When human isn’t good enough

So, I happened across Judith Tarr’s comments at tor.com about the original Deryni Rising trilogy by Katherine Kurtz. I, too, really loved this trilogy when I first read it lo these many years ago. And I also agree that I still enjoy it, though it’s not flawless. I still own the Deryni Rising trilogy, and I think the Camber of Culdi trilogy, too, though I believe I’ve given away the others. The later Deryni books tended to suffer from bloat, imo, and also — here I disagree with Tarr — from Evil Church syndrome, though not in its most extreme form. It’s true, I suppose, that the Christian religion itself is treated sympathetically as a pervasive force in this medieval world, but still, all the true bad guys are Evil Churchmen all through the entire Deryni series.

But that’s not the issue that caught my eye in Tarr’s comments. This is:

For another, unless you’re Deryni, you really don’t have much to live for. We’re told over and over again that humans persecute Deryni, but we never really see it … at the end, humans don’t matter at all. It’s Deryni, and Deryni-powered humans, all the way.

I don’t think I quiiiite noticed this at the time, except perhaps subconsciously. But it actually bothers me quite a lot now. Want to be a cool character? You’d better have magic. Don’t have magic? Too bad, so sad, you’re never going to amount to anything. Your betters will treat you pretty much like furniture, manipulating you without a second thought – and the author will seem to be fine with this, because no subtext seems to provide any pushback against this attitude. It’s particularly annoying because Special Artificial Magic is available to any human characters who look like they’re becoming too important to be left out of the cool kids’ club – a way in which the subtext actually seems to validate ignoring and dismissing merely human characters.

And what that makes me think of . . . switching out of secondary world fantasy . . . is JD Ward’s vampire series, starting with Dark Lover.

This series is actually quite similar to Kurtz’s Deryni series in several ways. (And very different in other ways, obviously). But the two series are similar in that:

1) The individual books are often quite compulsively readable, especially the earlier ones.

2) The later books suffer from bloat.

3) Human characters never get to be really cool. If you have a human character who *is* cool, he or she invariably turns out to *actually* be a vampire, or in some other way is not a mere human. (I should add that I haven’t read the latest three or four books in the series, so for all I know there is a counterexample somewhere in there.)

I actually hate this. I mean, if you stopped me on the street and demanded, “Quick! Your ten most-detested fantasy tropes!” , this is probably not one that would spring to mind. But it turns out that I hate it. You have a superpowered race mingling with ordinary people? Great, add an ordinary human protagonist and you have a great source of conflict and tension: how can this person cope even though he or she is not magic / superstrong / immortal / whatever. Go! Write! But, no. It’s as though the author genuinely thinks ordinary humans are too pathetic to bother writing about. (I’m not saying this feeling is actually in the author’s mind, even subconsciously; it just feels that way to me when I encounter a series that seems to follow Rule Three).

A series that first came to mind in this context and then turned out not to fit the category quite as well is Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series. When I was trying to think of other series to which Rule Three applies, I thought of this one. But although it’s pretty much true that all the protagonists are superpowered in the original trilogy, this is not true in some of the associated works. In particular, Marion, in the novella where she is rescued and winds up marrying Lucivar; and Cassidy in Shadow Queen, are both witches – but very underpowered compared to the general run of protagonists. Their relative lack of power is something both women have to deal with. They’re still not actually ordinary humans, but fairly close; and they each have their own kind of strength, which is very different from the portrayal of non-superpowered characters as fundamentally uninteresting.

Plus in Bishop’s series, it’s apparently impossible for a normal human person to acquire magic. So if there were to be an important human character . . . which I grant you hasn’t happened yet that I know of . . . I guess they would probably stay human and have to deal with that. Avoiding the thing where you bring a human character onstage and then making him or her Suddenly Cool After All is definitely a plus.

I bet there are others series that fit this pattern to some degree. What am I forgetting, where The Cool Characters all have magic or other superpowers and ordinary people are treated more like furniture than like real people with agency and worth?

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4 thoughts on “When human isn’t good enough”

  1. This is one reason why I hate the “special snowflake” sort of magic: some lucky people, in a bolt from the blue, can work magic. Others can’t.

    Though, actually, I can live with it much more easily if only non-human characters (full or part) can do it.

  2. I have to say that I really enjoyed your Black Dog series because of the really smart brother (whose name I forget – I apologize; I’m convinced I have a names and faces disability in real life and it transfers to books and movies. Takes me forever to engrave into my mind – though it tends to stick once I finally have it!) Anyway, I noted it to myself at the time and liked it as much when I reread – that brother doesn’t have any of the “special powers” of his siblings or the other characters, but he doesn’t let it hold him back a bit. He’s an awesome character and I hope we see a lot more of him.

  3. I too appreciate the Black Dog series for the handling of Miguel.
    I’ve been trying to come up with other books or series that fail as described above in handling normal humans … and haven’t come up with much. That’s good, I guess. :-) Closest I can dreg up is some of Carol Berg’s stuff, but there it’s an attitude of the magic users and the normals are actually just as competent and formidable in their ways as anyone else.

    Oh, BTW, Rachel, while I was poking around Tor.com to find the Deryni posts, I saw a newish article on the Stiefvater RAVEN cycle. AND a plug for a new book which does appear to meet the requirement for downgrading humans “We’re pleased to reveal the cover and share an exclusive excerpt from Vic James’ Gilded Cage, a darkly fantastical debut set in a modern England where magically gifted aristocrats rule—and commoners are doomed to serve. The first in a new series, Gilded Cage publishes February 2017 from Del Rey.” but I assume the twist is the humans beat the magicals. Or it’s grimdark and no one wins, that’s another possibility. Either way, the piece didn’t make me want to pick up the book.

  4. Elaine, Mary Anne, I’m glad you both like Miguel, because he plays a very big role in book three. Mary Anne, believe me, I forget the protagonists’ names in *my own books* sometimes, never mind other writers’, so I can hardly worry about it if other people have the same problem!

    Elaine, another possibility for the Gilded Cage story is that the poor humans are Saved by Good Magical People. That would be double-ugh. Humans freeing themselves from slavery is a plot that could work for me, though.

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