The dreadful summit

Robin Hobb:
Assassin’s Apprentice
Book One of The Farseer Trilogy
Harper Voyager 2015 (1995)
Special edition for World Book Night UK 2015

There are general expectations for an epic or high fantasy: it’s set in what Tolkien called a Secondary World; the protagonist is usually young and, following much fairytale tradition, often an orphan; they have hidden talents or gifts, frequently of a magical nature, which only reveal themselves gradually and after much tribulation; and there is a malevolent antagonist which the protagonist has to prevail against or even overthrow.

On the basis that Assassin’s Apprentice displays these features it qualifies as high fantasy, but it takes more than box-ticking to ensure that a novel like this succeeds — readability, convincing characterisation, vivid worldbuilding, plot twists, in fact everything that may encourage the reader to suspend disbelief and invest in the protagonist’s success, plus a certain je ne sais quoi which renders the premise distinctive and memorable.

I can report that Assassin’s Apprentice doesn’t fail in any of these departments and I’ll attempt to explain how.

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“Greed puts out the sun.”

Islands

Ursula Le Guin: The Other Wind
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

O my joy!
Before bright Ea was, before Segoy
Bade the islands be,
The morning wind blew on the sea.
O my joy, be free!

When Lebannen, king of all the isles of Earthsea, remembers this fragment of a ballad or lullaby from his childhood he is sailing on the Inland Sea. A storm has passed; whether it is the words, the tune or being on deck that has brought the words to mind matters less than that it is a leitmotif for this final novel in the Earthsea sequence, and perhaps for the whole sequence. It recalls a beginning and even an ending, for on the last page Tenar whispers the final words to Ged: O my joy, be free . . .

The Other Wind is, however one looks at it, the last novel in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence: the collection Tales from Earthsea includes episodes which predate the events in this swansong instalment but these two books, along with Tehanu, form a balancing trilogy with the first three books which, the author came to recognise, gave a rather unbalanced worldview of her creation in terms of gender.

As Earthsea’s existence and survival is bound up with balance, it was only morally and poetically right for its Creator to follow the male-dominated first trilogy with a second reasserting female contribution; and if that involved if not retconning then at least establishing that the fulcrum of power on the Island of Roke was initiated by women as much as men justice could not only be done but seen to be done. And though some benighted erstwhile fans saw this somehow as too politically correct, to this reader at least Earthsea’s yin was finally complemented by its yang and Le Guin’s passion made manifest.

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#WitchWeek2019 Day 6: Cart and Cwidder

Cart and Cwidder HarperCollins UK edition 2016

When their father, a travelling minstrel is killed, three children involved in rebellion and intrigues inherit a lute-like cwidder with more than musical powers.
— From the first edition of Cart and Cwidder, Macmillan 1975

You’ll by now be aware that Witch Week takes its title from a novel of the same name, ostensibly for children, by Diana Wynne Jones, who died in 2011. So it seemed apt to have as this year’s novel for discussion Cart & Cwidder, the first volume in a fantasy quartet set in a polity called Dalemark. In fact the very first Witch Week featured The Spellcoats, another Dalemark novel in which the principal villain is actually identified.

Three of us have had a detailed online chat about this — an edited version is offered below — but a number of you have also taken up the challenge of reading it beforehand so that you could join in today’s conversation, and you are very welcome to add your comments below. The participants in the online chat were Laurie Welch (red), Chris Lovegrove (green), and Lizzie Ross (blue). Our comments coalesced around topics such as magic, historical setting, bildungsromans, zeitgeist, and of course villains!

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Fantasy subgenres

April is proving to be a Month of Random Reading. Which is good, I think. Especially as May will be a month of fantasy reads under the Wyrd & Wonder banner.

There are eight fantasy subgenres offered for consideration, and in this anticipatory post I shall be looking at them in a little more detail, seeing what I’ve already read that falls in each category (links are to my reviews or discussions) and ruminating on what I might choose to read in the merry month of May. Though I may change my mind at the last moment.

It’s possible I shall read one example of each subgenre in the space of four weeks, perfectly achievable at the rate of two a week, but I’m making no promises!

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Righting the balance

Ursula Le Guin: The Farthest Shore
in The Earthsea Quartet
Puffin Books 1993 (1973)

When one comes to the end of a planned trilogy one always hopes for a sense of closure. But when I first read this there was also a sense of profound disappointment: yes, wrongs were righted, evil was overcome, but at what a cost! And yet, on a second reading and armed with hindsight, that disappointment was transmuted into acceptance as I started to understand the narrative arcs that applied to the whole trilogy.

With that understanding I think that the author’s intended ending was perfectly logical and absolutely in harmony with the preceding two novels. Because it also functions well enough as a standalone novel I can see how a new reader (and that was me, once upon a time) might feel bereft in the concluding pages; but Le Guin, in running counter to our expectations of a fantasy universe, showed what an original thinker she was and how her approach both overturned and reinvigorated the epic fantasy conventions of the time.

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Operating in the dark

Reconstruction of part of Knossos complex, Crete (Wikimedia Commons)

Ursula Le Guin: The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
in The Earthsea Quartet 1993 Penguin

Sequels are notoriously hard things to pull off; many authors struggle. Does one offer a second helping of the same ingredients on the grounds that readers seem to like more of the same, with just a few details changed for the sake of variety? Or does the writer go with something radically different and risk alienating fans of the original?

The second of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels goes with the second option, and certainly this is tough for some readers; but Le Guin is of that class of author who not only needs to challenge herself through her craft but to also avoid treading the same tracks as before. It’s a measure of her talent as a writer that she rises magnificently to the challenge while being a doggedly resolute pathfinder. So it’s entirely appropriate that much of The Tombs of Atuan involves the protagonists negotiating the complexities of a multicursal labyrinth with all its twisting passages and dead ends.

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Questions and quests

An imaginary city by Albrecht Durer

Patricia A McKillip: The Riddle-Master’s Game
The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976);  Heir of Sea and Fire (1977);
Harpist in the Wind (1979)
Introduction by Graham Sleight
Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks 2015 (2001)

Explicitly inspired by — but no slavish imitation of — The Lord of the Rings, Patricia McKillip’s trilogy is an epic fantasy that stands on its own merits rather than in comparison with Tolkien’s work. Yes, it starts with a very domestic scene before exploring from one end of a continent to the other, and, indeed, the main protagonist is reluctant to embark on his quest, but in reality the whole feel and mood of McKillip’s narrative is far removed from Tolkien’s, not least because it gives almost equal prominence to a female protagonist. On top of this, the author was only in her late twenties when she began her very mature epic when compared to Tolkien, who was in his sixties when the final volume of LOTR appeared.

The first part begins portentously enough:

“Morgon of Hed met the High One’s harpist one autumn day when the trade-ships docked at Tol for the season’s exchange of goods.”

In one sentence we are introduced to many of the main themes that run through the trilogy. Morgon, Prince of the small island principality of Hed, the High One who has (or rather had) suzerainty over all the lands, the subtle undercurrent of music (the author is apparently an accomplished pianist), the passing of seasons and the routines of social intercourse that will be so rudely disrupted. The young ruler, who had studied and attained high honours in the arcane discipline of riddling, will find not just his heritage challenged as he is plunged into dangers that will threaten the lives of countless peoples. Will he have the strength of will to overcome those dangers, and what part will Raederle of An have to play in the upheavals to come?

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Pre-echoes

Roman copy of a Greek statue of Pallas Athena (image: public domain)
Roman copy of a Greek statue of Pallas Athena (image: public domain)

Alison Croggan The Bone Queen
The First Book of Pellinor
Walker Books Ltd 2016

After a gap of eight years Alison Croggan has fulfilled her promise to her fans that she would further enrich the narratives of her epic fantasy series known as Pellinor. Her world of Edil-Amarandh — in which Pellinor is merely one city — is set in a dim and distant past where not only magic is a reality but also perilous realms exist beyond the everyday world of humans, realms where entities like the Bone Queen can survive. If we want to imagine Edil-Amarandh we can do worse than picture it as a pre-echo of Atlantis, a continent positioned somewhere between the Old World and the New with mountainous spines somewhat reminiscent of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. All of the action of The Bone Queen takes place in the north, in the lee of the Osidh Elador mountains, between Lirigon and Pellinor.

So much for context: we read fiction primarily for stories concerning characters, not worldbuilding, and it is to people we now turn.

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Totus Orbis Terrarum

elizabethan-worthies

E R Eddison The Worm Ouroboros HarperCollins 2014 (1922)

The author has been lauded by Tolkien (“the greatest and most convincing writer of invented worlds”) and by Ursula Le Guin (“unequalled in the vigour, the vividness, the passionate intensity of his imagining”), so it’s unsurprising that Eddison’s early fantasy — despite being written nearly a century ago — is a tour de force which continues to amaze through the sheer brilliance of its author’s conception. Magic, wars, heroic feats, splendid scenery, the titanic battle between Good and Evil: all are commonplaces of epic fantasy but Eddison invests his world with unique features and finishing touches.

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In praise of fantasy

Tiffany Tree of Life
Louis Comfort Tiffany: The Tree of Life stained glass window (source: Wikipedia)

I apologise for returning to the subject of fantasy, a topic which I sometimes feel has been unduly disparaged by some critics. Oxford Dictionaries define it as “the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things”. One might surmise that this suggests admirers of fantasy are somehow deluded, a bit like the fantasists who believe in those impossible or improbable things; but I maintain that most aficionados of fantasy know the difference between reality and fiction (“things made up”) and the divide between knowledge and belief.

Let’s go back for a brief moment to the origins of the word: “phantasy” derives from the Greek word φαντός (phantos) meaning visible, and φαίνω ‎(phaínō) I cause to appear, bring to light”: related words like “phantom” and so on ultimately descend from φῶς, Greek for “light”. In other words, one could argue that fantasy is about shining a light on an object, a topic, a notion.

And that’s what I’d like to argue.

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Twists in the tale

Image of narwhal from Brehms Tierleben 1864–1869 (public domain)
Image of narwhal from Brehms Tierleben 1864–1869 (public domain)

Peter Dickinson The Ropemaker Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

High fantasy, sometimes called epic fantasy, is a genre that’s demanding of the author but easily recognisable to the reader. Set in a secondary world where magic or the supernatural are accepted as real, high fantasy becomes epic when there is a sense of great and heroic deeds being done and where the canvas is grand in scale and character.

On this basis, then, Peter Dickinson’s The Ropemaker is justifiably an epic fantasy, his first in fact (Angel Isle is its sequel). Set in a world that stretches from the plateaux beyond snow-capped mountains down along a river through plains and on to an island in the open sea, the novel unfolds through the eyes of young Tilja Urlasdaughter (the ‘j’ in her name I suspect is pronounced like ‘y’ in ‘yes’, as in Scandinavian languages). Her Valley home, between the mountains and the Forest, is changing: the glaciers are melting, venturing among the forest trees is becoming dangerous and the sense of a magic gluing things together is disappearing. There are likely to be incursions from the horsemen beyond the mountain pass and the armies of the Empire to the south. What’s to be done?

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Conundrum

edil-amarandh
Credit: http://acrylicwash.tumblr.com/post/66314077474/edil-amarandh-map-that-i-colored-for-our-teeny

Alison Croggan The Riddle Walker Books Ltd 2005

Maerad and her mentor, the bard Cadvan, must solve a confusing riddle if evil is to be averted, and Maerad herself appears to be part of that riddle and its solution. To begin to get answers she has to travel to the far north, across snow and ice and sea, with all the accompanying dangers, from humans, nature, and the supernatural. The task seems insuperable, especially when laid on such young shoulders, and in such a hostile world it seems increasingly difficult to know who to trust. And all she has with her is the lyre she inherited from her mother, an instrument which has an integral part to play in the drama that is unfolding.

Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots suggests that the more different archetypal narratives a novel includes the richer it becomes (Booker admires The Lord of the Rings for this), and on this basis Croggon’s Pellinor series must be rich indeed. The Riddle includes the themes of the Quest, Overcoming the Monster, Tragedy and Voyage and Return, while it is only a matter of time and two more novels before we must surely encounter Rags to Riches, Comedy (in the classical sense) and Rebirth. On this understanding alone The Riddle is very satisfying, even as a middle volume in a sequence.

But novel writing is more than just a matter of narrative structure. First and foremost must come characterisation. Maerad, the young heroine of the tale, would, in a modern context, be just another petulant teenager, a trait which some reviewers have found annoying but is here absolutely right, not just for plot reasons but because that’s exactly what teenagers are normally about. While she is the Chosen One with innate mysterious powers (and you could argue that this is an annoying motif in itself), she still has to rely on her human resourcefulness, her stubbornness, her quick-wittedness and her physical strength. I liked also the roundedness of many of the other characters, even those who appear for such a short time, and even those who don’t support Maerad’s cause.

Other important elements in a story are a sense of place and time, and here Croggon has thought long and hard about the nature of her secondary world. The journey Maerad takes is one we take too, from cold to warmth, from mountains to plains and from habitation to habitation, because her descriptions give us exactly what we require to imagine and sensually feel ourselves there. There is also a clear sense of the passage of time, marked by key dates in the changing seasons (the book ends on midwinter’s day, for example) and Maerad’s monthly periods arriving at the time of the full moon.

Finally, Croggon’s theme is about words (as the title of the book hints). Poetry (real poetry, mind you, not doggerel verse) suffuses both prose and song in her text, recounted in English; and for the linguist too there is much delight in her creation of the languages of Pellinor: the names of peoples, of things, of places, of concepts. And let us not forget the crucial dialogues that Maerad has with key figures in the story; for those who like their fantasy dished up with lashings of action this may be a weakness, but for those who love words, the to-and-fro of conversations and the subsequent conflicts or resolutions that arise from them this must surely be a strength.

A word about Cadvan: as a wizard figure he here has resonances with both Gandalf and Dumbledore, though it is clear that we are to think of him, despite the discrepancy between the aging of Bards and ordinary mortals, as a relatively young man. Like those other two wizards of modern writing he too disappears, and like them his dramatic loss through violence must be felt deeply by the reader, but it is for the reader to find out whether the loss is temporary, as with Gandalf, or permanent, as with Dumbledore.

In anticipation of a prequel, The Bone Queen, appearing any time soon, reviews of Alison Croggon’s four Pellinor books will be reposted here in sequence and in rapid succession; they first appeared in January and February 2013