The hero and the anti-hero.
Back in 2007 a literary agent I was following on Twitter (or was it 2008?) recommended a guest blog post about epic fantasy by some upcoming fantasy author I’ve never heard of and thankfully have since forgotten. He went on and on how Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings did not stand up to the test of time because the works did not hold true to a “grey reality” (or some such words to that effect) and how a happy ending was a false reflection on human nature. Then he plugged his own book with promises of gritty realism and an appropriate ending drowning in a powerful literary message of how fucked in the head we all are.
And I finished the article thinking: this is what happens when emos can wordsmith.
The absurdity of the author’s claim was beyond comment worthy. I laughed. I laughed out loud. A happy ending? To The Lord of the Rings? Really? The ending where Frodo basically realizes he is spent, dead inside, done, finished and basically dies and goes to heaven? Did he think the ending was a simple boat ride into the sunset? How obvious does subtext need to be for this dude? Didn’t the Shire burn not-so-metaphorically in the last book? Yes. The Lord of the Rings. Puppies and Rainbow’s folks! Kittens and Sunshine!
What a dork.
That literary agent, like many who represented science fiction and fantasy, crashed and burned. On one hand, she had a fine appreciation for storytelling which I shared. On the other, her quest for pretentious message fiction, in the end, bit her on the ass. It was like watching a train wreck.
Back to The Lord of the Rings and poor Frodo. I always had a soft spot for his plight and I loved Tolkien’s message where even the smallest of us can persevere against evil and strife, even when the cost of such goes beyond one’s life. Frodo’s quest chewed him up and spit him out. What was left was a certain apathy, a certain grey, he could no longer cope with, hence the so-very-not happy ending to his story.
Frodo was a hero and an amazing character in a trilogy filled with amazing characters.
Let’s take the delicious anti-hero Dexter Morgan from the Showtime series and the wonderful books by Jeff Lindsay. Dexter is a bad man, but we wind up rooting for him anyway. He is, almost beyond reason, a sympathetic character.
Dexter is an amazing character and practically defines antihero.
If we step away from the grim and morbid, another favorite antihero is Han Solo from the first three Star Wars movies. Shooting Greedo first, his freelancer attitude, his disdain for authority figures, trying to plug Darth Vader during dinner–all of those actions were endearing. Han was a scoundrel, but the movie made it clear he was our scoundrel. Quite the antihero indeed.
The false literary promise of grey is an author’s attempt to show us a negative slice of the human condition. Only, this provocation derives from the (thoroughly) elitist and false assumption readers need to be taught “grey.” In order to show the world is (gasp!) complex and (gasp!) interconnected, a sympathetic antihero is born. The author weaves in a pessimistic theme. Heroic and righteous behavior results in a futile death, or worse. Blend your viewpoint, dear reader because the real world is grey, don’t ya know.
Only, those authors’ worlds are not grey at all because the author fails to understand the ambiguous nature of morality. Those characters are not grey. Most of them are simply douche-bags of the highest order. And readers already understand this world. This is the world we live in. The world is filled with kind people, but a reader also encounters douche-baggery from an early age. Grey is everywhere. We get it.
Mandy Pietruszewski in her outstanding article “Moral Ambiguity in Percy Jackson and the Olympians” highlights complex characterization. Luke from the wonderful Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan, is a true grey character. His motivations are not that he’s a d-bag. He is a tragic character with a heightened sense of right and wrong and he is less of a villain and more of an antagonist. Indeed, the only thing making Luke a bad guy is his behavior. He does some bad things to people who did not deserve it, and thus in his quest for justice and acceptance he becomes a tragic figure because in his campaign for choice, he removes the very thing he holds dear from people who deserved better from him.
That is a worthy “grey” character! He is both the hero and the antihero. The takeaway from Luke is legion and truly is a study in the human condition rather tan a descent in asshole or bitch.
Time and culture will not be kind to the false literary promise of grey. Some of these works are wildly popular, but I believe their popularity will fade. A reader wants the true hero and the antihero, not because he or she has a simplistic outlook in life and doesn’t understand moral ambiguity, but because the world we live in as readers is grey, and the escape and identification with the hero or antihero can be more real than the grey clouds spitting rain.
There is no cure for the human condition. But the human condition can be a wonderful thing, warts and all.
The false literary promise of grey is elitist self-justification.
I wrote a book and it was fan-fiction. I wanted to see if I could plot without worrying about characterization.
And I could! I promptly shoved the book under the bed after having one of the kids draw a cover for it. Literally, it’s under the bed.
My second book I completely threw caution to the wind. I wrote a near-future science fiction book about a hot blonde teen girl named Bunny who was a polymath with an eidetic memory, living in a Washington coastal town during an economic downturn. The town had a nasty past, an “interesting” relationship with the local Indian tribe and… a vampiric alien.
It was a weird-ass book, but man, after a revision, I nailed the character voicing and the action scenes. I was fearless and it was way off the rails.
And I realized I could not sell it. This was not a book to launch a writing career as a novelist.
This book was important in that it was the first book I sent to beta readers. It broke through that wall most writers put around themselves when they are in that “this is a bit of crap but its good enough to get feedback.” zone. On one hand, you have to set your fears of your writing chops and worry that you’re using your friends aside and get feedback.
On the other, you need a dose of reality.
After the revisions I realized that I loved that book. I loved it very much. But I didn’t love it enough to sell it. In a sense, I picked the wrong book to write or the right book at the wrong time. This was a failure, in a way. I spent almost a year on it.
Ah, well. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning anything.
But someday I will come back to Bunny. Cause Bunny rules.
On one hand, I feel somewhat guilty for having a high-traffic blog post that was, at the core, fluff.
On the other, I now have a good idea what some want to read about. So let’s first talk about libertarian speculative DNA.
Libertarian Science Fiction DNA, Anthony Style
Then there was David Weber and the libertarian themes in the Honor Harrington books, an impressive feat where the main system of government was a monarchy. But the total send up of The People’s Republic of Haven and the Solarian League was a blatant libertarian f-you to their contemporary counterparts.
Then there was, what, really? Oh sure, Baen carried the speculative libertarian fiction torch and I’m sure there is something on my library selves I’ve forgotten, but what followed was a wasteland. The trail blazed went cold. What we were left with was… message-y. A lot.
Enter Michael Z. Williamson in 2003 with Freehold. Freehold is unapologetic anarcho-capitalism libertarian science fiction at its finest, and the related novel, The Weapon, was an orgy of the destruction of statism and all of its evils. For a time. We’ll come back to Williamson.
And finally we come to the supremely 80′s deliciousness of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.
Libertarian Science Fiction v2.0
My assertion is Williamson rebooted libertarian science fiction. He drove home the obvious evils of statism in absurd detail, provided a large backdrop centered around anarcho-capitalism and projected the triumph of the individual directly into the reader’s brain. A reader following his science fiction books from Freehold to present receives this delicious Libertarian Science Fiction v2.0 meal.
It’s a delicious meal, but it seems to me that Sarah Hoyt is the most serious about pulling up a chair to this rich and wonderful feast. And many of the chairs around the table are sadly empty.
Let me explain what I mean by v2.0: After embarking on the Williamson Trail of Statist Tears, I don’t even need to define what Libertarian Science Fiction is. Readers get it. Libertarians get it. Science Fiction fans get it, and let’s not be coy: any recent book about an anarcho-capitalist society is pure libertarian culture brilliance and when I say brilliance I mean fucking brilliance.
There is no need to reboot The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
But there is a very clear need to offer a current cultural heartbeat to what the core of libertarian science fiction is. And Williamson meets that need with a sledgehammer . He’s still swinging it today.
Failure to Feed
And here we are. I classified a previous novel I wrote as libertarian gun-nut speculative fiction: a blend of urban fantasy and contemporary thriller. It lives under my bed.
I shoved it under my bed for the simple reason that what I want to write is books that I want to read. And I want to read libertarian science fiction. I really, really do. And I think many other people out there want to do so too.
There’s a lot of science fiction out there that, as a libertarian, drives me up the wall. Most of the science fiction I’ve been reading lately is message fiction with a side of progressive love affair of replacing one socialistic society with a (supposedly) better socialistic society, usually in a dystopian orgy of carnage and destruction.
I don’t want to read that. I want to read speculative fiction that triumphs the trail of liberty sitting before us.
I am convinced there is a want to read this genre in both books for adults and books for young adults. And when was the last time any of us read a young adult libertarian science fiction book?
This is a failure to feed. When a low-detailed blog post about “Red Pill Science Fiction” gathers over ten times my daily traffic, there’s a need going untapped. I decided several years ago to jump into this pool of speculative freedom-loving goodness with both feet and eyes wide open. I have plans. Notice in this essay I do not go into detail of what all these “ism’s” are. I know you know. And now you know I know you know.
How refreshing is that?
The Care and Feeding of Libertarian Word-Building
What do I like to read in libertarian science fiction? I like to read a book where the author has done some serious world-building. And when I mean serious, I mean avoiding pitfalls that seem obvious to me in “mainstream” science fiction while pulling on the strings now present from the Libertarian Science Fiction v2.0 reboot.
Gender Culture and Libertarianism
Science fiction has a serious gender problem. Feminism and libertarianism are diametrically opposed and thus a large swath of science fiction steeped in this feminism is distasteful to the libertarian. But more than that, the relationship between genders often have a genesis in poor analysis. For example, every major war the United States participates in shifts gender relations. Every. Single. One. Yet this area remains largely unexplored in science fiction, but not in libertarian science fiction. Notice in libertarian science fiction men are men and women are women. Libertarian femininity is a biological construct and women conform to evolutionary psychological reactions. It ignores what people have told us women are in order to feed us a brand of dogma which, at its core, is the antithesis of libertarianism.
Yes, I went there. In fact, my Lexus Toulouse mysteries go there hard.
Feminism relies on coercion by the use of force. The use of force for coercion is the core evil of any libertarian speculative book. A libertarian society has a completely different set of cultural norms for gender relations. Completely. So what does it look like?
And how does technology impact women’s relationships to the men? For example, stick a woman in powered armor and you can speculate that she has a significant impact not only on the battlefield, but also into the gathering of resources. And the “so what?” of that is that has a tremendous impact on how men relate to her. Yet this technology also has tremendous (negative) impact to a woman’s psychological ability to cope with a sustained war.
Raise your hand if you’ve read a science fiction book where women deal with the aftermath of war just like men.
Wow. I thought so.
How do men function in a libertarian society? Really. Like, what does it look like when a man isn’t forced to do anything because of, well, anything, really. How does the lack of coercion shape cultural norms? One answer to that is men behave differently when not constantly told they are evil and bad so they better be (nice, submissive, feminine, etc.)
Because, you know, most men aren’t evil and bad. In the lack of a war on boys, what kind of men do boys become?
Now, I did come up with a scenario of a matriarchal libertarian society, and that’s in my Lexus Toulouse mysteries. Think about it.
Kids and Teens
Completely related to gender norms is the largely unexplored realm of what children and teen culture looks like in the future. The teen of today is not the teen of two hundred years from now, but that’s a major assumption present in most science fiction books. In fact, this is a largely unexplored contemporary area, too. Despite all the come-of-age books and movies, what was the real shift from the teen before WWI and the teen after WWII? I know it was significant, but how significant was it?
Libertarianism is the triumph of society through the advancement of the individual without coercion. That impacts children. Deeply and completely.
Corporations and Centralism
Holy freaking glow-in-the-dark cow on a pogo stick. The evil mega-corporation troupe must die. Die, die, die, die, die. Not because it’s a leftist circle-jerk (messy and sad) but because it makes no logical sense. It makes no logical sense because corporatism is a big failure because centralization is a big failure. And the more technology we throw at centralization, the bigger the failure is going to be. And somehow, technology, which, time and time again in the last 100 years, have proven to empower, not reduce, the individual. So we have tech making big things fall hard, and tech making little things jump out of the way.
That’s libertarianism, Baby. It’s almost as if the history of technology in these science fictions books undergoes redefinition and re-purposed to suit some not-so-subtle war on capitalism.
Hmmmm, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The De-Centralization of the Military
Not a libertarian concept per se, but a libertarian society, when faced with an obvious threat, will absolutely re-tool itself to deal with that threat.
There are other considerations. For example, logistics. Why do you need a central logistical supply chain when the logistics guy can make his own stuff for his platoon? What does a command structure look like when a decentralized and distributed society goes to war?
I bet it’s different. I bet it’s way different.
And like the mega-corporation, there are thematics here that need to die, and die hard. The allegory for the Vietnam War is done. We’ve all read the Forever War. Forever War–that’s it. We’re done, okay?
But I digress.
The Author-Reader Bargain
In my series, I do not cram my libertarian genetic code down a reader’s throat and as an aside, neither did anyone else I’ve mentioned thus far. Even Williamson didn’t so much tell, through the wonderfully voiced Kendra, what libertarianism is despite that Freehold is Librarian Science Fiction 101. No, he showed what it is through her child-like eyes. It was a message book devoid of a message, a pretty neat trick and a clear sign of storytelling talent.
In Armageddon’s Princess, I do not preach at you through the Princess. Lexus, as the Princess Concubine spends a considerable amount of time seeking sex and getting laid. And when she isn’t chasing or offering tail, she’s hell-bent on catching bad guys. And when she’s not doing any of those she is trying to simply live with the aftermath of a terrible, terrible war.
That, in a sense, is the apex of my world-building for this series. I believe that if a future libertarian people went to war, that war would be an awful thing. It would be total and it would be complete and when it was over the horror of it would be unfathomable and unbearable.
I may be a rehabilitated hack writer, but, if you’ve come here looking for science fiction swimming around libertarian philosophy, I promise to at least deliver some type of speculative meal. I believe so strongly that there is a desire to read this type of speculative fiction, I have no hesitation in alienating a potential reader that hates my guts with this post simply because I don’t subscribe to the statist cult.
Hello my 27.6 readers!
Happy New Year. I plan on making a year in review post, but I consider this a special category. What new book in 2012 did I feel was the best?
I read a considerable amount this year, despite my terrible Goodreads updates. Most of this goodness was on my Kindle, and the Kindle Paperwhite has accelerated my book reading with its pure design awesomeness. At $119 + cover and some unobtrusive, actually useful ads, this is a reader’s device and I am a reader.
But, I digress.
Out of all the books I read, one stands out as the winner and yes, you can rank books from the best to the worst.
Ken Kiser’s Fifthwind is the clear winner of 2012. From a storytelling standpoint, it’s a throw-back to the Sword and Sorcery days of yor before everything got pretentious, message-y and emo. As epic fantasy, it is a stunning debut. The novel also has great pacing, obviously edited with loving care and delivers across the board on action, world-building and best of all, a refreshingly masculine but not arrogant protagonist. Check out the reviews on Amazon.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’m not too sure what I was expecting when I picked this up for my Kindle when I saw it won the Hugo, but I was really surprised to find a come-of-age young adult novel. Twenty pages into the book I could envision an editor seeing this book for the first time and rubbing her hands with glee. AMONG OTHERS was extremely delicious as a urban fantasy dipped in the love of science fiction in the voice of a fifteen year-old girl.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty close. This book was written for people who love a good story, love science fiction, magic and love come-of-age novels. The heartache of the main character was raw and painful at times. We get glimpses of a terribleness too terrible to describe. But Walton starts the book in the most perfect place–that after tragedy and heartache, there is life.The yearning that comes with reading science fiction can be more than just story, it’s water for the thirsty, color for the blind and a light in the darkness.
Yummers yum yum!
Bonded is out, and I just ordered my hardcover edition because I am a sucker for beautiful prose in a beautiful physical book.
The first story in this novel, Cinders, was unexpectedly flawless, and I’m not surprised to see it snatched up by a publisher and put into a novella collection. I can’t wait to read the other two stories, and it’s all I can do not to order the Kindle edition and read it this weekend.
If you are a lover of prose so good it’s sensual, if you appreciate the bittersweet truth to the human condition and like storytelling that extracts the pure heart of a fairytale, then I also suggest getting Bonded. Cinders was that good, and there is no doubt the others will be right up there in the literary clouds of whipped awesomesauce.
Michelle is an excellent writer but these are the stories that push her into that otherworldly zone of awe.
There my main character was, sobbing on the floor, having gone through hell tailored by a computer program, designed to make her confront the very thing she didn’t want to confront. She was done. She had nothing left to discover. She knew all that she needed to know about herself. Yet, why couldn’t she cope? Why did the tears still fall?
It was then I departed from the rails of my outlining process (which isn’t restrictive, but it is an outline) and had the character ask, plead even, with the program. Didn’t it feel anything for the pain she went through? Did it feel anything at all for her plight? Or did was it really an uncaring bit of cleverness, designed to be brutally efficient and cruelly honest at all costs?
At this point, I didn’t know what came next, but I was going somewhere. I typed answer after answer, scene after scene. None of it worked and was worthy of the question before us. One response was five pages of pure speculative goodness, an insight into future artificial intelligence programing born from an understanding of advanced heuristics and neural networks.
But it was missing something. I deleted that, too.
Finally, a week later, I sat down and reached for my poor main character. She deserved an answer.
“Lexus, there is no cure for the human condition,” the program told her.
That was not the answer she expected. She (and by extension, I) wondered if the program was still running. Still trying to make her see through the fog of humanity by stripping it away and replacing it with a program of its own.
Or, was it using logic to reach her, to tell her that bad things happen to good people, that in its own broken way, it did care. It cared a great deal. It cared more than it could say.
I don’t have the answer to that, just as Lexus doesn’t have the answer to being human.
Maybe someday we’ll both find out.
There are many readers, myself included, whom are not enamored with recent trends in epic fantasy. The long, drawn out series where the editor seems to have taken a backseat to the writer’s ego seems to dominate the genre. Then when you come across creative bit of fantasy goodness, you realize you have, in your hands, message fiction. The author has a bone to pick, and you’re along for the ride.
Where, an epic fantasy reader, wonders, did sword and sorcery go? For years and years it seemed R.A. Salvator was carrying the classic epic fantasy torch.
Where indeed. If ever there was a disconnect between what’s on the traditional bookshelf and what people want to read, epic fantasy was it. I don’t want a twelve book serial where book seven makes no sense. Epic fantasy should rise above pulp but also fulfill the basic yearning of what comes with the fantasy genre. I’ve found a few authors (some in my recommended list) scratching that fantasy itch. Now I’ve found another. If you like epic fantasy and was thinking about or actually writing it, then check out Kin Kiser’s Fifthwind.
Fifthwind, my friends, is classic epic fantasy at its best.
It’s totally obvious, when reading Fifthwind, that Ken Kiser is a classic epic fantasy fan. Take everything you like about epic fantasy: the world-building, the rich characters, the high-stakes plot, an honest protagonist, the epic feel of the setting–these are all present.
Yet, Fifthwind turns out to be original and fresh while at the same time dishing up what makes classic epic fantasy so great. We depart recent fantasy troupe trends with the main character, Ben. Ben is a bad-ass. He starts the book as a bad-ass and simply dials his bad-ass-ery up notches as the novel progresses.
Yes, let’s talk about Ben.
Ben is bad-ass with a slice of awesome toast served with magic butter and jelly made from the tears of lessor fantasy main characters. Normally, I find characters like this annoying, but not Ben. No, Ben is too busy trying to save everyone else and his own ass to grow his ego and arrogance. In the brief moment where there is a pause in the action and Ben becomes reflective, Ben has doubts, but they are proper doubts. Ben doesn’t doubt who he is for a minute, but he doubts his actions because he doesn’t have all the information. And when he gets information that throws him for a loop, his character changes in subtle ways. Ben eventually learns what he doesn’t know can kill him, and instead of focusing on the obvious, he focuses on information gathering. And every piece of information Ben gathers that helps him figure out what is going on, it makes him a right-royal holy terror on the battlefield.
It’s a great piece of careful plotting in which the story moves forward and so does the main character.
Yeah, this is how one should write fantasy characters. It’s familiar: we have the trusted friend, the mentor, the love interest. Kiser doesn’t spend a single moment in the book turning these people into something they are not in the guise of being “original” or “fresh.” Fifthwind is so refreshingly honest, as a fantasy book, it leaves a reader wondering why other novels of its kind are so hard to find.
The plot, as I allude to, has a large mystery and Ben chews away at it and, often, simply refuses to give up because he simply must know. When he becomes a student of a secret society, it’s almost as if his mentor is simply on a crash course to connect the dots for Ben and not preach to the choir. And the scene where Ben learns that his simple view of the world is dead is quite telling. Ben sees that he must harden up. People are going to die, and soon.
And die they do. Fifthwind has the impressive body count, which dives into the highlight of this novel: the action scenes are many and detailed. They make logical sense and they have a certain urgency yet graceful flow about them, which is totally fitting for the martial whirlwind of death that is Ben. This is fantasy action at it’s very best and I am not exaggerating. It’s R.A. Salvatore good. That, dear writers, is so very worth the careful read.
Fithwind is also bittersweet. The story did not end the way I thought it would and I loved every page of the last two chapters, so if you like your epic fantasy served with grim and dark, you’ve come to the right book. You’ve also come to the right book if message fiction and cheap and pretensions thematics causes you to toss a book aside. Fifthwind doesn’t truck in recent trends of literary preaching. It’s an epic story of good vs. evil–monsters and bad guys that simply need killing. Violently.
Highly recommended for both a novelist in the fantasy genre and the reader. I give Fifthwind the coveted five bacon strips out of five.
Troy was supposed to be rebound guy, mainly because his name was “Troy.”
Karen found herself, however, thinking about him in that school girl way she knew was a one way ticket to Head Over Heals, Population Crazy Woman.
Troy fought dirty. Her daughter adored him, absolutely and completely. This played right into her insecurities of not having a man around the house. When she booted her worthless husband out, she didn’t expect him to abandon his own child, but he did. Troy however, though her daughter was more fun than all of his hobbies combined. Troy did not watch TV, instead, he played Barbie sparkle pony.
Troy’s negatives was his intensity. He was either all in or all out. His idea of relaxation consisted of biking down trails better left to mountain goats and climbing rocks with some “safety” line that didn’t look safe for an anorexic ballerina, much less his man-frame. Troy was an alpha but he had long hair, which for some reason bugged her to no end. Troy thought her friends’ politics were stupid and said so right to their faces. Troy could not cook. Troy’s tolerance for pretentious crap was zero.
In bed, Troy thought nothing of releasing his inner caveman. Grabbing a fist full of her hair was natural to him as kissing. He wasn’t content to be inside of her, her always pulled her as close to him as possible, as if he wanted to fuse their bodies by pressure and strokes.
Her brain usually shut off and she had trouble turning it back on afterwards. She loved every minute of it.
What really got her going, Karen realized one day, was that he never called her a pet name. Never once did he call her Baby, Honey, Sweetheart, or any other endearment. She asked him about it.
“I love to hear my name roll off your lips in a moment of passion,” he said, “so I assumed you like the same.”
Troy loved to kiss her neck. He was simultaneously teasing and demanding when he did so.
One day, after a five-hour marathon of sex and napping, she told him to stop screwing around and move in.
He told her to get dressed. When they did so, and went outside, his truck was already there, packed with his stuff.
For anyone new to Rehabilitated Hack Writer Recommends, I target my book reviews towards novelists (you can find my prior reviews here). I also need to point out that this is a review of the first book of a series, not the series itself.
Before we dive headfirst into the fantasy pool of epic goodness that is Tara Mara’s The Unfinished Song: Initiate, we need to take a step back and formally define what epic fantasy is in the novel landscape of 2012. The classic definition of epic or high fantasy is it’s a sub-genre of fantasy set in invented worlds.
I hate that definition.
To me, epic fantasy needs to be, well, epic. Epic. This is fun, but not epic, fantasy:
A mysterious, sexy pale-skinned sword dancer hires an infamous mercenary to find her kidnapped brother. The mercenary learns there is more to women than bedding them, while the sister learns that if she lets her quest define her life, she becomes defeated before the rescue of her brother ever begins.
Bonus points if you can guess that book, by the way.
Now this, this is epic:
The good peoples, it seemed, never defeated the evil that threatened to consume them all, only delayed the final battle. The dark and vile lord who threaten freedom everywhere wrapped his essence into a ring, and now a band of unlikely heroes must cast the ring into the fiery pit of its creation or see it reunited with its maker. Setting out on their quest with the best intentions, the task soon falls to the smallest and unlikeliest hero while the armies of evil marshal to crush everything in its path. If the hero doesn’t destroy the ring and thus the dark lord in time, there won’t be anything left to save.
Epic fantasy is ambitious. Epic fantasy is grandiose. Epic fantasy is bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s heroic, it’s classic, it’s is all-encompassing and all-consuming fantasy. There are stakes. The stakes are high. You could say that the stakes are (wait for it!) epic.
And Mara’s Unfinished Song: Initiate is an introduction into 21st century epic fantasy. Here’s the teaser:
Dindi can’t do anything right, maybe because she spends more time dancing with pixies than doing her chores. Her clan hopes to marry her off and settle her down, but she dreams of becoming a Tavaedi, one of the powerful warrior-dancers whose secret magics are revealed only to those who pass a mysterious Test during the Initiation ceremony. The problem? No-one in Dindi’s clan has ever passed the Test. Her grandmother died trying. But Dindi has a plan.
Kavio is the most powerful warrior-dancer in Faearth, but when he is exiled from the tribehold for a crime he didn’t commit, he decides to shed his old life. If roving cannibals and hexers don’t kill him first, this is his chance to escape the shadow of his father’s wars and his mother’s curse. But when he rescues a young Initiate girl, he finds himself drawn into as deadly a plot as any he left behind. He must decide whether to walk away or fight for her… assuming she would even accept the help of an exile.
Now I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking, wow, that sounds cool, but um, that doesn’t sound too epic to me.
Oh, my friends, pour a cup of hot tea and wait for it. Don’t let the girly frou-frou cover and character-driven teaser fool you. Behind the rich, detailed world-building lies the heartbeat of an epic fantasy tale that rises above the bounds of mythology and into a coming-of-age novel that will leave the reader yearning for more. Maya clearly dips her plot and characters in several different mythologies, yet the book has a distinctive voice that tugs at your heartstrings.
Let’s deconstruct the goodness going on here.
Maya’s world building kicks ass. It’s unique, it’s ambitious, and it has an undercurrent of femininity that, without the advent of the interweb tubes, the story Maya is trying to tell never would have seen the light of day. It’s so different it is, and I say this with no exaggeration, a high fantasy literary bomb of mass destruction. It is not so much a filled with troupes and familiar themes as it becomes a classic example of the very idea of world-building.
How does she accomplish this? Maya’s neolithic setting latches on the magical undercurrents of the world she envisioned and never lets them go.
For example, stone-aged peoples in the real world were concerned primarily with survival. Gender roles and relations follow a path necessary for the continuation of the individual and the group. There is a reason when an attractive woman smiles at a man she unconscionably puts her hair behind an ear, why rejection impacts men and women differently and why we are creatures of instinct despite our technological advancements.
Yet, toss magic into the fray. Magic, like technology, lends itself to the removal of the disparity of force. Maya takes this one step where few tread: it’s not necessarily what you can wield, but more what you know. Dindi’s quest isn’t so much a classic grab-onto-the-power but an unlocking of a mystery.
That moves us back to the impact of the type of magic Maya puts forth. Women, in her tribal society, have distinct roles but they are far from simple property. Women need to bear children so the society she has shaped takes that into account, but it’s not as if the magic is something that sits around in a feudal or even Victorian society as if it’s a character by itself rather than infused into the setting. It has a distinct feminine vibe without the politically correct bullshit.
This is evident from the ground up. It’s in the way characters talk. You might think ancient peoples would also have a primitive language and culture. But neolithic-era people with magic? Maya nails this. It’s in the way they dress, how they pick their mates, how they relate to other tribes, how they view politics, honor and duty. In a world where magic comes forth from a dance, where pixies, talking bears, and fae abound–Maya uses this magic as the glue to everything: setting, plot and characterization. It is the basis of her world-building and because of the creative and talented way she does it, Initiate comes off as highly original, unique and engrossing.
I’m not exaggerating here. World-building. How To. Tara Maya. Initiate. Read it.
My number one surprise with this book is that this book has guy stuffs in it. I could talk at length how fascinating Dindi is, how she comes across as both vulnerable yet puts aside her fears to do what must be done. How she seems like she is fourteen going on eighteen one moment, and fourteen going on twelve the next. Maya pens her as tenacious and doesn’t shy away from giving her a sexuality. Dindi’s great.
My little fantasy heart, however, belongs to Kavio.
Because Kavio kicks ass.
Kavio, actually, is a tragic figure. Maya gives him nobility and youthful idealism as his moral fiber, and tosses him into situations of conflict where it becomes apparent that Kavio greatest enemy is himself. Kavio is a good guy, but he’s also a weapon of mass destruction. He follows the rules when obviously he could, quite simply, make up the rules himself with his magic. He’s like a Jedi Knight being given a ticket by a traffic cop. Press hard, Kavio, you’re making five copies. The cop has a gun and feels superior, but Kavio could turn him inside out, burn his cruiser, go to the station, and have it swallowed whole by a rent in the earth while blood pixies rip out everyone’s eyeballs through their noses making the police station scene in The Terminator look like a scene from a Jane Austin novel.
Instead, he signs.
Did I mention he’s a bad-ass?
As a writer, Kavio fascinates me mightily. I’m beginning to wonder if someone handed Maya an honorary penis because she hones in on the masculine feel of Kavio with laser-like focus. She nails what I call the Tragic Masculine Paradox: when confronted with an attractive young woman coming-of-age, the man of honor is torn with feelings of protectiveness as a father figure yet desires as a lover. You see this in fiction all the time. Rarely do you see it done with such empathy and understatement. Many writers go overboard with this, giving this a tragic (and pervy) element. Maya, however, simply presents it as-is. Kavio has bigger problems than his youthful naïveté.
Dindi’s feminine, innocent beauty, simply highlights Kavio’s main attraction: Dindi is magically powerful. Without going into the rest of the series, he’s slowly falling in love, and love, my friends, is messy. Dindi is more than a girl and then more than a young woman. She’s the catalyst to…
But I digress. Dindi isn’t the only character in a come-of-age journey in Initiate.
Which leads us to the clever, delicious plotting, and how we come full circle back to our discussion about epic fantasy.
A prevalent, and welcomed trend in speculative fiction is the come-of-age journey set in a fantastic (be it wonderful or dystopian) setting. I am a huge sucker for these types of stories, and in Initiate, Maya plots a literal come-of-age journey as Dindi goes out to become a woman, ready or not (and no, she wasn’t ready).
But epic fantasy has stakes. Big stakes. End-of-the-world (or worse!) type stakes, but unlike much of what is out there today, this book is surprisingly not a coming-of-age novel with an epic plot line to give the character’s punch and excuses to reveal their literary humanity. No, this is a book that provides the foundation for the true story: the battle with the malevolent forces out to crush humanity. It’s not exactly Clan of the Cave Bear meets The Lord of the Rings, but you get the idea.
Dindi is on a personal journey and she yearns to become a magical dancer in the society she was born in. However, if, as a reader, you’re paying attention, you can spot the epic plot that Maya is serving up like drops of water to the thirsty.
And this is where we depart the shackles of traditional publishing. Maya fearlessly has plotted out a twelve book series and each book is building on that plot in a relentless, epic fashion. Let me be very clear, I am not a big fan of many-book fantasy series. Many of them have problems with continuity, editing, and, quite frankly, sometimes as a reader, I feel I’ve been ripped off around book four because I’m being milked rather than being cleverly entertained.
eBooks, and today’s book market, however, has expanded the types of books we can find and buy, and Maya’s greatest accomplishment as a writer is taking full advantage of medium. The twelve book format, based on her world-building, is not only daring but also a little slice of epic fantasy goodness, and her skill at characterization draws the reader right into her world.
It’s epic fantasy by our very definition, and it’s yummy. Give me those twelve books. I’ll gladly ready every one of them. If you love a good fantasy series fix, Maya’s your drug dealer, Baby.
You can tell I’m a fan. Initiate is a wonderful, rich and diverse book and the series thus far is a fantasy reader’s fantasy series. I do have quibbles with it, but they are nits in the larger picture. I’m not a fan of the cover art. I disagree with some of the editorial decisions made and feel Maya’s talent could easily support books of larger word counts, smoothing some of the abruptness of the plot presentation.
Yet these are mere nits because from a storytelling standpoint, it just doesn’t work, it’s a slice of Awesome Toast with Bacon. I tell my non-writer, but reader friends, the Era of the Reader is upon us. Novels like Initiate proves that assertion. If you are a writer, take a step back from all the meta that goes on with writing, look at the bigger picture, and read Initiate. You’ll realize the sum of the book is bigger than its parts, and, at its heart, epic fantasy many readers want to buy, but haven’t really been able to do so.
I give Initiate four bacon strips out of five. And while this is a singular book recommendation, I’ll just drop a teaser that as good as it is, the other books in the series get better.