I’ve been seeking something easier (well, no, easy bores me…something comfortable) to read. Something lighter for commutes and workday lunch hours. I tried rereading a few classics of fantasy that I’d read as a kid (though not, purportedly, for kids), but they didn’t hold up so well. People say they mature as readers, but is that necessarily true? I suspect a large portion of readers don’t, and that may explain the concept of ‘universal appeal’.
Glancing over a friend’s bookshelves I saw a handful of books by Cynthia Voigt, firmly in the young adult realm, and we’re not talking fantasy here. The name tickled my memory meat, and after a couple of days I recalled being gifted, as a child, her book Wings of a Falcon. A little research told me this was the third in a young adult fantasy series (loosely connected) by the author.
My curiosity was now piqued, so I got my hands on the first three (now repackaged) of her Tales of the Kingdom series. I remember that I dipped in a couple of times to that third volume, but never got far. I wanted my fantasy to have flailing swords, gouts of blood, grand battles. Instantly this took me now, and lulled me in.
Where a lot of YA fiction puts me off is that it can come across as shrill and immature. I read it, wondering, do people really think adolescents talk/think that way? Were you never an adolescent? My hunch is that this reflects not the author pitching to an adolescent ear, but rather being immature themselves, or at least lacking in empathy. Not that this is unique to YA(-marketed) fiction; there is plenty of fantasy aimed at adults which is, well, juvenile in sensibility.
Voigt writes with maturity, and while I can see how that might have turned me away as a young kid, it does credit to its audience. An adolescent character doesn’t have to be a precocious genius to be a thoughtful character study, nor do they have to be shrill and naïve to convincingly appeal to young adults, or ‘literally, like speak like this?’ to make sure the reader pegs her age.
The main character in the first book of Voigt’s Kingdom series is a strong, young female, and while the character critiques the patriarchal social structure etc, the story doesn’t fall prey to what I have found in much recent SFF, which is the author wedging in every current hot button social justice issue, as though to demarcate themselves and insist to their ideal social-media savvy audience that they are not leaving anything out, and usually this is just clumsily done and leads to eye-rolling or the flinging of books across rooms. The prose is controlled. Read the first few pages—there are no peacock feathers fanning in the verbiage, just smooth and assured storytelling. The flow of the sentences is clean and subtle. The details evocative, precise, and immersive.
The series deals with some well-trod tropes, has familiar stories and details, but I never felt like I’ve read this before. And I was comfortably tugged along with the tales to see what happened. It certainly was at times unpredictable, even dark—again, it gives credit to its audience.
I suspect some will find parts of it slow. This isn’t a criticism I’d attach, but this first was published in 1985—I suspect if it was first published now it would be paced differently. It is actually a comforting pace. It fits, because we are reading about a slow place in the world. It is worldbuilding by showing, not telling, and it certainly held my attention throughout. The only possible criticism I’d make of pacing is that the ending of the first two seemed to tumble out a touch hastily.
Crucially, I didn’t sigh and think, oh great the story of an innkeeper’s son/daughter, here we go rags to riches. And not because it’s startlingly unpredictable, but it is just engaging enough to draw you into that world. Incidentally, if I start a book that begins with, or quickly flashes back to (after, say, a great prologue or first chapter), the main character’s time at school/academy/university/dueling(/assassin/wizard)-school/etc as the first act, that book is usually firmly placed at the base of the room’s far wall—that’s backstory, folks, and you have a couple of paragraphs at best to convince me you’re doing something new and interesting with the trope, or you’ve lost a reader. Maybe a tough audience.
I think what Voigt’s Kingdom books deal with is a set of very fundamental questions for young adults: are you what you are born, or what you become? Do the clothes, or the title, or role, define a person, or are they free to choose their destiny? Good meat for YA fiction.
And these fundamental questions take on a new light for me: as part of a generation that can, in fact, be anything, what are our fundamental questions? If fantasy is metaphor, and its power is to give power to the powerless, then these fundamental questions do still exist for those who remain powerless. But what are my questions? Are they different, and is it in writing and existing in a state of privilege that I can ignore them? The questions don’t disappear, and for those who don’t have power, they are as vital as ever.
What role then does fantasy have in rediscovering, or forefronting such questions, and the powerless for whom it can speak? Is it because of relative privilege that engagement with such questions of social justice becomes a denotation of stance rather than honest exploration?
And for me is the powerful metaphor of these books that it was not in fact a nostalgic return to fantasy, of the things I grew up reading, but rather that it was a reminder, that there still exist the powerless, the innocent, for whom such fundamental questions still exist?
Voigt makes the argument that generations pass, and the questions may rear their heads in different fashion, but there will always be the powerless for whom fantasy can be the power.
So in looking for something comforting, I certainly found it in a YA series I couldn’t get into as a kid. It took me to that nostalgic frame of mind, cold winter nights, reading by the fire. That open state of mind where you get dragged into a fantastical world. This is the sort of fiction I’d want my children to read.
As I have begun to read the second book in this trilogy, what has struck me as an inherent challenge, and by extension an underlying theme, is the idea of rendering the abstract into words, into something known, concrete. To sculpt something tangible from abstract ideas, making physical change.
Of course the voice must be the blind poet’s, for how better to represent the challenge of making the abstract comprehensible, when that in itself cannot be seen. Without objectivity, there can only be subjectivity, and in subjectivity, there is all manner of truth.
At the beginning of this second instalment, we are confronted with the difficulty of facing the real, the concrete, the brutal truth, and in fact we shy away from it—much like being confronted by the blood of violence as opposed to the revelry in pronouncements of war. Not only is it impossible to portray the concrete, even when an attempt is made it is bound to fall short. It must be couched in known, shared terms. The symbolic lies between abstract and concrete, like shadow between dark and light.
I wrote in Sleight of Hand that the underpinning thesis of the Malazan Book of the Fallen was that no experience can be related, without living it itself—and so the journey of those books was the journey of the reader, becoming by doing. Here we are being shown a corollary of that idea, that the abstract cannot be portrayed or related—only the true experience holds the full effect.
And in the voice of the blind poet, the ink of this writer, we are seeing that problem laid bare, even as the very point necessitates its impossibility. The writer is discovering, reflexively, as this story progresses. The question now is, like in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, do we come along for the ride, do we live something in the concrete by experiencing this journey? Will we flinch from its truths even as it is dressed in a poet’s flourish? That is the holy grail for the artist—to communicate in the concrete, stripping away the symbolic layers and making it real.
There is of course a lot more going on here, but I’m interested to see if this thesis holds through the remainder of this book and the end of the trilogy.
Here is the first chapter of Freedom in Arbin, the final instalment of the Arbin Trilogy.
Freedom in Arbin will be available in the coming days. Stay tuned for links and updates!
Bone white ice capped Arbin like a prison. If I closed my eyes, I could pretend it wasn’t there, that the city was but a figment of my dreams, and I floated weightless in a void, bodiless, just the sum of all my memories and pain.
Were it not for the infernal cold.
I shivered, hunched almost double as I looked out of the small waist-high window of the loft apartment down to the dead street below. Snow lay thick on the ground, though it had stopped falling. Undulations streetside under eaves where drifts occasionally fell from nearby roofs, no longer able to bear its own weight, with the frequent noise invariably shattering my sleep. A lone stagger of bootprints in the pearly carpet had been filled in over hours, now just a dim outline. Windows and doors across were tightly shuttered, and I had yet to see them any other way. The busier streets and, I assumed, those north of the rivers, were regularly cleared by the few city employees that could be roused from hibernation. But here all was forgotten. Well, we tried. Read the rest of this entry »
To what extent can we say that, in confronting the Otherness of Nature, humanity is confronting its own essence, the negative core of its own being? Speculatively, this is obviously true, since nature appears as a threatening Otherness only from the standpoint of a subject who perceives itself as opposed to nature: in the threatening negativity of nature, the subject receives back the mirror-image of its own negative relationship towards nature. –Zizek, Living in the End Times
Barely a video or article is produced that is critical of our ways of life, our over-consumption, the lack of political action on climate change, or resource depletion, without somebody piping up with the mantra of ‘yes, that’s all well and good, but maybe we should talk about overpopulation?’ Read the rest of this entry »
I have been dancing around the idea of reflexive authorship in the fantasy genre, calling for conscious, empathic work. This rarely happens in isolation, and I would argue that strong critical voices are vital, perhaps necessary, to fostering that reflexivity in the genre.
If fantasy is to maintain any sort of standing as a subversive literature, there must be critical foundations to build and break. We must demand, as readers and writers, for critical voices, to foster our own reflexivity, and advance the conversation. There is no point becoming involved in a circular conversation—the best you can do is recite the known lines in unison. You must shift the conversation, intercept it, subvert it. Read the rest of this entry »