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Posts tagged ‘N.K. Jemisin’

Crushing Conservatism in Epic Fantasy?


So last week, Gollancz (an excellent British publisher of science fiction and fantasy) got some discussion going by tweeting a provocative question:

I missed the initial conversation on Twitter, but I have been following the fascinating responses from Liz Bourke at Tor.com, John H. Stevens at SFSignal, and Steven M. Long. So far, I’ve let Gollancz’s initial question, the essay responses, and the comments made on those responses all percolate in my brain. And out of that percolation, some thoughts come to mind:

Definitions Matter…to a Point

Much of the discussion has focused on defining terms. I suppose, considering the genre community’s love of semantics, that this shouldn’t be surprising. In this case, the discussion has centered almost exclusively on two key terms (“epic fantasy” and “conservative”) which are – admittedly – fuzzy, imprecise, and in may ways problematic. In order to contextualize my thoughts, I’m going to briefly wade into the semantic weeds and define how I will be using these terms, but that is incidental to my main focus. Much of the discussion has ignored the third – and most important – key term in Gollancz’s initial tweet: “crushingly.”

Definitions of “epic fantasy” and “conservative”, while important for the sake of precision, are terms we all routinely employ in some fashion. There is a working understanding of such terms that enables us to communicate. My personal definition of “epic fantasy” or my concept of “conservative” may not match yours perfectly, but there is enough overlap that we can in most cases make ourselves understood.

When it comes to “epic fantasy”, I like Alec Austin’s concept of a tag cloud of sub-genre characteristics, simply because it allows us to think of particular works as falling somewhere on a spectrum of “epic-ness”. Different works won’t all share the same characteristics, but such a model enables us to contextualize particular works somewhere along this conceptual spectrum – and thus to adopt a working understanding we can all agree on.

“Conservative” is a little more fraught, with cultural, political, emotional, and historical connotations that vary across individuals and geographies. “Politically conservative” in the UK differs significantly from “politically conservative” in the US, “morally conservative” varies across religious and secular belief and value systems, and all of these different meanings of “conservative” further fragment into different implied meanings for “culturally conservative”. Loathe as I am to get bogged down in semantics, I’m going to use “conservative” in the following sense (courtesy of Dictionary.com):

1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.

I think the term “crushingly” is less well-understood, particularly in this critical context. What does it mean to be “crushingly” conservative (or “progressive”, or “epic”, or “green”, or any other adjective)? What is getting “crushed” in Gollancz’s question? Are we talking about limitations imposed on aesthetics at the moment of creation? The moment of editorial acquisition? The moment of consumer purchase? The moment of reader consumption? Do we mean that structural characteristics are imposed upon creative works wishing to operate within or comment upon a sub-genre’s conventions? Do we mean that the characteristics of a particular sub-genre preclude the exploration of certain themes?

The important part of Gollancz’s question has little to do with how we define either “epic fantasy” or “conservative”. Any attempt to answer hinges upon the meaning of “crushingly”, and the cultural significance of that answer is a direct consequence of the unstated object implicit in the original question.

What Gets Crushed?

What is implicitly being crushed in Gollancz’s question? Obviously at a certain level of abstraction they mean epic fantasy literature. But that is such a broad over-generalization that it offers us little insight. It is far more interesting to narrow our focus and examine which aspects of epic fantasy literature may be getting the squeeze.

Here are the aspects I’m curious about:

  • Aesthetics. Does our current conception of epic fantasy preclude certain imagery, metaphors, sentence construction, etc.?
  • Structure. How do trends in epic fantasy constrain the narrative structures viable within the sub-genre?
  • Themes. Are there thematic areas which epic fantasy cannot explore? Moral, ethical, political, sociological models it cannot dramatize?

By definition, working within a genre imposes certain constraints on a creative work. However broad a given genre may be (and speculative fiction is, on the whole, broader than most), it has conventions. In fact, some might argue that genres are defined by their conventions, which as Samuel Delany pointed out, shape the way readers consume and interpret the written work. These conventions impose constraints precisely along those three foundational lines: aesthetics, structure, and themes. That is an inescapable truth of genre, and represents a key conserving force.

But when does the conserving force of such conventions (i.e. the constraints of convention) grow so constricting as to be deemed “crushing?” And here it gets interesting.

Who Does the Crushing?

The creative process features many actors at many stages: There is the author, who conceives of a story and sits down to write it. There is an agent who chooses to represent the book based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is an editor/publisher who acquires the story based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is a designer and production editor who shape the physical characteristics of the book so as to maximize (they hope) its sales potential. There is a bookseller who orders copies of the book based on their expectations of its sales. There are consumers who buy a book based on their expectations of what they’ll find within its covers. There are consumers who enjoy a book based on what they find within its covers, and some of whom will then go and conceive of a new story influenced (at least to some extent) by everything they have read before.

Each actor and each stage feeds into and affects every other stage of this cycle. Who applies the constraints imposed by genre? We all do.

The author, whose conception of a story has been shaped by their life experiences and media/genre consumption, chooses to impose or subvert the conventions of a genre while writing it.

The agent and acquiring editor (and the marketing and sales departments) are more or less welcoming to different books depending on the degree and fashion in which they apply genre convention. For them, it is about striking a balance between challenging convention enough to be innovative and fresh, while working within convention enough to give the rest of the sales cycle confidence in the work. And perhaps most importantly, that balance can be tipped in either direction by the quality of the execution. As an editor friend once told me: “Nabokov can break every convention and get away with it. But you’re not Nabokov.”

The designers (and the marketing and sales departments, again) shape the packaging of the physical (or digital) product to communicate the book’s balance to the booksellers and readers. Consider the original US covers for Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Stylistically, they suggest that the books’ content will work solidly within the conventions of mid-list sword and sorcery…and thus fail to communicate anything about the novels’ tone, structural innovations, or subversion of epic fantasy conventions. It was, of course, a judgment call, yet one which I think the series’ original UK publishers did better with (and it is significant that subsequent US editions received new covers closer in aesthetics to their UK counterparts).

US Cover UK Cover

The bookseller learns about the book through the catalog copy, cover art, and perhaps even a conversation with the publisher’s reps. This material tells the bookseller about what kind of creative balance a given work strikes, which in turn helps them to determine how many copies to buy, and how to shelve those copies.

All of these decisions, coupled with reviews and third-party commentary about the book, shape the reader’s expectations and frame the reader’s approach to the book’s content. Ultimately, they determine if the reader will buy the book, and subsequently when coupled with the content itself, affect the reader’s enjoyment.

At each stage there is pressure applied to the balance in one or the other direction. Challenge the genre, but not enough to tank sales. Work within the genre, but not so slavishly as to be trite. Stand out, but not too tall. Unless the book’s quality is such that any putative and theoretical yearning for creative balance becomes meaningless. Every actor in this process “crushes” the creative work to one degree or another.

The Real Question

Given this framework, we can now turn to Gollancz’s question: Is epic fantasy crushingly conservative?

I don’t know.

No two people desire aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation to the same degree or in the same direction. It is such idiosyncrasy which makes us human, and which leads to differing opinions. This push for innovation – in any facet of a creative work, and executed in whatever fashion – is constantly in tension with the prevailing cultural norms within broader society, and within the conventions of a particular genre.

Looking at epic fantasy, I see laudable attempts to push the boundaries of the genre. I recommend the work of (among others) N.K. Jemisin, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, K.J. Parker, Steven Erikson, Kate Elliott, Robin Hobb, etc. I can point to authors and books that challenge, subvert, or extend the genre. I value such innovation very highly. Do I wish to see more such aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation? Hell yes.

But do I think the prevailing cultural winds prevent such innovation from seeing the light of day? Do I think that such innovations are “crushed” beneath the oppressive heels of prevailing commercial trends and artistic tastes? I do not. I think that any innovation within any genre needs to be balanced against the long-standing conventions of that genre, and that this balance can be swayed in either direction by the quality of that innovation’s execution.

I think quality and innovation can both rise to the top. Regardless how circuitous the route, I think good storytelling will eventually win out. It may mean writing and selling more commercially “conservative” books in the short term to establish a fan base (i.e. to assuage commercial concerns about an innovative book’s commercial viability). It may mean by-passing the traditional publishing model and self-publishing an innovative work yourself. But the world of genre literature has the mechanisms in place to bring ground-breaking work to the surface, and to further disseminate its influence throughout the culture and the field.

But your mileage may vary. I think that epic fantasy does have conservative tendencies, just as all genres do. With the shadow of Tolkien, and the weight of history, I think epic fantasy’s conservative tendencies are expressed in ways particular to the sub-genre. Other genres (YA, for example) express their own conservatism in very different ways. An exploration of the ways in which epic fantasy or other genres express their conservatism would be fascinating (and I might come back to it later), but it is not really germane to Gollancz’s original question. Conservatism is inherent within every genre. The real question is whether or not the field is crushed by it.

How to Stand Beneath the Heel

The important conclusion of all this, however, is that if we wish to challenge the conservatism of a genre (regardless of how it is expressed or defined), we need to do it on every front we can. The author sitting alone and writing a challenging book. The agent who believes in the book enough to pitch it. The editor who believes in it enough to acquire it. The designers and sales people and reviewers and booksellers and readers who are willing to give it a shot.

But this process always starts with the creative act: with that author, ensconced behind a desk and dreaming challenging dreams.

REVIEW: The Crippled God (Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 10) by Steven Erikson


My apologies for posting this on Wednesday, rather than Tuesday. I know I’m late, but I got caught up with day-job work and so…sorry. Hope the timely review makes up for the delay.

The Crippled God by Steven Erikson Title: The Crippled God: Book Ten of The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Author: Steven Erikson
Pub Date: March 1st, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
The impressive culmination of an epic eleven years in the making.

The word “epic” gets thrown around more often when talking about fantasy than a well-aimed dagger. I’ve seen it applied (and done so myself) to Tolkien, Brooks, and Donaldson, to Jordan, Martin, and Eddings, to Jemisin, Rothfuss, and Sanderson, and the list goes on. In most of these cases, the word “epic” is an apt descriptor. But I would argue that Steven Erikson and his ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen out-epic all of these other epics in its epic-ness. The world created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esselmont, each individual book in Erikson’s series, and the complexity of the story Erikson planned out from the beginning: each of these alone can be justly described as epic in scope, epic in scale. But in this genre that tosses around the E-word like it was going out of style, I believe that Erikson’s ambition is the most epic of all. And having now read Erikson’s The Crippled God, the tenth and final installment in his Malazan Book of the Fallen, I believe that Erikson delivered on the “epic” promised back in 1999.

DISCLAIMER: I am not saying that the Malazan Book of the Fallen is “better” than the Wheel of Time, or A Song of Ice and Fire, or the Belgariad, or Shannara, or insert-your-favorite-fantasy-series-here. However, I do believe that it is different. This difference especially applies to its world building and plot structure, and in many respects to its themes and characterization. In its plot structure and world building especially, I find it far more complex than those other series I just mentioned. But “more complex” does not mean better. It just means more complicated.

A little over eleven years ago I was waiting to board a transatlantic flight in Warsaw, Poland, idly browsing the tiny English-language section of a little airport bookstore, when I stumbled across a thick book. Tantalizingly titled Gardens of the Moon, by an author I’d never heard of before, and with a cover not-quite-sf/not-quite-fantasy by Chris Moore that instantly set it apart from the contemporary Chihuahua killer epic fantasies of Jordan, Martin, and Goodkind, I had to buy it. I spent the next nine or ten hours sucked into Steven Erikson’s visceral, violent, gripping world. Since that fateful afternoon, I have eagerly anticipated each new volume in Erikson’s opus, and so it was with childish delight (and squeeing) that I stumbled upon a copy of The Crippled God two days before its official pub date in my local Borders.

Gardens of the Moon (via Wikipedia)

Gardens of the Moon by Chris Moore (via Wikipedia)

To read Erikson’s work, one must be prepared to immediately suspend disbelief, and to dive headfirst into a world rich with layers of history, culture, politics, and mythology that would make Tolkien’s head spin. Readers not already well-versed in the conventions of the fantasy genre might find it all a bit confusing at first. But for those readers able to suspend their disbelief, and who are prepared to intuit or await elucidation, the Malazan Book of the Fallen is an immensely enjoyable series. The Malazan world was created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esselmont in their role-playing campaigns. But the two brought to their creation their extensive expertise in anthropology and archaeology, resulting in a world with intricate, distinct cultures, complex historical societal relationships, economic balances, and military history.

Over the course of the ten book series, we follow many (I lost count at around forty five) distinct groups of characters. Some groups are small, numbering maybe one or two members, while others are large factions with many characters going nameless. However, each of these groups is presented completely, meaning that they are drawn as round (using E.M. Forster’s definition), fully-fleshed characters. Erikson shows us everyone’s fears, doubts, concerns to such a degree that by the time we’re halfway through the first book, the very concept of “hero” and “villain” has lost all meaning. It is this moral ambiguity, this rationalization and justification of character choices and ethical mistakes, that drive the series’ themes.

The first five or six books in the series are self-contained wholes. The events of each book occur non-linearly, following several distinct “tracks” of events separated by both time and space. The main tracks comprise different books in the series, at least in the beginning. This makes it possible for a reader to start either with Gardens of the Moon (Book 1), or say Deadhouse Gates (Book 2), or Memories of Ice (Book 3).

Reading them in order of their publication, I was initially surprised and confused by their non-linearity. Where were the characters I had met and fallen in love with in the earlier books? What had happened to them? What were they doing? But like a master weaver, Erikson successfully introduces new strands while maintaining interest in those that came before. This separation across books in the series begins to collapse around Midnight Tides (Book 5), where a new reader coming into the story would be so completely lost in the whirling politics of gods, cities, armies, factions, squads, races, creeds, etc. as to make it an exercise in futility.

It is at this point in the series (books 6 – 8), that Erikson stumbles for the first time. This stumble is interesting to note, precisely because it touches upon his introduction of higher-level, more abstract philosophical themes into the story. The first six (arguably seven) books are largely plot driven. We follow the striving of different groups of characters – especially the Malazan military – as they attempt to achieve their goals. The books are thematically interesting, but there is a palpable sense that reader doesn’t yet know everything. In the sixth, seventh, and eighth books, Erikson thickens the plot by explaining more complex historical relationships, and introducing new gods, and new players. The introduction of this history, and metaphysical motivation for certain characters introduced in the eighth book, slows the pacing significantly. These latter books remain readable, but I had to read them at least twice in order to really understand what was happening. They are not bad, but they are much more dense than the other books in the series, and those books are already more dense than most epic fantasy fare. Thankfully, Erikson again hits his stride in Dust of Dreams (book nine) as he now has all of the actors on stage and moving towards the climax in The Crippled God.

And what a climax! The series tracks several hundred (again, I lost count) distinct plot lines. But they are all brought together in the tenth and final book. Perhaps more importantly, it is also in the The Crippled God that we see the thematic lines from the earlier books brought together. The thematic convergence in The Crippled God is one of the most impressive aspects of the series. Each of the earlier books has its own themes, which are in and of themselves complicated and well-executed. But after reading The Crippled God, the themes of earlier books are either clarified, corrected, or shown as illusory. Unifying these disparate (and oftentimes contradictory) themes without invalidating them is a neat trick, and makes the intellectual and emotional exercise of the whole series quite worth it.

From a stylistic standpoint, Erikson takes more from the gritty, boots-in-the-mud fantasy of Glen Cook than he does from the elf-and-dwarf high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien. Erikson’s primary characters are soldiers, and he draws them as imperfect, swearing, and swaggering. While dragons, and Erikson’s version of elves feature quite prominently, his characters are very far removed from Smaug or Legolas. It is the darkness and grit of his world that makes it compelling, that subverts the traditional tropes of the genre. Dragons as mad almost-gods? Heroes who (along with the reader) are ignorant of their quest, and just have to do as they’re ordered? These are fun subversions.

I found Erikson’s take on women in his books particularly interesting. Historically, I have often found fantasy to be full of stereotypical square-jawed male hero-types, with damsel-in-distress ladies swooning in the wings (if they are present at all). Erikson’s female characters are more likely to break a hero’s jaw than pine or swoon. They are soldiers, and conspirators, and commanders equal in all respects to the men, while still evidencing deft characterization that makes them fully believable. Both the men and women are flawed, emotional, sometimes angry, sometimes not. Erikson makes them complex, while retaining their intrinsic humanity. Which is refreshing in a genre often dominated by particular molds.

I have spent the past twelve years with these characters. Their stories have in many respects become a part of me, like old friends. The tenth book brings Erikson’s enormous cast of characters together, and wraps up their stories. With one or two (notable) exceptions, we learn what happens to everybody, how they end up. The tenth book is in many respects about closure, and Erikson unflinchingly brings the story of different groups and characters to a close. But – and this is one of his points – even though the book gets closed for some characters, life goes on. The unity of character, plot, theme, and execution in this tenth book is singularly impressive.

However, for everything good about his work, the complexity – of his characters, plots, themes – can be quite off-putting. One reader (whose opinions I respect greatly) very much dislikes Erikson’s work. She claims that it is too hard to follow, impossible to keep the myriad characters and plot lines straight even within a single book, let alone across a ten book series. For many readers, this will be a valid criticism. Erikson has produced a truly dense, complicated work of fiction. Myriad plot lines, more characters, complicated races that often go by different names, complex battle scenes shown from the perspective of multiple soldiers in the thick of it, this is writing that demands real work from the reader to keep things straight, to follow along with events. I found myself often having to read or re-read sections (and in some cases, entire books) just to really figure out what the heck actually happened. For many, this will be a weakness: why should I have to work so hard for my fiction? But I personally found that I enjoyed doing that work, that I enjoyed getting to spend time in an ugly, dark fantasy world that was realistically built while still employing the tropes of fantasy.

Back in 1999, Erikson told fans that the Malazan Book of the Fallen would be a nine book series. Like any gargantuan epic, this was an ambitious goal. However, Erikson executed on this ambition both in the creative sense, as well in the practical sense: publishers and fans like to see epic series come out with new installments on an annual basis. Publishers like it because it helps them push paperback editions of the earlier books, and fans like it because we can still remember what’s going on in the story. But in a sub-genre famous for delays (George R.R. Martin’s A Dance of Dragons has been delayed five years already and still counting), it is incredibly refreshing to come across an author whose ambition is so vast, whose story is so complicated, but who still manages to produce quality work reasonably on schedule. It’s refreshing, and my hat is off to Erikson for delivering on his vision.

Although I have read that Erikson is planning a new eleven book arc in the Malazan world, The Crippled God represents in many ways the end of an era. It is a masterfully-executed conclusion to a complicated, ambitious, dense opus. On the one hand, I am glad that the series is over, that Borders screwed up and I managed to get my hands on a copy several days before its official release, and that Erikson satisfied my (high) expectations from it. But on the other hand, I will miss the anticipation of the next book, will miss getting to laugh and cry with the characters I’ve enjoyed over the last twelve years.

Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is a complex, involving, and emotionally powerful epic fantasy series. There is no series more deserving of the word “epic”. Pick up a copy of Gardens of the Moon, and see if you like it. Be prepared to work at it, because it is difficult. But difficult does not mean bad, and rest assured that by the time you get to The Crippled God, you will find your investment has been fully justified and amply rewarded.

Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

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