As folks who follow this blog have probably figured out by now, I’m a huge fan of fantasy – particularly various flavors of high fantasy (fantasy set in another world). I read fantasy because I genuinely enjoy it. However, I can be very critical of individual authorial decisions, and I can’t help but notice when the genre falls prey to problematic tropes – as, sadly, it too often does. Many of these have become so typical of the genre that authors seldom hesitate to include them, and long-time fantasy readers rarely question their necessity, much less their normality. In this way some wholly outdated and unnecessary trappings of the genre have become self-perpetuating.
As a fantasy reader, I think it is important to recognize the patterns and flaws in the works of our genre – as well as its strengths. I believe this is especially true when we read authors whose work we enjoy (or at least respect) but who, for whatever reason, make decisions that make us uncomfortable or disappoint us. As an extrovert, writer, and student of literature, it is pretty much impossible for me to avoid doing so.
Introducing Our Hero – A Boy with a Destiny
As part of a book club read-along on Goodreads, I picked up Jim Butcher’s Furies of Calderon, the first book of his Codex Alera series. Butcher is a household name in urban fantasy. His Dresden Files series are action-packed popcorn to read. Those books have spawned a TV series and a well-regarded and excellently-written tabletop RPG (which gets played at my house most weekends). Butcher is no n00b in the broader world of fantasy, nor do I think he is a bad writer or a terrible human being.
As I was attempting to reconcile my fondness for his Dresden books with my white-hot loathing for Furies of Calderon, I did a bit of research on his love affair with epic fantasy. By all accounts, he is a long-time fan of the genre, and writing a popular epic fantasy series was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. The conclusion I reach about this is that he probably wrote Furies of Calderon when he was much less practiced at his craft than he is now. The story goes he wrote it on a bit of a lark when challenged to base a book on the unholy marriage of Pokemon and the Lost Roman Legion, so I’m not convinced he regarded this book as a serious undertaking at the time he wrote it. Quite frankly, the lackadaisical attitude and/or poor craft he appears to have applied to Furies of Calderon seems glaringly obvious to me.
Bait and Switch
The story opens promisingly with a pair of magical super spies putting the finishing touches on a covert intelligence-gathering operation. Apparently the royal super spies are so bad ass that in order to graduate from the super spy academy they have to plan and execute a live mission the failure of which could end in the deaths of themselves and their mentor. Alera (a female protagonist in epic fantasy! Yay!) means to pass her test with flying colors. This is a seriously awesome setup and not something I’ve really seen in the genre.
A few chapters later, though, we are introduced to Tavi – a blandly heroic shepherd-with-a-destiny assembled from the parts of a thousand other young male epic fantasy protagonists. Yes, I realize Tavi is the star in the book description, but after magical cloak and dagger action, Bink al’Thor and his lost flock of sheep were huge letdown. This is a classic example of an author failing to correctly set and maintain the tone of the book.
Butcher has more problems with tone as the story goes on. Having spent nearly half the book telling a lighthearted tale of how good always overcomes evil, Butcher suddenly recalls that George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is really popular and decides to inject grim and gritty realism in apparently the only way bad epic fantasy writers know how. As you might expect, this was jarring. But if you haven’t read the book you really can’t imagine just how jarring…
Boy Prisoners Earn Their Freedom; Girl Prisoners Endure the Indignities of Capture
Tavi gets captured by cannibal barbarians, and Butcher gives him an utterly ludicrous series of plot twists (seriously, if your character literally says “I can’t believe this is happening,” how do you expect the reader to?) to get him out of it. Not only does he get an out (“defeat our champion”), but he’s pitted against a child in the only kind of contest he could possibly win. It’s like putting John Keats in a gladiatorial arena against the biggest, meanest guy in Rome and then announcing that the contest will be decided by a sonnet-writing competition, and if he wins the Roman Empire will withdraw all its armies from all those countries it has spent the last few hundred years conquering.
Sorry, but that’s absurd. Okay, so after the hero’s father figure came back from the dead I had pretty much sussed out that I’m reading a book aimed for readers who prefer their fantasy with a morality akin to that of a children’s fairy tale. That’s not usually my speed, but I can respect that decision. The genre has plenty of fans, and I don’t mind a lighthearted romp now and again.
Then a chapter or so later Isana (a female character) is forced to watch helplessly as her fellow female prisoner is raped and tortured. And the big escape plan appears to be “eventually our big men will show up and rescue us.”
That sort of BS needs to die in a fire. Epic fantasy has a horrible history of reducing its women to trophies and victims, and while I’m by no means advocating that they should never suffer hardships and setbacks, maybe we can find better roles for them – and better ways to threaten them than the R-word.
I already felt the characterization was weak across the board, with fantasy tropes I’ve seen a thousand times before – the shepherd with a Destiny, the matronly healer, the woodsman, the totem-worshipping barbarians, the bad girl with a tragic history, etc. (I’ve written on the topic of tired fantasy tropes before). Another series where the only way we can show that someone is the bad guy is to make him a slaver and rapist? So bored of that tired crutch.
If you’re going to add “gritty” elements like rape, torture, and slavery, be consistent about using them (I’ve also written about this on occasion). George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie have some awful stuff, but it happens to everyone more or less equally. GRRM can make the villain of one book into the hero of the next by providing context for their actions. Abercrombie had me rooting for the torturer (as in one of the main characters is a torturer by trade).
If you’re going to hide behind “gritty,” you don’t get to rely on unbelievable plot twists to save your Rand al’Thor knock-off from certain death. He thinks his way out or he dies. And if miraculous plot contrivances are your bag, you can apply them to all your characters equally rather than saying, “boys get a chance to win their freedom, girls just have to sit there and be raped until their men rescue them.”
The rape scene was the point at which I threw the book across the room and quit the series. I can put up with a lot, but this was just too derivative, too problematic, and too poorly written.
Bad Arts and Craft
When I pick up a fantasy novel from the 70s or 80s, I expect to see female characters cast in the same roles (usually maiden, mother, whore, shrew, martyr, or crone). Getting angry at a young Terry Brooks or early David (and Leah) Eddings for their over-reliance on spunky lasses and wise mother figures is like getting upset with my not-yet-two-year-old son for not being potty trained yet. But seeing a novel published in the 21st century whose female characters make Robert Jordan’s sniffing, braid-pulling, dress-smoothing ladies look like realistic women bothers me.
Okay. Fine. So I felt like all the characters are pretty much paper dolls cut from copies of The Eye of the World. I also spent a lot of time rolling my eyes at unnecessarily wordy descriptions. Never use “he made a screaming sound” when you can use “he screamed,” instead. Seriously. The copy editor needs to be fired (if indeed there was one).
Jim Butcher is a good writer, but Furies of Calderon is not a good book. I’m not going to finish it, and I’m certainly not going to pick up its sequels. It might be awhile before I return to The Dresden Files, too. The taste in my mouth is that bad.