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Get medieval November 7, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl.
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Now that the caravan has moved on and the dust has settled on the recent steampunk debate, I’d like to give you my take. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, see Charlie Stross and Catherine Valente, and Scott Westerfeld and Sophia McDougall for the defence.)

Being contrary, as well as making me feel extremely conflicted, the whole kerfuffle made me think about my own genre of choice: medieval-inspired/inflected fantasy. As much as I try to deny it, as much as I read China Miéville, Neil Gaiman, Sarah Rees Brennan and Philip Pullman, I gravitate towards flowing robes, pre-industrial societies and superstition in my fiction.

This means that I have read a lot of garbage. (I’m currently reading a book where Richard III is some kind of champion for matriarchal paganism. I kid you not.) I have read books where pre-Christian Britain and Ireland are feminist utopias (hi, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Juliet Marillier). I have read books where annoying 20th-century characters have blundered into medieval-inflected fantasy realms and spent the entire time exclaiming at the bizarre backwardness of it all, only to decide that a world without proper medical care is better than their own world. I have read books where female characters are non-existent, books where battles are won by the dazzling arrival of the one, true hero, books where everyone seems to be an aristocrat, books where the middle class is snivelling and cowardly precisely because it stands against the old feudal order (Janny Wurts, I’m looking accusingly at you). I’ve seen enough Gra’tui’tous Use of A’postro’phes to terrify even the most illiterate of butchers and greengrocers.

To put it simply, I have waded through a lot of rubbish to find the gems. But I don’t want to talk about the rubbish today. I want to talk about the gems. By this I mean medieval fantasy novels that get the medieval period right. This is obviously an extremely subjective list, but that’s what reading is all about.

1. ‘The mercantile middle class is awesome’: Kate Elliot’s Crossroads series

I still haven’t had a chance to finish this series, as the Cambridge public library doesn’t have the third book (I’ll probably read it when I’m in Sydney over Christmas, as the Sydney public libraries are far superior to the Cambridge ones), but I can safely say this is my favourite medieval fantasy series EVER. Rather than being set in generic Ye Olde Europe, it’s set in alternative versions of China, Mongolia and (if I recall correctly) the Ottoman Empire. I adore this series for two reasons: it has fantastic female characters who are believable within a patriarchal medieval framework (ie, they’re active agents, and their skills – especially their ability to negotiate and make deals in an economic context – are highly valued, but they have to operate within a system where it is still quite difficult to be a woman without the protection of a man), and because the characters are so mercenary, and it’s portrayed as realistic rather than cowardly. Honour before reason heroism is rightly portrayed as ridiculous and dangerous. Diplomacy, bargaining and bartering are heroic, society-saving qualities in this universe, and that strikes me as both realistic to its medieval setting, and incredibly refreshing. I’ve already blogged about this series here.

2. ‘Let’s hear it for the quartermasters’: Jo Walton’s Tir Tanagiri series

This is alternate-history version of the Matter of Britain. It’s set in an alternative version of Britain and Europe, where the most significant change (to my mind at least) is that there is a great deal more equality between the sexes than would’ve occurred in fifth- or sixth-century Britain. It works seamlessly, though, in a way that shows up Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon for the historically-inaccurate rant that it is.

This is because rather than hammering the point home with a hammer, Walton simply states things and then leaves them. Her heroine, Sulien ap Gwien (who is, I feel, the Lancelot analogue), is an armiger in Urdo’s (the Arthur figure) army. After the death of her brothers, she is her father’s heir. There’s no squabble or strife about this. It just is. Walton also resists the urge (common to many retellers of the Arthurian story) to focus on some epic struggle between Christian patriarchy and utopian feminist paganism. There is religious equality in Urdo’s Tir Tanagiri. There are Christians, and there are pagans. The popularity of paganism decreases, and Sulien thinks Christianity (or the followers of the ‘the White God’, as they are in this universe) is a little silly, but there’s no militancy on either side because it really isn’t the point. Survival is.

This is the reason why I really love this series. Far too often, Arthur (and heroes in his mould) win kingship too easily, simply by being ‘the chosen one’ or by being moral people or whatever. Urdo really earns it, and he doesn’t even earn it for himself. Walton forces you to confront the sheer difficulty of unifying a country like Tir Tanagiri; the series abounds with references to tactical discussions, extremely morally ambiguous diplomatic decisions and arguments among quartermasters about supply caches and so on. It’s unglamorous, it’s dirty, and, most importantly, it’s not easy.

3. ‘Grey, with a side-order of moral ambiguity’: George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

I like this series for its gritty greyness. Almost every character does something utterly unconscionable. No character has clean boots. Most importantly, Martin emphasises that people who put honour before reason suffer the logical consequences of a dishonourable and unreasonable society. No character is safe.

There are deep flaws with this series (the one I find most troubling is that rape and sexual deviance are used as shorthand for moral depravity, which strikes me as plain lazy), but you can’t say it’s an inaccurate depiction of its Wars of the Roses source material. It absolutely sucks to be a woman in this universe. If you’re lucky, you’ll dutifully make an arranged match with someone who treats you decently, and be expected to lead his forces when he’s otherwise occupied (Catelyn Stark, who is so awesome I can’t find the words to express how much I love her character; the Catelyn-bashing among the fandom disgusts me). If you’re unlucky, you’re Arya Stark. Or Sansa Stark. Or Brienna. Or Cersei Lannister. In any case, Martin, for the most part, gets it right. (I’ve already written about this series here.)

4. ‘Poetic prophecies are just better’: Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series

I have a soft spot for this series. It’s one of the first children’s fantasy series that I read, and Cooper has a real talent for capturing the cadences and nuances of genuine medieval writing, in particular that deep minor note of melancholy at life’s transience that runs through so much of it. (Cf The Wanderer, Buile Shuibne, Accallam na Senórach, etc.) It’s so deeply rooted in the landscape – Cornwall, the Thames valley, North Wales – that it is in some sense a love letter to the geography and topography of Britain.

It has rather a more simplistic view of the nature of evil than children’s literature these days (although Cooper does point out that evil can be both chaos and fanaticism, which is slightly more adventurous than many of her contemporaries), but in my opinion that’s not really the point of the book. Instead, Cooper’s focus is power, and what a terrible and terrifying burden it can be for those who wield it. This is, obviously, not a hugely original theme, but she explores it well, and that’s all that matters.

5. ‘There’s a magic in the simple things’: Monica Furlong’s Juniper and Wise Child

I believe there’s a third book in this series called Colman but I have not read it and so I don’t include it in my analysis. These books are about young adolescent girls who become witches. The first is Ninnoc, known as Juniper, the daughter of King Mark of Cornwall (I’m not sure if his name is meant to deliberately evoke the character from the story of Tristan and Isolde, since his wife, Erlain, seems quite content with him), who spends a year fostered with the harsh, impoverished Euny. The second is Wise Child, who lives (if I recall correctly) in Dál Riata or somewhere similar), whose tutor is Juniper herself.

I love the books because they celebrate ‘women’s work’ – growing food, cooking, dyeing cloth, spinning, weaving, healing – but don’t create a society where women are deified for their ability to perform such tasks. They move such tasks, and those who perform them, to the centre of the story, and make them heroic. But there’s a sense of proportion.

I think, looking at that list, that what I value in my fantasy novels is a celebration of ordinary life, and in particular ordinary life as lived by women and the middle class (characters traditionally absent from epic fantasy, where it’s all about the heroic aristocrats and the plucky indomitable peasants – all male). It sounds strange but what I really seek – and so rarely find – is a sense of realism in my fantasy. I want to hear about the boring diplomatic negotiations, the arguments about supply-lines, the marketplace haggling, the women dyeing wool. All the dragons and unicorns and Dark Powers Brewing in the North™ are entirely incidental. I dislike conviction – or at least conviction rewarded. I want to read about compromise.

So, what does all this have to do with the steampunk debate? Very little, at this point. I guess all I really feel like saying at this point is that there’s dross in every gentre, but people in glass genre houses shouldn’t throw stones. Sophia McDougall says it all much better, in a comment on her post:

I’d even go further and say a certain kind of ignoring harsh realities is okay — sometimes. Sort of. Depending on what you’re trying to do. Not just because there’s a place for escapism, although that’s true too, but because sometimes the fantasy allows for other sorts of truth. Look at Lord of The Rings —virtually all the criticisms are pretty much true, it DOES fetishise the past, and feudalism, and all kinds of bad or at least not-necessarily-all-that-good stuff. It is also, in some ways, *whisper it* a deeply silly book. All that ridiculous dialogue, all those songs. But it’s also a beautiful and important one. It gave me the words (when I was eleven) to understand why I was against the death penalty. It’s a lens for looking at the horrors of the 20th Century. Does anyone want it not to exist, exactly as it is, and would it really be improved if there was, say, more bubonic plague in it and exploration of the class issues between Frodo and Sam?


‘Said the crow to the raven…’ October 5, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
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(Vaguely spoilery for A Song of Ice and Fire.) I’m always on the lookout for new fantasy series, preferably of books that go beyond the usual cliches. I’ve read enough about elves, dwarves, swords, sorcery and dragons to last me a lifetime, and gritty, urban vampire-werewolf crime-fighting only held my attention for a few months before I realised how appalling most of the writing was and how difficult it was to find ‘urban fantasy’ that wasn’t Anita Blake-style paranormal romance. I still hold a great deal of affection for Celtic and historical fantasy, but it’s usually so sweet-natured (unless written by Sara Douglass) that after a while I feel like I’ve overdosed on toffee and caramel.

So this summer I thought I’d try out George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I’m surprised it took me so long. I first became aware of ASoIaF (there’s a clunky abbreviation!) when Jo Walton linked to a series of redesigned fantasy book covers, supposedly with titles that accurately described the books. ASoIaF was retitled ‘Knights Who Say Fuck’. This made me giggle a bit, but then I forgot the series again until Neil Gaiman made his infamous blog post berating a Martin fan who was getting impatient at Martin’s seeming inability to complete the series: ‘Look,’ wrote Gaiman, ‘George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.’ Martin was clearly a writer who aroused strong reactions (and, apparently, caused me to swear twice on this blog, something I try not to do). Then one of my friends on TRoH started reading the series and posting about it, and I knew it was time to do the same myself.

I adored it. So much so that I devoured all five books in about a week (and they devoured my bank account). I joined the legion of impatient fans desperate for Martin to overcome the writer’s block he’s been suffering while struggling to complete the sixth book, A Dance With Dragons, although, as a fan of Isobelle Carmody (who began her Obernewtyn series in the 80s and is yet to complete it) I’m a little more understanding than most.

But what is so special about ASoIaF? Isn’t it just another vaguely historical, swords and sorcery epic fantasy? There are dragons and a ‘dark power brewing in the North’, after all, but there the resemblance to paint-by-numbers epic fantasy ends. ASoIaF is loosely based on the Wars of the Roses, one of the most violent, fratricidal, betrayal-filled periods of English history. The thing that has always struck me about the Wars of the Roses was their pointlessness. It was as if the country went insane for 100 years, experienced an orgy of killing, intrigue and backstabbing until all of the original combatants were dead, and then a victor who had sat back and enjoyed the show climbed over the corpses to get the prize. The struggles left the country reeling, ruined and disoriented, although the deaths of so many of the nobility would lead to great social mobility and change.

In ASoIaF, however, we haven’t got to the end of the battles yet. Martin appears to be wrapping up one of his main arcs (involving his versions of the Yorkists and Lancastrians, the Starks and Lannisters) and moving on to another arc involving Daenerys Targaryen, the Henry Tudor figure. Readers who have stuck with the series for the first five books have been treated to thousands of pages of death, battle, torment and brutality. ASoIaF is certainly not for the faint-hearted or the weak-stomached. A friend of mine warned me before I began reading that Martin was not averse to killing off main characters, and that no character was safe. There were moments where I was on the verge of tearing the book up, I was so angry with the injustice of what Martin was putting his characters through.

But at the same time, that injustice and emotional manipulation is what makes the series so refreshing. Martin has broken one of the cardinal rules of epic fantasy: moral uprightness does not protect a character from death. In most other fantasy series of this style, if a character’s cause is just and he or she is a good person, he or she survives. At worst, a character might die heroically, knowing he or she has ushered in a newer, better order. Martin doesn’t treat his readers like escapist idiots. Good women are abused and murdered, protective mothers see their sons die before their eyes and even children travel across the country, tortured, taken advantage of, emotionally abused, only to have their every hope and dream dashed before their eyes. Most importantly, people who put honour and morality and compassion before reason suffer the logical consequences of a dishonourable, immoral and cruel world.

This is the absolute opposite of what normally happens in fantasy novels, where such people are rewarded for their positive qualities. Martin also doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of war. Every battle he describes is followed by pages of narrative outlining the suffering meted out to the unfortunate peasants who happen to live nearby the site of the battle. Martin’s choices show great respect for fantasy readers, who are often dismissed as soft-hearted, dreamy fantasists, people who read speculative fiction for ‘escapism’.

There’s no escape here. Readers looking for a nice story about elves and dragons, with black and white morality and glorious heroism will be sadly disappointed. Those who like their fantasy to provide a window into reality will feel right at home.