Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Andrea K Höst and the Heroic Tradition

So, the other half of my post, this time with a quite different emphasis, as you see. These posts going up for AKH Week contain quite a few references to AKH’s female protagonists, which, yes. But it was definitely Aristide Couerveur who captured my eye and attention and heart most strongly in the Darest duology. So I wound up focusing in this post more on the male lead characters, and that turned into thoughts on the heroic tradition in fantasy and AKH’s interpretation of that tradition. Thus this post.

So, Aristide Couerveur, from Champion of the Rose and (more) from Bones of the Fair.

Aristide Couerveur has got it all: moral resolution, commitment to duty, competence, intelligence, self-possession, emotional discipline, generosity of spirit. This is the kind of male lead I most appreciate. I appreciate all these qualities in a female lead, too, don’t get me wrong. But I think this is more of a paradigm for male heroes, reaching straight back to very old fashioned ideas of heroism. I mean, think of Shane. Except that the hero of the classic Western isn’t a part of society; he comes in from the outside, remains outside normal society throughout the story, and at the end, leaves again. That’s not generally the case for Andrea Höst’s heroes, who instead (usually) get to share in the happy ending.

It’s not like I was a lit major, people. Biology all the way. So I’m not going to pretend to be any kind of expert on literary conceptions of heroes or anything. But: I think we all pretty much understand what is meant by the “classic” hero versus the “modern” hero. Right?

Like, the classic hero is courageous and noble, selfless and kind to the weak (in sometimes rather a condescending way), physically strong and capable of remarkable physical feats. He defeats external threats that could never be overcome by a normal person. Unlike the tragic hero, whose fatal flaw leads to ultimate failure and tragedy and whose story serves as a lesson for the ages, if the classic hero has a weakness, he overcomes it. You can expect the classic hero to succeed against terrible odds, snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and leave the world a better place when he’s done.

WrestlingBull

The thing is, if not handled just right, a classic hero may seem a little much of a muchness to a modern reader. I’m thinking here of Chevenga in Lion’s Heart and Lion’s Soul by Karen Wehrstein I actually enjoyed these books quite a bit, but then I have a high tolerance for over-the-top perfection. And even for me, Chevenga was a little extreme. I haven’t re-read those books in years, and the over-the-top perfection of the hero is probably why.

But the antithesis of the classic hero is way, way worse. I mean the modern literary hero, or antihero: the man whose attention is almost entirely inward, whose battles would all be internal except he is too consumed by ennui to bother fighting any kind of battle, who is disconnected from any sense of conventional morality because he is contemptuous of convention and morality and, therefore, of nearly everyone. I mean, the kind of brooding, moody, depressive “hero” who thinks himself an iconoclast because he glorifies his own dissatisfaction, who finds no meaning in life and scorns those who do, and who admires only a handful of other profound souls who are likewise elevated above the common herd by their amazingly sensitive sensitivity.

Steppenwolf

Thank heaven you don’t find many modern antiheroes in adventure SF or high fantasy, because ugh. Other kinds of antiheroes in grimdark, of course; actually antiheros who are just villains, and ugh again.

In contrast, Andrea Höst’s heroes are exactly what I most prefer. They’re like classic heroes, only with more of an internal dimension and more connected to real life. They’re heroes, but their heroism is the kind anyone can aspire to. It doesn’t take being the son of a god or whatever. It takes moral resolution, commitment to duty, competence, intelligence, self-possession, emotional discipline, and generosity of spirit. And when they’re done, the world is a better place. I think that about sums it up.

Höst uses variations on that theme all the time, with emphasis on extreme self-possession – actually, her protagonists would test on the extreme end for all those traits. Not just Aristide Couerveur. Look at Keir Ieskar and Illukar las Cor-Ibis from the Medair duology, Koaren Ruuel from The Touchstone Trilogy, even Fisher, more or less, from And All the Stars. This is one of the reasons I love her stories.

Matching guys like this up with women who are worthy of them is quite a trick. Höst pulls that off, too. She has to, because a male hero like this works best not as the protagonist, but as a foil to the actual pov protagonist.

In The Bones of the Fair, Gentian Calder is a great protagonist. She herself is all about moral resolution and generosity of spirit. And endurance. Everything about her curse is *actually worse* than it first appears, and yet here she is. It’s the same with Medair in the Medair Duology, with Cassandra in the Touchstone Trilogy, with Madeleine in And All the Stars. In every case, the reader is invited into the story via the pov of the female lead, who is strong and complex, but more approachable, more someone the reader can relate to, than the male lead. Which, not coincidentally, also allows the author to leave the male lead’s thoughts and motivations opaque to the reader, allowing her to develop some kinds of tension that would otherwise be lost. We get the same kind of technique in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series, for example; and in fact Lymond shares that whole raft of characteristics with Höst’s male leads. So does Shevraeth in Crown Duel / Court Duel. So does Ben Hammond in An Alien Music. It’s not a coincidence that these are all heroes who particularly appeal to me, or that none of them are the pov protagonist for their respective stories.

So, yeah. This actually is something that goes right past the actual writing and narrative structure – though those qualities matter, too – and straight into specific ideas of heroism which serve as a foundation for storytelling, tropes that are either going to appeal to readers, or else not. For me, the voice of each of Höst’s female protagonists matters a great deal. All of her protagonists pull me into the story, all of them are relatable – especially the contemporary voice of Cassandra in The Touchstone Trilogy. But I think that one important quality that lifts Höst’s stories above so many others is this particular concept of what makes a great hero.

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9 Comments Andrea K Höst and the Heroic Tradition

  1. Estara+Swanberg

    I like that AKH’s heroes usually bring a quality of appreciation for family with them. The Diamond has not killed his mother (considering what we hear and see of her way of pouring out her bitterness about the situation in Darest on the country and on him specifically – the very aimed spite), I find that amazing – but I do think he’s probably not my best example in the AKH canon.

    Kaoren Ruuel and his way of dealing with his family and his younger sister you get to see lots more of – naq bs pbhefr gur jnl gung gur xvqf ner nqbcgrq! Then there’s the whole family history and current family influence of the eventual love interest in Medair, which he can’t put away either. Even the love interest in Hunting comes to town because of questions his family has raised and refers to them repeatedly. The love interest in Stained Glass Monsters is part of a tiny group of Others, etc.

    So while I’m nodding enthusiastically to your classification of what kind of version of the classic hero AKH creates, I think “an interest in family/community/society” should be added to the listing.

  2. Rachel

    Estara, yes, I think that’s part of the hero being truly a part of the world. I love the way Kaoren deals with his younger sister, and I like the way his sister is plainly also trying to *deal* with her own feelings (rather than just being spiteful or whatever). The dynamics in that whole family felt very real to me.

    Also, yes, I actually find myself wondering if a little spot of assassination might not have been rather helpful in dealing with Aristide’s mother. I don’t have a lot of patience with self-indulgent spiteful rulers.

  3. Estara+Swanberg

    I’m trying to think of other authors that do that sort of thing with their heroes… Eileen Wilk’s Rule Turner comes to mind (Lily Yu is also a lot about her family, but – as you said – it sticks out more when it’s a male doing it).

    All the heroines in Michelle Sagara West’s book have that – in fact most of them built friends into family when the original is taken away (I personally think they can’t function without family/friends), but I think the males have it to a lesser degree (they certainly are willing to give their all for society/community, but family with children? Not so much).

    Sherwood Smith’s Inda has it, too, very much a trust in friends and community which lets him overcome overwhelming distress and odds and there’s the emotional lynchpin of the girl who he grew up with and was promised to, as a touchstone of what she would think about what he is doing. His heart is so unlimited that he manages to love her and someone else (and all his friends to different degrees) without coming across as a phony. Many people he comes in contact with eventually give love (of varying degrees) back – and Sartorias managed to show what happens when the fullness of love isn’t reciprocated as well.

  4. Li

    I’m loving all the essays posted this week, though I’ve been sadly short of time and need to go back and read/comment properly. So big thank you for organising, Rachel!

    I’ve a very soft spot for Andrea’s heroes – I think you nailed exactly why they appeal to me. However, I did find it interesting that you say “generosity of spirit” when it comes to Aristide – I’m not exactly convinced that is a trait he demonstrates (though I agree with the others you listed), but it’s been a while since I read CHAMPION / BONES. What did you have in mind when you said he has that?

  5. Rachel

    Hey, Li, thanks for commenting!

    In my estimation, it took great generosity of spirit for Aristide to genuinely throw all his influence and effort behind the new king. It’s not just that Aristide didn’t try to assassinate Strake, or seize power, or even wash his hands of the whole thing and leave Strake to get on with things as best he could. It’s that someone just a little less generous might well have allowed pride to stop him from sincerely supporting the king, saecstra or no saecstra. I mean, swearing the saecstra in the first place was something. But if you look at the phrasing of that spell, there are definitely ways to interpret ‘I will protect and support you’ that don’t require a whole lot of actual effort devoted to that support.

    In fact, if you want to change both the character and the plot entirely and turn Aristide into the subtle mastermind villain of the piece, it’s quite possible to see a man in his position swearing Aristide’s exact vow in order to avoid suspicion, all the while blandly looking the other way as his mother’s plots against the new king and arranging to be out of town when an assassin arrives. I mean, ‘I will not seek to harm you’ leaves a lot of room for harm to happen. I had the possible Aristide-as-villain plot in my mind the moment I saw the terms of the vow.

    But as we get to know him, it’s plain that once Aristide decided this Rathen king would be the best thing for Darest, he never seriously considered anything but genuinely supporting the new king to the very best of his ability.

    So, generosity of spirit. To my mind, Aristide’s ruthlessness toward others who threaten Gentian or Darest — and he certainly can be ruthless, yes indeed — doesn’t negate that essential generosity at all.

  6. Rachel

    Estara, I can see that I definitely, definitely must make time for Wilks’ Lupi series this year. Every single thing I hear about it makes me more sure I’ll love it.

  7. Li

    Rachel – that’s a great point. One of the things I loved about CHAMPION was the ambiguity around Aristide’s motives for a large part of the book – Soren (and the reader by extension) was never quite sure about him, and that only made him more intriguing!

    I was coming from the angle that Aristide’s commitment to duty and Darest would mean Aristide wouldn’t do anything to harm Strake, but you’re right – he wasn’t just keeping to the letter of his vow, he carried it out to the fullest extent once he made the decision to support Strake. Which makes swearing of the saecstra an even bigger thing, because he’d have known what it would mean for him.

  8. Rachel

    Li, exactly! I wish we’d been able to see the private struggle he must have gone through, but I do think he’s a more effective character for remaining opaque to the reader.

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