Monday, December 8, 2014

The Magic and the Mystery

How is it possible to mourn the loss of a world that never existed?

This mystery occupied my thoughts over the weekend, in the aftermath of a Friday night reading binge that culminated with the conclusion of Guy Gavriel Kay's epic tale, The Lions of Al Rassan.

Now I mourn the loss of Al Rassan, the dissolution of that great empire, and the rich, complex society that flourished - and perished - with it. In reading the novel, Al Rassan's history somehow became my history, its people my people, its passion, violence, ambition, and loss reflections of something deep and very real in my own experience.

What is this magic that one author can achieve, to create something so real and palpable we can hardly distinguish it from fact?

What books have been your canopy emergents?
Novels like The Lions of Al Rassan are canopy emergents in the tropical forest of fantasy. They rise above all the other trees, spread their branches wide, and drink in the sunlight with abandon. We look up at them in awe from below. If we're lucky, we might have some ropes that allow us to climb to the top, where for a brief moment we will see the forest from a completely new perspective.

Perhaps we meet friends along the way with whom we can share the discovery and enjoy the view. But sooner or later, all of us have to rappel back down to the forest floor. We wander on foot through the dark under story and delight in its lesser wonders -- no less beautiful in their own way, but somehow never quite as significant as that one climb we all remember.

Perhaps our long and winding path will lead us to another of those rare super giants, but we know instinctively that they are hard to come by. So we hold each of those encounters in our hearts as if they might have been the very last; sparkling gems that will not be forgotten.

The author's craft plays an important role in this experience; of that there can be no doubt. And Guy Gavriel Kay is a master at the craft.

But there is another piece to the magic over which the author has no control, and that is the disposition of the reader in the moment he or she picks up a book.

I was primed for Al Rassan. For much of my life, I have interacted with Latin American and Hispanic cultures that share deep roots in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. Over the past couple years, my free time has been devoted to a fascination with medieval Spain, and most particularly with the stories of Isabella and Ferdinand and their war against the Moors.

This most recent literary journey began with C.W. Gortner's The Queen's Vow, a book that focuses on Isabella's rise to power. Admittedly, this is the most user-friendly part of Isabella's history, a place in her life where we can admire the princess' courage and resolve; where we can stand beside her as she overcomes the many obstacles that stood between her and the throne of Castille.

The TVE series ISABEL recreates the surrender of Alhambra
(Granada). By the time the viewers reach this moment, we
understand both its triumph and its tragedy. 
Shortly after finishing The Queen's Vow, I began watching Isabel, a Spanish language series about this remarkable, if controversial, period in Spain's history. Season I culminates in the crowning of Isabella, letting us enjoy that period of innocence and hope before she came to power. Season II brings to life the decidedly thorny aspects of her reign: The Inquisition, the war against the Moors, the expulsion of the Jews.

One thing I respect about the series Isabel is that, in the best tradition of authors like Guy Gavriel Kay, it attempts to give us multiple sides of the conflict. We are not allowed to think in terms of 'good' and 'evil', except to recognize that each human heart harbors both of those qualities, and that all of us are capable of great heroism and intense cruelty.

Season II of Isabel covers the fall of Alhambra, now known as Granada. We are brought into the heart of this beautiful medieval city, and allowed to relive the elegance and sophistication of its Islamic rulers. We also see their cruelty, in no way greater or lesser than the harsh ambitions of their opponents, Isabel and Ferdinand. Season II of Isabel, which I finished this fall, left me with a great curiosity regarding the world of medieval Islam.

And so, without knowing it, I had been primed for The Lions of Al Rassan.

I had picked up a paperback copy of Kay's book long before The Queens Vow and Isabel. A few years ago at the Campbell Conference, KU's Center for the Study of Science Fiction hosted a dollar sale on used books. The Lions of Al Rassan was buried in one of several boxes scattered across the living room floor of a dorm house. I had heard of the author, but I had not read his work. And the book was only $1. What did I have to lose? So I bought it.

That same weekend, my father-in-law passed away. Supporting my husband and his family through this loss occupied all my thoughts and energy. Al Rassan was shelved and forgotten.

Fast forward to 2014.

This year, Guy Gavriel Kay was the guest of honor at the World Fantasy Conference. While packing for WFC, I remembered I had a book by him somewhere. Sure enough, The Lions of Al Rassan was right where I'd left it two years before on my bookshelf. So I took it to D.C. and had it signed by the man himself.

My copy was well-worn by the time it
came to me; now it is also well-loved.
Afterwards I began reading the novel. At first, I kicked myself for not having sat down with this amazing story earlier. But here's the truth, and the mystery:

I bet that if I had read The Lions of Al Rassan two years ago, or five or ten or twenty years ago, it would not have had the impact that it had this past month. I would have enjoyed the story and recognized it as an excellent novel, but a canopy emergent? Maybe not. Because there was other information I needed, other experiences I had to have, before I could truly appreciate what Guy Gavriel Kay accomplished with this work.Before I could recognize his story as somehow, deeply, mine.

What influence did Kay have on the events that primed me for The Lions of Al Rassan? None whatsoever. This is the piece that no author anywhere on the planet can control: Whether the reader has the disposition to fully engage with a story in the moment he or she picks up our work.

Once someone told me that reading Eolyn was like encountering her own story, a retelling of something she herself had lived. This is one of the greatest complements a reader can give the author, and yet it is so beyond our power to ensure such an experience.

What we can offer is the best story possible given our particular talents at writing. The rest depends on the circumstances by which that story lands in the hands of our readers.

That is the magic and the mystery of this forest we call fiction. Finding those canopy giants can entail a long, winding path. Whether they achieve that height in our minds depends as much on ourselves as on the author. At the end of the day, it's still the journey that gives the destination meaning.


Anonymous said...

Nice article. I have to admit, though, as soon as I saw the words "canopy emergent" I knew who wrote it!

Anonymous said...

haha! Yup, it doesn't take much to identify me, does it? ;)

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here.

Nice post! I remember reading about how Kay helped Christopher Tolkien prepare The Silmarillion for publication back in the day. And then later I stumbled on Tigana and Song for Arbonne. I was hooked. Rassan had a similar impact on me. Haven't read it in like 20 years, but I recall admiring the sense of pathos that permeated so much of that tale. Kay plays with that emotive language so precisely. I always get a healthy dose of the humanity of his characters every time I read his stuff. Might be time to dig through some boxes...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mark. Next time we are at a con together, I'd like to do a panel on Kay's work with you. Are you game?

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Karin, absolutely!

Terri-Lynne said...

Dang it...I just wrote a whole big comment and Blogger ate it! Grr...I should know better.

Anyway, I totally agree. When I read Kay's "Tigana," I was at a point in my writerly journey that primed me to respond to the master of "good and evil depends upon the eyes one looks out of." It changed me as a writer, as a reader, and as a person. Come to think of it, most of my favorite books are favorites because of this "priming." They spoke to me in ways I needed to be spoken to, and that's why they've resounded, and stuck with me.

Anonymous said...

I had a feeling you'd "get" this, Terri. :) I want you on that panel, too! Now all we have to decide is, which con are we going to?

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here:

The World SFF Con 2015 is in Spokane,Wa next August. I've been waffling about going, but if we had a "team" reason...

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark... that would entail me getting on a plane. I'm not sure you know enough dirty limericks to see me through! ;)(Terri, posting with our universal name because blogger hates my tablet.)

Heroines of Fantasy said...

"I gots a million of 'em"