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Posts tagged ‘Intrusion Fantasy’

REVIEW: With Fate Conspire by Marie Brennan


Title: With Fate Conspire
Author: Marie Brennan
Pub Date: August 30th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A risky undertaking that is more than half-successful.

A while back, I received a review copy of Marie Brennan’s With Fate Conspire, the fourth in her Onyx Court series. Now, let me start with a confession: before receiving my copy, I hadn’t read any of the earlier books. I know, I know – alternate/secret history set in various periods in London’s history? Liking historical fantasy as much as I do, one would think I had devoured this series from the first book up to now. But for whatever reason, I missed it until finding its fourth volume in the mailbox. Holding the book in my hand, I faced a choice: I could either catch up on the previous three books, or I could just dive into the fourth. Doing so would be a risk: would I miss vital backstory or world-building? I didn’t know. But I justified my decision with the fig leaf of “someone else might pick up the fourth book first, right?”

With Fate Conspire is set in an exceedingly well-researched late nineteenth century London. It features two primary viewpoint characters: the mortal Eliza O’Malley, a poor woman of Irish descent living in the London slums and Dead Rick, a faerie skriker (a Lancashire name for a lycanthropic faery who is an omen of death – more commonly known as a Black Dog) living in the Onyx Court’s Goblin Market. When we first meet Eliza, we quickly learn that she is desperately seeking a way to track down the faerie who kidnapped her lover seven years prior. When we first meet Dead Rick, we find him brutally forced to work as a slave, enforcer, and errand-boy for Nadrett, a criminal kingpin in the Goblin Market. Connecting both perspectives is the accelerating industrialization of London: the rise of iron-based industry and the development of the London Underground Railway are destroying the faerie city.

When we first meet both characters, they already have interesting pasts. Eliza’s lover was kidnapped by faeries and she foiled a faerie terrorist attack on the London underground. Dead Rick’s past is more mysterious, but it somehow put him at the mercy of Nadrett. At first, I assumed that these histories were the backstory that I had missed by not reading the earlier books. But then I realized that A Star Shall Fall is set more than a century before With Fate Conspire – which means that their backstories could not possibly have been in the pages I’d skipped.

When I picked up the fourth book in the series, I risked missing out on vital backstory. But writing the fourth book in the series, Brennan took a similar risk: she placed the moment of displacement – the point where Eliza and Dead Rick’s adventures start – off-screen. This is a particularly risky approach: by not allowing us to participate in her protagonists’ displacement, Brennan risks our investment in the characters and their world. I really enjoyed the structure and courage that this showed, but I found that the risk was only partially successful.

Dead Rick is modeled as a hero (see my post on A Theory of the Hero). We are shown his desperation to survive the Onyx Court’s imminent collapse, and his willingness to commit violence, but there remain lines he refuses to cross. He is a moral character, despite the self-loathing we see. He is an aspirational hero who wants to survive while still doing what he feels to be right. He may not always succeed, but he continues to aspire. He is used to show us the lawless underbelly of the Onyx Court, and the amoral brutality of some faeries. The challenges he face are existential: will Nadrett kill him? Will he survive the imminent destruction of the Onyx Court? Will he become like Nadrett to do so?

The portrayal of Dead Rick and faerie society were the high points of the book for me. First, I always enjoy well-drawn heroic characters. The challenges which Dead Rick faces are packed with drama. On an individual level, the unflinching depiction of Nadrett’s brutality and Dead Rick’s desperation make him particularly sympathetic: I cringed to see his experiences and wanted everything to work out for him. At the same time, his story becomes a microcosm of the Onyx Court’s story. Dead Rick’s experiences concretize the drama of the Onyx Court’s collapse by showing us the little guy’s perspective. Dead Rick is no chosen hero, capable of saving the Onyx Court from London’s industrialization. He can barely keep himself alive, let alone save the faerie city. But it is his courageous struggle against insurmountable challenges that makes his story a page turner. In Dead Rick’s case, Brennan was able to successfully skip his backstory: the sympathy he engenders, his emotional stakes, and his relationship to the Onyx Court’s broader struggle were enough to earn my investment.

By contrast, I found Eliza to be the far weaker character. If Dead Rick is defined by his rough moral code, then Eliza is defined by her obsession with tracking down Owen Darragh. This is not an existential challenge. The worst-case scenario for Eliza is that she never finds him. But because we did not get her backstory, we are not as invested in her quest as she is. Brennan tries to make Eliza sympathetic using tools parallel to those used for Dead Rick: Eliza is a poor costerwoman of Irish descent. Her experience of London is that of the down-trodden and the discriminated. While this works to make Eliza somewhat sympathetic, her story lacks the emotional tension of Dead Rick’s. The dilemmas she faces are not moral in nature: she rarely needs to choose between right and wrong, or the lesser of two evils. Short of killing innocents, she’s happy to cross almost any line in her quest. Her challenges are almost always tactical, and they fail to mirror or concretize those of broader mortal London.

In Eliza’s case, skipping of the backstory did the character a disservice. It made it impossible for me to really invest in Eliza’s travails. This problem is especially apparent when compared against Dead Rick’s storyline. Eliza’s difficulties and choices are inconsequential when set against Dead Rick’s primary problem (the catastrophic collapse of the Onyx Court).

That the faerie perspective is more compelling than the mortal one probably should not be a surprise. The Onyx Court is the primary constant throughout the (surprise surprise) Onyx Court series – which in and of itself is an interesting structural feature. Most contemporary fantasies that deal with the world of faerie tend to be either portal or intrusion stories where the focal lens is a human who finds themselves caught up in the magical world. In those stories where a human isn’t our lens, we often see through the eyes of a faery who – for all intents and purposes – tends to be indistinguishable from a super-powered mortal.

When writing a series, most authors take the safe approach of following one set of characters as they progress through events that can be encapsulated within a mortal lifetime. But Brennan takes a different path. Rather than give us characters to follow over the course of a single escalating adventure, she instead opens a window onto a particular time in the history of the eternal Onyx Court. The effect is like tuning into a long-running TV series mid-episode, mid-season. By nailing the faerie perspective – and lending it continuity throughout the series – Brennan is able to diminish the impact. Yet the relative weakness of her mortal character (Eliza) underlines the fact that the faeries – and how the Onyx Court deals with the challenges it faces – are the author’s primary concern. I am curious whether the mortal characters in the earlier books are as weak as Eliza.

Despite Eliza’s weakness, With Fate Conspire remains a very good book. Dead Rick’s story is – in my opinion – enough to carry it, and ultimately make it a satisfying experience. The world-building and research stand out for the level of detail and the skill with which they are woven into the story. The book’s pacing was fairly solid, providing moments of rising tension and breaths where I could assimilate the plentiful skulduggery and intrigue. Fans of “London Above / London Below” fiction along the lines of Kate Griffen’s Matthew Swift novels (see my earlier review), Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: A Novel, or China Miéville’s King Rat will likely enjoy With Fate Conspire, as will fans of painstakingly researched and imagined alternate/secret histories like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel, or Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy.

Perhaps the strongest recommendation I can offer is that after finishing With Fate Conspire, I went out and bought the preceding three volumes. Brennan took a significant risk structuring this book as she did, and while she may not have succeeded as well as I might have liked, neither did she fail. I applaud her courage, and her skill for getting it more than half right. I’m looking forward to the preceding three books.

Negotiating the Borders of Intimacy and Imagination: Romance and Fantasy


Last week, I came across Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s Big Love Sci-Fi series of blog posts (part 1, part 2, and part 3). I had been thinking about how romance, sexual tension, and emotional intimacy is built and maintained in books, and so her suggestion that romance in fiction is actually a negotiation of the borders of intimacy particularly struck me. As I thought about it some more, I realized that in some ways the romance genre and fantasy are analogous. If romance derives its power from the borders of intimacy, then fantasy builds its sense of wonder from negotiating the borders of imagination.

Borders of Intimacy: A Framework for Thinking about Romance

Romance may well be the oldest genre in existence. Since before the written word, stories and myths were full of love, sex, and betrayal. And why not? It’s fun! It grabs our attention, focuses our minds, and gets our hearts racing. What’s not to like? Artists have known for millenia that sex sells, but the methods by which it’s portrayed are culturally dependent.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice manages romantic/sexual tension very differently from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures. 19th century readers had different standards of intimacy: the kind of hot-and-heavy sex scenes we take for granted today would have been off limits back then. Even more graphic 17th century romances like Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess; or, the Fatal Enquiry (which was called pornographic when first published) lack the overtly-described throbbing body parts of today’s sex scenes. Despite the changing standards of intimacy, romances from Ovid to Danielle Steele engage us by bringing characters to an emotional precipice, and then having them finally plunge over it.

The Facets of Intimacy in Romance

An overly-simplistic view of romance says that it’s just sex. But Jacqueline is exactly right when she says that a sex scene lacking emotional depth is just boring. In western culture, the physical act of sex has always been used as a proxy for other intimacies:

Aspects of Intimacy

Aspects of Intimacy

Marriage (which traditionally precedes sex) represents a type of familial intimacy: one person’s family opens up and accepts a new member, or two families join. Probably the best example of this is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Of course, the two families alike in dignity reject that intimacy. But nonetheless, the underlying tension of that love story rests on Romeo and Juliet trying – and failing – to negotiate that familial intimacy. Here, death plays the role that sex often does: it represents the culmination and climax of their negotiation.

A different type of intimacy is the philosophical or worldview model that Austen nailed so perfectly: both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility deal with the protagonists adjusting how they perceive other characters. This is a philosophical intimacy, where the climax is the moment of acceptance rather than the moment of marriage (let alone sex). For Austen, sex – of course preceded by marriage – is in fact the denouement, never shown but instead implied by her heroes’ betrothal.

Spiritual intimacy between characters can likewise be negotiated. Unfortunately, I had some difficulty thinking of romances that deal with this facet of intimacy, but ultimately I think Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is probably the most succinct example. Dagny Taggart’s relationships with Hank Rearden, Francisco D’Anconia, and John Galt all oscillate around her most fundamental spiritual values. While Rand might well have spit nails to see those values described as spiritual, there is no change in Dagny’s philosophy over the course of her relationships. Instead, the climax of these relationships is her finding her idealized counterpart, the impossible superman who personifies her ideals. If we were to swap Rand’s Objectivism for any religion, the relationships would still function the same way (though the plot’s MacGuffins would not).

The Borders of Imagination and the Fantasy Spectrum

If the core of romance is characters negotiating the borders of their intimacy, then I suspect the core of fantasy might be negotiating the borders of the reader’s imagination. Love titillates us because it speaks to something deep within our hearts, touching on our innermost desires, exciting us with the promise of fulfillment. But intimacy doesn’t lurk alone in the deep, dark corners of our soul. It shares those caverns with our imagination.

A romance hinges on the borders of intimacy between the story’s characters. Typically, that intimacy is indelibly linked to the story’s plot. For example, the plot of Romeo and Juliet would fall to pieces without the Capulets and the Montagues. But fantasy’s relationship with imagination tends to be slightly more removed from the story’s plot, and it does not need to rely so heavily on proxies the way intimacy often does.

The Borders of Imagination

The Borders of Imagination

Fantasies make us look at reality sideways, utilizing evocative imagery, secondary worlds, strange creatures, and magical powers to broaden our understanding of our own reality. Superficially, elves, monsters, and wizards are cool plotting devices that let us tell entertaining stories. Who doesn’t like magic and monsters? But beneath that surface level, they give us a new lens through which we can see an oblique picture of the world.

Imagination operates on a spectrum that describes a relationship between the story’s characters, the reader, and their environment. At one extreme we have our world, in all its mundane glory. It is at this end that we find mainstream literary fiction, where the world operates according to the real-life rules that govern our everyday existence. The range of plot options or the focus of characterization at this end of the spectrum is nearly limitless: we can deal with a plot-driven mystery, or a character-driven rumination. The focus can be narrow, internal, psychological or just as easily societal, philosophical, or spiritual.

At the other extreme we have a secondary world, where anything goes. A secondary world does not even need to have human characters – consider Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland. Immersive fantasies – which force the reader to suspend disbelief and to accept the prima facie rules that govern the secondary world – operate at this level. Just as with mainstream literary texts, their range of plotting options and focuses is nearly limitless. However, unlike mainstream literary fiction, immersive fantasies have the ability to use different rules of existence and their accompanying imagery to cast a different light on aspects of our reality.

Portals and the Broad World Perspective

If we start in our real world, then we can gain access to the rich imaginative vocabulary of the secondary world. But to do that, we have to take our characters from our world and bring them to the secondary world, typically through the use of a portal of some kind. In her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn conflates the portal fantasy with the quest fantasy, and while this works at the level of plot, it does little to explain how portal fantasies interact with the reader’s imagination. That’s because we can have an immersive quest fantasy that takes place in a completely secondary world (think Tolkien, Brooks, etc.), but the thematic, plot, and character focus tends to be different if we start in our world.

The moment our characters go through the portal, everything in their new reality is contrasted to our world. Whether it is in Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by starting the story in mundane reality we establish the reader’s (and characters’) initial state. Whatever imagery follows can then be related back to our real life, and can be interpreted as a thematic symbol. From a plotting standpoint, the secondary world is often thinned and ultimately by the climax of the book, comes back to some sort of eucatastrophe that leads to its restoration.

Intrusions and Narrow Focus

Intrusion fantasies – where the secondary world inserts itself into our reality – are the mirror image of portal fantasies. Consider Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, or China Miéville’s King Rat. Here, the secondary world is dark, dangerous, and forbidding as a general rule. Its intrusion into our own world tends to be frightening, disorienting, and leaves our heroes struggling to find their own place in the world.

Just as in the portal fantasies, the fantastical elements can be interpreted as thematic symbols. But the mood tends to be darker, and the focus of the story narrower. While portal fantasies tend to focus on the world at large and build towards eucatastrophe, intrusion fantasies focus on the narrower, private world of the principle protagonists. Rather than building towards a climactic eucatastrophe, they instead build towards a moment of personal climax/realization/rejection.

Liminal Fantasies: Philosophical by Design

Liminal fantasies either dance on the border between two worlds (like John Crowley’s Little, Big) or ambiguously hint at the existence of a secondary world (Graham Joyce’s How to Make Friends with Demons). In these cases, fantastical imagery is often used allegorically and the reader’s position relative to the events of the text is always ambiguous. Reading these books, we wonder if we are – in fact – operating within a fantastical reality? Or are we instead merely using allegory to highlight and comment upon philosophical, emotional, and spiritual considerations?

Understandably, the focus for such liminal fantasies is always narrow, focusing on the values of the protagonist. Their emotional climax typically lies not in picking a side: choosing our “real” world or the secondary world. Instead, it rests in becoming comfortable with that middle ground between the two. Acceptance on an emotional, philosophical or spiritual level, as opposed to the more conflict-oriented eucatastrophe or resolution.

Symbols, Imagination, Plot, and Emotion

While fantasy makes it possible to use a rich palette of imagery, fantasy is not merely symbolic: sometimes, a talking tree is just a talking tree. Plot is just as important as the underlying themes of a story, and images are used not just to represent values and thoughts in the real world. They can just as easily be used to evoke certain emotions, to raise tension and the like. What specific imagery we utilize should tie into our goals for a particular scene, whether those goals are emotional, thematic, or both.

And of course, part of the fun is when we combine aspects of romance (negotiating the borders of intimacy) with aspects of the fantastic (negotiating the borders of imagination). Fantasy and romance are genres that can contain multitudes, after all.

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