Black Leopard Red Wolf is the second novel I’ve read by Marlon James, and in it he crosses genres into fantasy, a land that I often think of as being inhabited by the sorts of true believers who resent those not approved by the Tolkien groupies. That’s not so true, as writers like Samuel R. Delany and Stephen Donaldson attacked the generic boundaries early in its incarnation as popular fiction, and BLRW continues the exploration that those two began.
- It took me longer than I expected to get into this novel. I’ve been excited to read it since I finished A Brief History of Seven Killings, but the sort of casual way that James introduces us to his characters felt haphazard, and the various plot threads felt way too spread apart.
- By the end, for what it’s worth, I couldn’t put it down.
- The narrative point of view is fairly amazing. We spend much of the novel inside Black Wolf’s head, a pretty unusual point-of-view from a fantasy novel perspective. At times he becomes so embroiled in his own rage and lust for revenge (his mantra is “fuck the gods”, if you are curious about his motivations) that he acts in ways that we could consider not all that heroic, especially if your definition of heroism includes piety.
- Curiously, James never apologizes for Tracker’s bloody ways, even in the ways that the novel ends. He doesn’t magically transform (although his motivations for revenge, the vampire killing a bunch of children whom the Tracker was a father-figure too, feel pretty primal and in some ways justified) into some sort of redemptive figure.
- In fact, Tracker does not even get the kill (you knew the evil folks were gonna die, right?).
- Black Wolf is a tracker (and he’s known in the novel as Tracker, not Black Wolf, in case Black Panther fans get too worked up), an archetype that does not constitute any previous fantasy hero’s identity as far as I can recall. For instance, Aragorn was often called the best tracker of his age, but that characteristic simply helped us understand how different he was from previous kings, establishing his worthiness.
- The general ways that James uses archetypes from African mythology is fascinating and really cool, and I am working on another project that attempts to map these figures onto to the deeply nordic base of most fantasy fiction.
- The setting is also intense – deep forests, ancient cities, sort of standard in interesting ways.
- I will need to figure out the boy who would have been king at some other time. Suffice it to say that patrilineage, matrilineage, and the increasingly chaotic nature of government by nobility is a backdrop to what is coming next.
- The novel also sets the next stage, with the appearance of the inhuman white scientists, and the god-killer figure warning Tracker that an entirely different threat is coming, soon. The threat looks suspiciously like colonialism.
I am looking forward to the rest of the series…
The Power that Preserves is the last novel in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever trilogy. Donaldson completes, sort of, Covenant’s travels in the Land, and allows him to rescue it, although not in the ways that fantasy novels ordinarily approve of.
Re-reading this trilogy after forty years makes me thankful for Donaldson. I’ve spoken of this in the reviews I did of the first two novels, but as a teenager I was so frustrated with Covenant – we know what fantasy heroes are supposed to do (hell, Joseph Campbell knew what they were supposed to do, as he chronicled in work he was doing while Tolkien is publishing the series that starts it all). Looking back on Donaldson’s trilogy makes me think that it is a necessary corrective, one that when viewed with Samuel R. Delaney’s Neveryon series starts to move fantasy away from its potentially fascist, northern European worlds to ones that reflect the world as it is.
Donaldson’s series is far different than Delaney’s, both less and more subtle, but the direction it moves fantasy is no less important I think. The reason adolescent me knows how Donaldson should act – the reluctant Gandalf who gathers allies to confront Sauron, or Aragorn not pronouncing himself king before the ruined gates of Minas Tirith until the people force him to – is because I had hungrily devoured those series multiple times, looking for some sort of understanding of the world that corresponded with my own. Donaldson forcibly refuses to let us indulge in this part of the fantasy, only letting Covenant act the hero after much destruction, some of which he is responsible for, and even in acting the hero he doesn’t, you know, act the hero.
- I’m still shocked about the rape, and I’m perhaps even more shocked that Donaldson never lets Covenant forget about it and even makes him pay in ways that are cruel – he actually gets to feel like a father for the daughter who is the product of the rape, only to see her die, and he chooses to travel with the woman he raped, much later, who as an old woman is obsessed with him and actually dies trying to protect him. This is not the behavior of an epic hero as we think of them.
- The Land is portrayed as this pristine agrarian, craft-oriented utopia – look, they’re like elves with the ways that they keep warm by magically heating rocks and live in trees without damaging wood. And yet Covenant never fully believes in it – even as he defeats Lord Foul at the end he finds power as much in his disbelief as in any of the emotions we agree are part of the generic conventions of fantasy.
- That lack of belief may come from his identity as a writer, but at the very least it never lets us as readers immerse ourselves completely in the world of the Land, no matter how brave and cool they are, how much we want to be like them.
- There’s much more to be said, but I’m pleased that the re-read was worth the time I invested. The series doesn’t necessarily feel modern or contemporary – instead, it feels inspirational, driving those who have pushed the genre even further – Martin, Erikson, Esslemont – to push these boundaries even further.
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.