh Martin’s narrative is across all those pages.
But it’s not just repetitive actions that are show stoppers. Belaboring emotional or moral points can also stall a good story (true in any literature, but I’m focusing on fantasy literature here). For example, I absolutely adore Robin Hobb, and think that her works are some of the best out there. But my disappointment in her latest offering, the Soldier Son Trilogy, can be laid to rest directly at the feet of her main character, Nevare, and his never-ending soliloquizing on his fate, compounded by his inability to comprehend what it was that was being asked of him. I mean, enough already! Cut the freekin’ trilogy down to 2-1/2 books – or less! – if you have to, but don’t go through that damned soul searching again! I freekin’ got it, lady! Move ON!
(… a short pause while I compose myself…)
Okay, sorry about that. I didn’t mean to go off the deep end. I just can’t help myself. I love my fantasy fiction! But even with loving it so, I have to insist that the ends justify the means, literally speaking. Part of the joy of fantasy fiction is that “anything goes” – but it still has to be appropriate and consistent throughout (or so different that what goes on keeps you off kilter from the get-go – gotta love Terry Pratchett!). Fantasy fiction is so wonderful because we don’t have the constraints of the “norm” – but we still need to believe. If we can believe, then my gosh, it’s magical. (And if your beliefs run counter to mine, I’m good with that.)
Despite it all, because of it all, I still love fantasy fiction above all other genres. My thanks to all the writers out there who bring that magic into my life. Even if sometimes it’s sometimes kinda convenient.
(*According to the Urban Dictionary: uber = the ultimate, above all, the best, top, something that nothing is better than; leetness = immense skill and superiority over everything else in the universe.)