The Magic Goes Away
By Cheryl Morgan
One of the best things about publishing Emerald City has been to be able to watch new writers gradually improving, book-by-book. Glenda Larke is an excellent example of this. Reading through her Isles of Glory series (The Aware, Gilfeather and now The Tainted) has led to my becoming more and more impressed with Larkeís ability. Sheís not top flight yet, but is she keeps on getting better who knows what sheíll produce.
So what do I look for in trilogies that, from their covers, seem to be aimed at the formula fantasy market? One thing I do like is to see the author have the courage to abandon the comfort reading market. Too much modern fantasy is predictable and safe. I know there are lots of people who like that sort of thing, but I donít see much point in reading a book when you know exactly what is going to happen, unless perhaps the prose is brilliant.
Larke has no compunctions about torturing her characters. As those of you who have read Gilfeather know, that book had a very nasty surprise in store for its lead character. It centers on Kelwyn Gilfeather, an unassuming healer whose only special powers are his medical skills and a strong streak of stubbornness. Except that Gilfeather is unaffected by magic, and therefore becomes an ideal candidate to help dispose of the evil sorcerer, Morthred.
A healer by profession, Gilfeather is initially reluctant to murder someone, but he is eventually persuaded that Morthred is so evil that his death is a necessity. Unfortunately there is a complication. One of Morthredís more spectacular works of villainy was to sink the entire Dustel Isles beneath the waves, turning the inhabitants into birds in the process. When Morthred dies the curse is lifted and the Dustel islanders become human again ó many of them while in mid flight. So while some fete Gilfeather for saving their world from evil, others regard him as a mass murderer.
Even those Dustels who were not in the air when they changed donít have things easy. Hereís Larkeís Dustel viewpoint character, Ruarth.
An easy thought, difficult to execute. I was unable to tell my arms what to do, let alone my hands or fingers. They flapped and flung themselves this way and that. The digits of a birdís forearm flex the flight feathers, they donít curl themselves up and hold things, such as the ropes of the rigging.
In a formula fantasy book the Dustels would have turned back into people without any problems at all. It would have been a happy ending.
Iíd also like to talk a bit about the narrative structure employed by Larke. Almost the entire trilogy takes the form of first person narratives told by the viewpoint characters some fifty years after the events being described. The clever thing about this is that it allows the author to tell us what the characters are thinking and feeling, rather than having to show us, without it seeming nearly so clunky as this sort of writing does in a third person narrative. On the other hand, it can complicate characterization. Elarn Jaydon, a new character introduced in The Tainted, is an old, wise and successful politician when making his narration, but he is talking about a time when he was young, carefree, and also largely free of common sense and conscience. This is a tough ask, and for me doesnít quite come off.
Meanwhile, back with the book. The plot centers on the plan concocted by Gilfeather and the priest, Tor Ryder, to put an end to magic once and for all. This too is not the sort of thing that you would find in a formula fantasy book. Traditional fantasy assumes that magic is a good thing, a romantic thing, even if it is occasionally wielded by bad guys. Larke takes the view that, just like any other form of power, magic will be abused. And if only a small fraction of the population have that power then they will impose their will on everyone else. Interestingly the magic practiced in Larkeís books is primarily illusion, which brings us to interesting political comments such as this:
"Ordinary people like illusion," I said. "They feel safe with handsome, strong, confident people in charge. Now they will see them as they are ó just like the rest of us. Just like them. And ordinary people will think that if our rulers arenít special, then maybe anyone can ruleÖ a, um, fishmonger from Milkby, perhapsÖ"
Or a grocerís daughter from Grantham, but letís not think about that.
But you see the point. This is not the stuff of formula fantasy. Larke is not just telling a light and fluffy story of heroism, she is telling us things that she thinks are important. My spies in Australia tell me that her new series continues the trend of improvement. Iím looking forward to it.