The Wild Ones

The door to the tavern opens, spilling raucous noise into the muddy street.  Under the soot-stained beams, a motley crowd of scarred heroes and villains hunch round worn tables, barely looking up from their cards or dice.  Hooded mystery men sit in dark corners, while here and there a stocky dwarf or green-clad elf stands out from the crowd.  A nervous enchanter tries to keep his arcane robes clean while bargaining with three members of a disreputable guild.  A buxom barmaid smiles with unlikely enthusiasm, while the surly bartender grudgingly offers you a chipped flagon of frothing ale.

Ahh, home!

Any fantasy fan should recognise this archetypal place, and feel immediately comfortable in the world.  There won’t be too many surprises here, but there is the strong whiff of adventure about the place (even over the stale beer) and you know you are in for a fun ride.  Sometimes this is the sort of fantasy you want – cosy, familiar, with stock characters like old friends and stock settings you hardly need a map for.

Sometimes, however, you open a book and think, “Where the hell am I?”

There are books out there pushing the boundaries of Fantasy, and even the definition.  Sure, we all love a cosy setting for a D&D campaign or an RPG, but after a while the tropes grow stale, the setting looks long in the tooth, and long for something that will blow your mind.  And there are certainly books out there that will do that!  Sometimes it brilliant characterisation or devilish plotting that sets a book apart, but I suppose the books I’m thinking of are the ones that blur the lines between fantasy and science fiction.

Now, we all know that genre is a spectrum anyway, and I’m not a great one for pigeonholing sub-genres with names, so I’ll try to avoid labels here*.  However, some fantasy writers do seem to take a sci-fi approach to their storytelling, and I don’t just mean fantasy with futuristic elements (Star Wars, anyone?).  I mean starting with a hypothesis and seeing where it takes them.

In support, I will throw in a convenient definition:

A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. 

Robert A. Heinlein (via wikipedia)

And a famous quote:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clark

So, if you merely substitute ‘past’ or ‘alternate world’ for ‘future’, and magic for advanced technology, what really is the difference between the fantasy stories I’m thinking of and science fiction?

Let’s take two examples (briefly): Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire, and Robert J Bennett’s City of Stairs.  Both are great books which I highly recommend, and both do a great job of exploring the consequences of central premises that set their world apart from ours.

In Mirror Empire, societies have different social practices, satellites impart magical power, and there is (no surprise) a parallel, mirror universe where things have gone very differently.  Also, plants eat people.  If this sounds ridiculously complex, well, it is, and the greatest part is that nothing is a throwaway.  Everything plays a part in how the people, societies and nations of the world have evolved.  After all, you couldn’t expect things to look just like Earth when the trees are the apex predators!

In City of Stairs, the premise is that the gods were real, physical presences in the world and played a huge part in shaping the lives of their followers.  This has consequences not just for the people, but for the gods themselves and the very fabric of the world – especially when the gods disappear.   Gods are a common element in fantasy, but this books is one of few true explorations of the effect living gods would have on religion and society.  Too often fantasy religions are cheap copies of our own, unrealistically marginalised, or non-existent, but this book tackles the subject head-on, with spectacular results.

Just for fun, let’s look at one example of a fantasy series with an interesting central premise that DOESN’T seem to follow through on it at all: A Song of Ice and Fire.  Now, we all know that ‘Winter is coming’, but I still don’t have a good idea what that means, or how the world deals with it.  Years-long winter would surely have a devastating effect on society, and cultures would have to have evolved lots of mechanisms to deal with it.  Where are the massive silos or storehouses?  Where are the migrating hordes of every sort of animal?  What happens to Blackwater Bay when the water level drops due to ice formation?  The only consequence seems to be the White Walkers, and nobody seems to care about them.

Contrast this with the onset of Ice Age in Michael Scott Rohan’s Winter of the World, or the keeps built in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath Trilogy that could so easily be a refuge from winter as from the Dark.  Yes, the true premise of ASOIAF could be ‘what if there was a world where everyone were assholes?’, and it does a great job exploring that, but it seems to miss opportunities elsewhere.  There are other examples of this, I’m sure.

I would argue that all of this is just good worldbuilding, and should be done in whatever book you are writing, fantasy, sci-fi or other.  The handy thing about stock settings is that everything is already set up for you, and most consequences already anticipated.  However, when a lazy author chucks one change into a stock world without following through, readers may notice.  Take the simple and common addition of magic users to an otherwise western medieval society.  Often books explore what problems this would create (distrust, fear, power-grabs, war) but don’t seem to spend time on the consequences magic might have outside the political or personal sphere.

Why hasn’t magic solved world hunger or improved sanitation, construction, manufacturing or transport?  If it can cure diseases, what is the effect of excellent health on lifespan and population?  If magic can create energy or transform objects, would this ruin the non-magical economy?  Many books seem to mention magical birth-control, but when was the subsequent sexual revolution and women’s lib movement, now that half the population could stop living in fear of pregnancy (which, without magical healing, was often fatal)?

Ok, I’m sure you could come up with a few good answers here, and I don’t want to get into the ‘magic has to have rules and/or limits’ discussion.  I suppose I revisit the theme of earlier screeds on history and wolrdbuilding – you shouldn’t take anything for granted.

And every once and a while, let a book blow your mind.

* Yeah, I think some people might call it ‘hard fantasy’, but I find the ‘hard/soft’ dichotomy too pejorative and problematic, even when applied to Sci-Fi.

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The Withy King

In this “deep cut” from my WIP novel, The Winter Warrior, a small group of fugitives is hunted through a wintry wasteland, where cold and hunger aren’t the worst enemies…

lion image: Denis Marsili

They made camp that night in a dense thicket of broad-leafed bushes, clustered within a ring of giant silverbarks. Djoran studied the formation of the grove with some interest; Iain, like the rest, cared only for its remarkable security. However, as Britha gives, she takes away: a branch had snagged Iain’s precious pouch of meal, and all but a few grains had spilled out somewhere along their trail.

When Djoran left to forage for more food, no-one so much as offered to help. They looked too numb to have been any help anyway, and Iain saw the need to do something to lift their spirits—his own as much as anyone’s. Considering how well hidden they were by the bushes, he allowed Skulë to light a small fire. It gave out just enough heat to thaw their drawn, weary faces, and had begun to warm through to Iain’s heart as well, when a deep voice boomed out.

“How dare you bring fire into my sacred grove?”

The outburst—the loudest sound they had heard in days—seemed directly behind him. Iain sprawled forward, tangling with his companions. Before anyone managed to fumble out of their cloaks to stand or draw a sword, something had stepped into the middle of their circle, right on top of their fire.

Staring down at them was perhaps the strangest of all the creatures they had yet encountered. The first thing Iain noticed was its massive head, like a lichen-covered stone—egg-shaped, bearded with moss, and crowned with creeper-like hair which seemed to be in bloom. As the figure was no taller than Skulë, its head accounted for a third of its height, nestled between hunched shoulders. A tunic of leaves, like densely woven ivy, clothed the round body, while grey skin like gnarled bark showed below. Arms like the trunks of young silverbarks ended in hands that were its most human feature. Supporting the whole were two stumpy legs—thick as a man’s torso—that seemed to have taken root in the soil.

“Now, begone,” it said, “and plague me not with your sorrows. I have already spared your lives out of pity, for it is unseasonably cold.”

Only, Iain realised, it was not. Despite the loss of their fire, the air seemed warm and fresh. Light, not from any visible source, filled the space about the green figure. The snow around its rooted feet had given way to grass, which grew even as he watched.

“If you cannot move, I shall have to move you!” the thing said, but his audience were so stunned that none of them had moved more than their eyes.

With great effort, Iain found words and stammered out a reply, wishing for once that the know-it-all harper was with them. “Please, lord, we do not seek shelter from the cold alone, but there are fell creatures hunting us.”

“This is none of my concern, and I grow impatient.”

“But we carry news that must get through,” Arethain said. “The fate of the world may depend on it.”

The creature’s laugh was like the crackle of leaves underfoot, though its blank expression did not change. “What care I for the world of men, who use my trees for burning and building?”

“It is not only the world of men,” said Brienna. “The very sun has left the sky. How can your trees grow without the sun?”

Her sharp thinking gave the creature pause. “What makes you think you can save the world?”

“We seek to find and destroy the evil that blights the land,” replied Arethain.

“Pah! That alone will not stop the King of Night.”

“But it will help, surely,” Arethain said. “We are of the same side in this.”

“I do not take sides, child. I walk my own way. Always have.”

“And if that means you will walk forever in darkness?” Brienna asked.

“The gods would not allow it.”

Iain thought he heard tones of uncertainty. He also noticed it spoke of gods as if it were not one; after meeting Baegeri, he had assumed it was. Recalling what Djoran had once said to him, he replied: “The gods help those who help themselves. If we do not get through, there may be no hope for the gods here in the east.”

Again the creature paused to consider, its stony face impassive, its bottomless eyes staring into the distance. Iain wished he knew what it was, but felt it rude to ask.

“Perhaps what you say is true,” it said at last. “You may stay here this night, as long as there are no fires.” The green figure turned away, to the sound of ripping roots.

“Wait!” Iain called. “We need not stay here if you can show us a secret way through the hills, a path where no-one goes.”

“And a bridge,” added Skulë, his voice smaller than Iain had ever heard.

“You dare ask more of the Withy King, when I have been most generous!”

The name meant nothing to Iain, but he used it. “Yes, O Withy King, because our need is so dire.”

Leaves rustled over the stony bulk. For a moment Iain thought he had gone too far, but the moment passed and the Withy King grew still again. Iain now saw how the yellow flowers ringing its vine-covered head made a sort of crown, but what it was king of, he had no idea. Perhaps it was these woods; perhaps it was all forest everywhere, or all trees. It was obviously no king of men.

“There is such a path I could show you, that will be safe from all hunters. Know it is not my path, but the run of Lady Gwil, and if she likes you not then so be it. This path will lead you to a ford of boulders that you can cross.”

“That fits our need perfectly, O gracious king!” said Arethain. “How can we thank you?”

“You shall know my price in time,” the king said, turning away and walking from the glade with deceptive speed. They had to gather their possessions quickly, but at least its shroud of light made it easy to track through the pitch black forest. It lead them up the hill and into thick evergreens, a path seeming to open before it and close afterwards. Iain worried that Djoran might not be able to track them, but the Withy King moved so swiftly that there was nothing he could do. He thanked Gryf the march did not last long.

“Here is the path; follow it and none shall track you.”

Stretching before them was a narrow deer-run, straight and clear, between thick walls of leaf and branch. It looked common enough, but they would never have found the entrance if not for their guide.

They turned back to thank the Withy King again, but it was gone.

History and Fantasy: how much is not enough?

A version of this originally appeared on my Tumblr, over a year ago.

So, my current WIP, The Winter Warrior, would probably be described as historical fantasy. Now, this can mean a lot of things, apparently, from historical fiction with a bit of magic to secondary world fantasy with a bit of borrowed history.  As such, I find it quite problematic as a genre, incorporating as it does traditional medieval fantasy, steampunk and classical legend.  It’s so broad as to be meaningless, differing only from, say, urban fantasy in that it happens in the past, and could overlap with almost any other genre.  So it might as well be called ‘fantasy’.

Good example of fantasy medieval: it’s evocative – but why is a working gate in such disrepair?

At this point I’m not really sure what it leaves out. There are very few fantasies out there without some echoes of history, and these echoes are why I like fantasy in the first place. For me, it is what adds value to fantasy, looking to the myths of the past whereas sci-fi takes the forward-thinking, experimental approach. So, by those broader definitions, I suppose I write historical fantasy.

So why do I shy away from so much of it?

Mainly what I have trouble with is alternate history with real people  (or even pseudo-historical people like King Arthur) and places, but dragons or magic thrown in. For alternate history fantasy, I suppose it’s because I like history the way it was, and find it difficult to accept it any other way. History has great stories to tell, and often more fantastically than the fantasy imitations. I would rather get to know the real stories better, than read them with added dragons. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but that it took me a while to pick it up, and the interface with history still bothered me now and then.

And even when it’s not labelled as alternate history, too many books stray too close to the real past. I’ve stopped reading some books because I could see through them. I love Glen Cook, but Instrumentalities of the Night had too many direct analogues at the start that I had to put it down. I did finish The Red Knight, but it made a lot more sense when I realised author Miles Cameron was also historical fiction author Christopher Cameron, and I wished he’d been a bit more creative (it was good, but I’ll read Christopher from now on).

So how do I reconcile my love of history with fantasy world building? I think the trick is to get inspiration from history, but nothing as specific as real people, places or events. The excellent Guy Gavriel Kay is on a tour of medieval Europe, but probably gives it a long enough lens. GRRM may have not strayed far from Yorks and Lancasters, but paints the rest with a fairly broad brush. Still, for all his vaunted complexity and gritty realism, it has nothing on real history.

I’ve come to realise, however, that I like a bit of medieval realism in fantasy I read or write because it is often more alien, more fantastic than anything that evolves completely from the modern imagination.  Modern assumptions or details come across as lazy, or take me out of the world by their anachronism.  Fantasy books (and especially games) are often set in a very generic world that is more renaissance than medieval.  That’s fine as long as it is internally consistent and rationalised, but most of the time the modern touches are just a missed opportunity to do something even more interesting.  

And just to be clear, the lazy anachronisms I’m talking about are things like paper, toilets, baths, bedrooms, atheism, “teenagers”, hours/minutes/seconds, hay bales, jargon, etc.…not people of colour, strong women or LGBT characters.  You may be surprised to learn that history is replete with the latter, and so it turns out exclusions can be just as lazy as inclusions!  

So, at the end of the day, all I’m asking is, don’t be lazy.

(And I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way: back when I first posted this, I did a quick search to see what old ground I was going over here, and I found a rant from two years ago…which these guys had just revisited themselves two weeks before. Ouroboros indeed!)

Indie Fantasy: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

For several reasons (explained by other, more professional authors) I won’t be regularly reviewing other books on this blog.  Though I do have Goodreads, I won’t be panning any books even on there (3-star is not necessarily a pan, btw – thoughts on star ratings for another time!).

On the other hand, I do think it’s worth talking about the state of the field wherein I’m trying to work, which means both Indie/self-published authordom and SFF as a genre.  This post is about the intersection of the two, and how it seems to have played out.

The Good

So, I’ll start off by saying that I haven’t (yet) found a self-published SFF book that rises above the best of published fiction.  I have read a few that I thought were better than some published books I’ve read, but overall the system works to get the best books out there.  I already have a large TBR pile of published books that are probably better (especially technically better) than almost anything I’ll turn up from indie authors.  But I still go looking…why?

To my mind, the self-publishing boom is Good because it increases the breadth and variety available.  Everybody has a certain type of book they love to read, and sometimes the requirements of this book are very particular.  For years, most of the books on the shelves at Borders (yeah, back then) weren’t really crying out to me to be read.  I’m sure most of them were good, but they weren’t for me.  This is one of the reasons I started writing my own, but the rise of indie books has definitely increased reader choice.

Not “Traitor’s Blade”, that’s a different book.

One of the first indie ebooks I found was the incredibly obscure “Traitor Blade” trilogy (really one book) by Richard Crawford.  I’m not sure how I found it, and I’ve not met anyone else who’s read it (the author isn’t even particularly visible on-line), but I really enjoyed the book.  It very strongly invoked a 14th/15th C medieval era, with intriguing characters and just enough magic to make it fantasy.  It was pretty much written for me.  Sure, it had a few rough edges, but overall I thought it easily a match for most published fantasy, and a much much better match for me than almost any other book.

So, this is what indie fantasy can do: it increases the chances of you finding the right book for you, which is always special.  I’ve found a couple more since, and I’m so glad I had the chance to read them.

The Bad

On the other hand, the vast majority (and there is a vastness to the indie ranks these days) don’t rise above mediocrity.  For a large majority, there is a clear reason they wouldn’t be published.  Not that they are terrible, just that they aren’t good: generic setting, stock characters, by-the-numbers plot.  Some of these books are perfectly readable, if you are looking for something that doesn’t rock the boat.  There are writers out there churning out the electronic equivalent of pulp fiction – cheap, fun, reliable adventures, often in serial form – and making a good living out of it.  Just nothing life-changing.

I’m not trying to knock this too much, because I think it’s great that all these authors can share their stories.  I’m working towards being one of them, after all!  It’s just odd when perfectly average books get loads of 5-star reviews, like people are celebrating this mediocrity.  I guess it’s similar to the X-factor effect.

At the end of the day, even if these books aren’t great, you usually aren’t paying as much for them.  Some are even free!

The Ugly

There are various types of ugly in the indie/self-pub market.  The most frequent gripe of readers is the lack of professional editing: typos, misspellings, bad grammar and usage.  I can let a few honest errors go (especially in a free book!), but ignorant ones do start to grate.  Not that trad. published books are always error-free, but you generally get a better quality product after a pro edit (which, to be fair, some self-published authors do pay for).

Other uglies include terrible covers, painful prose, unwitting anachronisms, broken plots and all sorts of other offences against writing and publishing.  The worst part of this is that somebody should have caught these – if not the author themselves, then a beta reader or the first person who reads the free sample on Amazon.  Which is why sometimes you want to comment, not to be mean, but to give the author a chance to rescue the book – and to warn readers off something just not ready for the public.

And the ugliest part is when authors refuse to accept that their magnum opus isn’t a masterpiece.  It’s rare that a writer’s first finished novel is unquestioned brilliance, and most authors have buried these monstrosities in a dark corner of their hard drives.  Unfortunately, today it’s all too easy to upload these ‘trunk novels’ to Amazon, where they should quietly sink into oblivion.  If the author learns their lesson, all well and good.

But there are still some authors who will insist everyone should love their staggering work of genius, that will invest on advertising, flashy websites, covers far too good for what’s inside, paid reviews and the rest, and then rumble round the internet with a huge chip on their shoulder when they never come close to making their money back.  There’s nothing uglier than an author responding to a honest, critical review to explain why the reviewer is wrong.  Now, I worked in retail enough to know that even though the customer is not *literally* always right, but you still don’t argue with them, especially when it’s something as objective as books.

TL:DR

So, am I really down on indie publishing?  It’s frustrating, to be sure, with all these authors out there clamouring to be read, especially when a fair few of them have published pretty poor products.  I’m not sure which direction the market is going, but I do think we need new systems for separating the good from the bad (or the ugly).  Current rating systems are getting to easy to game, and with so few people willing to give critical reviews (like I said, I won’t, as a professional courtesy).  And then there’s the worry about what this all means for authors earnings.  But I do think the publishing is evolving in the exciting ways, and I’m enjoying the ride so far.

What do you think?  What gems have you unearthed in this brave new world?

Reunion

In this scene from my forthcoming fantasy novel, The Winter Warrior, exiled Iain of Cryteth visits his mother at the convent where he has found out she is staying.

“Hello Mother.”

For a moment, the Lady Ivraine stood as a statue. Then, quietly, she said, “Son, have you no thought for your mother with such surprises? Barely a word in eight years, and now you stand before me without any warning. I have half a mind to exchange you for this nice youth…”

The torrent of words turned to tears, and he closed her in his arms. Silence reigned for a while as they stood in the light of the window.

“Mother I am sorry, but I could not send word ahead. I only learned you were here two days hence.”

“Well,” she said, drying her eyes with an imperious dab of her handkerchief, “I don’t suppose I should expect my son to keep track of me. If I but knew where you were I would have gladly informed you on whose hospitality I was currently relying.”

“Mother…”

“No, let’s not speak of it. I am sure you have some very pretty excuses—you always did. Tell me why you are here, and why you are hiding under that ridiculous cloak. Are you servant to this young man now? If you expect me to buy your freedom…”

“Come now, mother, be gentle; my squire is unused to your humour.” Indeed, Borathain stood by the door, studying the embroidery of the nearest tapestry.

“Ah, he is your squire, then,” Ivraine said. “But does he have a name?”

“He is Borathain, son of Borwain of Tothill, and he has been with the company these past few years.”

“Well then, you must leave him with me some day so I can hear all about what you have been doing. Yul knows I shall not get such information from you!”

“I have been doing little of interest, mother, beyond waiting to return home. And having no sense of how my return would be received, I felt it prudent to hide my presence.” He could not bear to admit the true tale.

“You weren’t always such a careful lad—there may be hope for you yet. Still, I would have liked to see how Prince Arethain greeted the heir to his usurped castle.”

For the first time, true bitterness crept into her voice—and sadness, too. Iain reached out again to clasp her arms. “And how are the healers treating you?”

“Oh, well enough,” she said. “Ria has always been a gracious host whenever I visit.”

“Then you have not taken the vows?”

“Of course not! My wardens want me where I can be watched, and this is as comfortable a prison as any I could have. I prefer the quiet here. These hills hold fond memories.”

Lady Ivraine paused, staring out the window at the grey skies and grey hills. Iain studied her familiar face. Time may have added lines around her eyes and wisps of white to her bound hair, but it could not soften the set of her jaw nor quench the fire in her eyes.

“Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier just to retreat to Ria’s bosom, or take Britha’s veil…but no, I will be the thorn in their sides as long as I still breathe.”

“But what of your dowry lands?”

“The Queen has made me her ward, confiscated me like your father’s chattels.”

“How can they do this?”

“It is the new law brought by the new faith. Their god would not have women inherit, nor hold her own lands—not that it stops the Queen! Neither will they allow me to re-marry.” She gave a sharp laugh. “Certes, who would even have me?”

She paused again, fists clenched, and Iain realised how much she suffered. Even with the loss of her husband and confiscation of his estates, Ivraine’s dowry should have been exempt. Iain knew it was his mother’s link to Cryteth, and not their meagre income, that made her too valuable to relinquish. Taking vows to serve a goddess would sever Ivraine from any temporal claims almost as effectively as death, but his mother had never been one to go quietly.

“A man can win a new life with his sword,” she said at last, glancing at the steel hanging by Iain’s side, “or breed new children with some ripe trollop. But all I have is my stubbornness.  And until now I had not even a son to comfort me!”

She added the last with too much pathos, and cracked a sly smile. “Not that you were ever much comfort—why you rode off to battle as soon as you could lift a sword.”

“Father needed me,” Iain said.

“Yes, and I suppose he was proud of you.” The thought brought them both scant consolation.

“What of Percain? He would welcome you, surely.” A stalwart friend of his parents, Warspite had been like an uncle to Iain—though he did not want to think what Gannon’s loss might mean for that friendship.

Ivraine shuddered. “The Rabaz has enough ghosts of its own, and Warspite has enough trouble with the Order.”

Founded by Berengan the Lion, long before Galador itself, the Order was now but a hollow honour for the ruling nobility, or a refuge for those whose future held no promise—like Iain. “What now?”

“The Church has long desired war on the northmen, but Percain made sure the king never sanctioned it. The Queen is far more amenable, and I fear they press her to remove him from the captaincy.” A harsh edge crept into her voice. “You can imagine who would replace him.”

“Never!” Iain shouted, making Borathain jump. Ivraine had meant Moragain, Earl of Ralstock, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom—and the man responsible for their downfall. With his vast lands in the North-east, Moragain had always seen the Order’s southern activities as a waste. Moreover, the fact that the Order venerated Kor, god of honour and battles, only increased the political pressure on its captain. But for it to come to the point where Warspite’s captaincy was actually under threat…

“Has the Church become so powerful? I saw the temple being built in Cryteth.”

“They have powerful allies at court, and they are wealthy. In this time of uncertainty they can prey upon the people’s fears with their grand temples. The Gods that have protected us are now called ‘old’ and ignored.”

“Maybe their time is ending. What good has our faith done our family?”

As soon as he said it, he realised he had gone too far. The silence that followed brought back many memories. His mother’s anger was never fiery nor sudden, and when her words finally fell they struck, as ever, right to his core.

“They brought back my son to me.”

The moment passed with the blinking back of a tear, and Ivraine continued in calmer tones. “Our gods do not fail the faithful, but they do not promise the wonders that the Church of the One does. Your father would have never allowed that abomination to be built in our town, but he did not have time to fight that battle.”

She paused and gave him a long, weary look. “My son, do not spend your life fighting hopeless battles.”

“I do not believe in hopeless battles, mother.”

“Well, that’s good.” She forced a smile, then bade them both sit, turning the conversation to more pleasant subjects. Ivraine questioned Borathain about the Southlands, and told him about his master’s youth in return. Iain became a spectator, only interjecting when modesty demanded, but sitting for an hour with his mother in the afternoon sunlight was as pleasant a time as he had had for eight years.

When the light through the window started to climb the east wall, Ivraine rose and said it was time to prepare for the afternoon prayers. “After that I shall have duties on the wards, and then more prayers. Will you visit me again this evening, my dear?”

“Certainly, mother, but we must leave on the morrow.”

“Where are you going in such a hurry?”

“We must to Coursay. Falke will help me.” His old friend’s duchy also held other, more personal memories for him, as his mother knew too well.

“Do not expect all things to be as they were” she said, frowning. “Falke has burdens of his own, and Rianne is not there. She remains in the household of the County Saral, mourning her late husband and raising her young daughter.”

Iain’s cheeks burned at her unsubtle rebuke. He already felt guilty that her misfortune had stirred latent hopes, and he had enough to worry about as it was. “I take my leave, my lady, until tonight. Let no-one suspect who I am.”

“Farewell then, my son,” she replied, resuming her aloof tone though her eyes glistened. “I shall not even look at you at supper.” With that, she turned and disappeared into her chamber, leaving Iain and the squire alone in the hall.

He would not see her again in this life.

The Enduring Appeal of the Farm-boy Fantasy

It is the most well-known trope in fantasy, so much so that it largely defines the genre.  As Joe Abercrombie put it:

So, with a plot outline that is basically now a standing joke, why do we still see so many “farmboy fantasies”?  Self-published fantasy is replete with them, but they still get through to the major houses as well.  Are they truly here to stay, or has their time finally come?

Their inspiration

Though it’s obvious to look at the Master here, I would argue that this trope is not directly from Tolkien, per se.  Yes, Frodo is the unexpected saviour of the world, an orphan, chosen by the wise and aided by a powerful magical item.  However, I would argue that his Hobbits were not coming-of-age adolescents but innocents coming into the world.  Not a huge distinction, but a clear one.  Also, they don’t end up with either martial or magical powers themselves – they overcome evil because of their inherent decency and perseverance, not by gaining super-powers.  

So, if not Tolkien, where does that leave us?  In a lot of the Epic Fantasy that came after Tolkein, we do see younger protagonists who struggle with the journey into adulthood just as they journey into the big, bad world.  We have Ged in Earthsea, Shea in Shannara, Luke in Star Wars*, Garion in the Belgariad, Pug in Magician and finally Rand in in the uber-epic, Wheel of Time (among many others).  The success of these obviously influenced everything around them, but why did they bring this coming-of-age trope into tales traditionally told of grown-up heroes (Hercules, Beowulf, King Arthur, etc)?  While Heroic fantasy continued in Howard, Leiber, Moorcock up to Gemmell, what we call Epic Fantasy often starts before the heroes are heroes.  While the jump from hobbits to children isn’t a large one, there are probably other forces at work.

For a start, fantasy also has a long tradition of being children’s literature.  There is, of course, The Hobbit (no children in it, though), but also books like the Chronicles of Narnia and of Prydain, and the Weirdstone of Brisingamen.  These, somewhat distinct from Tolkien’s shadow, have younger characters (though Narnia is more about avoiding adulthood than achieving it!) and hark back to older mythological traditions. There are many other stories drawing on folk traditions, like The Queen of Elfland’s Daughter by Dunsany, which feature a young hero on a quest.  And because a lot of these 2nd generation authors are American, there’s a good chance that Mark Twain and Jack London had their influence as well.

Making them explicitly about coming-of-age is perhaps a later concept, coinciding with the growth of the concept of youth culture and the popularity of adolescent-focused stories.  For example, the Arthurian legend did not really mention Arthur’s adolescence until TH White’s Sword in the Stone brought that in line with much of later fantasy.  

Sword in the Stone - Disney

This sorta thing…

The ultimate successor to these examples is, of course, Harry Potter, but maybe the Epic Fantasists were thinking of books they read as kids when they sat down to write their supposedly more adult tales.  

Their inherent appeal

Obviously, farmboy fantasies continue a long and successful tradition, but there is surely more to it than just aping what’s come before.  What is it about the format that appeals?

Of course, the age of the readership is key here.  A lot of these books are aimed at teenagers (and quite often, boys), so having a protagonist who they can easily identify with is an obvious advantage.  (Sometimes these protagonists are even actual children from the Real World pulled through a portal into the fantasy land.)  They also contain wise father figures (Gandalf) and aspirational competent adults (Aragorn) to guide the awkward protagonist on his journey.  There is often a tentative romance (another thing Tolkien mostly left out) and often a cast of close, contemporary friends who the hero can rely on (because teenage friendships mean a lot, too).  But often the hero is left isolated in many ways, forced to make those tough decisions alone, to discover his true self, and ultimately overcome the Big Bad through whatever special talent lay buried within.  How could that not appeal?

When this trope is done best, you get Harry Potter – something that appeals to all ages, throws realistic challenges at the hero, and allows them to grow as both a person and a protagonist.  At it’s worst, however, you get the dreaded adolescent Gary Stu (less often, Mary Sue).  Behold the shy, weak, neglected young boy who is plucked from obscurity and revealed to have powers that can defeat the Biggest of Bads.  He picks up a sword and is miraculously badass, he lifts his finger and spells of irresistible power come forth.  No need for training or studying, our hero is just born with it.  While this may be the ultimate wish-fulfillment for every young nerd, it does not a good story make.  Though perhaps one that will still attract readers, a bit like flies on…oh well.

Eragon, from the film

Oh dear…

The Present and the Future

So, how much longer can this trope endure?  Well, it has survived this long, despite the fact that subversive epics had been written for years before grimdark was even a thing.  However, as the fantasy audience expands more and more, it does seem more and more readers are becoming averse to this old trope, or at least growing out of it.  Most mainstream writers have been deconstructing the old tropes and giving us more adult stories, without chosen farmboys or even Dark Lords.  

As the genre grows up, books that were once the defining examples (Brooks, Eddings) seem like YA (which is sort-of a new thing), and that’s where most of their obvious descendants now reside.  Still, this trope seems set to endure, whether in YA, indie or, now-and-then, mainstream Epic Fantasy.  I may even co-opt elements of it myself…

*Oh, c’mon, Star Wars is Epic Bloody Fantasy – don’t be fooled by the spaceships.