Speculative Fiction Sucker Punches, Part 1 – The Right Hook: Convenient Magic

I’ve read quite a bit of fantasy fiction, from JRR Tolkien to China Miéville and a lot in between.  Wizard1I’ve read highbrow stuff and flocked to the more popular titles; sometimes I’ve enjoyed the “trash” more than I have the decorated works.  I’ve also been very pleasantly surprised to find that some authors who are sensationalized are, well, sensational, and I’ve been disappointed in more than a few “must buys” that have turned out to be the books that I’ve purposefully left behind in airport bathrooms.  I’ve had books that I couldn’t put down, and multi-volume offerings that I’ve stalked the bookstore waiting for the next installment to arrive.  But I’ve also put books aside that I started but never finished, and read two books in a trilogy but simply couldn’t stomach the third – some that might surprise you.

The last time this occurred was by a fairly popular writer, with lots of marketing savvy surrounding his works.  Quite a few times I had stumbled over the cunningly illustrated duet of dove-tailing books bursting with accolades.  Having read an earlier work of his, I knew that he had a pleasant writer’s voice, and a pretty good grip on a nice story arc populated with a few rather interesting characters.  So I bought Volume 1 and prepared myself for a fun journey.

By the end of the first chapter, I was nervous (heck, by the time I was finished with the first page, I was nervous).  By the time I had finished the third chapter, I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to like this book.  By the end of the book – for I did finish it, even though I could have walked away from it easily enough – I had no intention of buying the second volume, and probably would think twice about reading anything else of his unless someone I knew and trusted recommended it.

Why this disappointment?  What is it that immediately turned me off to the point of near rejection?  Well, there are a few conventions that crop up all too often in speculative fiction, whether they be historical, epic, or space/science, that I simply have a hard time accepting as a reader.  I consider these conventions cop-outs, and the hallmark of a lack of talent (or lack of follow through for those who have proven talent).   But there are two that I consider deal breakers.  I call them sucker punches: the left hook and the right hook.  They can knock me right out of a story, and I can guarantee I won’t be interested in jumping back in.

Let’s start with what I believe is the most prevalent, and most insidious, of the two main sucker punches:  convenient magic.

Now, magic in speculative fiction and fantasy writing, especially epic fantasy, is pretty much a standard.  Not required, no, but pretty standard.  You’ve got your warriors, then you’ve got your mages.  You’ve got your scholarly magic, your inherent magic, your inherited magic, your bestowed magic, and your unwilling magic.  Sometimes you even get perceived magic in the guise of technical advancement.

And why not?  Magic is fun, it gives writers the ability to break out of what is to what could be (hence, the fantasy, eh?).  And I love magic.  I don’t care if it’s a grey wizard and/or his awakening apprentice, or an elven civilization entuned with the natural world, fae folk, sorceresses or druids, even “ordinary” folks with extraordinary abilities.  I do love reading about burgeoning magical skills, uncovering magical skills and insights (whether it be Harry Potter or Quentin Coldwater or Kvothe), and I love when a social aspect of a story encompasses the magical (what would Jacqueline Carey’s world be without the Maghuin Dhonn, or JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth without Gandalf and Elrond and Galadriel?).

But what I can’t abide is when magic is used to allow something to occur unexpectedly, simply because the author needs that something to happen, even if it makes no sense that it’s happening.  “Hmmmm…. I need to get Zither the Wise from Dudeelia Point in Eastern Quixotiland to the Upper Pointillias across the Bonesearcher Sea before the Rumpdilishus Festival, but I don’t really know how to do it, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time getting him there.  What to do, what to do…. Ah, the heck with it, he’s a mage.  A special powder, an incantation or two and some fancy waving of hands and bang – he’s there!”  I mean, c’mon!  The implications of instantaneous travel?  Where’s that magic powder the next time Zither is facing a slobbering Cankerbeast in the Shagman’s Pass in the Carnithian Mountains, eh?

Far fetched, you say?  How about a “real life” example (and this is just one of many that I could conjure up – yes, you may groan at that – but it proves my point to a “t”).

In Marie Brennan’s Warrior, witches can knock out others just by singing (a great deal of their magic comes from singing – a novel concept).  Some of them can change their looks at will, or heal the gravely wounded.  Even new witches can command great power taken from the elements around them, such as explosive fire.   They can set perimeter spells to alert themselves of intruders, and levitate objects as big as tables and chairs (even while people are sitting in the chairs).  They can bind contracts by blood-oaths where the breaking of the contract (including failure in carrying out the contract) ends in death.  This is done by drawing blood from the contracted into a silver bowl, then having the blood rise up into the air to be absorbed into a humming crystal.

Witches can summon elements, such as wind, but also physical items, such as, say, a fish.  They can communicate to others over distances through mirrors, and can “spell” to each other.  And in a very imaginative flair, witches can communicate interactively over great distances with non-witches with whom they have an ongoing need by means of a special tablet in which messages can be written and replied to, with the text disappearing after it has been read.  And get this – physical items can also be sent via these tablets, so if, say, an entrance token is needed by the non-witch to access a witch’s cottage, that token will just – poof! – appear out of thin air!

Yet with such command at their disposal, they must travel those long distances via horseback, archive using stacks of paper and conventional libraries, and the world they interact with is full of fire-in-hearth (no advanced mechanics), knife wielding (no firearms or advanced weapons), tavern visiting (no entertainment venues), simplistic, agrarian, rustic persons who have a distrust of the witches but no open animosity.  I dunno…. Seems awfully convenient to me.  For a sisterhood (no men allowed) to have command over time, space, and materials both corporeal and mystical, one would think that the witches would be more advanced and/or more ostracized, due to fear and resentment.  But this is not the case.

Witches remain separate from society, but they are not absent from it, and they travel freely through the land without acknowledgement brought on by admiration or superstition.  While the author stays consistent throughout her narrative (the saving grace), the entire thing just felt very shallow and not well thought out to me.  Either make the magic less dynamic, say – don’t include the ability to move or summon physical objects but stick with summoning elements and illusions, and this world would have been far more believable, even if the greatest of witches could have somehow harnessed instantaneous travel.  I could have accepted that perhaps the strain of eliciting such power would have prohibited it from being used in all but the most extreme cases.  But there was very little of this restraint in the book, and far more of things just happening because they made it easier if they did.

Now, Marie Brennan is a good writer – a great writer, even.  I thoroughly enjoyed her Onyx Court novels (Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire), finding the magic in those works to be consistent and appropriate, almost exquisite.  (And her Lady Trent novels, at least evidenced by A Natural History of Dragons, may be her  best yet.)  I actually think this was a contributing factor to my disappointment in Warrior – having first read Midnight Never Come and being enchanted, I was expecting the same, and got what I got was far less.  Maybe it’s because Midnight Never Come had a historical context that kept it grounded, whereas Warrior did not.

Or maybe it’s because in Warrior, she also violates another one of the cardinal sins in my personal canon of undesirable conventions (also known as the left hook sucker punch).  She’s in vast company with this one:  her heroine is the epitome of uber leetness.  I’ll discuss this in Part Two of my discussion of Speculative Fiction Sucker Punches.

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