Get medieval November 7, 2010Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl.
Tags: a song of ice and fire, books, crossroads, fantasy novels, george r r martin, jo walton, juniper and wise child, kate elliott, monica furlong, susan cooper, the dark is rising
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?
First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up December 18, 2008Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: alt-history, books, fangirl, jo walton, philip pullman, review, roma sub rosa, sally lockhart, spoilers, steven saylor
Wow. Just, wow. It’s been a while since I finished a book and then sat in stunned silence, but that’s what happened today after I read Jo Walton’s book Farthing, which is the first in a trilogy. I’ve loved Walton since her alternate-universe Arthurian series, The Tir Tanagiri Saga, which I regard as the best Arthurian retelling I’ve ever read. While a lot of other Arthurian stories manage to take the familiar plot and make it say something about their own times, very few manage to get right to the heart of what the Matter of Britain really means. In Farthing, Walton takes another set of well-known genres (in this case, the country-house murder mystery, and the ‘what if the Nazis had won’ alternate-history) and gets straight to the heart of them. However, she is clearly using them to say something about our own times, too.
This makes her the most recent in a chain of authors who use (and subvert) the conventions of historical crime novels to make important points about the times in which we live. If you pick your crimes carefully, you can make them stand as metonyms for the crimes and iniquities of a whole society.
Steven Saylor has been doing this for years with his Roma Sub Rosa series. These are pretty much my favourite crime novels. They’re set over about 30 years (and counting), from the last days of Sulla’s dictatorship to the end of the Republic and Caesar’s rise to power. I expect (or at least hope) that they’ll continue on after Caesar’s assassination, since the last few books seem to have been building up to that point. Each book follows the narrator, an Everyman called Gordianus the Finder, who acts as a detective (if such a thing had existed in ancient Rome) to Rome’s rich and powerful. Each book takes place at a turning point on the road from Republic to Empire (the brief rise to power of the demagogue Catalina, the murder of Clodius, Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, to name a few examples), with Gordianus become more and more cynical, more and more privately outraged at the slow erosion of everything that made him proud to be a Roman. Saylor’s point is hard to miss: in sacrificing democracy (or at least the semi-democracy that existed in Rome) for security, we end up with a society neither democratic nor secure, and a society not worth saving. By the time we get to the latest book, The Triumph of Caesar, published in late 2007, Saylor’s outrage spills over into his Author’s Note:
Erich Gruen has speculated that the statue of Cleopatra in the Temple of Venus Genetrix was placed there not by Julius Caesar (as Appian explicitly states), but later, by Augustus, as a trophy after the queen’s defeat and death. This is an eminently sensible idea; nevertheless, I prefer to take Appian at his word. Caesar’s installation of the statue presents us with a puzzle, to be sure, but so do many actions taken by our own leaders. Because an act by, say, a president of the United States did not make sense to a reasonable person does not mean that the act did not take place. I would suggest that the type of man who thinks he can rule the world is not, by definition, a reasonable man, and the actions of such men inevitably leave us with vexed questions that defy explanation by sensible historians.
-Steven Saylor, Author’s Note to The Triumph of Caesar, pp. 270-1.
So, yes, Caesar is Bush, Rome is the United States and Egypt can be made to stand in for the modern Middle. East. And all the time we have poor, decent, outraged Gordianus, an old-fashioned Roman who just wants to live in his lovely new Palatine house and endure his beautiful wife’s appalling cooking and watch his grandchildren grow up, constantly dragged out into an increasingly cruel, heartless world of political manouvring that the word ‘intrigues’ is too tame to describe.
Jo Walton appears to be doing a similar thing with Farthing. The book is set in a subtly different Britain, one which did a peace-deal with Hitler that kept the carnage (and the genocide of the Jews) out of sight across the Channel. In 200 beautifully written pages, she attempts to answer the question that has been plaguing us for over sixty years: how did decent people allow this to happen?
The answer, as usual, is a combination of indifference and self-interest. Remember that little parable (if that’s the right word) that you’d often see stuck up in school counsellors’ offices as a warning against being a bystander to bullying? ‘First they came for the Jews, but I did not speak up, because I was not a Jew…etc.’ That is half of the answer. The other half of the answer is provided by Carmichael, the police detective charged with investigating the country-house murder of a rising political star (the negotiator of the ‘Peace with Honour’ with Hitler). I can’t say much more here without revealing major spoilers, but anyone who reads the final chapter without their heart breaking for the man clearly didn’t have a heart to begin with.
Philip Pullman did a similar thing in the final of his Sally Lockhart Mysteries, The Tiger in the Well. This is certainly the best of the series, and it, like Walton’s book, uses persecution of the Jews (in this case in late 19th-century Europe) as an analogy for the contemporary indifference that allows for cruelty to the contemporary avatars of the persecuted Jews.
I’m thinking here of one particular moment. Poison-tongued agitators have whipped up the poor of the East End into an anti-Semitic fury, and Daniel Goldberg, a Jewish socialist and journalist, confronts the mob. He’s been awake all night, he’s been running around London trying to find his ally Sally’s kidnapped daughter, he’s been shot, and yet he calmly walks up to the mob and gives one of the greatest political speeches ever found in a work of fiction. I don’t have my book with me, so I can’t quote it word for word, but in it he manages to address the reasonable fears of the mob, show them how those fears have been manipulated by those who caused them, into hatred of the Jews, who did not, and redirect their anger back at the casual, indifferent cruelty of the rich. In a few glorious lines, he turns the blood libel, the ancient anti-Jewish slur, into an attack on the rapacious cruelty of 19th-century capitalism. “Of course we should hate people who sacrifice children,” he says, “but ask yourselves, who sacrificed your children?” (or words to that effect). I still cry every time I read it.
It’s indifference, then, and fear. We care too much about ourselves, and not enough about others. And for every Carmichael, every Dan Goldberg and Sally Lockhart, and every Gordianus the Finder, outraged every time that man’s inhumanity to man confirms his suspicions about human nature, there are millions of us, indifferent and terrified, to push our society that much closer to repression.