New Masters of Story

Some monthsago this column looked at three fantasy novels thatdefied convention and the herd mentality, eschewing dragons, elves, orcs,vampires, boy wizards, and evil empires to map new realms of the vast universeof fantastika.

The time seems right to slice another tranche from thefantasy genre, and examine what’s been happening in the meantime. First off, Ishould mention that since our last foray a small controversy has roiled thefield, over the topic of morality versus nihilism in the literature. Shades ofJohn Gardner and his jeremiad, On Moral Fiction. Thetrail, which by now stretches across myriad blogs, begins with this article by LeoGrin.

For whatever it’s worth, none of the books under discussiontoday exhibit the slightest trace of ethical bankruptcy on the part of theirauthors, except insofar as the writers might positively revel in the dilemmaspresented by the ethically problematical behavior and choices of theircharacters. But isn’t that dicey focus the core allure of all fiction?

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British critic and editor David Pringle has a veryinteresting literary theory. He maintains that much of the last century ofpopular fiction has been consciously or unconsciously following a smallishstock of narrative templates and methods brilliantly codified during the lateVictorian/early Edwardian period, or what Pringle dubs “The Age ofStorytellers.” Kipling, Stevenson, Verne, Wells, Doyle, Haggard: thesewriters and others were such powerful, popular storytellers that theirinfluential signature patterns of fiction writing continue to determine thekind of tales that get fashioned and sold right down into the twenty-firstcentury. In this light, later inspirations and role models such as Tolkien palein comparison, and fantasy writers seeking to return to the ur-source would dowell to leap backward a generation deeper than many shallow scavengerscurrently do.

Pringle’s theory certainly receives a boost from theinspired work of Robert Redick, whose quartet of novels known as “TheChathrand Voyage” reaches its penultimate stage with The River ofShadows. Redickhas succeeded in creating a Kidnapped orTreasure Island forcontemporary times, which reads at once like some timeless fable and also likea knowing postmodern artifact (a mysterious editor intervenes at times withpronouncements that break the fourth wall). This work manages to be bothsophisticated and naïve, direct and cunning, heartfelt and cerebral. Theadventure is nonstop, the characters powerfully endearing, and theworld-building meticulous, generous, fresh, and surprising: the term”widescreen baroque,” coined by SF Grandmaster Brian Aldiss, proves aparticularly apt tag for this example of what The Oxford Dictionary ofScience Fiction definesas “a subgenre of science fiction characterized by larger-than-lifecharacters, violence, intrigue, extravagant settings or actions, and fast-pacedplotting.”

Redick’s series began in 2008 with The Red WolfConspiracy. Apanoply of Dickensian characters were set loose in a largely maritime world,all abroil in conflict, intrigue, and passionate plots. Chief among the largecast were “tarboy” Pazel Pathkendle, exiled by war from a cozy hometo the lowest stratum of sailors; and Thasha Isiq, an admiral’s daughter aboutto be sacrificed in a loveless diplomatic marriage. Aboard the humongouswarship Chathrand, these youngsters find each other and fall in love, inthe midst of intricate dangers, both natural and supernatural. Pazel and Thashaeach exhibit growing magical talents which wreak dramatic penalties on thehapless users. Strewing the path of the main struggle—will an evil conjurernamed Arunis Wytterscorm gain the most potent magical device in the wholeworld?—are a hundred other obstacles and difficulties, to be transcended onlyby love, courage, friendship, and faith.

By the end of the second book, The Ruling Sea—aninstallment that gifted us with a plague of mutant rats, tiny mannikinwarriors, ninjas turned were-whales, good old cannon-fire between warships, andlost civilizations of tropical isles—the battered vessel and its equallybattered crew had landed on terraincognita only to find that everything they assumed about their destinationwas wrong.

River ofShadows picks up precisely at this point. With some Swiftian satire(humans in the southern hemisphere are mindless beasts, and the dominant raceare golliwogs), Redick propels Pazel and Thasha in search of a way to stopArunis, who continues to lurk in the labyrinth of the Chathrand. Time-slips andevil sentient swords complicate matters, before a Pyrrhic victory is attained,setting us up for a future, final confrontation.

Besides his intelligent emulation of the techniques of OldMasters—Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard come to mind—Redick is notabove paying homage to such twentieth-century luminaries as Robert E. Howardand Edgar Rice Burroughs. His world of Alifros has the mix of red-bloodedbarbarism and decadent court life that marked Howard’s Hyborian Age, orBurroughs’s ancient Mars. In fact, Alifros features such a thick, ripe historythat, as in the best fantasies, the exotic milieu itself becomes a character. Andthe giant ship stirs up echoes of Peake’s Gormenghast.

But what ultimately ensnares the reader in this fantasy (andin all great fantasies, I think) is, paradoxically, its verisimilitude, itsshock-of-recognition intersections with the consensus reality we inhabit,sensory and emotional touchstones both small and large. The stifling smell of acramped grog-locker; Thasha’s salt-stiffened hair; the sore mangled paw of anintelligent rat; the desire to reconnect with lost family. Redick exhibits sucha winning sensitivity toward and engagement with life’s many common vicissitudes(“How many times could the world change, before there was nothing left youcould recognize?”), its sweetness and gall, that the fantastical elementsseem at times secondary to the very human losses and triumphs he so ably craftsfor our enjoyment.

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Fans ofDaniel Abraham’s formidable opus, TheLong Price Quartet series, will find much to admire in his newest, TheDragon’s Path, whichconstitutes the opening salvo of TheDagger and the Coin. But the considerable charms of the new work lie atthe opposite end of the spectrum from LongPrice. That first series was, overall, an undeniable tragedy: somber,weighty, full of remorse, loss and realpolitik. This new venture is decidedly acomedy, albeit one with violent mortal corollaries always lurking at the edgesof the pratfalls (and I do mean pratfalls: our introduction to one of the maincharacters involves him falling into a latrine).

The reader will note from the frontispiece map thatAbraham’s fantasy world mirrors almost exactly the geography of our Europe andthe British Isles. A telling clue, that. We are in a transitionary scenariowhere the “mundane” world we experience is becoming dominant, a riffthat might be best characterized by the title of a Larry Niven novel: TheMagic Goes Away. Withthe uncanny standards dissipating, how does mankind learn to go about its newbusiness?

In Abraham’s vision, the titular dragons that once ruled anempire are long gone, leaving little more than crumbling statues and theirsuperior roads, abandoning the stage to the squabbling of thirteen races of men(not counting hybrids such as our main heroine). The emphasis here is onswordplay, military campaigns, and politicking, and the main “cunningman” magician is literally an actor playing a role.

But when I say “mundane,” it’s all relative, forthis is what students of mimetic literature call “High Romance,” ofthe Sir Walter Scott/Alexander Dumas variety. (There we are again, in the earlynineteenth-century pre-dawn of the Age of Storytellers!) We have a bold andweary mercenary, Captain Marcus Wester (think of any number of bad-assHollywood leading men, from Errol Flynn to Robert Mitchum); his dour sidekick,Yardem Hane (Willem Dafoe); a waifishly attractive orphan girl, Cithrin(Veronica Lake or Kirsten Dunst); and Sir Geder Palliako, a “strangelittle pudgy man with the enthusiasm for maps and comic rhyme” (Jack Blackor Akim Tamiroff). Put them all on the road, mix well, and let the farce begin.”I think the world is often like that,” our faux mage opines at onepoint. “Comic, but only at the right distance.”

Abraham exhibits a fine talent for droll dialogue, one ofthe prime requisites for this type of tale. Here’s Marcus and Yardem—bothunsentimental ex-military types—when the men realize that Marcus is falling forCithrin:

“This girl’s not my daughter,” Marcus said.

“She’s not, sir.”

“She doesn’t deserve my protection more than any otherman or woman in this ‘van.”

“She doesn’t, sir.”

Marcus squinted up into the clouds.

“I’m in trouble here,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” Yardem said. “You are.”

The MacGuffin at the heart of the Marcus-Cithrin thread—acart full of misappropriated treasure—develops quickly into somethingapproaching a heist novel by Westlake. The subplot involving Geder is darker,and the occasion for the remaining traces of magic to surface, as we witnessthe innocuous scribbler transformed into a punitive avenger. By novel’s end, wesense that Geder’s revengeful schemes will eventually impact the private doingsof the mercenary and his female client. And as for that “fake”cunning man, his secret past will undoubtedly come into play.

Abraham’s superb balancing act between farce and disaster,folly and fear, has barely begun to unfold.

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The writerof fantasy or science fiction set in recognizable milieus—contemporary times,or the near future—faces a bit of a dilemma when depicting characters who enjoyreading, and whose personas have been molded by books. The writer can, within hisown fiction, either allude to the actual existing literature of the fantastic(or to invented analogues), or ignore the field entirely. To take the firsttack—which offers a delightful and sometimes profound sense of connection tothe shared world of books—risks not only puncturing the reader’s suspension ofdisbelief, but the possibility of becoming nerdily recursive, prey toin-jokes and cliquishness.

On the other hand, to pretend in a work of fantasy thatfantasy literature doesn’t exist, or simply to omit mention of same, is notonly an easier task, it lends one’s work a kind of sovereign majesty: the occultadventures I am recounting are tangible and real and unprecedented, not justsome imaginary book such as those other chaps write! The naïveprotagonist who is unaware of the tropes of fantastika can display reactionsthat a character well versed in these devices cannot logically exhibit.

Of the two approaches, I favor the first. As John Crowleyhas said of his own impeccable fantasies, “My books are made of otherbooks.” To embed a new work of fantasy explicitly in the long andhonorable lineage of such books is, to some degree, to inherit a portion of theancestral magic. It’s not cheating or theft, if the new author lives up to herpredecessors.

Such is the case with Jo Walton’s Among Others, to anunprecedented degree. A story in the form of diary entries from a gawky,brainy, crippled UK teen named Mori Phelps, the novel features at least onemention of a fantasy or SF novel per page, and oftentimes more. (Some non-genreworks play their part as well, and in fact Mori has the kind of eclectic adolescenttastes that can encompass Roger Zelazny in one breath and T. S. Eliot in thenext.) These beloved books constitute Mori’s lifeline to sanity and sheerexistence. She’s an inveterate, habitual reader, who would (or so she thinksfor a while) rather have a new book than a boyfriend. An isolated soul at themercy of her strange family and past; a nerd, a loner, a girl otaku. In short, a card-carrying memberof the actual potential audience for this very book. Walton has chosen toplunge unashamedly into geekdom, and somehow turned this heartfelt catalogue ofpop culture into art, a naturalistic representation of the species. Admittedlyquasi-autobiographical, Among Others still attains the proper distanceand clear-sightedness to transcend self-indulgence and self-pity.

It’s not so much that Among Others as a narrative ismade of books, but that Mori herself is in large part constituted of printedwords. Her soul and mentality have integrated great chunks of fictive lessonsand virtual experiences into themselves, as life-saving measures. Mori is underthe care of her milquetoast, formerly absent father, having escaped the madmother she deems a practicing witch, who was responsible for the death ofMori’s twin sister in a car accident. Able to see fairies, Mori realizes thatthe world is a larger and more mysterious place than most people admit, andonly SF and fantasy tales allow her to make sense of the big universe.

Because we experience everything through Mori’s narration,we are forced to consider her reliability. Walton cleverly, with the hallowedfictional game of is-she-mad-or-isn’t-she?, accentuates the dilemma withseveral telling allusions. Why doesn’t the otherwise omnivorous Mori like thework of Philip K. Dick, for instance? Could it be that Dick’s delusionalprotagonists, with their weak grip on reality, hit too close to home? Whentoward the close of the book, Mori’s new boyfriend sees fairies too, the scalesappear to tip in her favor. But then again, we only have Mori’s report and interpretationof his behavior.

Ultimately, however, questions about whether Mori’s fairiesare real or a coping mechanism for a broken home, and whether her mother is aliteral witch or not, are concerns that fade away in the face of her struggleto fashion a self that is authentic and able to confront the harshness of theworld.

Set in 1979, long before the distractions of the Internetand DVDs, long before the etherization of books into bytes, this novelchronicles a vanished age when books had to be won at great costs, andconsequently meant so much more. Could a similar biography unfold today? Onlyif fantasy continues to resonate with those for whom consensus reality isalways achingly unsatisfactory.

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