Harry Potter, the Everyman Hero

Recently, in a letter, I tried to describe what various books mean to me, the relationships I share with them. Of course, most of those described were fantasy books, ranging from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the stupendously weighty (literally)

harryWheel of Time books. I called The Lord of the Rings my ‘Bible’, the book that I love and, as much as I might find elements of it jarring or disturbing, would not presume to pull down from its hallowed space. And I called Harry Potter a best friend, a companion found early on whom I tussle with, ignore sometimes, but ultimately, and overwhelmingly, adore.

Enough and more has been written about the books, and what they’ve done for readers across the world. Fans have started charities in the name of Harry Potter spells, Emma Watson has channeled Hermione-like spirit and called for change in the name of feminism, and there are probably fans everywhere who try to live by the tenets embodied in the characters: justice, patience, and acceptance. But what does Harry himself, the character, mean to someone who is, now, approaching the not-so-YA age of 26, who has declared on many occasions that Harry is far from her favourite character, and would rather be sorted into his rival house than the one he himself is in?

(I think that last might be wishful thinking though. Honestly I’m more likely to be a moody and tempestuous Gryffindor than a calculating Slytherin. But hey, the Sorting Hat judges us on the basis of what we choose, right?)

Who is Harry Potter? You can get the biographical details easily enough. He’s a fanciable Dark Wizard destroyer, who carried the burden of his destiny from a young age. He is a hp1social media celebrity in the age before social media celebrities, the sort of boy who might have become the star of a Vine or Youtube video made by other people, against his will. Through this relatively innocent character, Rowling explored a magical world that has delighted a host of us, imparted some lessons about good and evil and inspired a wave of fanfiction, some of which (gods forgive me) builds upon her creation so amazingly well that it’s been hailed as better than the original.

But after the initial rush of reading the series, it’s easy to let Harry himself slide. He is, after all, a stand in for the reader more often than not, a relatively empty canvas upon which you can paint yourself and stand in to better observe the people around him. It’s the other characters—Hermione, Snape, Dumbledore, SIRIUS— who command my attention as a reader, who make me want to go back to the books again and again and have consumed a majority of my posts. Harry? He sort of slides into the background.

This is obviously a deliberate move on Rowling’s part, to make it easier for people to step into Harry’s shoes and sympathize with his dilemmas. She allows her readers to make Harry a character of their own, to become a part of themselves in an unconscious manner. You might not love Harry as an individual—and god knows I have enough problems with him—but you can’t utterly detest him either. If you did, you wouldn’t be able to read the books.

And Rowling does a brilliant job of making him so utterly believable. I can’t think of another YA/fantasy (not the GRRM variety!) whose hero is as flawed, and yet heroic as Harry. He’s an average sort of boy—he’s okay with his lessons, but Hermione’s always going to be better. He’s great at Quidditch, but even here, he’s aware that there are some people, HarryPotter_DanielRadcliffeViktor Krum and Diggory being examples, who are better and always will be better than him. He’s pleasant looking, but he’s no Bill Weasley, able to pull off long ponytails and dragon fang earrings. He’s funny, but he’ll probably never be known for it. He’s not wise in the same manner as Luna, or as successful on his own as Neville. And he’s certainly not half as conventionally popular as his girlfriends—Cho or Ginny.

Even his bravery, the sort of quiet, steady strength that propels him through his quest, is not flashy, not the hijinks of Sirius or Fred and George. What really sets him apart from his fellows is his faith in himself, and his ability to simply push on and, in spite of everything, to trust people. These are not qualities that are sexy, easy to impart. They’re the reason someone like Frodo isn’t the most attractive character in LOTR. Both of them would be dead meat in the world of Westeros, you know, the character most similar being Sansa Stark, and even she’s changing to cope with the big, bad world.

But it’s Harry’s very averageness that makes him a hero, and makes him so much more of a friend than his compatriots in the Potterverse. He is easy to slip into, to see oneself in, and he provides consolation more often than any other character in the series does. It doens’t matter if you’re not the best, not the smartest or most popular. It doesn’t matter if it looks like you’re wandering mindlessly through a forest, circling around a goal you’ve told yourself you need to complete, that seems, at the moment, impossible. Harry loses his way spectacularly, and then things fall into place by sheer luck, or coincedence, but they fall into place. Being lost is okay, he seems to show us, you’ll pull through it in the end.

harry lost

In my 20s, this last has become increasingly important. It’s been a time of some confusion but, as a very very wise person told me, ‘everything passes’. And as long as I, like Harry, have my Rons, Hermiones, my Siriuses and Dumbledores and Lupins, my Molly Weasleys and Nevilles around, things will be okay. The Dark Lords will be defeated, the woods will end, and all will, eventually, be ‘well’.

The thrill of the dinosaur

jpFor my sixth birthday, I demanded that my parents take me to Fernbank Museum, the ‘big’ museum closest to my house (and the only one I knew of), where there were dinosaur bones and an exhibit that educated me on all the different kinds that had roamed the earth so long ago. To be absolutely clear, I had already visited the exhibit once before, as part of a school field trip, and demanded a second visit on this special day because it had stunned me that much.

I was always a bit of a geek, yes.

What’s more important is, at that age, i had decided that I loved dinosaurs, as many easily impressed children (and some adults) have done. I had seen Jurassic Park but understood little of it, and all I remembered was the T-Rex, but I did watch a lot of kiddie dinosaur movies and read whatever I could (understand) of them. I wanted, more than anything, to be a palaeontologist.

And so it’s not a surprise that, even when the Indian education crushed my dreams of studying science (insert rant here), my fascination with dinosaurs continued. I rewatched Jurassic Park as a slightly more aware teenager, and conceived a horror of the velociraptors. For a long time after, whenever I entered a room, I would do a scan of the available exits, just so that I knew the best way to get out. You know, in case a raptor attacked.

It struck me then (well, a lot more than it had as a wee five or six year old) how absolutely amazing it was that people had created this movie, and made those dinosaurs look so convincingly real. It takes a certain kind of magic to do that, I thought. And even now, years later, it holds up. There is nothing quite as terrifying as those raptors entering the kitchen.

Perhaps it’s not quite clear where I’m going with this. Would it make more sense to you if I said I had watched Jurassic World last week, and it had done for me what it had managed to do for thousands of people across the world? To put it simply: it yanked me back to a time when movies were thrilling, when the sheer wonder of watching things on screen outranked the dissections of culture and meaning that I have been trained in (whether for better or worse), a less cynical time, in other words, when I could be transported and terrified and thrilled by something as simple as a dinosaur.

A reviewer on i09 put it brilliantly. Despite the film’s problems in terms of sexist content and improbable events, ‘fuck that. Dinosaurs!’ The brilliance and enduring appeal of the dinosaur lies, I think, in its inherent tragedy, the sense that, no matter how huge and fearsome and imposing these beings were (and that’s the one sense in which we think of them), they all….died. They disappeared. They were wiped out by the forces of nature. Perhaps their resemblence to the dragons of yore make us see them as inherently noble beasts (hey, far fetched fantasy reference for the win!), and hence cause us to sympathize with them, to see their passing as a tragedy that should be studied time and again. Give them a second chance, we say, recreate them in the modern day, and let hell break loose when we go head to head with them.

But maybe there is no deep reason behind my love of Jurassic World. Maybe it literally is just the desire to return to a world where a movie could make me feel better about things, or wow me. Maybe it’s the simple thrill of what I always want in a movie: to take me, temporarily, into a different world, where things are okay at the end, and even if the humans have to desert a park, the last image the camera leaves you with is a triumphant, roaring T-rex.

There’s something to be said for that.

The Devourers

Literature is all about answering the big questions in life: who are we? Where do we come from? What are we doing here? And, subtly different from that, what should we be doing here? Fantasy books take these questions up in some very zany ways, thanks to their ability to spirit us off into completely different worlds where the laws of physics bend at the whim of a controlling spirit (also known as the author) and we get that wonderful thing called ‘magic’.

the-devourers-coverIndra Das’s debut novel, The Devourers, is no exception in this regard. Its many narrators grapple with some huge questions, some of which consume them completely, in spite of all the magic and strength they might possess.

Approached by a mysterious stranger at a baul mela, Alok, an unassuming, largely asocial professor of history in a college, has no idea that his life and what he knows of the world will be taken for a complete spin. The stranger gives him no name, only asking him if he wants to hear a story. And for the record, the stranger calls himself a half-werewolf.

Thus begins a journey through time and space—through the words of the stranger’s parents, Fenrir, a shapeshifter of the Scandinavian icelands, and Cyrah, the human woman he raped in a caravanserai in Mumtazabad of the Mughal empire. Desperate to avenge herself on her rapist, Cyrah journeys with Gevaudan, Fenrir’s one-time companion and fellow shapeshifter, to find the father of her child and bring him to justice. It is, as she discovers, the journey of a lifetime, and one that leaves her with perhaps more questions than those she set out to answer.

The Devourers is a very…sensual novel. Its author paints a vivid portrait of a world lost to most of us city-dwelling, ignorant ‘khrissals’ (the word shapeshifter use for humans, their rightful prey), rife with blood and sweat and musk, the scents and tastes that remind us, painfully, that we are physical beings, and that the characters we read about, for all their supernatural powers, are physical beings of musk and blood too. In fact, that actually seem, in some ways, more vividly ‘present’ than ordinary humans. It is humans who possess these wavering, single souls. Humans who turn into ‘ghost fires’ when consumed by their predators. The wispy and transient is associated with us pathetic khrissals, and the magical beings are a far cry from the removed, ethereal, almost sanitised Elves of the western fantasy canon.

Here, Das paints a powerful, ‘pungent’ portrait of one of these shapeshifters:

He pulls off his boots and stands tall and proud and naked his bare feet, taking his hardening penis in his hands an dpissing a steaming circle around his clothes. The rising smell of his waters fills my nostrils, pungent, clinging to the winter air as the ground melts to frothing mud. He stares at the mausoleum rising out of the ground. The many bone trophies sewn and burned into his skin writhe with his movements, the rib shards down his back bristling like the nubs of worn skeletal wings.

Das’s thesis, and what he attempts to illustrate through the monstrous act of Fenrir, is that what makes us human, what sets us apart from these ravenous, powerful creatures is that fantasy staple: our power to engender and share love. Not just romantic love, but the bonds of family and kin, the emotion that prompts a woman to hug her child to her chest, or an emperor to build a timeless tomb for his wife. Set as it is against the backdrop of the construction of the Taj Mahal, Fenrir’s rape of Cyrah, his attempt to ‘create’ something in a world where is just a ‘devourer’ becomes even more obviously a twisted attempt to possess, for one brief moment, that transient human emotion, to leave behind a vestige of feeling rather than simply snapping up and consuming it in one rending of his powerful jaws.

While this is a classic moral, and one that many many books have grappled with, what derails Das is his attempt to shoehorn another big question into this relatively slim novel: the timeless one of ‘who am I?’. Given the literal split soul of some of his characters, this question assumes fantastical dimensions, but even the humans—the defiant Cyrah, or the timid Alok—grapple with it as well. After undertaking the supernatural journeys they do, having come into contact with worlds they never knew existed, Cyrah and Alok are both forced to confront it. While Cyrah handles it by making her home on the borderlands between the human and the shapeshifter realm, Alok’s fate is left uncertain at the close. Perhaps it was this uncertainty, the multiplicty of the voices that arises at the novel’s conclusion, pointing to no certain path or closure, that left me feeling a little lost and less than enthused.

The Devourers is a rare thing in the Indian fantasy canon, though: a book that does not repeat religious myth in a spunky new format and label itself ‘fantasy fiction’. It is a solid attempt at crafting a new world atop the canvas of an old one, the Taj Mahal gleaming bright in the background as the shapeshifters bay for blood under the star spangled sky.

Quick words with Ken Liu

ken liuAs my review would tell you, I was bowled over by Ken Liu’s debut novel, ‘The Grace of Kings’. After tying up Book 2 (which, he assures me, is full of ‘cool stuff’), Ken was kind enough to answer some questions about his writing, what he thinks of diversity in SFF and fantasy in general.

1) A clichéd question first! How did you fall in love with fantasy?

Ha, my answer might be a little different from many other American readers and writers.

I first fell in love with the wuxia fantasies of Jin Yong. I love the way he reworks history and adds what we think of as “modern” elements (intricate technology, interest-group politics, patriotism) into historical settings. As well, he uses fantastic touches like impossible superpowers, legendary creatures, and arcane knowledge to literalize what otherwise might only be metaphors.

The influence of Jin Yong can be felt and seen in The Grace of Kings as well as many other fantasy stories I’ve written.

2) Was the diversity of Dara (which I celebrated in the review) a conscious decision, or was it just something that came about naturally?

Both. I love celebrating the fact that we live in a diverse world. I think it’s natural to write fiction that makes everyone feel included.

At the same time, since one of the goals of The Grace of Kings was to change the way Western readers view “Chinese-ness” in fantasy, it was important to me to make the cast diverse to prevent the reader from falling into the trap of thinking “Oh, these are all Chinese people.”

3) I’ve often assumed that my favourite characters from fantasy books, when not described otherwise, looked like me, ie, non-Western and dark-skinned, and been surprised and a little disconcerted when fan art depictions turned out to be overwhelmingly white. Has this ‘whitewashing’ of fantasy ever bothered you?

One of the ways in which a visual medium like film differs from a written medium like fiction is how constrained the audience is in terms of imagining the characters. Because a work of fiction can’t slam you in the face with the physical features of the character on every page, fan art can be very revelatory of the larger cultural patterns we inhabit. If a character is known for being beautiful or handsome, how are they portrayed in fan art? If a character is known for being brutal or ugly, how are they portrayed in fan art?

I ask myself these questions often and try to catch myself from falling into the traps of the Western gaze.

4) As a Hugo award winner yourself, what’s your take on the controversy that raged this year?

I don’t have a single take. The controversy involves many conversations between many people, and not all of them agree on the premises upon which they argue, the interpretations of events, or even the meanings of words. Indeed, there may not be a single controversy, but many overlapping controversies with very different issues at stake that need to be parsed separately.

As a writer, my interest is primarily in writing works I like and connecting with readers who enjoy my work; as a reader, my interest is primarily in discovering works that delight and astound me. In neither role are the awards terribly important, though they are a great honor, of course.

5) In your bio, you’ve noted that you and your wife came up with the universe of ‘A Grace of Kings’ together. How much of her is in the final product?

Lisa suggested the idea of re-imagining the Chu-Han Contention as an epic fantasy to me, grace of kingsand we worked together in coming up with some of the background for Dara. She’s a busy artist with her own career, however, and we decided early on that the book would basically be my project.

6) Did you have any favourite characters in your own book?

I like Luan Zya, the scholar-engineer, the most. The ideal of retiring at the height of your success is important to Chinese culture, and I’ve always aspired to that.

7) Given the increased calls for diversity in SFF, have you ever seen yourself as consciously representing a minority in the fantasy canon? Has such identification—by yourself or others—troubled you?

I’ve never consciously put myself forth as a “minority” in my work. I’m interested in telling stories that are meaningful to me and in challenging narratives that I dislike, but I don’t write with the idea that I’m there to “represent” anyone.

It’s possible—no, probable—that such identification has been imposed on me by others. I don’t have much control over that.

8) How does your day-job as a programmer influence your writing?

I work as a litigation consultant, so my day job involves a combination of law and software programming. I don’t know if writing for machines has particularly influenced my fiction much other than the fact that I enjoy writing about technology and tech culture. I suppose if one were to squint a bit, it’s possible to also say that programmers learn a love of elegance which can be very helpful in fiction writing.

9) In ‘Paper Menagerie’, the short story (which can be read here) you explore the theme of straddling two worlds, and how adherence to one often leads to the obliteration of the other. Does fantasy, in some ways, allow for an escape or a renegotiation of this seemingly impassable divide?

“The Paper Menagerie” can be read as an argument that the notion of “choosing” one world to the exclusion of others is destructive. Straddling multiple worlds and multiple identity categories is the default for most of the world’s population, and we need not escape to fantasy to embrace the fact that an individual is the intersection of multiple spheres of identity.

10) Finally, what’s next for Ken Liu the author? 

My first collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is coming from Saga Press on November 30, 2015. I’m currently working on the sequel to The Grace of Kings, and I’m having a ton of fun with it. There are a couple more short fiction projects and translation projects that I’m excited about, and you can keep up with what’s happening with me on my web site (http://kenliu.name) and with my mailing list (http://kenliu.name/mailing-list/).

Thank you so much for having me, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book!

Queen of Fire

queen of fireThere’s a lot of fantasy fiction out there. And a lot of it is good. But the more I’ve read of it, the harder it seems to find something genuinely original, where talent just leaps off the page and ensnares a reader, convincing him/her that this world that they’ve been granted a peek into is real, inhabited by men and women just like those we encounter every day. Anthony Ryan’s ‘Raven’s Shadow’ trilogy falls into that rare category, of fantasy books where I’ve genuinely been thrilled to turn every page, yet dreaded the end because it brought with it one sad realisation: my visit to this world and its crazy denizens has come to an end.

I reviewed books 1 and 2 of this series earlier here, and talked about how it was a breath of fresh air. Ryan’s final novel in the trilogy, Queen of Fire, builds on the promise of the first two, delivering a richly realised world filled with wonderfully constructed characters, and taking us to parts of it that we have never seen before.

The invading Volarians have been turned back from the Unified Realm, but not before they have inflicted vast amounts of damage and taken scores of citizens as slaves. Queen Lyrna is determined to rescue those of her subjects who still languish in chains, and destroy the Volarians once and for all. To this end, she crosses the seas with her refurbished Army, seeking to end the reign of the murderess-empress known only to her subjects as ‘Elverah’, the Queen of Fire.

Meanwhile, Vaelin heads to the northern reaches, attempting to cross the frozen wastes and head into the Volarian Empire from there. Enroute, he picks up some unlikely allies northern reachesand learns more about the dark force (hey, it’s a fantasy novel, of course there’s a dark force!) they are fighting.

My old favourite, Reva, shows up again of course, and is a powerful POV character as ever. She’s part of Lyrna’s Army, but due to an Empress-brewed storm, ends up separated from her loyal Cumbraelin guard and cast into the fighting pits of Volar. Reva’s main struggle in this book is coming to terms with the ‘lie’ she has told her followers, of positioning herself as a prophet figure and then leading them, unintentionally of course, to their deaths. Reva has long been painted as an unwilling leader, one who has gained her position through the most unlikely route, and Ryan takes care to add nuances to her personal struggle in this book as well.

The fourth main ‘POV’ character, Frentis, by far had the most gripping narrative. Frentis’s struggle, from slave to leader of a slave rebellion, is given overtones of pathos and romance due to his love-hate relationship with the Empress herself, his onetime mistress and lover. It is her connection with Frentis, twisted and filled with anger though it is, that humanizes this villainess, and makes her a figure more akin to Robert Jordan’s Lanfear—deluded and power hungry but driven, ultimately, by the same emotions that drive her enemies—and less of a cardboard cutout than many fantasy villains tend to be. Frentis, and his unwilling insights into her, his ability to see past her madness and violence, makes this possible.

What I can finally say about Ryan is, he knows how to write a damn good fantasy series. He has war, he has religion, he has myth and the rise and fall of empires, a sense of history—all the things that go into the grand epic narrative. But best of all, he has compelling characters, and from the darkest villain to the most martial, stereotypical fantasy ‘hero’, they all shine. I loved the Raven’s Shadow trilogy, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.

The Grace of Kings

Palpatine_TFUThe theme of the evil Empire is a tried and tested one in high fantasy. If you need a villain, and a powerful one, it’s easy to make him hateful and seem powerful by giving him an empire that’s badly governed or built on immoral foundations, such as slavery or the labour of ‘evil’ races like orcs and goblins. Our heroes, usually country boys or girls, have to destroy this empire from the ground up, and usually install a destined king in the old/corrupt ruler’s place. The story rarely follows what happens after this destined king is put in his place.

In his fantasy saga, The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu does precisely that. And what’s more, he does it in one sitting, using just the one book to tell a long, sprawling tale of a shattering empire, the heroes who ‘rescue’ it and the political games that come thereafter.

grace of kings

The Big Island of Dara is home to many races of people, their disparate lands (with distinct histories and cultures) only recently yoked together by the Empire of Xana, ruled by the ageing Mapidere. Rebellion simmers beneath the surface though, most notably in Cocru, one of the most martial of the islands and home to Mata Zyndu, descendent of a long line of marshals who fought for the king of Cocru and most recently resisted the campaigns of the Xana aggressors. So when Mapidere dies, it’s Mata Zyndu and his unlikely friend, the gangster and hustler Kuni Garu, who emerge as leaders of the revolt and the bid to destroy the Empire.

The Islands of Dara Map

The Islands of Dara Map

The politics of the various kingdoms are complicated by supernatural factors: the gods take sides in the conflict, choosing their own champions. They are restricted in their intereference, unable to take a very active role or directly harm/aid their chosen ones, but that just makes them all the more desperate to make sure the factions they favour come out on top.

What Liu does with this book is play with some of the old fantasy conventions: the upstart hero, the scheming Imperial servants, the beautiful, doomed princess and the cross-dressing female soldier who bests all her male opponents. But he sets it in a world so incredibly diverse that readers are sure to fall in love with it. I won’t lie—one of the many reasons I loved this book was because, unlike in many Western fantasy sagas, a character was, by not, by default, assumed to be white or of Caucasian heritage. Instead, the peoples of a Dara are a huge blend: olive-skinned, pale skinned, dark skinned, ‘ebony’ skinned…and they mingle and mix as part of one land.

Kuni is an immensely likeable character, the typical rogue with a heart of gold, scheming and beloved of his people, a pro at public relations in the manner that many upstart ‘common’ heroes tend to become. His wife, Jia, is a Lady Macbeth-like figure, pushing her husband along the path to ‘greatness’, and making the many sacrifices that are expected of her (and him) on the climb. Mata Zyndu is the typical martial hero, tall, imposing, the kind of man who births legends and who is heralded by prophecy. He comes closest to a fantasy stereotype, but what Liu does with him turns convention on its head.

My favourite characters remain Luan Zya, a tormented genius, and Rasina, an enchantress who works and shapes smoke, and can peer into the hearts of those around her. Liu creates brilliant characters who stick on in the imagination, no mean feat considering his book is quite an epic and hosts a huge number of them. Yet he endows each with character enough that they linger on, long after they’ve played their parts (some of them shorter than others).

Liu’s book is an interrogation of politics, ideals and the people who sport them, who live and die for abstract causes like freedom and a ‘better world’. In that way, it is a lot like ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, but instead of the seven tomes Martin’s series is expected to take, Liu wraps up his world in one. His style is light, comic rather than weighted, but the statements he makes are no less profound for that. Whole years pass in the course of his narrative, and characters evolve in ways you might never expect. It’s obvious that he is a writer for whom his craft is very important, and he has not been overwhelmed by his world enough to stretch it out and hammer it unnaturally thin in an effort to spend more time in telling its story than he has to.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and look forward to more from Liu soon.

When arcs come crashing down

sansaWhen a book becomes a movie or a TV show, you can expect some changes. These might be minor, like the exclusion of Ioreth or Glorfindel from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, or huge sweeping changes involving new characters and the introduction of old ones in places they weren’t supposed to be. For the most part, I take these changes in stride. I understand the appeal of inserting Legolas into the Hobbit movies, for instance, because he forms a very obvious connection for fans of the previous trilogy, and even the Dwarf-Elf love story didn’t bother me very much.

For the same reason, changes the show runners have made in A Game of Thrones, based on the Song of Ice and Fire books, have not annoyed me. Until now.

Please note, there are massive spoilers both for the books and the TV show, going ahead.

That last episode has been the focus of a LOT of discussion. Sansa Stark is married off to Ramsay Bolton, easily the most vile and disgusting character in the Seven Kingdoms, and is raped on her wedding night while Theon is forced to watch. To their credit, the show runners shot the scene with Theon as the focus, instead of exploiting Sansa’s pain any further by zooming in on what was happening to her. But in some ways, this just served to make the emotional nadir point even more obvious. Theon, a character who has been through more torture than any other on the show, breaks down watching what’s happening before him.

What bothered me about it

Aside from the obvious fact that this storyline—Sansa getting married to Ramsay—is a HUGE change from what’s going down in the books, aside from the fact that it seems needless to include yet another rape scene in a show that seems to harbour more than a few of them (one is too many by this point), aside from the fact that watching it or listening to it made me feel sick and disgusted and terrified, there are very reader-specific reasons why this scene annoyed me.

First off—I love Theon and Sansa both. They are and always have been among my theonfavourite characters (numbering favourites one and two, if you want to be specific) and I supported them long before and in spite of derision and shock from friends and fellow readers/viewers. I found both to have been drawn with incredible realism, being perhaps the most relateable characters in the books. These are the people who many of us, I think, would be in Westeros, characters who make mistakes and learn hard lessons. They are not heroes from the start, but they do grow to be.

In the books Theon is where he’s at in the show, serving Ramsay and playing terrorised/reluctant rescuer to Jeyne Pool, the girl who is masqueraded as Arya Stark and married to the Bastard of Bolton. Theon spends most of A Dance with Dragons coming to terms with his identity as Theon Greyjoy and all that he has done; he seeks to redeem himself, slightly, by rescuing the girl, a fellow sufferer. The point of the whole spiel is that Theon does this simply because he feels for the girl and desires to find some goodness in himself. Rescuing Jeyne wins him no favours from other houses, she does not have powerful allies they can run to—in fact, throwing his lot in with hers is pretty much the most suicidal thing Theon can do, and yet he does it.

Rescuing Sansa Stark, on the other hand, could be seen as a much more loaded act. She has powerful allies out there, and she is the Stark girl at the end of the day. No one who associates with her can forget this, not even a woebegone, maimed and castrated one-time foster brother. The selflessness and danger of Theon’s rescue mission becomes a lot more muddled when the girl he rescues is the heir to the North, as far as most people know.

sansa two

But the real reason I’m pissed is not so much for Theon’s sake as Sansa’s. I wrote a post a while ago, trying to show the haters why I love this character so much, why she appeals to me and why I do not, repeat, DO NOT find her stupid. What I love about Sansa is the way she manages to cling to some form of idealism in a world that steadily seeks to strip her of all of it. Sansa is learning the ropes of manipulation and deceit from Littlefinger in the Eyrie—where she still is in the books—but you never get the sense that she’s become cynical because of what she’s seen. She is merely picking up the tools she needs to survive, but that glimmer of hope for a better world and the life she dreamt of is still there.

Sansa is something of an icon for me in that gritty world of Westeros. she is not perfect, like the mythical Lyanna Stark. She is not super powered, like Dany or Melisandre, and nor is she as embittered and hate-filled as her sister and Cersei. I find it amazing how time and again she is faced with utter humiliation and yet emerges from it. And now, instead of constantly being rescued by men (or, let’s be honest, only by Petyr Baelish) I hope that in the books she takes the lessons he gives her and then uses them to move on peacefully with her life, not be stuck at the mercy of those around her.

sansa and petyrBut the show, after giving her an empowering half season, where she is rapidly learning under Baelish’s tutelage and handling herself with elan in a dangerous court, throws her back down, literally, and has her delusions of control ripped away from her. And the worst part—she’s probably going to have to rely on a man (Theon or Baelish) or another protector (Brienne) to get her out of there.

I see how its tempting to shove Sansa back into the role of the captive princess, something she’s been forced into time and again. But now, when it finally looked like she was getting out of it, it just seems needless and downright cruel to make her suffer through it again. If viewers really are expected to take her seriously, as something more than a deluded little girl, why force her through the same hells again and again and have her rescued by other agents? This, this is what I do not like.

I’m holding out hope still that Sansa will reclaim her power. I have no doubts that she will. But I still don’t see why it need have been ripped away from her in the first place.

Meant to Be

destinyProphecy is a dicey thing. On the one hand, it shapes a narrative, though not always in a way you might expect. It gives a clear end-game to a hero (telling him to defeat a certain someone, like in Harry Potter), it tells people that important councils are happening and they should get to them (Lord of the Rings) or it lays out a bunch of tasks that someone has to accomplish in order to prove themselves worthy of a title/alert the rest of the world to the fact that the mother of all wars is coming (Wheel of Time). The strange thing about it is, even though heroes often really want to know what’s in store for them, if only to figure out how to beat it, once they’ve heard they don’t really know whether it was a good idea to ask for it in the first place.

In ‘real life’, the idea of ‘meant to be’ and ‘destiny’ has a similar double edged appeal. On the one hand, I loath the idea of my life being planned out and written for me by some all-knowing, omnipotent entity. I don’t like the notion of not being able to change things as I see fit, of being condemned, perhaps, to a life that I don’t really like, a job I have no Deathly-Hallows-daniel-radcliffe-16653482-442-334interest in pursuing, simply because something else has decided upon it. On the other, when I think about all the tiny little chances and decisions that led me to a certain place, or person, I realise how easily those meetings and encounters might not have happened. And since that idea is a little terrifying, I like to console myself with the literary palliative: it had to happen, because it was just meant to be.

In the Wheel of Time books, Jordan goes into the ‘ifs’ of a person’s life, creating a device that shows a viewer all the possible decisions he/she might take, and the ramifications of those on the rest of his/her life. It’s a little too much information for anyone to retain, so when characters leave its embrace, they do so with only a ‘vague’ impression. They know enough to recognise warning signs when they see them, to reroute from ‘very bad’ decisions when they come across them, even if they’re not precisely sure why they do it. This is a pretty ingenious way of dealing with the ‘meant to be’/fate conundrum: you know what’s coming enough to guard against it (and some things, he makes it clear, are inevitable), but you can also change things with your decisions, to a certain extent.

satanTo get into the idea of Fate and Destiny and all that is to open up a huge can of worms and delve into the realms of philosophy, stretching back to the very beginnings of human thought. Thankfully for you and me, I’m not an expert on the debates surrounding free will and predestination (although I do remember the basics, courtesy of doing a paper on Milton’s Paradise Lost a few years ago), so I won’t be rehashing them here. Sufficeth to say that in some ways, believing in destiny is terrifying. In others, when you come across the good things and realize how easily you might not have, it’s very, very comforting.

‘Blood Song’ and ‘Tower Lord’

Twitter gives me many things. It lets me engage with people I otherwise wouldn’t, fantasy fans from across the world; it gives me a peek into the daily life and thoughts of famous authors and actors and my other celebrity fascinations; and best of all, it connected me to Fantasy Book Critic, a really great site for any fantasy fan who wants recommendations and reviews of the latest books to hit the shelves.

blood songOne of the series that their reviews pointed me towards was Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow books. The first two have been released—Blood Song and Tower Lord—and the third is poised to come out soon. I admit it took me a while to get hooked onto the first, but once I passed a certain threshold, or once Ryan hit his stride as a world builder and storyteller (which takes about three-four chapters) it’s impossible to put the book down.

The Raven’s Shadow books are set in the Unified Realm, a land that vaguely resembles (you guessed it) medieval England in terms of its social and technological set up. Funnily enough, anthropologically speaking, it seems to mirror Olde Englande as well. The four fiefs that make up the Realm, long at war with one another and now yoked together by a conquering king, Janus, could find similarities with the various parts of Britain—notably Wales finding its mirror in Cumbrael, the southernmost fief. Rather than history, it’s a common faith that unites these fiefs, the Faith. The Faith is split into six Orders, scholars, healers, missionaries, soldiers, and so on. Our main character, Vaelin al Sorna, is a student of the Sixth—the military Order—when we meet him.

tower lord

The book follows Vaelin’s journey through training by the Sixth Order, from his arrival at the Order house to the conclusion of his doomed campaign against the neighbouring Alpiran Empire. Vaelin, as might be guessed, is no ordinary boy. Not only is he the only son of the Battle Lord, King Janus’s military commander, but he also holds and works a power of his own, the blood song.

I don’t want to jump into summarizing the second book, because well, it’s not fun to spoil tower-lord-coverthings for you. Suffice to say, it’s a great follow up, with plenty of action that capitalizes on Ryan’s quite obviously amazing world building skills.

I read both these books in a near haze of astonishment. It was just so thrilling to find a new series to sink into, where the writer has obviously thought his story and his world through and is trying to put a new spin on an old plotline, where one brooding, martially-gifted hero saves the world. I really liked Vaelin, who was both Aragorn-like (brooding, distant, weighted by his past and his power), but also refreshingly young at times, like in his interactions with his Order brothers, or his fumbling feelings for Sherin, a healer from the medical Fifth Order.

Despite their overwhelmingly martial nature (there’s a lot of fighting, and I mean a lot), the Raven’s Shadow books are not without their share of romance, intrigue and moral dilemma. The female characters, in particular, are amazing. I LOVED Princess Lyrna, second in line to the throne, daughter of King Janus, and a mastermind. Lyrna spoke to me not only because she loved books and had a formidable memory, but also because she wasn’t afraid to use it, to charm her admirers while at the same time holding them at bloodsong-main-map-detailedbay with her inimitable wit and power. Almost in direct opposition to her gifts, but no less wonderful, was Reva from Tower Lord, a conflicted, devout warrior who has been raised to complete just one mission. As might be expected, fulfillment of that mission is not everything she dreamt it would be, leading her character along a path few would imagine. And you know what’s best about her? Ryan writes her as lesbian, and injects her with very real, very ‘real world’, self doubt and fear about the same. But it’s never presented as the be-all and end-all of her character arc, something that might very easily have happened in a less capable writer’s hands.

I cannot recommend this series enough. Ryan’s world is richly realized, his characters very well drawn. Now and then he falters in my Okay test (he uses the word ‘rogered’!), but I think I can forgive him, given how much I enjoyed his books and how I’m looking forward to the next. Queen of Fire, you can’t come soon enough!

Cinderella: An Absurd Fairytale

Cinderella-disney-princess-11558572-400-300Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little girl called Ella. Her father died when she was very young, leaving her in the care of his second wife and two step daughters. Jealous of her beauty and general wonderfulness, the stepmother and her daughters forced Ella into becoming their maid, and generally set about trying to repress her spirit.

It’s actually a horrible story, come to think of it.

Ella is forced to slave away for people who she, and her father, had trusted to take care of her, and there seems little happiness in sight. And then things magically look up when the fairy godmother arrives and grants her one wish: to go to the ball and escape the misery for a time.

The important thing that many people miss out in in the Cinderella story is what exactly she wished for. There’s been a meme doing the rounds for a while, that pointed it out. Cinderella didn’t ask for a Prince, or for love; she asked for a night of fun. A night wherecindy she could forget the drudgery of her life for a time, pretend to be someone else and dance away her sorrows like any other privileged young woman in the kingdom. She never asked to be rescued from her situation; that sort of came along later.

I actually think Cinderella is a very gender neutral story. The core is pretty simple: someone who leads a boring, seemingly meaningless life is suddenly sparked into a realm of wonder by some sort of amazing event, and then everything that they have been through acquires significance and importance. We tell ourselves that Cinderella was rewarded with love and riches because she was ‘good’ and ‘kind’. There has to be some causal connection between what she did before/how she lived and what came next for her. The fairy godmother didn’t visit the wicked step sisters after all.

Cinderella is the ultimate ‘absurd’ hero, along the lines of Camus’s Sisyphus. Camus defined his hero thus: ‘..the whole being is exerted toward the accomplishing of nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.’ Cinderella’s drudgery was undertaken as some kind of absurd punishment, handed down to her by someone who, by all rights, should have risen higher than to take out latent frustration and insecurity on a helpless child. The stepmother is the ‘god’ of Cinderella’s absurd universe, dictating her endless servitude and demanding unflinching love and obedience in return. Being the hapless human she is, Cinderella delivers.

Cinderella does the chores allotted to her because she cannot do anything else. There is no place for rebellion in Sisyphus’s world. His knowledge of this, and his ability to continue on in spite of it is what makes him a hero; similarly, for Cinderella, she perseveres simply because she must. She has no choice. The way her life is lived is unchangeable by her own agency; the attitude she brings to it is what makes her heroic.

cindy bubble

The beauty of a fairytale is that things can change, and often do, for no real rhyme or reason. Cinderella’s escape from her absurd existence is simply a fluke. The fairy godmother appears literally out of thin air and rescues her, provides her the night of fun she desires. That brief escape from her rock leads to bigger and better things, but how long before those become their own version of the dreary existence she just left behind? Camus makes it clear that this constant repetition of a meaningless task, the endless labouring towards a hazy and undefined goal, is what defines modern existence. Power comes from recognising this and continuing regardless. it comes from watching as the boulder rolls down the mountain and then following it down the path, to start afresh. ‘..the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols,’ Camus notes. In the recognition of his state, he owns his fate and diminishes the power of the gods.

Cinderella’s ‘escape’ from drudgery is the joy inherent in a fairytale, a pretty fabrication told to children. The reason the story ends where it does is because to follow it onwards would be unbearable. We would see her happiness dissolve, her marriage become routine and rote, another boulder to be rolled up a hill. We might see her giving joy and life to it, as becomes her character, but it wouldn’t do the job of conveying the fabricated moral half so well, that ‘kindness’ will get you places.

One must imagine Cinderella is kind.