Monday, January 26, 2015

Feaux-History, a chat about Kay's Historical Fantasy

Mark here with a short stand in post for my guest. We suffered a minor technical glitch when an attachment failed to attach! So, here are a few thoughts on Feaux Historical Fiction/Fantasy...

In the headnotes to the revised version of LOTR, Tolkien mentions that he did not much care for allegory and preferred history, whether real or imaginary, as a much better alternative.

Such a simple sentence, and yet every time I read it I am reminded just how correct he was. For some of us, wandering in Middle Earth means taking up every scrap of ancillary material and re-devouring it from The Silmarillion, through Unfinished Tales and the Appendices. For the stout-hearted there are the History texts and various other assemblages like Micheal Martinez's excellent blog and attendant published material.  I wander in Tolkien's 'history' almost the same way I wander through Rome's annals, or Arthur, Napolean, and all the wars civil and world that spark interesting writing.

The professor showed us there was a place at the table for Historical Fantasy. I love historical fiction. I've written before about how much I enjoy Bernard Cornwell's stuff, but I also admire historical fantasy--especially when it is done well. And as far as I'm concerned, Guy Gavriel Kay just might be our best historical fantasist practicing the art today.  He has tried his hand at the Saxon matter, 14th century France, Spain during the Reconquest, Byzantium, and most recently has been exploring China.

I read Under Heaven previously and am now midway through  River of Stars. I am hooked. Again.

Kay's quiet prose style lends itself to recreating the big ideas and big moments we remember as history, and yet he manages to go beyond Tuchman's attention to real detail and give us fully fledged people in the bargain. He is not limited as Cornwell is by existing maps and pesky statistics. He has the freedom to borrow from culture and use it to tell a uniquely compelling story. Awesome.

And this is what I think is absolutely necessary for genre fiction. Make the people real. Take us on a magical mystery tour if you want to, but we have to be able to identify with the characters. There is a thing with wine that gets spoiled by bacteria and enzymes. When you get a bad bottle, it is called "corked" as in a bad cork spoiled the fermentation process.  The effect is a smell reminiscent of old, wet cardboard and wine that tastes almost too sour to use even for cooking.

Good grapes gone to waste, tragic.

Better writers than I have waxed prosaic about the ins and outs of character development. I'm sure I am guilty of breaking almost all the rules almost all of the time, but I do think I succeed in writing real people.  The environments within which they move seem at least recognizable. Their emotions are plausible, motivations reasonable--even if my bad guys are bad and good guys are good.  I was raised in the era of John Wayne flicks and it shows.  I've often wondered why folks like to trumpet the "conflicted-ambivalent-amoral-sinful-hero-anti-hero" construct as being the ONLY thing that will resonate with an modern audience.

I think otherwise, obviously, so sue me.  The reading arena, films, tv shows...seems flooded in this era by variations on what I think is an increasingly cardboardish theme/style/representation....almost as if the modern character transformed into a carbon-copy GI Joe figurine with accessories to match any plot need or personality tick for any occasion. I've had enough Vampire fiction.

I want more of Kay's feaux-historical fantasy. He takes us to real places only hinted at by our historians. He allows his stories to progress at a pace that speaks of time and myth and passion--and does it all within one or two volumes! There is more story in the single volume of Tigana than in the whole Wheel of Time series. Jordan insisted Arthur was in there, but I think he lost him in his own mythic mists...

In the end, I guess I want to remind everyone that much of what the big six purvey as beau-lit, is really only "corked lit" and that smaller presses, mid-sized, and subject to a different business model are the places where we will see more of this kind of fiction.  Kay is, sadly, the exception, which is why he is trumpeted so.  There should be 20 others along with him, instead we get shelf after shelf of trendy, bottled cardboard. Yuck.

Here's to history, real or imagined, because both versions hold up that metaphoric mirror into which we all must at times our peril or to our praise...the looking is all.

Mark Nelson


Terri-Lynne said...

It's no surprise that I agree, 100%. While telling writers, "We're looking for the new NEXT thing," publishers keep putting out cookie-cutter wtories. They sell, sure, because people love repetition (Blue's Clues for adults!) but what are always the BEST SELLERS? The new and different.

So how about we glut the presses with ALL new and different, or at least most? Novel idea, eh? Pun intended.

I love Kay's plays on history, borrowing just enough to make it familiar and yet totally making it his. The man is a master. Always a favorite of mine.

Anonymous said...

Mark, I think you are deliberately fanning the fires of my current reading love affair. ;)

I couldn't agree more with everything you say. I've pretty much reached my limit with the everyone's-a-villain approach to story telling. And I'm a little over the top with conflicted anti-villains, too. Not that those kinds of stories don't have their place, but really. Imagination – and history – are so much bigger than than these two tropes.

Thanks for another amazing post. You always inspire me to work toward a higher bar.

Piper McDermot said...

Yes! I couldn't agree more, both with your post and the comments above. While the John Wayne era was a teeny bit before my time, I've never understood why a hero can no longer be a true hero; why he/she must be nearly indistinguishable from the antagonist in anti-heroism in order for a modern audience to find them 'believable'.

Perhaps it's just a swing of the pendulum away from what is now panned as old-fashioned or a trope - and authors like Kay help bring back some balance.