A Year for Fantasy

This year has been one for the books--the fantasy books. I’ve always been more of an SF reader. After all, I took one college class solely because my friends were taking it; it was Science Fiction as a literary genre. In that class I discovered Octavia Butler, one of my all-time favorite authors. I read both soft and hard SF, with a slight preference for hard.

So what the hell happened? Why and where did elves and jinni and golems and seons and Lady Heirs and red priestesses become more interesting? Possibly it’s because I haven’t been impressed with SF of late. Too often, I can’t or won’t follow the science or the author forgot the fiction. One of my duds of 2015 falls into that latter category. I found the whole thing too clever by half. More about that in another blog.

The fantasy I have read this year has been rich in its characters and their relationships both with other characters and with their environment. The world building has frequently been astounding. The writing has been excellent, if not brilliant.

So what bowled me over this year?

GAME OF THRONES and CLASH OF KINGS--G. R. R. Martin

The first one’s great; the second’s a bit of slog. I’ve already blogged about why I think GRR Martin is brilliantly transgressive. He blows up epic high fantasy conventions. He conveys a highly realistic 15th century world in the midst of a dynastic civil war. Brutal, opportunistic, expensive, it brings out the worst in people and allows them to settle private scores under the cover of legitimate war. In these novels, the characters are all deeply flawed, capable of great depravity and humanity. Their greatest strengths are their greatest weaknesses. The plotting is inexorable, for the characters choose their actions, but not their consequences.

However, Martin is not without flaws. Too many characters in general and too many who serve no real purpose. Even a good, attentive reader needs a scorecard to keep the players straight. Too many characters with similar names. There’s a reason why editors get on writers for this flaw. POV characters who oughtn’t to be POV characters. Theon Greyjoy, anyone? Brad and I both scan read Theon’s sections. It’s not that the Iron Islands aren't interesting. Theon isn’t interesting. He’s not a POV character; rather, he’s a victim better  seen through other people’s eyes.

MISTBORN--Brandon Sanderson

Yes, I’ve blogged about this trilogy, too. The first one is genius, the second one has the feel of THE TWO TOWERS to it (typical middle novel or movie), and the third reveals the secrets. This trilogy must be read in order because these novels are as much about maturation and setting aside personal wants in favor of the needs of others as it is about coming to an understanding of the world as it is. 

The best thing about this trilogy is the mystery surrounding the Lord Ruler--who he was, where he came from, why he became a tyrant. The answer to that will make you realize the road to Hell isn’t just paved with good intentions, but also with ignorance and pride and envy. Evil and Good are rarely absolute when we’re dealing with people. The real test of courage comes from facing the weaknesses of our own hearts.

Unlike Martin, Sanderson’s world spins on its own axis. There are some elements that’ll make a reader think of the 18th century. The skaa reminded me of African slaves in the Caribbean and the south of the US. Sometimes, the clothing of aristocrats made me think of 18th century, but much more is alien. A planet with runaway volcanism isn’t my idea of a fun place to live. How this world got there will make a reader scream about the price people pay for the hubris of others.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI--Helene Wecker

Yes, Kabbalah is real. Yes, one can make a Golem. Yes, the Jinn are real. From these ideas, Wecker has created a wonderful fantasy. The real star of this show is turn-of-the 20th century New York City, the Lower East Side of Manhattan in particular. The Golem and the Jinni are metaphors for immigrants and immigration into the United States. They are also metaphors for free will. What is it? Who has it? The Golem is created to be a slave to a particular man, but a bound Jinni is not in much better a position. The discussion of free will doesn’t turn into a rabbinical debate, and the story is engaging and wonderfully told.

THE GOBLIN EMPEROR--Katherine Addison

This is a stunning coming of age story, an exploration of the pitfalls of adulthood within the context of an rigid, etiquette-burdened royal court. Archduke Maia becomes emperor when his father, who hated him and his goblin mother, is killed with his three older sons. Maia’s been relegated to a backwater with an abusive guardian. He ascends as emperor over a society where he’s a visual disturbance--goblins are black; elves, white. He’s grey. His father didn’t think him worth educating (something he tells his sister); hence, he knows nothing about the court, its factions, the political issues, the relationships. Politics at all levels is fundamentally about relationships, and the new emperor has none with anyone--except his abusive guardian with whom he wants no more contact. The new emperor has enormous power, yet he is isolated, vulnerable, encased in ritual that limns that very power. The novel explores friendship, kindness, compassion, and justice--yes, race, gender, and class--all within the context of social rules and expectations that Maia never expected to face. He finds that most people are willing to help, or at least not hinder, but there are others, a minority to be sure, that cannot be convinced that he is not an obstacle or, worse, an active threat. A tiny comment about power stagnating and clouding the person wielding or holding it hits hard.

To me, these two novels are literary fantasy. Characterization and relationships between characters are more important than plot. I didn’t want to finish these novels because the story would be over. I had to finish them because they were just that compelling.

ELANTRIS--Brandon Sanderson

ELANTRIS is Sanderson’s first novel. No, it’s not as deep or compelling as MISTBORN, but it is fun. It’s the fantasy equivalent of space opera. The three main characters--one from each kingdom--are on various quests. Hrathen is on a religious mission to convert Arelon, but he comes to see the real voyage is one of personal discovery. Where does his faith lie? Raoden determines to save himself, his people, and doomed Elantris by extension. Sarene, who cannot see herself as others who love her see her, only as others who fear her see her, seeks to defeat Hrathen, to discover what happened to Raoden, her husband without wedding, and to fulfill his legacy. The highs and lows of this novel are richly dramatic and take place against a rich tapestry of decline, greed, fanaticism, and apparent disease. The city of Elantris is its own, overripe creation.

ELANTRIS explains why I like fantasy more at the moment than SF. More vibrant, more original, more univseral. Fantasy authors remember “it’s the story, stupid”, carried forward by characters who engage us, the readers.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst
webmaster: kgw@KGWhitehurst.com