Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fantasy Cliché #1 – The Farm Boy with a Secret

In the second post in my six part series on The Top 5 Clichés in Fantasy Fiction, I’m discussing the first of my listed clichés: The Farm Boy with a Secret.

Since Frodo Baggins left the Shire in J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1954 novel The Fellowship of the Ring, we’ve seen a plethora of such characters in fantasy fiction, including Garion from David Eddings’ The Belgariad, Rand from Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, and Shae Ohmsford from Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. This character is always somewhat of an “everyman,” at least by all accounts, but often harbors some secret identity, power, or destiny that he or she only learns about later in the story.

The farm boy character may have been a response to the larger than life, super-heroic types that frequently served as protagonists in earlier works of fantasy fiction. I’m talking about Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror, John Carter of Mars, and even Elric of Melniboné (although he didn’t first appear until 1961). These characters were more like the heroes and demigods of Greek mythology than ordinary people. So perhaps the farm boy character seemed a more appealing alternative to writers because he was more identifiable to readers.

Do you prefer Hercules or someone more like you?
The problem started when all of these characters appeared to be found on small farms that were just waiting to be attacked by some evil enemy. And often these pastoral settings were the protagonist’s hiding place until some time of prophecy or other grandiose event (enter the Wise Wizard – the subject of next week’s post!). All this said, I liked this character in its day. In fact, David Eddings’ Belgariad was among the series I adored the most growing up, including its main character Garion, the young boy on Faldor’s farm who turns out to be the heir to the Rivan throne and the destined slayer of the evil god Torak. Eddings’ Belgariad was a bestselling series, and the popularity of many other fantasy series crafted around similar characters suggests there’s something about this character type that readers truly enjoy.

Garion worked in his day!
Here’s why, in my view. This “everyman” character who ends up facing some important quest or challenge is an archetype which at least one author classifies as the “Messiah.” (See 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt.) Archetypes represent ideals and images that have come to be accepted as universal models. This particular archetype is embodied by legendary and mythical personalities such as the biblical David, the shepherd boy who slays a giant. He is often a seemingly ordinary man (or woman) who ends up forced by some turn of events (often destiny) to have to save others from some great enemy or catastrophe. Sometimes this character has a secret origin, but in my view that just makes him or her more interesting.

The Messiah archetype shows up frequently in film and fiction, often in forms other than the simple farm boy, but always appearing, at least initially, as an “everyman.” A few examples include Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, William Wallace from Braveheart, Neo from The Matrix, and Harry Potter (“You’re a wizard Harry!”). Even the heroes from classic comics often have “everyman” identities before donning their superhero disguises. Think Clark Kent and Peter Parker just to name a few.

Harry Potter is just another variation of The Farm Boy with a Secret.
The notion of a savior, especially one the reader can identify with, is very appealing. And that’s why I believe this character type is here to stay – because it has withstood the test of time and embodies something the reader desires. Now if we can just get him off the farm, he may be less cliché.

Monday, February 27, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #3

This week’s “beginning” comes from Chapter One of Greg Keyes’ The Briar King, the first book in his The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series. In my view, this a compelling opening passage that quickly hooks the reader:
Aspar White smelled murder. Its scent was like a handful of autumn leaves, crisped by the first frost and crushed in the palm.

Dirty Jesp, the Sefry woman who had raised him, told him once that his peculiar sense came from having been born of a dying mother below the gallows where the Raver took his sacrifices. But Jesp made her living as a liar, and the why didn’t matter anyway. All Aspar cared about was that his nose was usually right. Someone was about to kill someone else, or try.
– Greg Keyes, The Briar King

This novel begins well and ends well!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Top 5 Clichés in Fantasy Fiction

The word “cliché” makes some readers shudder. Others gag. It brings to mind something so overdone, so stale, so lacking in originality it makes you roll your eyes and mutter, “not this again.” Since at least J.R.R. Tolkien, fantasy fiction has been the Fertile Crescent of clichés. I’ve read numerous articles pleading for authors to avoid them at all costs. But are the clichés in fantasy fiction really all that bad?

Was any of this cliché in 1977?
This week I’m starting a six part series of posts on the top five clichés in fantasy fiction. I’ll focus on how certain elements earned their “cliché” status, but I’ll also discuss why some of these may be essential – or at least valuable – to fantasy fiction because they represent elements the reader craves. So, without further ado, here’s my list of the top five clichés in fantasy fiction:
  1. The Farm Boy with a Secret – Think Garion from David Eddings’ The Belgariad, Rand from Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, Shae Ohmsford from Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, Eragon from Christopher Paolini’s novel bearing the same name, and even Luke Skywalker (yes, Star Wars was fantasy in my view, not SciFi). For a while it seemed like any young protagonist who grew up on a farm was a child of prophecy, the son of a wizard, or something akin to a Jedi knight.

  2. The Wise Wizard – This one goes back to Merlin, and maybe well before him. Since then we’ve had Tolkien’s Gandalf, Brooks’ Allanon, Eddings’ Belgarath, Paolini’s Brom, Lucas’ Obi-wan Kenobi, and many others. It seemed like every old guy was a wizard!

  3. Orcs! – Or maybe Trollocs, Goblins, Mord Wraiths, Urgals, Sand People – we’ve seen their kind before!

  4. The Magic Weapon – Think Excalibur, Narsil, Stormbringer, the Sword of Shannara. Everyone in fantasy fiction had a magic sword.

  5. The Overwhelming Ancient Evil – or his twin, The Evil Sorcerer. This is Sauron, Lord Foul, the Warlock Lord, Torak, Galbatorix, Emperor Palpatine, and even Morgan le Fay (in some versions of the Arthurian Myth). These guys or gals are bad, and we know it!
Yes, you’ve seen these before. Many, many, many times before. But could there be a good reason why? For more, check back next week when I’ll explore Cliché #1 – the Farm Boy with a Secret. In the meantime, let me know what you think – what are your top five clichés in fantasy fiction?

Monday, February 20, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week #2

For this week’s “beginning” I’ve chosen the opening passage from Frances Sherwood’s The Book of Splendor, a novel set in 1601 about the legendary Golem of Prague. I highly recommend this novel for anyone who hasn’t read it!
Creating a Golem requires patience, brilliance, study, prayer, and fasting. The creator must be worthy in character, close to God, free of sin. Traditionally only rabbis can make such a being, and not any rabbi, but a tzaddik, one of the righteous. Understandably, it is an undertaking filled with presumption and fraught with the possibility of error. Insight into the magical possibilities of the Hebrew alphabet is imperative, as is the ability to use the exalted language of God’s various names. 
– Frances Sherwood, The Book of Splendor 
This is one of my favorite novels!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What Makes an Antihero a Hero?

According to Wikipedia, “an antihero ... is generally considered to be a protagonist whose character is at least in some regards conspicuously contrary to that of the archetypal hero.” This character is usually the antithesis of the “knight in shining armor.” But what makes him work?

In my view, the antihero has to be someone we root for despite the fact he has dark aspects to his character. This often means the antihero must be less evil than the story’s antagonists, so that in the end the true bad guys get their just deserts. We also need to have an understanding of why the antihero has this dark side so we can empathize with him as the protagonist. Without this empathy, I believe, the antihero fails as a character

To explore this idea, let’s look at four characters from fantasy and historical fiction who likely fit the definition of an antihero in a way that works with the reader.

Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Roland has a host of traditional hero-like characteristics (he’s brave and a gunslinger – similar to a knight in King’s world), but his obsession to find the Dark Tower rules his soul. And throughout the series, nearly everyone Roland cares for pays a high price for his obsession. Roland is ruthless, but also has a heart – and sometimes, a conscience. Yet ultimately, his flawed and troubled character is what makes him an antihero.

Uhtred of Bebbanburg from Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Tales series. Uhtred, like Roland, has many characteristics of a traditional hero, but he’s arrogant, rash, and violent – and hates the king he serves. Uhtred is a pagan in a Christian world, quick to oppose the will of the pious King Alfred and his priests. Among the four characters listed here, Uhtred may be the farthest from a true antihero because in the end he tends to do the right thing.

Tyrion Lannister from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Tyrion could be an easier call because, after all, he’s a Lannister – and they’re BAD. But is Tyrion really all that bad? In the interest of full disclosure, I have yet to read all the novels in the series; however, Tyrion certainly is no knight in shining armor. Yet I find myself rooting for him as much as any of the true heroes in Martin’s epic.

Elric of Melniboné from Michael Moorcock’s novels that bear Elric’s name. He is probably the most classic antihero of the group. He’s a member of an evil race that worships evil gods – and on top of that, he wields a sword that steals souls. But Elric is never the worst of the lot. His opponents are always far more evil, and his origins as an exiled king, coupled with his physical ailments (he’s weak and frail when not taking drugs to keep up his strength), allow the reader just enough empathy for Elric to make him work as hero, even if he’s of the “anti” variety.

These are just four examples, and there are certainly legions more in the annals of fiction. But let me know what you think. What makes an antihero a hero, and do you have a good example of one that works?

Monday, February 13, 2012

“Beginning” of the Week

As I noted in my previous post on Great First Lines, the first sentence in a novel can often be its most important. But not always. Some stories need longer to develop. Still, it’s hard to underestimate the significance of the story’s opening passage. This is the “beginning” of the tale, a chance to hook the reader and persuade him or her to read more. It’s also an opportunity to set the tone for the novel and give the reader some sense of what the story will be about. And for many novels, it’s where the magic of the author’s prose takes first form.

In honor of this ever-so-important paragraph in fiction, I’m starting a new series of posts every Monday aptly titled, the “Beginning” of the Week. In it I’ll highlight the opening passage from either the prologue or first chapter of a novel in the historical or fantasy genres. Feel free to comment on the passage or simply read the words and decide for yourself if you would want to read on.

For the inaugural “beginning” of the week, I’ve chosen the first few lines of Stephen King’s fantasy masterpiece, The Gunslinger.
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions. It was white and blinding and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death. An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way, for once the drifted track that cut its way through the thick crust of alkali had been a highway. Coaches and buckas had followed it. The world had moved on since then. The world had emptied.
– Stephen King, The Gunslinger

These words began Stephen King's fantasy masterpiece.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Pale Horseman

Following the release of Death of Kings, I started re-reading some of the earlier novels in Bernard Cornwell’s fantastic series, The Saxon Tales. (You can read my review of The Last Kingdom, the first novel, here.) The books are set in England during the reign of Alfred the Great, who defended the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms against the Danish Vikings in the ninth century. Alfred is an important figure in the novels, but the focus is on Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a dispossessed Northumbrian lord who, in my view, is one of the all-time great characters in Medieval fiction. The Pale Horseman is the second book in the series, and my review of the novel follows this image of its cover.

While all but the kingdom of Wessex have fallen to the Vikings, The Pale Horseman begins with the Saxons having defeated a Danish army at Cynuit, thanks to the prowess of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a young and brash warrior who was born a Saxon but raised by Danes. But when a rival lord claims credit for the victory at Cynuit before King Alfred of Wessex, Uhtred becomes enraged and breaks the king’s law. As punishment, Alfred forces Uhtred to perform a humiliating penance, which only fuels his hatred for the king he’s sworn to serve. 

The events that follow reveal the “gray” nature of Uhtred’s character. At times, he becomes somewhat of an antihero, such as when he and his men “go viking” and ravage a Breton village. Uhtred is rash and violent, yet I found myself rooting for him all the same, especially after his actions exacerbate his troubles with Alfred, and more false accusations by Uhtred’s rival lead to even greater injustice. Uhtred’s conflict with the overly pious and strict Alfred is central to the novel, but their relationship takes an intriguing turn after the Danes attack Alfred’s stronghold at Cippenhamm, forcing both Alfred and Uhtred to take refuge in the nearby marshland. There, surrounded by the Viking army, Uhtred must decide whether to defend the king he despises, while the fate of Wessex hangs in the balance.

As with all of Cornwell’s novel’s, The Pale Horseman introduces us to a new set of memorable characters, including the hulking Saxon warrior Steapa (who serves Uhtred’s rival) and Asser (whom Uhtred calls “the Ass”), a conniving Welsh monk based on the real life cleric who would become Bishop of Sherborne. One of the novel’s most intriguing supporting characters is Uhtred’s love interest, Iseult. She’s a Briton and a pagan, a "shadow queen" who claims she can see the future. Her powers profoundly impact both Uhtred’s and Alfred’s lives, while increasing the tension between the Christians and the pagans, yet another element that makes these novel’s so interesting.

The Pale Horseman is one of my favorite novels in The Saxon Tales series, and among the best of Bernard Cornwell’s Medieval fiction. I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Clash of Kings

The trailer for Season 2 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which will air in April 2012, was released this week (you can watch it here). Season 1 was fantastic and, from the trailer, Season 2 looks equally promising – as it should be since it depicts A Clash of Kings, the wonderful second novel in George R.R. Martin’s epic series A Song of Ice and Fire.

I came to Martin’s masterpiece series rather late in the game (like more than a decade late). I had a copy of A Game of Thrones on my bookshelf for years, but for some reason it never made it to the front of my reading list. That is, until I was watching HBO one night and saw the trailer for Season 1. I read the novel in time to catch the series, and from that moment on I was hooked. So in light of the Season 2 trailer, I thought I’d post my quick review of A Clash of Kings after this image of the novel’s cover. I have tried to avoid any spoilers, but if you haven’t yet read A Game of Thrones or seen Season 1 of the HBO series, you may want to avoid reading anything about A Clash of Kings.

A Clash of Kings begins right where A Game of Thrones left off. Robb Stark is now King of the North, while his mother Catelyn tries to broker peace between Stannis and Renly Baratheon, each of whom has proclaimed himself King of the Seven Kingdoms, plunging Westeros deeper into civil war. In King’s Landing, Joffrey sits on the Iron Throne, but his mother Cersei rules the realm, at least until Tyrion Lannister arrives to be the new Hand of the King. Sansa Stark remains Cersei’s hostage, while Arya travels with one of the Black Brothers and a band of misfits and thieves in route to The Wall. Jon Snow, meanwhile, has joined the rangers of the Night’s Watch in search of the wildlings and their mysterious king. While back at Winterfell, Bran and his brother Rickon face an unexpected enemy. And a continent away, Daenerys Targaryen and her three young dragons seek an army to take back the kingdoms her family once ruled.

It quickly becomes apparent that this book is the start of the lengthy, middle portion of the series. Few, if any, story lines are resolved, though the conflict and tension are ratcheted up several notches from A Game of Thrones. This novel is also darker than its predecessor, though perhaps that’s to be expected as the stakes continue to rise.

The story is told through the eyes of nine different viewpoint characters (not counting the prologue), which is one more point-of-view than A Game of Thrones. The book is long enough, however, to give every story line it’s due. With one exception (whose name I won’t reveal to avoid a *spoiler*), I truly felt for these characters. I cared about what happened to Arya Stark and her brother Bran, and Jon Snow beyond The Wall. I empathized with Catelyn Stark, worrying for her children, and found myself rooting for Tyrion Lannister, surrounded by treachery in King’s Landing. (I must admit, the Lannisters are one of the most sublime group of villains I’ve encountered in a long time!) And I couldn’t help put pull for Daenerys and her dragons, even though I know that if they ever return to the Seven Kingdoms, bad things may happen to the other characters I’ve come to adore. In short, Martin’s masterful portrayal of these characters is perhaps his greatest gift. It’s also the primary reason his novels work so well.

I have little doubt that Season 2 of Game of Thrones will do his story and his characters justice. Now if only April would hurry along ...