Stories That Aren’t, or, Smokescreens for Other Stories

A few months ago I read The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, edited by Karen Joy Fowler (spoiler alert: I only read the stories by women, fite me), and had the pleasure of encountering Cat Valente’s “Planet Lion” for the first time.  Just now (literally) I had the further pleasure of listening to “Planet Lion” being read aloud on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast (from a few years ago, I know, but I’m a completist and I just started it a week ago).

And even after two exposures to it, I had a hard time following the action completely, which didn’t actually ruin the effect of it because the way that Valente uses words is a pleasure in itself, and she’s the kind of writer that makes you feel confident that she knows where she’s going with it so if you don’t follow completely it’s ok.  It was also a somewhat complicated story because it dealt with narrative not only on multiple levels, but the protagonists of the story were a civilization of marsupial lions able to communicate sort of telepathically with one another.  Marsupial, three-gendered lions, I should be so precise to say.

Anything could have happened, really.

But the second listening and subsequent interview she gave with the podcast got me thinking about how some immensely effective writers can write a story that is ostensibly about one thing, when really it’s about another thing entirely, and I don’t mean metaphorical meaning, but actual narrative meaning.  Valente’s story about marsupial lions on a fictional planet also tells the story of an interstellar war and the people whose brains have been cannibalized to harvest military skills that the combatant planets or governments can use against each other.  It’s the kind of stealthy reveal that you can (case in point) miss if you’re not paying close enough attention.

Thinking about this complicated swirl of storytelling in which Valente has engaged got me pondering another story that makes use of this tactic, which is “How Dogs Came to the New Continent,” from Cat Rambo’s story collection Neither Here Nor There.  The narrator of this story is writing a preface to a study about the proliferation of species from one continent to another, but the story itself is actually about the people who have gone forth to explore and colonize a newly discovered continent in a fictional world, with a poignant twist at the end which reveals much more about the fictional narrator than one would expect to find, and a pointed commentary on colonialism and racial supremacy in our own very real world.

As Rambo says herself in her afternotes, “I love stories that are disguised as other tings, and so this is a story disguised as a scholarly monograph from a Tabatian scholar, whose underlying story is much more interesting than the pedigrees of the dogs he’s discussing.”  Like Valente, Rambo imbues her prose with a richness of meaning and imagery that makes fictional worlds come alive and linger on the palate long after they’ve been consumed.  They are both author’s whose work I will be actively seeking out in the future.

I’ve only really encountered this disguised story gambit in short stories, and I think it would probably be difficult to keep up the conceit in a longer novella or novel-length work.  Be that as it may, it’s certain a conceit I enjoy and hope to run into again.  It brings out a certain attention to detail in world building that provides a solid foundation for plot.  In the case of “Planet Lion,” the fact that we know so much about the lions lets Valente get the ball rolling with the human stories that are intermixed, as the lions become more and more wrapped up in the lives they have absorbed, more and more densely the longer this war over their planet is waged.  It’s almost a surprise the first time, yet as it happens over and over the reader becomes hungry for this secondary narrative, wondering what could be so compelling that the lions can’t help but re-enact it.

“How Dogs Came to the New Continent” is presented by the erstwhile narrator as a dry introduction to a longer, drier tome, yet it’s almost as if the narrator can’t help but tell his own story, as if the entire reason for the long monograph is so that he can unburden himself of the history he’s long kept hidden.  Rambo uses the trope of the dusty scholar to good effect, layering in commentary of those who seek to tell the stories of others with a moving tale of childhood friendship.

These are the kind of stories that get one out of bed in the morning.

In the Night Garden, by Catherynne Valente

the most perfect garden in the world, a place of planned and controlled beauty,
a girl tells a boy tales, the kind that tell the story of what happens off the
beaten path, in the wilderness of life. 
She tells tales of monsters and princesses, and sometimes, monstrous
princesses.  She tells the story of
a world through the tales that the world has created.  She tells the story of life, the kind of life the boy would
give up nearly anything to hear.

as layers of lives, each creature encountered telling their own story, blending
with the overall tale the young girl whispers at night to the lonely boy,
Valente builds a world.  Rarely
does one encounter such a vivid world, or characters who shine so brightly,
with so little exposition.  Though
different cultures and creatures war with each other, each aspect of this world
blends together to create a tapestry of beliefs, peoples, lives, and deaths.  It is a complex ecosystem where a
single action, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time, can have great
ramifications for hundreds of years.

writing is stylized in the way of fairy tales, but also simple.  The narrative does not shy away from
what is ugly, or horrible.  It does
not shrink from the overwhelming ambition that leads sons to kill their
fathers, or that leads wizards to turn young women into deformed creatures in a
quest for immortality.  It also
allows the small and forgotten to forge a place of significance through
bravery, honesty, and every good quality that is best exemplified by the
insignificant.  It is a masterful
piece of storytelling.

who enjoy stories of the ‘once upon a time’ variety will find themselves
spellbound by Valente’s ever-spiraling tales.  Those who like fantasy that pushes the limits of
storytelling and world building will enjoy these tales that have so much to say
in so few words.  Anyone looking
for a complex narrative that combines a rich tapestry of folk and fairy tales
need look no further than In the Night

Black Wolves, by Kate Elliott

you ever get back what was lost? 
Can the world ever go back to the way it was, or even manage to stop
changing for just a little while? 
Would you even want to?  In
a follow-up to her epic Crossroads Trilogy, Kate Elliott returns to the Hundred
and once again pushes readers into the rushing river of desire, anticipation,
and dread that redefined an entire nation—and reminded readers just how good a
fantasist Elliott is.

up 16 years after the Qin general Anji declared himself king over the Hundred, Black Wolves is the story of legacy,
what it means, and what we do with it. 
Anji’s oldest son and daughter—Atani and Dannarah—have grown up in the
Hundred, almost inseparable, learning both the ways of their mother’s
traditions from the Sirniakan empire and those of the Hundred, but one day a
secret is revealed that will change their paths forever and put them at odds
for the first time in their lives. 

takes a novel step in Black Wolves,
making it not the story of the young and valorous, but that of age, experience,
and—one would hope—wisdom.  The
story cuts forward over forty years, to pick up with Dannarah as not just a
reeve to a great ealge but marshal of Horn Hall, Atani assassinated, and
Kellas—Anji’s most loyal Black Wolf—returning to Law Rock and his role as
arm of the royal family.  Demons,
once called Guardians, still haunt the Hundred, as does Anji’s war of
unification still haunt the Hundred, though memory of a time before persists in
the generations who survived, in the stories they passed down.   

Elliott has written a
meditation on the power of memory, the endurance of faith, and the importance
of family as much as a well-crafted epic fantasy novel, and laid down plenty of
suspense for what is sure to be a gripping new trilogy.  With her rich storytelling style,
Elliott draws a map of the world, even as she paints the smallest scenes of
courage, resistance, and love that make a story worth reading, a life worth
knowing.  Black Wolves gives the hungry reader all the action and heroism
they expect in a fantasy novel, but doesn’t forget that heroism can be found in
even the smallest act, even the most insignificant or unexpected person. 

Black Wolves is the novel for readers
of The Lord of the Rings who wanted
to be a hobbit, not a king.  It is
for those who crave that single act that can change the course of history, who
love a story that doesn’t forget its own past while remaining firmly in the
present.  Readers who are looking
for a fantasy epic that doesn’t forget there is another half of humanity with
stories to tell will enjoy how Black
values all genders, all ages. 
Those who want stories of empire, intrigue, and betrayal that take all
their characters seriously will enjoy the way Elliott fills out each character,
even the villains, and doesn’t treat world building as an afterthought.

On Historical Accuracy

GRRMartin, it seems, can’t stay out of the news–at least within SFFdom–and while I’m definitely not going to devote a post to his latest ass-hattery concerning “rape vs. dragons,” I would like to write a post in response to the utterly stupid ways in which he calls upon “historical accuracy” in his media creations in order to let his own self off the hook for, well, everything.

As far as I’m concerned–and I accept that there are plenty of people who may disagree with me on this–historical accuracy is only valid if you are actually writing about actual history.  This could be biography or historical fiction, or even SFF set in a historical era, but unless your work is specifically set in a particular time and particular place in documented earth-time, your claims to be worrying about historical accuracy are stupid, at the very least.  And even if you are writing about a specific earth history, unless you take into account the fact that earth history is generally written by the victors, whitewashed, and otherwise represses marginalized groups, your history is bullshit.

My point is that GRR is unable to account–not for the actual historical accuracy of his work, which is, as I already proved, not even a side of the fence on which to fall in this discussion–for his position in the present, and in this historical context.  He is completely unable to fathom his own participation in the time and place in which he lives, and the incredible privilege in which his own existence and media are steeped.  Every author brings something of themselves to the table when they sit down to make a story, and unfortunately for GRR, he brings his white maleness and little else.  He has shown, time and again, that the only historical context he’s basing his work on is his own narrow interpretation of a really non-existent “medieval” period from which his world didn’t actually spring.  His Song of Ice and Fire world came from his head, like all fantasy writers, and the rape and violence and the Orientalism and the white supremacy also came from his head.

Now, since I don’t feel like talking about GRR any longer, let’s talk about some writers who actually do write with an awareness of their own historical context.  This will be a series of posts, since there’s no way I can talk about these great authors in brief.

1. Kate Elliott is primarily known for epic fantasy series–she’s written a few million words, probably, by now–which feature meticulous world building.  All of them include technology or economic systems which resemble those the reader might recognize from a particular period on Earth.  For example, in the Crossroads trilogy the first culture to whom the reader is introduced, the people of the Hundred, eat a rice-based diet, wear sandals, have a relatively warm climate, and live in houses that might remind some readers of homes in Japan.  However these people are not Japanese or Asian any more than they are the giant eagles upon which they ride, and their contemporary culture is based in a belief system which grew up over a period of possibly hundreds or thousands of years, and their philosophy of government and military reflects that.  Elliott blends characters’ points of view, the narrator’s descriptions of geography and settings, and action to let the reader in on a history and culture she has obviously thought a lot about.

Elliott is very clear that her intention when world building is to create whole places and people and systems of living.  By creating whole cultures of people of a variety of skin colors, hair colors, eye colors, statures, and other physical markers, she shows she’s aware of and accounts for her own understanding of history and her place in it.  The fantasy genre is one devoted to imagination and exploring ideas through storytelling outside of traditional worlds and world-views.  Elliott doesn’t rely on tokens or other tropes of traditionally marginalized people to advance her stories.  Whatever prejudices exist in her novels are a product of the cultures she has created; because her characters behaving in a realistic way and have complicated psychologies and motivations–being products of their fully-grounded cultures–they elicit an emotional or intellectual response from the reader concerning our modern preconceptions and prejudices.

For example, still in the Crossroads trilogy, the religious system of the Hundred incorporates a temple devoted to the Merciless One, and one of her aspects is desire.  Temple initiates engage in sexual activity with people who come to the temple.  Desire is treated as a valid and expected part of humanity; rape, when the story begins, is much less common and treated as a greater crime because men don’t have control over women’s bodies, because sex is not regulated, in the ways we expect to find in our modern patriarchal culture.  This aspect of the story may make some readers uncomfortable, for some it will be quite freeing, but not matter the reaction of the reader Elliott’s writing treats the subject with sensitivity and doesn’t rely on tropes or stereotypes to get the idea across, allowing readers to make up their minds without being antagonized by poor storytelling.  

Elliott’s characters–protagonists and supporting characters alike, are three-dimensional people in their own right; some fit the traditional masculine and feminine roles we are used to seeing in fantasy, while many do not.  One of the things that is most compelling about Elliott’s work is that those who do not fit traditional descriptions are not used to exemplify those who do.  Rather than a Brienne of Tarth, who is used to illustrate to the reader what a “real” knight is, throughout Elliott’s stories we have women who are simply warriors or fighters, with much more complicated motivations and histories, with stories of their own to live, than being the woman who will eventually need to be rescued by a man, thus advancing his character development.  Elliott uses her imagination and her empathy to find the story to tell for characters from all walks of life, all ages, all genders.  She does not use them as merely plot points.

Elliott’s stories and characters are are products of their cultures and exist in tension with the demands of those cultures.  People are at the mercy of the geography and climate in which they live.  When armies go to war, they are are not the great hordes we are used to seeing in The Lord of the Rings.  They are relatively small, only as many as can be sustained by the pre-industrial communities from which they are drawn.  If great hordes do arise, there is a measurable effect on the land and people through which they maraud; crops are not sown or harvested, trade routes falter, government and law break down.  

One of my favorite aspects of Elliott’s writing concerns when cultures meet or collide in the course of a story.  In the Crossroads series, when a marauding group of bandits and thugs springs from the very midst of the Hundred–looting, enslaving, and, yes, occasionally raping along the way–Elliott doesn’t fall back on some oddball assumptions about what happened in feudal societies during a non-existent medieval period to explain how this could happen.  She allows the world itself to show the reader how a failure in justice more than a generation ago led to a slowly growing faction of people who decided not only to take justice into their own hands, but what justice is.  As characters learn more about the situation, the reader is shown what they and the people they meet think about it, and eventually what the greater repercussions of this horde will be.  When characters perpetrate violence, or have it perpetrated against them, there are real, perceivable, realistic outcomes.  Abnormal and anti-social behavior is acknowledged, it serves a narrative purpose within the story, and is not just used for ambiance or to lazily illustrate a character.  

Throughout her writing career, Elliott has shown she is aware of how “historical accuracy” has been used and misused within fiction, and that it is important to her to create fully functioning, dynamic worlds with a multitude of people and concerns, just like the actual Medieval Earth period was, just like all Earth historical periods are.  By creating no less than four cultural groups within the Crossroads trilogy (and even more than that in the Crown of Stars series) that have separate, fully functioning socio-political systems, she has also shown that she is aware of her own identity as an interpreter of history, and a member of our shared contemporary time and place.  

She understands that our world is made up of countless cultural groups, some of whom have been left out not just of representation, but of their accomplishments and deep history simply for being not white, not Christian, not European.  Not only does Elliott not default to whiteness and using non-white groups as externalized “others” against whom to compare her dominant culture, when she writes brown and black people Elliott does not include contemporary Earth tropes and stereotypes to “explain” the people she has written.  

We’re going to leave out the way that Elliott writes her fantasy elements, because that would make for an even longer post.

To conclude, as Elliott herself has written, The Status Quo Does Not Need World Building; from that I assert that the status quo really doesn’t need a novel about it.  There are assumptions about what fantasy literature is, from those within and without the genre, based upon the people who have been allowed to create it over the past hundred years, and Elliott chooses not to reinforce those assumptions in her work.  Truly, Elliott has shown that it is only lack of imagination, lack of empathy, which keeps authors from creating characters who do not look like themselves and who do not have recourse to agency or even human decency within their stories.  Let’s support more authors like her.

Stay tuned for the next post in this “series” and keep reading diversely.

Book Series: Crown of Stars, by Kate Elliott

            The Crown of Stars series—seven books in total—is a long series of long novels that escapes the curse of the long series and actually gets better at the end.  Readers of long epic fantasy series’ know all about this.  The Wheel of Time, for all its millions of devoted readers, definitely began to drop off in quality and actual story accomplished after a few installments.  Crown of Stars is also quite ambitious, which we’d expect from epic fantasy, but it’s not just because it has a large cast of characters, or a lot of world building.  Crown of Stars has a large cast of diverse, interesting characters, goes out of its way to fully develop people, religions, cultures, races and does it for each group of people introduced.  It also features a huge map, and fully developed astronomy and mathematical system.

            Now, about the plot.  Crown of Stars borrows from a fair number of tropes, but in a way that is actually useful to creating a cohesive story.  It features stories of a kingdom divided in a very Henry VIII way, an invasion by a group of “barbarian” outsiders (from the point of view of the culture being invaded, who happen to resemble Medieval Europeans, so take their opinions with a grain of salt), magical fairy-like elements, deep and twisty love stories, and a fully developed religion complete with heresies and tyrannical church.  This series was the first I’d read that showed me it was possible to model a world on a particular aspect of ours, without necessarily recreating or aping it.  We don’t have to repeat the mistakes of Medieval Europe, for instance, to interpret be influenced by it.  That’s what fiction, especially speculative fiction, is for: making your own mistakes.

            Crown of Stars is the story of a young woman, Liath, first trying to survive while being chased by dangerous magical creatures and a controlling and manipulative man of the church, then attempting to solve the mysteries of her past, then again trying to survive in a world that wants to use her once she’s unraveled the story of her past.  And if that’s not enough for you, there are numerous subplots that intertwine with each other and with Liath’s story, building in complexity and suspense over all seven books until everything comes to a head. 

            Each novel in the series has overlapping plot elements and completes a plot cycle, so there’s both plenty of anticipation for the next novel and plenty of satisfaction with the one just finished.  But let’s be honest.  It’s a big series, and not just in words.  There’s a lot to keep straight, and even in re-reading you might feel you’ll never get a handle on the whole thing.  For readers who enjoy re-reading series multiple times, and who just like the feeling of a great big unencompassable world, this series will certainly shine.  For readers in search of a little more diversity and deeper consideration of the ideas of barbarians and civilization, this series is sure to please.  Crown of Stars features not only a woman as the main character and focal point, but many strong women characters both nice and not-so-nice, but all fully developed and not stereotyped.

            I recommend Crown of Stars to readers for whom great big series like The Wheel of Time or The Sword of Truth fell flat, or for readers looking for an author to get into.  If you love Crown of Stars, you’re sure to love all of Elliott’s series, and she’s got plenty to read.  Readers who are looking for a more introspective Game of Thrones will find much to enjoy in Crown of Stars.

The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The divine power that sustained the ruling family of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has been shattered.  But more importantly, the gods have been released.  After the pristine white palace of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ Sky, the reader is plunged into the frenetic world of Sky in Shadow, the city beneath the spreading branches of the great World Tree that now supports the palace Sky.

It’s difficult not to talk about sequels in the context of their predecessors, but The Broken Kingdoms being so vastly different in tone and subject, while still being in the same world as The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, makes it even more so.  Rather than characters being the centering force and plot-director for the series, it is the world itself- the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, how it changes, relates to its inhabitants, and responds to its gods—that makes this a series and not a loose collection of stories.

Like the gods and godlings who feel the passage of years like eyeblinks, Jemisin is free with the passage of time in The Broken Kingdoms.  After the claustrophobic feeling of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where every event fits into a precise ballet of carefully timed moments–because Yeine only had so long to live–The Broken Kingdoms feels leisurely by comparison.  Oree is a Maroneh who has come to Sky-in-Shadow to escape a troubling past—and because she can see magic.  A story-teller and artist, Oree is also the believable, though not always reliable, narrator of The Broken Kingdoms.  Though she faithfully reports what she senses and knows about characters and events, the more we find out, the more it becomes apparent that Oree is holding back a great truth.  What that truth is becomes the driving force of the novel.  Jemisin has established an effective distance between her authorial presence and Oree’s narrative voice, primarily because Oree has lived in Shadow for ten years and consequently has enough knowledge to be believable when she gives readers details about people, places, and events.

Jemisin’s world-building and writing style shine in The Broken Kingdoms, which I believe is the best of the Inheritance Trilogy.  The mark of a writer who has mastered their craft is often that the reader doesn’t notice the writing itself, but experiences it as a vehicle for whatever the writer is trying to accomplish.  This is not to say that one never notices instances of beautiful language use, only that the reader is not slowed or held back by he words on the page.  Jemisin’s writing comes across as natural.  Her characters are individuals, memorable, and aware of themselves and their world.

Oree’s storytelling, as I mentioned, is quite separate from what Jemisin has to say.  Oree’s style is digressive and conversational.  She addresses the reader directly.  At times this can be distracting, though as I mentioned there are great truths afoot that Oree is holding back.  Oree’s story and life are all her own, but Jemisin uses the ways that she talks about people, her musings on the world, to develop the ideas, themes, and world of her story.  As to the world of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms itself, Jemisin’s tone, thorugh the narrative voice of Oree, is one of a vertigo-inducing sense of endless possibilities where all things visual are palpable and vice versa.  After thousands of years of fearing gods, the people of Shadow now live among them, and for Oree the association is even closer.  Because she can see magic, Oree has a closer understanding of gods and their power, and the more we learn about them through her, the more we find there is to learn.

Godhood and immortality are two of the main themes of The Broken Kingdoms, an the World Tree under which all in Shadow live is a primary expression of that.  Though much has changed because of and around it, much more remains the same—as have the gods and mortals among whom they choose to live.  Yes, the gods are free and the people have many more freedoms than under the rule of Itempas, but still all are constricted by the immutable laws of the universe.  Mortals must still live and die, and gods derive their power from their natures.  But Oree’s blindness has become a sort of freedom.  Though she still understands and is subject to the laws of the mortal world, she is also constrained by another set of rules—rules for surviving in a world designed for the sighted.  Jemisin portrays Oree’s blindness with sensitivity, but it is still a plot device, a way of making Oree possessed of the ability to see beyond what the average person does.

 And there is also her relationship with Shiny, the most important relationship in the story.  Jemisin needed more than an ordinary person.  But allowing Oree to tell her story makes up in part for using her to advance the greater narrative.  Oree’s understanding of her role, her ultimate agency in her own life allow the reader to stay engaged until the end.  And for those not satisfied with the final chapters of the novel, there’s another one to pick up!