Would you turn the page? — Of course you Would

Here, at Writer Unboxed, is a recent “Flogging the Pro” feature:

How strong is the opening page of this novel—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it was submitted by an unpublished writer?

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.

He was born in a lonely village called Ten Alders, high on the mountain at the head of the Northward Vale. Below the village the pastures and plowlands of the Vale slope downward level below level towards the sea, and other towns lie on the bends of the River Ar; above the village only forest rises ridge behind ridge to the stone and snow of the heights.

The name he bore as a child, Duny, was given him by his mother, and that and his life were all she could give him, for she died before he was a year old. His father, the bronze-smith of the village, was a grim unspeaking man, and since Duny’s six brothers were older than he by many years and went one by one from home to farm the land or sail the sea or work as smith in other towns of the Northward Vale, there was no one to bring the child up in tenderness. 

And of course we all recognize this, yes? Of course we do. Everyone recognizes Ged and everyone recognizes A Wizard of Earthsea. That, by the way, is not my favorite of the series. My favorite by a mile is The Tombs of Atuan. I’m not even entirely sure why that one appealed to me so strongly, but it certainly did, and still does. I’ve read A Wizard of Earthsea once, a long time ago. I’ve read The Tombs of Atuan many times and practically have it memorized.

As it turns out, 60% of the people who read this sample said they would not turn the page, and one reason given was: It’s fantasy and I hate fantasy.

On its own, that wouldn’t have made me want to link to that post. This is what made me want to link to this post:

Hey, I get it. Everyone has a right to dislike certain types of stories. As a lifelong fantasy fan, I’m long past having hard feelings over that. Besides, things have never been better for fantasy as a genre, both for creators and consumers. The adaptations keep rolling and the fandom keeps growing. Still, it makes me just a little sad, to think that so many still dismiss an entire genre out of hand.

This is a follow-up post, also at Writer Unboxed, by Vaughn Roycroft : The Applicability of… Zombies?

Roycroft is pushing back against the idea that fantasy should be dismissed. For example, here:

[C]apturing goodness in humans is a complex undertaking for writers. I also tend to agree that evil can be—and often is—simplified in storytelling. In the piece Dave mentions the willful shelling of a train station in Ukraine by Russian invaders. He says, “Evil people make the deliberate decision to be bad and often take delight in doing harm.” And, “Evil is simple. Good is complex.”

While I don’t disagree with the broad principles Dave presents in his essay, I do think the finer aspects of those principles beg a few questions. And they’re questions that epic fantasy often tends to posit—perhaps better than any other genre. I believe they are questions that should be asked, even if they can’t always be satisfactorily answered. If you’re willing to stay with me, allow me to at least attempt to make my case.

Which he does with reference to the song Zombies by The Cranberries — an excellent song, I should get out my Cranberries CDs — and then goes on —

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least a dozen epic fantasy series that explore, in very serious and often profound ways, this very topic—of war, of the blood and killing and trauma intrinsic to it. In other words, epic fantasy is chock full of zombies. And I think they’re pretty damn applicable.

I think there’s an antiquated notion that much of epic fantasy relies on a simple good versus evil dynamic. If it was ever true, I assure you it no longer is. If you haven’t read any lately, I can also assure you that war and the questions surrounding it are rarely taken lightly in modern epic fantasy. Many of the series that spring to mind also delve concepts like penitence, redemption, reparation, and forgiveness. These are concepts that the world will need if we are to navigate from the perils of these dark and frightening times.

And of course I agree, except I doubt that “simple good vs evil dynamic” was ever true. I certainly like all those themes. I’m not sure fantasy tends to deal with those themes more than, say, historicals or romance, but I agree that fantasy does probably tend to hit those themes more often than, say, mysteries or thrillers. And, in fact, that is true in The Tombs of Atuan, in a sense, although the worst characters have no redemption arc. Tenar does, in a way, as she has been raised to be cruel, or at least serve a cruel god, and her arc involves making very different choices and becoming, or allowing herself to be, a different kind of person.

Let me see. All right, one of the very best and most explicit redemption arcs I’ve seen in recent (recent-ish) fantasy is in Iron and Magic by Ilona Andrews, where Hugh d’Ambray specifically moves from the bad guy camp to the good guy camp, a huge shift given his past history in the Kate Daniels series. Difficult to pull off such an extreme shift, but Ilona Andrews does it.

If you’ve recently read something with a great redemption arc, by all means drop it in the comments! There’s hardly anything I like better. Let’s broaden that and say, as from the linked post, penitence, redemption, reparation, or forgiveness.

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10 thoughts on “Would you turn the page? — Of course you Would”

  1. The first redemption arc that came to my mind is Jonah Pastern in KJ Charles’s Charm of Magpies series. He shows up in the third book, Flight of Magpies, as a young, amoral villain scattering chaos and threatening one of the MCs with a horrible death. In Jackdaw, he is one of the main characters, and you see the history that brought him to the point where we first met him. It doesn’t make his actions any better, but it makes them much more comprehensible and his motives more complex. And, from there, you can see him grow and change in believable ways until he earns his HEA ending.

  2. Bitterblue was all about redemption, reparations, etc; not for the main big bad for the previous book, but for all the people around him. I still haven’t managed to read the next one of those, though. They’re just too emotionally tough.

    Does Silence of Medair count? Less about the redemption elements, but forgiveness certainly, and lots of thoughts about how long historical grudges should or shouldn’t live on.

  3. Bitterblue is a great choice here, but yes, terribly difficult. I haven’t read the next book either.

    Silence of Medair is definitely a good choice — I can’t think of any other novel where forgiveness is a more important part of the character arc.

    I haven’t read the Magpies series — I’ll have to take a look at it.

  4. Ok so, I know a lot of people don’t agree, but I personally really liked Snape’s redemption / reparations. He never becomes a truly good person, so maybe it doesn’t totally count, but that’s just in character for him.

    There’re a bunch of shallow redemption arcs, or worse, when a character makes a stupid decision just so she can be full of regret later. I’m specifically thinking of two series here— I could tear my hair out from frustration at those just-for-the-drama choices. Which reminds me of your recent post about superheroes gone bad. Ugh.

    I wish I could think of more. The idea is so universal and powerful, but it’s just not done well often enough.

    This isn’t the same but— when we meet Murderbot, he’s clearly trying to forgive himself and make reparations.

  5. A lot of prequels seem to be about the opposite of a redemption arc, showing a sympathetic version of a future villain. I’ve got no use for those.

  6. What came to mind isn’t from a book, but an anime & manga: Fullmetal Alchemist, the secondary character Scar. Starts as a narrowly targeted serial killer. Learns things, and changes and it’s not simple. The writers were good enough for the attentive reader/watcher to grasp this even though the focus is usually elsewhere. He’s quite different at the end. Greed, too, for what redemption is possible for a being that embodies greed.

    I was going to suggest Medair for the forgiveness.

    I’ve read a (complete) fanfiction that did a Sauron redemption. (Ring-Maker. Set in “Worm” which is such a grimdark world that getting Sauron is an improvement. I have no interest in the original setting of Worm.) It was actually quite interesting although my disbelief wasn’t always suspended. The steps of corruption as the character was falling again were chilling. The discussion in the comments on the Spacebattles every chapter got were very interesting, too. Along the lines of “is the character really turned around for the better, and what about what character has done, what consequences are appropriate.”

  7. The Le Guin theme here reminded me of her novel Voices. (2nd of her more recent YA trilogy, and the only one of that series I really enjoyed. I would recommend it as a standalone.) A major theme in this book is the reconciliation of 2 civilizations, after one has been invaded by the other. At first the invaders are presented as simple villains, but slowly understanding grows. I really like how the book explores different ways the occupied city resists its oppression and tries to deal with the invaders – without resorting to the ‘normal’ approach of building an army to drive them out by force.

    I also think Medair is a great example of the forgiveness theme.

  8. I hate showing the corruption of a character into a villain, even one with a future redemption. For one thing, the writer tends to undermine the original story.

  9. The Queen of Attolia has a great redemption arc for Irene. In fact, one could argue that one of the main themes of the whole series is the redemption of Irene, who was forced to play a cruel game of power in order to survive, and must learn how to trust, how to let go, and how to love.

    There’s also Alison Croggon’s Books of Pellinor. The protagonist, Maerad, makes some pretty painful decisions, and deliberately hurts people who care about her. Much of the emotional heft of the story comes from Maerad seeking to make things right with those she’s hurt.

    Also, Tenai from Death’s Lady, and Emelan.

  10. Oh, that opening brings me back to a very happy place! That series was so formative for me: I think my notions of what makes a good novel and particularly a good fantasy were formed there.

    LeGuin is very interested in redemption arcs, and it’s only now with a bit of feminist theory under my belt that I see how radical that was (and still is), compared with the good triumphing over evil arc of most Western fantasy. (Interesting given that Christianity is supposedly the message of redemption … I guess one would have to mention Narnia, which does have several redemptions.) It seems to me that redemption is a more common arc in Asian storytelling: pick a Korean drama, for example, and there will be a character you dislike intensely in the first several episodes but end up loving to bits at the end. (Hmmm. There is a thesis or two in there I bet have been written!)

    Mona, I am on Team Snape all the way!

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