The continued re-envisioning of fantasy has been eye-opening. I had given up on the genre by the 1980s, as writers milked Tolkien’s formula in ways that I found not that interesting. As often happens, the genre itself was simply going through the types of changes that happen when young readers rethink the generic expectations that they grew up with, and then become writers. Beautiful stories often are the result.
That said, Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass hints at that kind of rethink. Several African authors have created some amazing texts (I’m currently working my way through this list), N.K. Jemisin has won a Hugo and written a fantasy series that I still think about a lot, and even the white guys (Erikson & Esslemont, Martin, Abercrombie, et al.) have pushed fantasy far beyond its previous incarnations, making it both more and less based in real-world laws. Beyond the genre, authors like Susannah Clarke, Karen Lord, Jo Walton, and Akwaeke Emezi incorporate elements of fantasy in texts that fit into a variety of categories, all of which look far different for having accepted this straying.
Maas’s exploration of generic boundaries is a bit more restrained, at least in this first novel, but still Throne of Glass defied my expectations, often. I’ve catalogued some of these thoughts below:
- The female protagonist and heroine has been done, of course, but Maas adds a couple of interesting elements of choice to her portrayal, (this is sort of a spoiler, but not really) including who she chooses to end up with. There are elements of romance in this novel in ways that I do not often see.
- Bringing in chaos and the Wyrd (and the land of faerie) is a touch that I wish more authors did (Clarke is brilliant at it, and Martin’s children of the forest owe a lot to this concept as well), and these features add depth to this novel.
- This is a long series, so I am assuming that these elements get explained more thoroughly in future texts, but there is a lot of potential in that world…
- These characters are also developed differently, in a way that hints at what Lauren Berlant saw as ways to deal with the constant trauma that many people in our world experience. The main character, for instance, is rescued from a slave mine, albeit for a competition that she might not survive (although we know she will). At first I was frustrated, because the slave mine experience seemed to be one that was offered as a isn’t-she-amazingly-tough backstory. As the novel develops, though, the horrors of that place become more apparent, and we start to get glimpses of how the experience has both traumatized and molded her.
- It’s an interesting approach to character development, and I wonder if Maas does this as an element of her craft, mimicking the gradual reveal of trauma that might happen in intensive therapy.
Throne of Glass helps expand the generic boundaries, and I am curious to see how that expansion continues. Fantasy has moved far from the hide-bound genre it was in the 1970s (with apologies to Stephen R. Donaldson, of course), and here’s hoping its influence lives long…
I’ve found few fantasy series worthy of a re-read, but Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen is one, and after finishing The Crippled God, I’m now done.
- Erikson (and Esslemont) take several non-fantasy-conventional approaches in this series, and the use of the undead is just one. I’m still trying to puzzle out what it means, but the undead in this series are not mindless zombies intent on eating human brains or ghosts incapable of affecting the real world or even super-ninja warriors spurred on by the Night King – they have agency of a sort, and have agendas in the real world, ones sort of based on their previous lives.
- They also can cross the border of the land of the dead, not all the time or without consequence, but they can, and the rules by which they do so seem to be ones that they can bend or even create.
- There’s much more talk about Burn and the idea that this world might all be just a dream in this novel, or at least I recognized it in this one. That’s not a dodge on Erikson’s part, I think, but a look at where dreams and conscious lives being and end, and an attempt to think about fantasy in the context of other cultures where the dream world is not a wholly separate land, one to be analyzed for what it says about the conscious world rather than a realm all of its own.
- As is apparent, I’m fascinated by how the idea of borders work, in all sorts of texts and not just this one, and border crossings are a key element of the MBOTF world. In some ways this novel lives in liminal spaces, ones that are mostly uninhabitable – the Glass Desert, Raraku the Holy Desert, and all the warrens and holds are just some examples.
- These landscapes have in most cases been destroyed by conflicts among sentient races, devastating ecosystems that used to be balanced, and although this series does not preach about the evils of climate change and global ecosystem destruction it shows the consequences of such.
- The central conflict – if the Otataral dragon regains her place in the world then magic will be gone forever – strikes me as a look at fantasy as a genre, especially its assumptions. One of the joys of fantasy is in the way that brilliant wizards can outfight legions of warriors with the power of their minds alone – even in a series like A Wizard of Earthsea that features almost no battles one of the best things about Ged is his ability to use the intellectual powers he can call upon.
- The MBOTF has powerful wizards, of course, but the fact that magic may no longer exist and that that lack is not necessarily a bad thing is a fundamental rewrite of a central premise of fantasy – LET THERE BE MAGIC.
- It’s also a premise that ASOIAF takes on, in a bit different format, and if I re-read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant I’m guessing I will see some of the same aims.
- This makes me think that I need to look at generic anxieties in the same way I look at cultural anxieties…
I finished my reread of Dust of Dreams, and, well, all I can say is thoughts are below…
- I’m trying to understand the Warrens and their use, and part of what I’ve come to believe them to be seems very oriented towards the way I understand physics (and not the way that actually is described by real (quantum) physicists). Magic flows along channels, channels that in this series are also the veins and arteries of gods, and various entities can tap into those channels and form the magic in ways that are both creative and destructive.
Adjunct Tore – image from deviant art
- Destructive seems to be the most popular choice though.
- All of this has to do with materializations of energy and power, of which the border between seems chaotic and constantly shifting (and perhaps not a border like I think of them at all).
- The tapping into (along with the image of blood flowing through veins) makes them seem like flows in ways that don’t fit the reality of the world of Malazan. When characters step into a warren, they recognize the landscape (for the most part), and they’re underwater or in a river of energy or anything like that.
- They seem to be places where characters can survive, although perhaps not on a long-term basis. The feel to me almost like Dali paintings but darker, seen through the lens of Escher perhaps, twisted and surreal.
- And maybe thinking of them as surrealist connections to the world of Malazan makes as much sense as anything else.
- The other component of this novel that struck me was the Snake, an animal consisting entirely of children who eat insects and each other fleeing from the changing climate and the Forkrul Assail.
- I want to read fantasy as a way to think about our current times (and our relationship with history), and this is Erikson at his darkest – the adults have utterly failed, and children have banded into an animal of their own, taking the role of refugee, another trope of human history that rarely fits into fantasy.
- If I remember correctly, the discovery of the Snake by the remnants of the Bonehunters in the Glass Desert finally breaks the last Malazan army, a fitting ending for a series that understands that the one thing that humans are really good at is killing each other, but the one thing that should bring them together are children.
- I think upon the first read this was the first in the series that made me think that A Song of Ice and Fire wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, and that Erikson and Esslemont had created a truly unique world that despite having almost no connection to our own fit within what we understand as reality perfectly.
As if life isn’t short enough, I’m almost done with my re-read of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Toll the Hounds is book number eight…
- I often think of fantasy as an attempt to rewrite origins and ideals. Tolkien, for instance, wants to go back and rethink history from a time when kings could perhaps be convinced to be virtuous, the Good King imagined as a starting point from which our own culture can derive in a more just and humane way, one that cleaves closer to an image of a just and good godhead.
- A Song of Ice and Fire, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, attempts to revisit European culture by rethinking our relationship with the natural world. It starts at the Enlightenment, which is pretty bold on Martin’s part but not out of character…
- The MOBTF views this rewrite differently, which isn’t surprising. First, I think that Erikson and Esselmont’s universe starts its rewrite from the place in which humans create cultures, of any and all sorts. They’re not interested in only doing part of human history – instead, they often take us back to our Cromag roots. Talk about having large huevos…
- Secondly, their revisit looks at what we think of when we think of first principles. I’ve written an article on this look in terms of war (and whether or not it can be just, a cultural construction if there ever was one I think), but I always think of it as the MOBTF creates its incredibly complicated and sort of irreverent pantheon of gods.
- Authors definitely have obsessions. Tolkien feels very Catholic in his obsession with suffering, and Martin’s obsession with food highlights his fears that we are destroying the natural world. Erikson’s obsession seems to be with domiciles, whether for travelers or for of the common city variety. We do not see much in the way of farm houses (they’re occasionally destroyed as they sit in the path of war) but we do see lots of city apartments and mansions (and even a palace or two).
- My guess is that this has to do with the one first principle that they try to examine, which is the place of love alongside all the pain and misery and war and casual death. Erikson in particular isn’t sappy – he has children both do and suffer some horrific things – but he does occasionally portray a scene in which a stable family manages some peace and love.
- He also spends a lot of time on city life (which I think lends to the Dickens vibe I get from this series). I think I could write reams on this, but I’ll save it for my next post on a piece of non-fiction based in Detroit…
- This series has forced me to rethink how I read fantasy (and maybe more) – my normal process looks like this:
- I try to find the overlying theme (redemption, balance, etc.)
- I try to find the main concern – approaching fascism, with the only option being a good king, approaching planetary degradation caused by climate change, with the diminished presence of humans being the only option, etc.
- I try to find the origin point that the authors want to rewrite
- I’m pretty confident that none of these strategies work for this series (nor do they work for Jemisin)
Notes for this one take the form of a series of quoted passages. Short comments follow. Since I’m trying to keep these sort of short, another will follow shortly.
- Quote #1 – “show me a written history that makes sense and I will show you true fiction.” (66)
- Heh – Erikson perhaps doubts the-history-from-one-perspective that is the purview of most fantasy (and most history as we learn it).
- Quote #2 – “Memory fails. For ever doomed as we seek to fashion scenes, framed, each act described, reasoned and reasonable, irrational and mad, but somewhere beneath there must be the thick, solid sludge of motivation, of significance, of meaning – there must be. The alternative is…unacceptable” (196 – Duiker thinking about his failed attempts to write the story of the Chain of Dogs)
- So much of this series posits whatever forces of good that do exist as hopeless, doomed-to-fail bulwarks against chaos. Duiker represents Erikson’s desire to say how impossible accurate history is to write, an admission that always reminds me of the first season of The Wire, in which the ensemble that created and produced that series somehow made a bunch of arrests of drug lords and some of their most trusted lieutenants feels like an absolute failure.
I should probably be embarrassed that I have to read these texts twice, but the Malazan Book of the Fallen is worth the second read. Thoughts below, although they take a bit of a whole series look and are very much inside baseball if you haven’t read the series:
- Power is embodied, channeled, and somehow tapped into by mages, shaman, and warlocks. It’s also accessed by warriors, card-game players, and gods who were both created that way and ascended.
- I create this list because I’m struggling trying to understand the mechanism by which anyone interacts with all this energy. Do some folks have some sort of physical, biological connection? Do some of us have a wifi brain stem, one that is stirred by concentrating intensely (thus the physical exhaustion)? Are they somehow sending out a radio signal, perhaps from sort of transmitter organ or brain stem?
- And the warrens are a channeled form of older energy – Kron provides the structure, the channels, as somehow part of his body
- So what the Crippled God is trying to do is not destroy the magic in the warrens, but to destroy the warrens themselves, releasing the chaotic energy in its more original, primal form.
- Essentially, the Crippled God has been called to this world by warlocks/mages, came unwillingly, and has since been crippled and chained. He lives in constant pain, and will not heal (I guess).
- So his motive is burn it all down, tear everything apart…
- Finally for this entry, I’m curious about the Azath as well. I think they’re almost like growths, organic or mineral, that have arisen naturally (based on the laws of the world) to trap or hold chaotic, world-destroying energies…
- In this context, Iscarium becomes clearly a metaphor (and the uber-Jaghut)
- and dragons are scary, terrifying, and still incredibly dangerous, but they’re not nuclear bombs, as we see a couple of them get killed in this book.
- I wonder if that’s what the fall of the Eleint is about, as Soletaken (shift-shapers) stole dragonly powers…
- esp. since we see so many of them wounded and chained…
On my re-read of Midnight Tides I had, well, a few questions/thoughts…
- At what point does authorial point of view become intrusive? The ideas that Erikson puts into dialogue seems to increasingly match what I’m guessing is Erikson’s personal point of view as the series progresses. In Midnight Tides Tehol becomes what feels like the author’s mouthpiece, with several conversations about the nature of power that feel very much like what the author wants to say.
- Don’t get me wrong – they’re very funny, and Tehol is both brilliant and self-deprecating about his own physical prowess. I also don’t mind his take – it’s a fairly generic dismantling of greed as a motivating force in a culture, one that’s hard to disagree with.
- Still, I’m wondering about the ways in which this authorial
- Plus, since Erikson says very clearly that he wants the entire series to be a postmodern critique of fantasy, there are multiple authorial voices happening throughout the series. One of the joys of TMBOTF is just how many voices Erikson utilizes, and how many different cultures he portrays. I’m guessing Esslemont deserves credit for that as well, although his Malazan novels tend to be far more limited in scope.
- I also was reminded of the ways that the Malazan series uses lots of voices in a way that feels more like Tolkien than a lot of the other postmodern fantasy out there (I’m thinking of Glen Cook and Joe Abercrombie in particular). George Martin features a lot of voices as well, and a ton of characters, and much like Erikson Martin doesn’t seem all that concerned with making sure we can keep track of who’s who.
- Erikson takes that unconcern with being able to track characters to a new level, though, as he adds in the additional feature of having aliases and multiple names for the same character.
- I wonder if there’s something to be said here for the idea of narrative disruption. For some reason I keep reading all of these novels – in fact, I often can’t put them down and have to stop myself from skimming. Usually in fantasy that desire for speed comes from wanting to know what happens (yep, I haven’t gotten any further than that in all these years), but in my first read of TMBOTF I kept reading even though I was at times not exactly sure what was happening.
- During my re-read I was much clearer about what was going on, for what that’s worth.
- My point here is that the vastness of this universe points I think to the unknowability of this world. Erikson doesn’t populate it with fully-drawn races emerging from Britain’s past – instead, he makes the history of the planet bend all around itself, sometimes making it seem terran and other times incredibly alien. No legends appear from the dust, awakening uncanny ticklings of supposedly tribal memories – this world feels like evolution has gone wrong, with the first race being a sort of velociraptor that evolves amazing technologies, only to fall at the hands of a couple of alien invasions.
- And we never know for sure where humans came from, but the hint is that they developed from the T’Lan Imass in a way that felt shall we say evolutionary?