For most readers David Robertson’s The Barren Grounds will be in many ways a familiar stroll through something similar to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. But despite all the ways in which this new Candian book for young readers parallels the classic story, The Barren Grounds is a powerful challenge to European ways of knowing that challenges readers of all ages to think about their own role in colonialism and through, on the land. These are themes that the target age demographic of the book might not be able to articulate, and I don’t want to make the entire argument for what young readers may or may not get from the book here, but as older readers of a story meant for children there are surprising layers which challenge set perspectives of the world. In particular I was continuously struck by the ways in which notions of ‘plenty’ and ‘enough’ were recontextualized in unfamiliar ways.Read More »
There is nothing particularly wrong with young adult fiction, it makes readers out of people who might not otherwise pick up a book, but it does rely on a different set of tropes. The ‘magic pixie dream girl’ trope is one of many to becoming a mainstay in teen books and is also the subject of mocking from the wider literary world. Some of that mocking is well deserved as it speaks to the continuing unrealistic representations of young women in media, but other aspects are just traits that make characters interesting to read about – especially in the kind of light fantasy that dominates YA books. The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater makes at least a marginal attempt to subvert this trope by having a cast of magic pixie dream boys instead. The boys are the compelling characters of the story and have the kinds of quirky, forceful personalities that are associated with the dream girl trope. Whether it is an intentional subversion or not, the Raven boys show off the best of a trope at the heart of many light fantasy books where traditional fantasy archetypes would seem out of place.Read More »
Lord of the Rings is not known for its subtle layers of moral complexity. There is no flicker of doubt regarding Sauron’s evil plans or the innate goodness of hobbits. JRR Tolkien was consistent in his use of clear moral coding both with characters and with world building which is particularly clear in the contrasting forests of Mirkwood and Lothlorien. It is a view of nature that is either wholly malevolent or wholly benevolent. There is a power in Tolkien’s forest that moves a reader to either fear or awe and occasionally a bit of fearful awe. The forests of the real world are not accompanied by such clear moral coding but is often able to provoke very similar emotions when one is immersed in them. The nature of the real world is indifferent to people, beautiful without the implication of virtue and dangerous without necessarily being out to get you.Read More »
Note: I have not read the rest of the books in the Darker Shade of Magic series, this is an opinion formed purely on the way the first book was written and my predictions about how the rest of the series panned out could easily be wrong.
It’s a fine line between subtly and cheesiness in most writing. This is especially true when the author is attempting to give attentive readers some insight into future plot twists. V.E. Schwab wavers across that line and the reading experience in A Darker Shade of Magic is heavily impacted by how willing the reader is to buy into both Schwab’s writing and their own intelligence. There are moments where expectation is built up and then allowed to sputter out while in other instances the hints seem less like hints and more like flashing neon signs. In a book with intriguing world building and an interesting cast of characters I found myself often willing to give the author the credit, but it is not the kind of masterful construction that leaves the reader in awe.Read More »
The notion of alternate universes lives in a strange place in popular imagination. It is used by popular movie franchises, debated by science and the topic of the occasional joke. The multiple universes of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia predate most of these interpretations and their presence is often forgotten within the wider image of Narnia. This image was somewhat reworked in Lev Grossman’s Narnia inspired Magicians books but the utilization of the multiverse remained quite similar. These books demonstrate the limitations of the notion of alternate universes because the readers are only able to focus on these worlds one at a time. So, in these conceptions the multiverse becomes a kind of back closet where characters and ideas can be shoved for later use before being pulled out at the appropriate moment. Both Lewis and Grossman us this strategy to great affect with good writing making the movement in and out of the multiverse feel smooth and blended with the more singular world of their stories.Read More »
Children in most fantasy fiction decidedly do not act their age but instead behave like adults whose appearance has just been adjusted for emotional impact. Most often this is in pursuit of giving the book a gritty or disturbing feel rather than an actual need for child characters. Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks is a shining example of this strategy and the incongruous ways the supposedly child characters behaved was a source of frustration throughout the entire book. There is a place for child characters, like in The Ender Series by Orson Scott Card where the setting and plot are truly dependent on the youth of the protagonists. Any mention of age in Way of Shadows is a source of immediate frustration and break in immersion which could have been solved either by letting go of the pretense of the character’s ages or by adopting a strategy more like the one in the Ender series.Read More »
Whether drawn from faiths in the real world or completely constructed by an author, divinities of all sorts are a useful way to explain the source of a character’s power. The ways in which these characters are positioned in relation to their presiding deity allows for different kinds of conflicts. In novels like R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy war the gods are distant and must be channeled through a person in order to operate in the real world. This model stands in opposition to that of series like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books where the power is innate to the character and cannot be revoked even if they should displease their patron (or in the case of the Percy Jackson books, their parent). The world and relationships enabled by these systems have very different feels and both Kuang and Riordan are able to use them to great effect.Read More »
There is no wiki for Jo Walton’s Among Others and even if there was it probably would not be particularly helpful. This is because unlike many other, more well-known fantasy stories, the magic the novel is not something that can be codified for fans to pour over the technicalities of. Instead Among Others is built around an informal magic system that the reader experiences only through Mori, the first-person narrator. Walton is very successful in moving focus away from the minutia of magic systems that are often at the heart of fantasy novels towards the ways in which Mori’s magic integrates with the real world. This is a novel that is successful in its world building choices but that also runs the risk of disappointing readers who expect to find a complex system to engage with.Read More »
Being a latecomer to an expansive fantasy world is often daunting and sometimes requires an unfortunate amount of trial and error to figure out where to begin. So, although authors may not have planned for their projects to end up quite so large it is still essential that their fantasy epics exist with some kind of structure to make them intelligible to readers arriving a little late to the party. The Forgotten Realms, particularly the extremely popular entries by RA Salvatore is a demonstration of the chaos that results when series organization becomes overly complex. On the other hand, the much less well-known Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell has a more accessible organization scheme. These of course are incredibly different series but ultimately their creators were facing the same problems about how to organize new additions to a series that was now more about a shared world than it was shared characters.Read More »
In gaming jargon, it’s called being overpowered but even if the discussion around fantasy literature lacks the vocabulary to pinpoint what makes certain book series loose their appeal, over powered characters are often at the heart of the issue. The way that fantasy stories tend to develop, both with larger plot points and the arc of the protagonists, often lead towards overpowered characters which then have to be somehow managed by their creators. J.K Rowling gave Harry that incredible power, but she also didn’t allow him to keep it – this was a well executed and mostly well liked as a strategy, but it is perhaps the obvious narrative choice. In contrast Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy gives Quentin near absolute power but rather than confiscating the power Grossman turns the narrative focus in such a way that it is not longer the great concern of the plot. The efficacy of these strategies is tied to the ways in which the authors tie magical ability to their character’s personality as well as the impact on the emotional moments of the story. It is a moment where the world building must integrate with the events of the text seamlessly and for maximum effect.
The culmination of this effect in the Harry Potter books is at the very end of the series as Harry fixes his own wand with the Elder Wand just before the end of the Deathly Hallows. It draws together world building elements that have been building since the moment Harry gains his wand in Ollivander’s and is told that his wand has a brother that will try and kill him through the irreparable damage to Ron’s wand in the second book and into the story of the terrible power of the Elder wand. Ultimately, Rowling is using these threads to bring a satisfying conclusion to the magic of her world without leaving Harry as some kind of god with a target on his back. There is no sense of loss when Harry chooses to set the Elder wand aside, rather she ties it to victory as that unlimited power is used to break the world building rules that made wands unfixable and give Harry a trophy of sorts. It is a masterful demonstration of what is possible when world building is well done and when the power that a character holds is well managed.
There was no way for Rowling to turn the series away from Harry as a hero or the Elder wand as a tool, but Lev Grossman’s Magicians is far less dependant on Quentin as savior so instead of placing limitations on him Grossman instead turns the reader away from Quentin’s arc. What makes Quentin successful as a narrator of Grossman’s world is his awe, and desire for absolute power without necessarily being a villain. Quentin’s awe made him a good student, it led him into Fillory and helped him become a magician for whom little if anything is out of reach. Early in the series Alice describes this state as the “wasteland of adult magic” and Grossman is faced with the challenge of creating tension in the conclusion to his trilogy even when his protagonist has few limitations. The solution that Grossman utilizes is not one of imposed restrictions on Quentin’s power, rather Quentin’s journey of magical learning begins to play second fiddle to the quests of those around him. While serving in a teacher role to Plum, the true protagonist of The Magician’s Land, Quentin’s power is far less of a concern. He has his own narrative arc in this book that considers how to use that virtually unlimited power but much of the character growth is centered on his place as mentor.
Both Rowling and Grossman are capitalizing on the elements of their world building that are unique and captivating for the reader in order to solve inevitable problems with over powered characters. Readers are still able to enjoy the connection between wizards, their wands, and the lore of the wizarding world at the end of the Deathly Hallows. There is a sense that these elements will continue to exist in balance with each other and that there may be future stories to come. Similarly, the joy of magical discovery is not lost in Grossman’s world even though Quentin is past the point at which his primary goal is the acquisition of skill and power because he is facing the new challenge of how to pass that power onto a student. Quentin takes his place in a chain of teachers and students that was obscured by his perspective in earlier books but is the bigger picture conclusion that the trilogy needed. These successes are built on the back of masterful world building by authors who take the time to consider the ways in which their world operates and how to use their own rules to shape characters who seem to have moved beyond limitations on their power.
Note: I have not watched the Magicians television show and am only speaking about the books.