Me vs. Epic Fantasy, or, the Great Shmeshmending of Oshkoshishoshvili

Black Wolves by Kate Elliott

Reading Challenge: A book that’s more than 600 pages.

Quick disclaimer: some mild spoilers have probably snuck in below. Read at your own peril.

I don’t read a lot of epic fantasy these days, certainly not as much as I used to, but it all started coming back to me very quickly when I picked up this book. The characters were familiar – in spite of the fact that they were in a world with Asian trappings rather than European (and I fully approve of this move that’s been going on recently to expand fantasy worlds past “vaguely Europe”), I had definitely met them before, in the works of George R.R. Martin, Mercedes Lackey, Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan, etc. There were words that sounded like I’d read them in a Guy Gavriel Kay, another one came back to me from Tad Williams. This was a genre I used to love, and I was willing to stick with this one even after that neat little trick about 90 pages in where, just when I’d started getting used to the characters we had, we jumped 44 years into the future and I had to get used to a whole new crew on a different political landscape. The terms, cultures, and characters were legion, and without an index, map, table of contents, or anything similarly handy, I had a lot of trouble remembering who was who.

Back when I was a kid and very into fantasy (to the despair of my parents), I asked my dad why he didn’t read fantasy. He told me all the made-up terms and names were impossible for him to keep straight. Dad was older than I am now at the time, but damned if I didn’t start feeling the same way reading this book. Who are you? You’re from where? What’s your relationship to which royal household? What’s your name again? Speak up, you young whippersnapper!

About 300 pages in I started questioning whether I really wanted to finish this book. I was feeling angry and I couldn’t quite figure out why.  Was it the aforementioned lack of any kind of guide to this world? Was it the godawful expositional dialogue included every three pages? Truly, these characters could not make it ten pages without an exchange something like the following: “Do you remember the time that this thing happened?” “How could I forget? Let me recall it in unnecessary detail so the reader knows our past and what our relationship is like, even though you experienced it with me and presumably already know all of this.” After the first 20 exchanges I found myself longing for the obscurity of a Dorothy Dunnett conversation, where you know the characters have said something to each other but you don’t really know WHAT.

But then I realized what was pissing me off so much, and just like that, I realized I had a mission. I had something to contribute to the lexicon. Remember the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG)? Remember the Bechdel Test, and Kate Beaton’s Strong Female Characters? Well. Make some room, girls. Allow me to introduce to you the Anne McCaffrey Strong Female Character.

The Anne McCaffrey Strong Female Character (or AMSFC) is based on a type as signature to Anne McCaffrey as the green eyes and freckles she noted as a constant in her biography. The AMSFC is noted for being a woman in charge, a woman with ostensibly some power, who has strong emotions, but whose life is defined by the men around her, and who is usually wrong and needs to be schooled or possibly stabilized by the cooler-headed man. If the man gets emotional and acts on those emotions, by the way, he is usually right. Such were a large percentage of McCaffrey’s heroines. Such is Dannarah, one of the central characters of Black Wolves. And that was what bothered me so much about her: not that she was being treated by such disrespect by the men around her (notably Kellas, who is insufferably smug. I know we’re supposed to like him, but dang. Smug.), but that she was being treated with such disrespect by her own author.

Another familiar type was Sarai, whom I knew I should find sympathetic but I just found trite and a teeeeeny bit problematic. Trite, because if she had come out of the end of this book covered in baby dragons, I wouldn’t have been surprised, ifyouknowwhatimsayin. Problematic, because in spite of her stubbornness in clinging to her faith, her people were the most stereotypical and the narrative seemed to be saying that theirs was kind of a shitty faith and culture. They combined Jewish and Muslim ethnic stereotypes in a way that struck me as icky, and made Sarai kind of a Jessica-from-Merchant-of-Venice when she wasn’t busy being the Khaleesi.

Also, while about halfway through this book, I mentioned to my husband that I would add a full star to my review on Goodreads if there were no rape scenes. Although it wasn’t one I anticipated, I’d like to note that I will not be adding that star. And I’m really, REALLY tired of that being a staple of both epic fantasy and historical fiction.

It wasn’t all bad. At its best moments, the book reminded me that I have a brand-new Guy Gavriel Kay sitting on my bookshelf just waiting for me to read it. I thought the character of Lifka was immensely appealing, and some of the other late-introduced characters, like Fo and her sisters, had promise. Also, as previously mentioned, I FULLY support this move to have fantasy worlds based on other cultures than Generic European. It’s also possible that Epic Fantasy is just not my thing anymore, and if you are into it, you might be into this book.

TL;dr the Anne McCaffrey Strong Female Character. It’s a thing. Use as you choose. Spread the word.

Suggested pairing: A session beer. For the love of your liver, a session beer.

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