Saturday, May 24, 2008

I hate evil

For someone who claims to not really like to read "medieval fantasy," I guess I've read my share of it. I've even taught courses in it, and I have planned another for this coming fall, so I guess I should probably admit that, in some small way, I'm actually a fan of the genre. But I've got to say, as I've read more and more fantasy, I've really started to hate evil.

So, when a colleague recently loaned me a copy of Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana, with her highest recommendations, I was compelled, once I finished it, to tell her with some trepidation that it really wasn't to my taste. As I described the plot to Rose, "plucky band of adventurers roam the countryside and ultimately overcome great evil." What could be worse than that? (And, yes, I realize I've just described the plot of Lord of the Rings, too).

It was somewhat of a disappointment, since I'd recently read Kay's Last Light of the Sun, set in the equivalent of Anglo-Saxon England (in Kay's two-moon alternate world), and it actually wasn't too bad. So, over the last few months, I've read most of Kay's other novels (A Song for Arbonne, The Sarantine Mosaic, and most recently, The Lions of Al-Rassan), and I've been delighted that these other books rarely if ever have a great evil that needs to be overcome.

In fact, they have precious little magic of any sort in them, for good or evil, to the point that they make me wonder whether it's magic I really hate, rather than evil. I suppose the reality is that the more a fantasy novel makes use of magic, the more likely it is that the plot involves that same magic being used for evil. And that evil, of course, needs to be overcome. But if the magic itself is structurally equivalent to the great evil in these plots, then the victory over evil really misses the point. Or, rather, it's no wonder that the plot of fantasy novels so often involves the disappearance of magic from the world, as that's really the only way to defeat the great evil: by removing the magic that causes it in the first place.

So, to read these other Kay novels has actually been an interesting and enjoyable experience, as they operate on a very different basis, with little enough magic to keep the "evil" in the books on a quite human level: power-seeking, simple malice, lust for revenge, intolerance and fear-mongering, and the like. I guess that's the kind of evil I can get behind--at least in the sense that I think it makes a better novel.

[And it wouldn't be right to post this blog without mentioning C J Cherryh's The Paladin, which is my favorite "Sword-and-Sorcery" novel where there isn't any sorcery: it's just a "Sword-novel."]

But anyway, if you hate evil like I do, you could do a lot worse than read these novels by Guy Gavriel Kay.


Michael said...

I hate evil and find myself bored with fantasy novels these days, and probably will never read a Kay novel in the rest of the time alloted to me on this earth, but it's nice to see you taking on your share of the blogging.

Speaking of sword novels, have you ever read any of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories by Fritz Leiber? I could never get into those, either.

Ann said...

I read this post with great interest, not only because I'm not usually mentioned in other people's blogs (that I know of), but because as the "colleague" who loaned you Tigana, I'm now reading The Last Light of the Sun, so I'm making my way through Kay's oeuvre in the reverse that you have. (And it's worth mentioning that he has a truly great high-fantasy trilogy that you of course know about but might not much care for, called The Fionavar Trilogy. I just like to get my plugs in for Kay wherever I can.)

On the subject of magic vs. evil as the weak or most off-putting element of novels in this genre, though, I think you make a really worthwhile point. Many genre writers rely so heavily on the magic, or get so caught up in the world-building that surrounds it (10 pages on the levels of sorcery, another 20 later on about the various tests a sorcerer must pass, etc.) that they neglect things like, oh, character-building, plot cohesiveness, historical or cultural texture.

What I love most about Kay's work is his attention to these elements, particularly to character and to the fleshing out of his female characters, some of whom (hallelujah) are as brave, noble, flawed and conflicted as his male characters. Though of course, they are all still possessed of the kind of beauty that stops a bunch of hardened fighting men cold and makes minstrels write songs about them . . . but I digress.

I'm not even finished with The Last Light of the Sun yet but have already been quite taken with the authorial decision made mid-book to suddenly kill off the most obviously evil character. This strikes me as really risky (for Kay's readership looking for more conventional fantasy plot-lines) and also as a choice that may lead to a more subtle, and in some ways tragic, turn of events. I'm looking forward to seeing it play out.