Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo features a protagonist, Paama, who goes toe-to-toe with Chance in order to retain the Chaos Stick. That she [SPOILER ALERT] willfully gives it back to him, and that both she and Chance learn something along the way is just one of the ways in which Lord’s novel messes with generic expectations. She ends up happily married to a younger man, after burying her first husband who ate himself to death.
- My synopsis does not do this novel justice. Paama is the antithesis of those sorts of supposedly genre-bending young female heroines that are featured in much current YA lit – she is married to a man she does not love but cannot hate, she is a great cook, she has no desire to learn how to wield the power she has been given, and she acts with compassion and empathy even when the results are not what she would like.
- Lord’s narrator is lively, self-aware, and interested in engaging us in a conversation, even if it constantly defends itself from charges of defying what it feels our expectations will be. The narrator is far different than Paama, and often asks us not to judge her or other characters at surprising points in the novel – the one that struck me most was when Paama goes back to nurse Ansige, her first husband, as he dies from the consequences of over-eating. Ansige is set up as entirely unsympathetic, and yet Paama knows that her duty is to be with him until he passes. This is territory not often covered in this genre.
- In that sense this novel comes directly from the land of folk tales, written with a postmodern sensibility and an eye towards redeeming our relationships with each other and with the forces in the world that causes things to happen that we do not understand. The narrative voice helps with this redemption with its energy and desire to always keep us looking outside the text.
- The natural forces in this novel are definitely not supernatural, and are also not aligned along a good-evil binary. Again, it is very unlike lots of YA fiction that’s out now, with barely-disguised good and evil aligned along metaphoric lines. I admire the effort that some of that fiction makes, but killing off characters does not necessarily make a novel complex, even when that plot-level action defies generic expectations. What makes ASOIAF complex is not the fact that Ned Stark dies early on, but that GRRM (at least I though he was, before the teevee series) is looking at issues of planetary balance and the appearance of science in the Enlightement. Defying generic expectations does not necessarily equal complexity.
- Part of the joy of Gaiman’s Sandman series was the ways in which entities simply operated in their own best interests, with complex understandings of how those interests meshed with those of other entities. Lord’s novel adds the idea of duty to that mix.
- This binary allows her to comment on humans and their needs through her narrator (which isn’t exactly human, but not exactly a djombi):
Humans did not hold such power within themselves easily; they had a deep-seated need for symbols, talismans, and representations. (61)
- Her epilogue continues the feisty narrator theme. I cannot tell if she’s chastising academics or those who read for escape – I think it’s the latter, but I’m not completely sure. Representative of this trope from the many pieces of advice we get from the narrator is this one:
For others a tale is a way of living vicariously, enjoying the adventures of others without having to go one step beyond their sphere of comfort. To them I say, what’s stopping you from getting on a ship and sailing halfway around the world? Tales are meant to be an inspiration, not a substitute. (157)
In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin takes up the dismantling of fantasy that Martin (and before him Delaney) and Esslemont and Erikson joyfully participate in, and the result was thought-provoking (and a great read). Thoughts:
- Jemisin incorporates different religious perspectives in this novel. Tolkien messed around with supernatural figures – Gandalf is a Maia or something like that if I remember correctly from the Silmarillion, and Sauron is a pretty direct corollary to Lucifer – but he followed Christian theology pretty closely. Martin has his characters invoke the gods all the time, but we never see their direct action. The MBOTF authors are brave enough to risk the idea of ascension for mortals, and they also pit gods against each other for reasons that appear almost petty.
- Jemisin comes at this from another perspective – what if mortals were able to chain gods and make them fulfill their wishes? Limits on godly powers certainly make for an interesting theology.
- Jemisin blends lots of religious traditions – I see traces of Greeks and Haitian (the god who rides in Yeine’s body like a loa) for a start – in a way that neatly allows this novel (and series) to think of world-building differently than we usually posit it in fantasy.
- Yeine is an interesting character, one who lives in her own head a lot. As a result, we get to live in her head too, and my guess is that Jemisin uses this limited perspective to question the foundations of world building in fantasy.
- More on this as I continue the series, of course…
I have read most of Cornwell’s Arthur books, about the Danish invasion of Britain, and having had the Last Kingdom series recommended to me by a friend and watching a couple of them I remembered that I wanted to read this series by Cornwell as well. I enjoyed reading Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and his portrayal of Sgt. Shatoe’s dragoons – especially designed to kill cavalry, according to Shaftoe – and I knew that Cornwell’s Sharpe series was set not all that much later.
That’s a long introduction to this novel, Sharpe’s Tiger, none of which is about the novel. Thoughts:
- I struggle with the idea of Sharpe as super-hero, but I think that Cornwell is using him more as a cypher than an actual British soldier who doubles as 007. He’s not Derfel Cardan, who is based on a historical figure (even one who may or may not have existed), and Derfel felt much more believable.
- Sharpe is simply someone who Cornwell puts in the a bunch of historical hot spots in order to let us as readers see into his portrayal of what happened, and my readerly attempts to make him more are sort of goofy.
- Sharpe reminds me a bit as well of Jack Shaftoe, the King of the Vagabonds and someone who Stephenson sees as survivor much like Sharpe.
- Cornwell’s battle scenes in this series are not as personal as they are with St. Derfel, mostly because Sharpe is not simply fulfilling a cannon fodder role, whereas Derfel fought in the midst of the shield wall. This also seem a bit more cavalier and glory-bound than the series set in the time of Arthur, perhaps because that time is harder for us contemporary folks to understand.
- I remember particularly the sense of loss and fall of civilization in the Warlord chronicle, mostly because so often they find themselves in a Roman ruin that is far better than anything current Britons can build. Life is much more difficult.
- I also remember the superstitious belief in religion, which Cornwell carefully documents as a struggle between the remains of pagan religion and the newness of Christianity. Christianity looks far more appealing in this re-contexualization than it does now, offering a way forward into a brighter future rather than the nostalgic look back that Christians appear to favor now. In particular, in one scene Arthur’s druids put up a wall that consisted entirely of hexes and fetishes. That wall held their left flank until their enemy finally brought in their own druids to counter it. Not many flanks are held in the Sharpe series by religious icons.
- Cornwell starts this series before the Iraq war and what felt to me like a newfound sense among the American public about the ways that camaraderie fueled courage in combat. He’s writing from a British perspective, and the way that I have always heard British officers talked about (mostly Montgomery, but the Duke of Wellington aka Arthur Wellesley as well) is that they don’t care all that much about their men. Still, this novel is not all that concerned with the loss and grief that individual soldiers feel for each other, nor does it give the sense of individual platoon tactics that made a series like the Malazan Book of the Fallen (or even Game of Thrones) so enthralling. Cornwell did provide this sense in the Warlord Chronicles I’ve discussed above, so maybe that sense of the individual lives at stake becomes more developed as he moves forward. Still, while there is compassion for the individual infantryman and admiration for his courage, troops still pretty much feel like cannon fodder.
- On the other side, though, Cornwell works at making Indians human, pretty carefully depicting the courage and humanity of those who led and those who fought with the British. Far more than in other discussions of this time period I got a sense of the reasons why Indians fought, and they felt much more realistic than I am used to.
- The British are not portrayed as beautiful people either. The first scene with Sharpe gives a vivid description of his looting of a corpse, and looting and rape are not ignored. Blood and destruction are also pretty carefully chronicled.
- Finally, the class divides between officers and enlisted men are not glossed over. Officers actually rarely come off positively, and most enlisted men are described sympathetically. As always, sergeants hold the line between, but they are rarely seen as American, WWII-type sergeants we see in Band of Brothers – determined to keep the men under them alive – but are instead mostly disciplinarians.
So, I finished The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Holy shit, even though it sort of ended as I suspected it might. Some thoughts:
- The series encourages you to read as if boundaries of life and death do not matter to readers. They matter to characters: even though several return from the dead, they are never what they were, never having the same feelings they had when alive. The seeming permeability of the boundary between life and death, though, means that readers are never sure if a beloved character will disappear forever or not. Characters are kept alive in communal memories, and they are returned from the dead for specific purposes, and they suddenly wake up in a sense only to find themselves in something a Christian might call hell. The mechanism of how this works is not explained to us.
- The specifically purposed returnees are routinely bizarre: suddenly communal and weirdly humorous Jaghut, the Bonehunters with their captain now charged with guarding Death’s gate (clearly unsuccessfully), and so on…and of course one entire race chose to kill themselves (I guess) and become undead in order to ‘survive’ an attack on the Jaghut.
- I felt the most compassion for Toc and Onos T’oolan, because they were both given such huge tasks as undead.
- The sense that armies and professional soldiers engage in a profession that has a short life expectancy willingly permeates the series, and all sides spend a lot of energy trying to justify why they’re engaging in war. Part of that reasoning comes from folks who like killing (Smiles is the best example) for some not very healthy reasons, some of it comes from the Malazan desire to impose law and order rather than despotic rule (something they also fail at), and some of it comes from the lust for imperial glory (which is torn apart in the torture that poor Rhulad Sengar goes through as he dies a thousand deaths).
- In this way MBOTF feel particularly 20th century – wars fought for vague or ill-explained political reasons, with soldiers who mostly are conscripted in the worst sort of ways (I think as well of the cannibal hordes of the Pannion Dominion). The piles of war dead don’t help.
- In this book, the Malazans are talked of with a sense of fear and loathing in ways that I wasn’t sure I liked.
- I still like the sense of humor evident in humans, something no other race seems to possess.
- In odd ways this felt like the only novel that is sort of preachy. I’m not sure what to do with that either.
In my recent spate of fantasy novel reading I finished Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Some thoughts:
- Although the characters fit into some sort of configuration of what Western fantasy usually consists of, they were also pretty dramatically different. I got that Freudian sense of the uncanny as the novel helped the familiar be just strange enough.
- I would not quite call the space liminal, if by liminal we mean a space no longer familiar but for which we have no ready answers. In a good sense the novel sort of put me there, especially with the renegade Prince who seems to be far more in contact with the Khalif then seems possible…
- The reason, though, that the space isn’t completely without answers is because Ahmed neatly provides some answers, all of which feel appropriately set in this culture…
- There are no piles of corpses in this novel. The world saviors are the only ones we see at risk, and they have all taken the risk either willingly or through a sense of duty. That is definitely a change from recent fantasy like ASOIAF and MBOTF in which soldiers are asked to die in that most 20th century way, for objectives that even their commanders cannot articulate.
- The trio of heroes (helped by an alchemist couple) consists of the profane (in multiple ways, including his body and choice of mate), the pure (a dervish fighter, one sworn to purity), and the abject.
- Each is given enough point of view to enable me to take them seriously.
- The source of evil is also interesting – as much as the novel willingly invokes religion, the evil ones are humans who have sought to extend their natural life limits, and to transcend natural borders by entrapping natural, primal forces (wind, water, etc.) in service of their own needs.
- I enjoyed the Doctor (who is a combination of a wizard, a holy man, and a flawed individual) as a protagonist, but the most interesting characters are the dervish and the shapeshifter. Their sacrifices and sense of honor are interesting cross-currents in the genre, especially as someone like George RR Martin calls into question just who sacrifices really benefit, and how convoluted honor can be.
Hah, just when I think there’s not a grand narrative, a grand narrative of sorts emerges…this world is constant conflict between enormously powerful forces, of which humans are just another part…the Malazan Empire is an attempt at ordering this world in a way that allows humans to not destroy each other…it (the series) is not concerned with the planet, necessarily, but it is very concerned with how humans find power in a world in which they are not the most powerful entities unless working together…
I am not sure what to do with this, or its accuracy, but these insights came to me with Erikson’s introduction of the motives behind the Forkrul Assail. The FA seek to cleanse the planet of humans because we are so destructive, and they are formidable as well but seem to be not very self-aware of their limits. This portrayal could be read as a critique of Gaia theory, I guess, but I think it’s not very productive or accurate to read anything in this series as a critique of any specific ideology. In my mind this series works subtly as a general look at how fantasy works, and thus larger cultural critiques fit as critiques of how fantasy does those sorts of critiques.
So the grand narrative that I believe is being proposed is that grand narratives are useless? Needs some work…
I’m finishing up Dust of Dreams, Book Nine of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, and I had two quick thoughts that I didn’t want to wait to write about:
- Cause and effect in the spiritual set up of this series is troubling me…this thought first came to the top of my head as I read about Sechul, Errastas, and Kilamandaros walking towards what I think will be the city of Kharanos, for some sort of confrontation between young gods and old (772).
- Sechul tells us narratively how K wants destruction, hates creation, and hates humans. K is a chaos god of the sort that lots of religions have.
- if religious figures embody or make manifest themes or forces, whether primal or cultural or some mix, then in this series the cause and effect gets troubling – it feels as if the gods cause the theme or force, not the other way around…
- I wonder if there would be chaos, for instance, if Kilimandaros somehow didn’t exist…
- This series also points out how privileged the idea of balance is. Creation, if properly balanced, requires destruction, and that balance means that someone will feel pain. We often speak of balance as some sort of unabashedly good goal, and I think that Martin in ASOIAF feels the natural world is out of balance because of humans, and thus perhaps needs to be rebalanced (the long winters in particular, with the implication that the seasons are wack, makes this lack of balance feel particularly troubling), and privileges the idea of harmony and balance.
- Reminds me of reading the medieval play “The Pearl,” which depicts a heaven in such perfect balance that I don’t see how anyone stays awake…