Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

April 27, 2011

Privilege & fantasy

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 3:32 pm

In my last essay, I talked about two forms of nostalgia, and the characterization of History within fantasy texts. This time around, it’s time for an assertion: it’s much harder for the privileged classes to write literary fantasy than it is for the oppressed and marginalized.

Let’s start with some definitions (do feel free to take issue with them in the comments—I’m not going to be ideological about them):

Literary: of enduring worth; of complexity; supporting multiple disparate readings; possessing novelty or making an original contribution. Layered and polysemous enough that it isn’t immediately accessible in its entirety. Possessing an awareness of itself as a text.

Fantasy: That Which Is Not: a change in the philosophical and/or metaphysical nature of the world, which I’ll tentatively call a diversa after Suvin’s “novum”. A desideratum, or an elegy. Passion is a necessary and perhaps sufficient condition for fantasy; there are some unpleasant words for fantasy without passion. Popular trope fantasy is perhaps the apotheosis of advertising, without any product. It’s normally impossible to tell it from pisstake fantasy.

Privileged: Possessing something inherited or innate that makes life easier for them than most people, and, in general, not aware that this makes a difference. Tending to ascribe their success entirely to hard work or luck. Generally, in the case of fantasy writers, it means “middle-class white cis urban-dwelling Western/minority-world men whose first language is English, and who aren’t disabled”, and it covers most of them.

October 29, 2010

A.M. Tuomala – Erekos

Erekos is A.M. Tuomala’s first novel, and also the first offering from independent digital publishers Candlemark & Gleam. You can read the first chapter, or buy it for immediate download, at the publisher’s website here. (250pp, PDF/ePub/mobi, US$10) There’s also an interview with the author over at Bibliognome.

It’s an intricate, thoughtful jewel of a book, with rich gleams of meaning, translucent depths, and sharp-edged facets, which opens with a magical spell as swamp witch Achane tries beyond hope to resurrect the sister she couldn’t heal. Magic in Erekos—this country of forests and swamps, between the mountains and the sea—is very much a thing of words and sigils, of ink and papyrus and answered prayers, and Tuomala neatly manages that all-too-rare feat of showing us viewpoint characters who use magic themselves without trivializing or demystifying the spells.

Achane’s spell works, after a fashion, and her dead (decayed, rotting, vermin-infested) sister returns as a zombi. We aren’t spared the details, but nevertheless we always see people treating Shabane as primarily a person, rather than as a type or an object of revulsion. The one exception is the king who captures Achane, dreaming of a host of zombi soldiers so that no more living men need die in the war against Weigenland.

Erekos is a colonized country; hundreds of years ago, a pseudo-Greek people came from the sea, and conquered the dark-skinned natives. By the time of the novel, their peoples have melded into one, and so have their mythic cycles, stories colliding and finding a mutual accommodation.

Look closely—can you see the place where two stories collided long ago? Can you see the jagged edges of one ideology grafted messily onto another, justification of war meeting a more nebulous ideal? These edges still grind together today; in places where their shade of skin marks the local people as particularly unmixed, where the colonist or the indigen is particularly close to the surface, the two pieces of the story do not mesh until one has broken the other to fit.

Our other main viewpoint character is Erlen, a young Weiger anthropologist turned mountain commando; we follow him and his lover Jeiger through several battles against the Erekoi invaders. The text is very good about humanising each side, and showing us a fascinating take on the “war god” trope so common in fantasy: The devoted know that Loukaros is only the god of war because war is the swiftest way to change the world. Loukaros is also the god of storms, and water imagery is associated throughout the book with war, but also with healing.

This is clearly epic fantasy, from the map at the front (beautifully drawn, too, with iconic cities and shrines and even a lighthouse) and the pronunciation guide that follows it. Unusually, though, both of those clearly show competing sources of authority—the map has both Germanic- and Greek-derived placenames, and the pronunciation guide takes care to note several regional accents for each language. Tuomala’s prose shows—and assumes—a lot of familiarity with some standard fantasy tropes:

The priestesses of Terīchone are seldom slender waifs who grow into tall and ethereal women; they have never worn robes of purest white silk. They know that the most powerful mystic pools come after the rains that rip the world apart, and they lie deep in the forest—not ensconced in marble, where the waters cannot touch the land.
No, a priestess of Terīchone is a firm, comfortable sort of woman with serviceably ruddy arms over which she has always pulled up her sleeves. This sort has reaped the rewards of her hard work in the gardens or with the hogs or out on the boats, and she is often heavy in the solid, maternal way of good cooks.

Tuomala’s style is clear but multilayered, showing strange translucencies and currents as the reader looks deeper, with the occasional sentence that chimes like delicate wooden bells, and a strong focus on people usually disenfranchised in epic fantasy.

She looked into the eyes of a beautiful, thick-set woman with her grey hair pulled into a bun; the woman had an age-wrinkled face, nut-brown but with cheeks as red as hands long lent to laundry, and she wore her skirt pinned over the knee and her sleeves rolled up over her broad, hairy arms. Nothing in this woman must seem beautiful, for beauty is too often defined by delicacy. But for those who understand what compassion and love look like when they are ingrained into the fiber of a body—when every muscle is filled with love so that every gesture and step becomes an act of goodwill—for those people, this woman was the most lovely woman alive.

Again in the tradition of epic fantasy, the text has quite a bit of mythology interwoven with the action, and this is also done well—partly, of course, because Tuomala is using it to make the very Tolkienian point that our adventures are others’ stories, and that all the stories came from somewhere. This is not just epic fantasy in the purest sense, but epic fantasy with many characters of colour, competent older women, and a very touching gay relationship. Very much recommended.

February 17, 2010

Chronicles of an Age of Darkness

Between 1986 and 1992, New Zealand-based author Hugh Cook wrote a ten-volume series of inventive, grim, exuberant, disconcerting, nonplussing, and downright bloody weird fantasy novels. They weren’t nearly as popular as they should have been – I suspect he was mostly just ahead of his time, given the popularity of work in a similar style now. China Miéville has described them as “intensely clever, humane, witty, meta-textually adventurous and pulp-avant-garde”.

I first read them in my early teens, and I adored them – I think that was one of the things that originally set my standards for fantasy, and I’ve been seeking out More Like This ever since. Luckily, there’s a lot of it around now.

The setting for the world of Olo Malan – whose name, I think, we don’t find out till Book 6 or so – is extremely post-apocalyptic, twenty thousand years after its connection to the intercosmic civilization of the Nexus crashed and broke. There are barbarous tribes, strange races, empires, priesthoods, magic, technological survivals that look like magic, and technological survivals that aren’t magic at all; the malign torturing monster lurking Downstairs below the island of Untunchilamon is an AI employed by the Golden Gulag as a therapist, and The Combat College in Dalar ken Halvar still trains Startroopers for the Nexus, teaching them to pilot spacefighters in the virtual reality tanks, despite not of course having had any actual spacefighters for millennia.

At the beginning of the series, however – with The Wizards and the Warriors – it looks as though the apocalypse was a standard magical one, with plentiful leftover magical weapons and mysterious devices. The books stand alone, but often cover the same events from the viewpoint of a minor character in previous ones – Togura Poulaan, the hero of Book 2, The Wordsmiths and the Warguild, gets caught up in Elkor Alish’s army, which we saw in detail in Book 1; two minor supporting characters, the pirates Drake and Bluewater Draven, appear in Book 4, The Walrus and the Warwolf (Drake, in fact, is the protagonist); and Yen Olass Ampadara, whom Draven describes as “the reason men should always be in charge of women”, is the centre of Book 3, The Women and the Warlords.

I never really rated Book 3 when I was a teenager, but re-reading them recently it’s now one of my favourites. Yen Olass is a female slave in a deeply sexist society, an Oracle whose function is to mediate quarrels between men. The book shows her in an uncomfortable position – in a strange legalistic limbo with influence but no power, and power but no influence (it makes sense in context, honest – as much as anything in these books does), with the Collosnon army but not part of it, caught up in politics and quarrelling, trying to make her own way in the world and never getting to do it for long. At one stage, she does establish a small self-sufficient lesbian utopia in the woods; but the politics of men intrude, and one of the heroes of the first book casually takes away her lover and then kidnaps her and her child for politics yet again.

The Walrus and the Warwolf is more or less the opposite of The Wordsmiths and the Warguild: a long hard journey, indeed, and a quest of sorts, but with an utterly selfish, irresponsible, fantasist as a hero – Dreldragon Drakedon Douay, known as the Demon-son, pirate, rightful king of Stokos, priest of the Flame, slayer of a Neversh and a watermelon stand. It’s wonderful, and self-consciously storied – all of these books do interesting things with narrative and legend, but this one is where Cook starts actively playing silly buggers.

Book 5, The Wicked and the Witless, expands on some of the political developments over the last book, as Sean Kelebes Sarazin, one of Drake’s antagonists (though, to be fair, practically everyone he meets is his antagonist, and for very good reasons) schemes and plots to take over the Harvest Plains. It’s good, but I can’t find much to say about it in comparison to the others.

Book 6, on the other hand – The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers – is definitely my favourite of the lot. It’s much more restricted in scope than the others, set entirely in the city of Injiltaprajura on the island of Untunchilamon, and it marks the point both where Cook starts going for really outlandish imagery (a millennia-old Hermit Crab with gourmet tastes and the powers of sorcery; irresponsible children’s toys from the Golden Gulag, reconditioned from military-grade autonomous robots; fountains of thixotropic industrial lubricant pouring into the sea; the Cult of the Holy Cockroach) and when the narrative tricks really get going. We have not only the unreliable narrator’s manuscript, complete with derisive references to the Redactors of Odrum, but a half-dozen layers of editorial interjections, elisions, amendments, and reproofs to less senior Redactors. The Originator, at that, is explicitly insane – an inmate in the Dromdanjerie, the asylum of Injiltaprajura – but the Foreword, in which yet another (nameless) writer debunks the Redactors, makes no mention of that.

As it endured redaction in the dungeons of Odrum, the Text which follows became encumbered by a full two million words of explication and interpolation. In the interests of convenience, readability and sanity, most of this overgrowth has been cut away.

A previous draft of the manuscript of The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers actually exists as a major plot point in the next book, The Wazir and the Witch – which is narrated by the same historian as the first, but has clearly not fallen into the hands of the Redactors of Odrum. These two books, together, show off one of the other good features of the series – diversity of races, from the grey-skinned Janjuladoola and the redskins of the Ebrell Islands with their flaming hair to the purple-skinned Frangoni warriors of Dalar ken Halvar. This shows up very strongly in the contrast between these two and Book 9, The Worshippers and the Way – Asodo Hatch, of the Frangoni, and a Startrooper of the Nexus, strongly resents the popular depictions of the Wild Tribes in Nexus popular culture as purple-skinned barbarians, given that the proud warrior culture are already looked down upon by the dominant Ebrell Islanders. On Untunchilamon, on the other hand, “Ebbies” are the lowest of the low – considered feckless, irresponsible lowlives. There are some explicitly white-skinned peoples, but generally when others refer to them it’s with some reference to “the disgusting pallor of the natives of Wen Endex” or some such.

Book 8, The Werewolf and the Wormlord, is set in Wen Endex, where the Yudonic Knights only come out at night; it gives us a picture of a complex society built on violence, financial manoeuverings, scheming, and the strategic use of monsters. It’s my least favourite of the books, and I think the weakest. Book 10, on the other hand – The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster – is rather strong, and we finally get to see the story of Guest Gulkan, Emperor-in-Exile, who has been wandering through others’ stories throughout the series in a rather Moorcockian way. Instead of the brooding questing hero we see from Togura’s perspective in Book 2, or the Conanesque thief-hero in Books 6 & 7, we see a spoilt princeling who grows to become a selfish prince, a foolish (and brief) Emperor, a brave and loving son, a cunning guerilla general who uses the magic of wizards to his advantage, and a hater of the irregular verbs with a passion beyond all telling – and the process happens insensibly, as the narrator never tires of telling us after the fact.

Sadly, they’re almost all out of print; The Walrus and the Warwolf is being reprinted by Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories, with an introduction by China Miéville, at the end of March 2010, and the Book Depository claim it’s still available in hardcover from Colin Smythe Ltd. Cook made books 2, 9, and 10 available on his website, where they’re free to download in HTML format (and very sensibly formatted for reading on my phone – I’ve been using those for travel books for the last few weeks, since I don’t have physical copies of 9 or 10), and the Book depository claims they’re also available via Lulu, but Lulu doesn’t. Basically – if you can find a set, you should, but good luck!

July 29, 2009

The Grey King

The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper. Book 4.

Very Welsh, and feels right to me. Given that I spent a lot of my A-level science lessons looking out of the window at Cader Idris, if I’m happy with it then anyone should be.

I can’t find any Welsh spelling mistakes – though Welsh is a language with a lot of stratification and regional variation – and Bran’s Welsh pronunciation lesson to Will is pretty much spot on.

It does well on Welsh mythology, too; at one point, Bran and Will are asked riddles, the answer to which are Triads – Who are the three wise elders of the world?[1] Who are the three generous men of the Island of Britain?[2]

As far as plot goes, this one lives out the first prophetic verse we heard at the end of Greenwitch, and emphasizes very pointedly that the Light is Not Nice. Unpleasant things have to happen to good people, or the Dark will win and everyone will be vastly more unpleasant to each other. To be more specific, the Light has to do unpleasant things to good people, and there isn’t any mention in the text of alternatives being considered & rejected – the things the Light do are the right things to do because the Light did them. On the other hand, victory is by no means predestined[3], so the idea of just treading out the predestined steps is a little problematic. Of course, it’s not the only problematic thing – it’s heavy on the “birthright” angle. Anyone trying to reach the plot coupon who wasn’t born to do so will be killed, and all that.

[1] The owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, the eagle of Gwernabwy, and the blackbird of Celli Gadarn. Oddly, the romance of Culhwch and Olwen lists five – the ouzel of Cilgwri, the stag of Rhedynfre, the eagle of Gwernabwy, the owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, and the salmon of Llyn Llyw.
[2] Nudd the Generous, son of Senyllt, Mordaf the Generous, son of Serwan, Rhydderch the Generous, son of Tudwal Tudglyd. And Arthur himself was more generous than the three.
[3] Well, except in the sense that we’re reading 1970s children’s fantasy.

July 7, 2009

William Morris – The Well at the World’s End

I’ve had one or the other volume of this sitting on my bedside table for the last six months, since it’s slow, dense reading. Last night before bed, I finished it off, and after that much time spent on it I’m damn well going to write about it.

Morris wrote this in the early 1890s, and it was published by the Kelmscott Press in the year of his death in 1896. It’s an expression of his lifelong love of the mediaeval and of the Matter of Britain, though this text is closer in feel to the numerous accretions than to the “core” Arthurian tales. Fundamentally, it’s fanfic – the devoted craft of someone who can’t accept that there isn’t any more of their obsession, and damn well writes it themselves.

A lot of what I can say about this involves “despite” – it is, overall, good and fresh despite the pseudo-mediaeval style (there’s enough cod in there to restock half the Atlantic) and the interminable dullness of every scene wherein someone shows love or affection to someone else.

I think it has that freshness for two reasons. First, it has a strongly English sense of place about it – Morris may have been unreasoningly in love with the form of the mediaeval epics, but he still understood their matter. When Ralph leaves Upmeads, he goes through Wulstead, the Abbey of St Mary at Higham[1], Bourton Abbas, and the Wood Perilous. Those are all good English place names where today you might find stockbrokers and real ale; and meseems that in the Wood Perilous might one
venture at cheap and hope to behold squirrels, ramblers, and suchlike woodland beasts.

Secondly, it’s mostly free of tired fantasy conventions. Well, technically Lord of the Rings is free of tired fantasy conventions, since it was the wellspring of most of them, but The Well at the World’s End has the added advantage that it didn’t inspire legions of imitators. I’ve a soft spot for books with no non-human characters or antagonists, too.

As for where the breadcrumbs lead next – I’ve some more of Morris’s work on the same shelf, and the next literary heritor on is JRR Tolkien. Large swathes of The Hobbit were inspired by Morris’s depictions of early Germanic life, and in his 20s he wrote self-consciously in the style of Morris. He got better though.

The other apparent followup is early Sheri S. Tepper – her True Game books et seq – though those owe as much to Dunsany as to Morris.

[1] The story is set very much in the far-off reaches of this world – the early pages make mention of “a house of good canons, who knew not the way to Rome”.

June 22, 2009

Alan Garner – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

They soon left the village behind and were riding down a tree-bordered lane between fields. They talked of this and that, and the children were gradually accepted by Scamp, who came and thrust his head onto the seat between Susan and Gowther. Then, ‘What on earth is that?’ said Colin.

They had just rounded a corner: before them, rising abruptly out of the fields a mile away, was a long-backed hill. It was high, and sombre, and black. On the extreme right-hand flank, outlined against the sky, were the towers and spires of big houses showing above the trees, which covered much of the hill like a blanket.

A Puffin book, edited by Kaye Webb, with a cover illustration by George W. Adamson and a map by Charles Green, this copy makes a delightful physical object as well as a wonderful read. It’s Garner’s first novel, published in 1960, and grows like a short, sturdy tree from the Cheshire earth of his home.

I hadn’t read this for ten years or so, but everything came back quickly: Cadellin the wizard (I read this early enough that I can’t bring myself to use the Welsh pronunciation); Fenodyree, who’s always been one of the reasons I far prefer dwarves to elves; Durathror the elf-friend; the Lady Angharad, who lives on one of the Two Floating Islands of Logris; and Gaberlunzie the wanderer, who wears a broad-brimmed hat and rides an unusually fast and strong horse. The text, of course, doesn’t tell us who he is, but we can make a guess, and it isn’t King James V. (‘Gaberlunzie’ is a Scots word for a licensed beggar, probably from the gaberlaine coat they wore; the story is that James V disguised himself thus to walk amongst his subjects, just like Certain Other People did.)

It does show a distinct anti-industrialist bias, but that only places it more firmly in the mainstream of British fantasy of the era – the classic example is that the lios-alfar of Weirdstone did a Dymchurch Flit some centuries ago, into the highlands of “Prydein” (Scotland, rather than Britain, here) and Sinadon (Castell Caer Lleion near Conwy, not to be confused with Caerleon-on-Usk of Arthurian legend) and across the Westwater into the Isle of Iwerdon (Ywerddon is the Welsh for ‘Ireland’) because the noise and pollution were just getting Far Too Much for them.

The mythology and the place-names are a bit mix-and-match, but that’s part of its charm – Welsh wizards and Norse dwarves battle creatures from Norse and Irish mythology, showing us a well-worn layered history to the land. Almost none of the names are used much like their mythological antecedents, but I can’t bring myself to care. Speaking of names, of course, this novel does have one of the absolutely characteristic markers of early 20th Century British children’s literature – a Susan.

Unusually for portal-quest fantasy, the map in the front is very constrained in space – it covers an afternoon’s hike, mostly over gentle ground, rather than the leagues, weeks, months, kingdoms of most of these books. Gowther knows every inch of it, and we can tell the author does too, but he bears his earmarkings lightly and they never wear.

May 30, 2009

Place names and a sense of history

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 2:27 pm

Reading Rush-That-Speaks’ livejournal post about MammothFail, I finally codified one of the principal issues I have with a great deal of (particularly American) fantasy, and why I instinctively class it as “fluff” or “not serious” in comparison to other examples.

There’s no sense of history, or of change. The names are all instantly legible – Oaktown, Kingswood, or Greywood, for instance. And I’ve heard Americans asserting that this makes them “sound English”. The thing is, though, that in Britain that’s a marker of newness, not of antiquity – if a place has a name that any English speaker can instantly understand, it’s not been around for very long at all.

The three examples I cited are all places in Britain, but in translation – Acton, for instance, the town in the oaks. Coed-y-Brenin, near where I grew up in Gwynedd, is Welsh – it translates as “the King’s wood”. Lytchett, in Dorset, and Llwydcoed near Aberdare both mean “grey wood”.

Names tend to stay the same, or at least the same at their root, while languages change around them. The River Avon, for instance – afon is the Welsh word for “river”, and in Irish & Scots Gaelic it’s abhainn, so what that means is that some dim Anglo-Saxon came along, said “‘ere, whatcha call that thing?”, the Celt he asked said “‘s a river, innit mate”, and the Anglo-Saxon put it down on his map as the River River.

Sometimes, though, two almost-parallel terms can survive alongside each other. For instance, the Welsh names for a lot of towns & cities begin with Caer (as in Cair Paravel – but pronounced more like “kyre”) and the English versions will usually end in -caster, -cester, or -chester. Chester itself is referred to on Welsh maps as Caer, and Gloucester is Caerloyw (“shining fortress”). But the two words, caer and castrum, aren’t from the same place at all – the Welsh just means an enclosed place, more or less the same as the hay component in southwest English placenames, while the English term is from Latin military terminology.

Actual castles in Wales (most of which were built by the English as instruments of subjugation) get referred to as Castell – Castell Harlech in Snowdonia, for instance.

“Snowdonia”, of course, is another example of the same linguistic layering and obfuscation. Any English speaker will vaguely recognise that the -ia suffix means “place of” or “around that sort of general area”, but “Snowdon” is the Saxon name for the highest mountain, meaning “Snow hill”. And in Welsh it’s Yr Wyddfa (though I don’t know the etymology) while the area is Eryri. It’s tempting to think that that means “eyrie” (since eryr means “eagle”), but it’s more likely just “highlands”. Of course, this isn’t just English nationalism (though that plays a large role) – Welsh place names are notoriously difficult for the English anyone else to get right.

Which name you use for a place can be highly politicised, too – mention in the wrong pub that you’re thinking of a trip to Derry, or to Londonderry, and you may well be In Trouble.

Tolkien, unsurprisingly, is very good on this. Fornost Erain became Norbury of the Kings, and Amon Sul became Weathertop, while the Tower of the Sun became the Tower of Guard.

Robert Jordan has instances of interestingness, too – Mafal Dadaranell became Fal Dara, and Al’cair’rahienallen became Cairhien. Of course, since we learn this from the Ent expy, it’s an obvious homage to Treebeard’s comment that the Land of the Valley of Singing Gold has become the Dreamflower, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Juliet McKenna’s Einarinn books have a couple of instances of the same thing – Kel’Ar’Ayen (the new continent) becomes Kellarin over time. Though, oddly, there’s no sign of anything similar happening to the original continent of Tren’Ar’Dryen, and the name just falls out of use.

On the other side, we have David Eddings (yes, yes, cheap target, I know). In the world of the Belgariad, almost all countries have uniform naming schemes. The capital of Tolnedra is Tol Honeth, and the other cities are all Tol Something; the capitals of Arendia are Vo Mimbre, Vo Astur (ruined) and Vo Wacune (ruined and genocided). Everything in Gar og Nadrak starts with Yar, and everything in Cthol Murgos with Rak. Of course, there’s an in-universe explanation for this, in that the Gods really did just dump people down into a wide-open uninhabited land, but again that’s an in-universe explanation. We don’t see it except from characters in the narrative, so we’re entitled to treat it with Suspicion… especially considering that marginal savage demon-worshipping peoples survive in the icy or jungle-covered parts nobody else wants. They even wear feathers.

Raking through the shelf of books I might want to read again someday, but probably not, I found an even better example – Jane Lindskold’s Through Wolf’s Eyes. Flipping to the front of the guidebook for the map, I see New Kelvin and Dragon’s Breath by the Sword of Kelvin mountains. The White Water River runs down to the sea at Port Haven, passing by Stilled, Gateway to Enchantment, Plum Orchard, and (oddly) Zodara. Scattered across the rest of the map, we see Eagle’s Nest Castle, Rock Fort (by Broadview), Revelation Point Castle, and Good Crossing.

This is clearly a colonialist land, though we can hold out some hope for Zodara. Flipping through it – since I haven’t a clue what it’s like after so long – I see kings, queens, Grand Duchesses, both “societies” and noble houses named after animals, but no mention of where the colonists come from (except a tantalizing note at the top of the obligatory genealogical chart full of Adjectivenoun Names that some dates are in the “Gildcrest Colonial Calendar”) and no mention of any indigenous population. Not even any fairy mounds.

Seriously, this makes Eddings look good.

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