Spoilers for The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist and The Empire Trilogy by Janny Wurts and Feist (book series).
There is a lot of bad fantasy out there. I know this, because I have written some, and whenever I look over the disastrous mess I have poured into my manuscript, I can cast my mind back to all the dross through which I have waded and think ‘Well, X got published, so there must be hope for me!’
Shortly afterwards, I realize that the fact such dross somehow managed to be published is, alas, even more depressing, and so I go back to the sofa with a third bucket of of ice-cream and chocolate sprinkles and wait for 2020 to be over.
Most fantasy readers have Strong Opinions ™ about what is wrong with fantasy as a genre, or with specific books. For some, it is a matter of verisimilitude in world-building, whether that be in geography, society, the fine details of battle, or the under-discussed but important implications of high magic settings. For others, it is the dearth of diversity, whether in the representation of individuals, societies, or settings. For yet others, it is at least partly both. The glut of fantasy which is set in the same basic narrative structure of a White-Medieval-Europe-But-With-Wizards is remarkable only for its representation of an ahistorical Europe on the pretext of historical accuracy. It is true that some nations were more culturally and ethnically diverse than others, but people had been journeying across Africa, Asia and Europe for centuries before John Blanke arrived in Henry VIII’s court.
Despite the high profile of white, male, Übermensch protagonists in fantasy, however, there have always been writers trying to do something truly fantastical and new with the fantasy genre, and to embrace fantastical interpretations beyond the Euro-centric. Feist and Wurts are two of those people.
Pagodas and Pyramids
Feist’s Magician tells the story of the atrociously-named Pug and his friend Thomas as they become paragons of sorcery and sword respectively. Their world of Midkemia exists somewhere in a Euro-African Renaissance, where feudalism and monarchies still abound, but with an established merchant class. So far so predictable.
It is when strangers from the world of Kelewan arrive and declare war on the Midkemians that we start to see something unusual in the world-building: Kelewan’s cultural and æsthetic tropes are drawn extensively from Meso-American and East Asian cultures, and they form the central premise around which Daughter of the Empire and its sequels (TET) revolve: a fantasy political thriller that predates A Game of Thrones by ten years.
TET follows an uncommon premise: in a fantasy universe, a young woman must navigate the political landscape to keep her family name and honour alive. More than merely abstract concepts, the importance of name and honour tie into Tsurani metaphysical concepts of the afterlife, along with the importance of places and objects (estates, natami). The trilogy successfully navigates some of the pitfalls which snare other books (even other books by Feist!) by integrating the world-building and the story and giving important consideration to both. Mara’s world is a very spiritual but also very legalistic one, and she is affected by the same forces which she attempts to control. Not only that, but the series is, by and large, very good at integrating ideas with the narrative without resorting to clunky expository sections or pointless diversions. The occasion when Mara makes a sign in order to show that she is about to breach propriety is the only real incidence of hastily introduced exposition which never recurs, at least as far as I can recall. That said, there are some clunky passages which tend to take the form, ‘[Character], you are as [quality] as a [flora/fauna] which [action],’ he said, referring to the [expository description of aforementioned flora/fauna]‘.
Take, for instance, Papewaio’s stay of execution: one of the first important plot points revolving around a secondary character, the section serves to tell us about Papewaio’s devotion to Mara and her house; it tells us about the uncompromising letter of the Tsurannuani law; about the way in which other houses get around such restrictions; about the way in which Mara is willing to bend tradition and conventional understandings of the law to her advantage; and about Mara’s personality more generally. These threads feed into the rest of the book both in its narrative and world-building. Truly, very clever stuff. Mara’s attention to what is and is not said in the law also sets up a long-running thread in which she is able to address an ancient wrong done to the insectoid cho-ja.
The cho-ja, incidentally, are another example of creativity and verisimilitude serving one another: they are not simply humans with rubber foreheads, or a group of creatures cobbled together from an assortment of tropes masquerading as a culture, but they are presented and written as fundamentally inhuman. I do not mean this is a pejorative way, but in the sense that their alien physiology, culture, and psyche all feed into one another to give them an air of mystery and danger, even at their friendliest.
Religion is also given a decent consideration (although Feist did eventually tie himself into a knot of metaphysical causality over the issue in later books). The terrifying priests of Turakamu, on first look, might seem to be two-dimensional in the extreme, but Mara’s discussion with one reveals that, terrifying though they might be, they have at least a suggestion of a theological and philosophical framework, and one which shows how they can justify deadly curses and human sacrifice beyond “the gods want blood!”.
It would be remiss of me to leave this section without commenting on the magicians. Although the Great Ones of the Empire are discussed at length in The Riftwar Saga, the way in which they take part in TET is very clever. Unlike some protagonists, Mara is not handed the keys to the universe on a plate and told to get on with being super. She knows her limitations, and her only weapon in her conflict with the Tsurannuani magicians is her political nous. Thus, magic, and those who wield it, remain important to Mara’s story, as the social implications of said magicians are explored, but despite their mystery and power, magicians never overshadow Mara’s story, and when she defeats them, she does so without any deus ex machina. It makes for a tense, but satisfying, resolution. If I have any complaints about magic in either series, it is that it is only rather blandly outlined.
PRECONCEPTIONS and Problematization
I do not think the writing is perfect: it might be that a Meso-American or Japanese person, upon reading TET might find it to be simplistic, reductive, and even racist at times, but as far as I can tell, Wurts and Feist were actively trying to avoid that by realizing the cultures of Kelewan as realistically but accessibly as possible. That said, it is quite hard to get away from unfortunate implications arising from ‘this group of cultures is actually from a different planet’. There is also more than a slight air of defensiveness, and one could be forgiven for thinking that it is suspicious that the societal ills of certain European and North American civilizations are absent on Midkemia and practiced by the inter-dimensional invaders, whereas the Kingdom of the Isles is portrayed as a bit eccentric with class divisions but basically all right.
Other problems arise from those projected onto the text and the concept by readers. As I stated above, Feist does occasionally snooker himself, partly because of a desire to make a fantasy world conform to real-world norms. This is often a mistake.
One of the things that I find most odd about fantasy fiction is the way in which they all seem to attempt to be scientific and then add magic which, by definition, defies scientific models of anything. Thus, magical worlds created by primordial deities, but which nevertheless have evolution for certain forms of life (very rarely do we get elves which evolved from wasps and dwarves which evolved from moles). Likewise, fantasy universes will often have a 12th Century understanding of disease, a god of plague, and a model which shows that the author is working on the understanding that bacteria exist in this universe. Fantasy worlds which are globes orbiting stars raise at least as many narrative and structural questions as the wizard who can turn lead into gold.
Feist and Wurts do not avoid bringing their 20th Century scientific baggage with them on their fantasy adventures, and that is not entirely bad. Some frame of reference for the physical norms of a world is necessary, just as the cultural tropes provide us with frames of reference for the peoples who inhabit them. Kelewan is filled with strange animals along with its non-human residents. Many of these creatures have unexpected colours (red bees) or an unusual number of limbs (many terrestrial Kelewanese creatures have six limbs). On the one hand, this can seem like strangeness for strangeness’ sake, a gloss which adds no depth to the world as such. Certainly, the creatures are generally less strange than the animals in, say, Avatar: The Last Airbender. That said, they also reinforce that Kelewan is not simply Earth-But-With-Magic-And-No-White-People. As for those who fret about how or why a cat would evolve six legs, may I suggest that the laws of physics (and therefore chemistry and biology) might be slightly different in a world in which twiddling one’s fingers can create an explosion?
Politics and personalities
TET is a good fantasy trilogy: its world-building, characters, narrative and structure, although imperfect, mesh together well, and there are many lessons which the budding writer can learn from the books’ merits and flaws. In particular, in a time in which fiction must come to terms with what it means to be innovative without gimmicky, inclusive without being tokenistic, and – for fantasy in particular – what it actually means to be exploring something wondrous and new, The Empire Trilogy should serve as a benchmark. Indeed, it could in some respects be considered a book for our times, for it shows a young woman (of colour, from a European reader’s perspective) forging her own path in defiance of an oppressive and patriarchal regime, defending her family, and coming to terms with her own privelege. And, lest we forget, she even manages to come to terms with the wickedness of her empire’s heritage of slavery and plunder, and find some way to start making amends.