borderline fantasy

I recently read two first fantasy novels, Lawrences’s Prince of Thorns and Hoffman’s The Left Hand of God, with the same (rotten) core idea, namely a teenager or even pre-teen exposed to violence, sadism, and mistreatment and becoming a perfect killer. The plausibility of the thing is not what bothers me, as the past years sadly demonstrated with the sad stories of child soldiers in central Africa. No, what I dislike is the borderline game turning them into characters we could identify with and like, despite their (mass) murdering.psychopathic inclinations. I know Nabokov stated in his initial lecture that this was not the point of literature, that it should not make the reader look for this identification (just as well when thinking of Humbert Humbert…!), but we are talking fantasy here, not the 19th century classic literature central to Nabokov‘s interests.

Anyway, back to my main theme, I wonder how we reached this stage. In a sense, fantasy always had been exposed to this slippery slope in that villeins are clearly identified and can be smashed to pulp without too many qualms. Take for instance the mother of all fantasy books, The Lord of the Ring: orcs and nazguls have extreme difficulties in creating empathy from the reader and the more ambivalent characters like Gollum or Boromir get their redemption moment… Same thing with Jordan’s Wheel of Time and its special brand of villeins, the Darkfriends, whose name unsubtly says it all. However, in the more recent literature, the tendency has been to increase the subtlety of the plot by painting the characters more into several shades of grey than in black or white, moving from “heroic” fantasy to “gritty” fantasy… The clearest recent example is found with Joe Abercrombie’s novels, where it is difficult to find a good guy! (The older Chronicles of Thomas Covenant also showed a strong moral ambiguity, but I frankly dislike them!) I am not contesting the literary value of books like Heroes, quite the opposite, but they make for a different reading where the reader is a spectator opening a rather smelly bag of fish. (Richard Morgan’s The steel remains also comes to mind.) In the case of those last two books I read, the plots are rather thin and the stories predictable, so I do not see the point in this exercise. (They both seem to have generated fierce debates on the fantasy forums, so I may not be the only one perplexed by the exercise.)

Out of the two books, Prince of Thorns stands the evaluation the best. While the reason why a gang of murderers obey a 14 year old remains unclear for the whole book, the story has some appealing features, even though I dislike fantasy mixed with science-fiction, in this case a post-nuclear future turned medieval and magic-laden. This is not however excusing the very gory beginning where villagers are slaughtered by this group simply for belonging to the wrong kingdom…

The second book, The Left Hand of God, is simply very poor: it starts with a warring religious order whose creed is vaguely Christian, and follows three young boys and an older girl escaping this order without much plausibility in the event. The only true battle of the book is an exact replica of the (French) disaster at Agincourt, where la furia francese and muddy fields decimated French nobility despite numerical if not tactical superiority. While this is acknowledged by the author, it gives an idea about the level of creativity in the book. Nothing to recommend.

8 Responses to “borderline fantasy”

  1. By the way, thanks for the heads up. I have a big weakness for pretty covers, so I’ve been eyeing this series for a while now. I can’t resist!

    The moment I read “why a gang of murderers obey a 14 year old” in your post, I was cured.

  2. I think your post brings up the underlying discussion of why books are written and why we read them. I’m a fan of the assassin romcom genre in movies and I like quite a few unapologetic assassin characters in books (Brust, Kage Baker, Eve Forward comes to mind; Robin Hobb does a more nuanced play with the idea in her Farseer books). If I had to inspect the reasons why, I enjoy the inversion and humor on the one hand, and the angst on the other (in the case of the more serious books).

    Perhaps these books are not much different from books where the heroes have similar mass-murdering tendencies in the name of “good” (you mentioned LotR as a great example). Would I be giving these books too much credit with the possibility that they may be a critical (and maybe subconscious) reaction against these horde-slaying heroes?

  3. Dan Simpson Says:

    The sequel to The Left Hand of God is so much worse than the first one. It goes much deeper into the church stuff (while the lead becomes more and more immoral) and ends up making the gentle farce of those Eddings books with Sparhawk look like the most sophisticated commentary on church politics ever.

    As a general, I loathe gritty (or worse – urban) fantasy. But every now an again I accidentally buy one and almost always loathe it (exception being the two by Lev Grossman, which were interesting). Give me a hero, a quest and a love interest (in any order) any day!

    • Thanks, Dan: I will keep you advice in mind whenever tempted by buyin the sequel. I take it you do not like Abercrombie’s Heroes then.

      • Dan Simpson Says:

        I actually haven’t read it. I keep almost buying it, but then thinking better of it…. I’m flying back home from Australia early next month (7 hour layover in Charles de Gaulle!!), so I’m going to need some stuff to read…

      • Seven hours in CDG: you should drop by Dauphine, we could have a cuppa and discuss stat, fantasy, life and all that!!!

      • Except it is “early next month”… I’ll be in India!

      • Dan Simpson Says:

        I don’t think *anyone* wants to see me after a flight from NZ. But I’ll take you up on it next time I’m heading in from a more sensible place at a more sensible time.

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