Abercrombie, Martin and Magic-Light Fantasy

I’m going to put this up here now, I might include spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire in this post. Stop reading now if that bothers you. There will be spoilers in the very next paragraph.

The last book came out two years ago and so I’m not going to care if you are still watching season three and don’t want to know, for instance, that Jon Snow was stabbed in the back by his brothers and might be dead. After all, come on, if you haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire yet why are you reading the blog of some minor fantasy author?

There might be spoilers for other books, also published more than a year ago, but you probably won’t care, because there’s no HBO tv show about them yet.

I’m going to also say, straight up, that there should be more TV shows based on magic-light fantasy series. After all, they do them in China all the freaking time and although sometimes terrible there’s also some really entertaining television that comes out of the genre.

The blog Wuxia Edge is a great resource for those television series and you should totally read them.

What is Wuxia

I’m going to be jumping back and forth a bit between authors like George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie on one side and authors like Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng on the other. That’s because there is a large precedent for fantasy with a lot of the characteristics that Martin really pioneered in English in the 1990s going back to the early 1900s in China. This is a genre I’m particularly fond of and it is just as influential to my writing as the other newer fantasy authors I’ll be mentioning.

In fact, the Black Trillium is effectively a wuxia story so, yeah, influence.

But outside of a small fandom the word hasn’t spread into North American consciousness beyond the possibility of a suspicion that it involves kung fu in some way. (BTW: don’t get me started that they changed the name of the film linked above to “Dragon” for the NA release. So damn lazy.

In shortest form, Wuxia is a modern genre of Chinese historical fantasy. Specifically it is a genre which grew out of the tradition of stories of youxia, knights-errant, who collectively formed an underworld of bandits and heroes whose conflicts frequently reflected the political struggles of dynastic China.

Wuxia is fantastical within very limited constraints. There is a template of abilities that youxia could access that could easily be seen as supernatural. These included:

  1. Qinggong – “Lightness Skill” was a subset of abilities that allowed the characters in wuxia to make incredible leaps, to move with exceptional speed and to fly.
  2. Neigong – “Internal energy” was a process through which characters could heal themselves or others through the manipulation of energy. They could also enhance their own strength, resilience and the potency of their other abilities by practicing neigong techniques.
  3. Extreme martial skill – This included strength and finesse that crosses the line into supernatural levels, the use of patently bizarre fighting techniques and the ability to wield cumbersome, unlikely or improvised weapons.
  4. Magical weapons – These generally had three characteristics: increased resistance to damage, unnatural sharpness and the ability to enhance the strength of the wielder. They are often coveted.

And that was it. With a few notable exceptions there weren’t other magical elements to the stories, nor were these elements presented as being unnatural. The characters were exceptional but any individual could achieve at least  some measure of their ability through diligence, hard work and sufficient luck.

These magical elements and the societal fantasy elements of the underworld of heroes and villains is what separates Wuxia from straight-up historical fiction. It’s not much. The world of Wuxia is nearly our own. However creating a fantastical element gave Wuxia authors the license to interrogate their own history, their myths and their ideals in a way that would strain the bounds of suspension of disbelief in a less fantastical historical thriller.

By introducing a fantasy element, the authors of Wuxia stories gave themselves freedom to push their social and moral implications of their stories into uncomfortable territory.

This included:

  • Frequently questioning the parental analogy for teachers and leaders which was a hallmark of Confucianism.
  • Questioning the virtue of political and religious leaders.
  • Questioning the nature of patriotism vis a vis the state.
  • Challenging the divide between law and justice.

This is not an exhaustive list.

And this brings us to the magic-light fantasy novels of the post-GRRM English scene.

Before Game of Thrones

Prior to Game of Thrones the majority of commercially available fantasy was a tired retread of Lord of the Rings. (Ok, I’m going to stop right there and make sure to point at the words commercially available I know just as well as you that there were plenty of people like Barry Hughart, Christopher Priest and Ursula K. Le Guin writing innovative and unusual fantasy that was nothing at all like Tolkien between the end of the 1960s and the mid 1990s – but  most of them weren’t widely read and certainly weren’t widely read outside of fandom; that was still the domain of Eddings, Brooks, Anthony, etc.).

There was also a moderately broad view, stoked in part by Tolkien’s loud protestations against allegory in fantasy that fantasy fiction should be escapist adventure fiction rather than trying to comment on deeper matters.

And the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire changed that with the swing of a headsman’s blade. It was evident this wasn’t escapism. What’s more, it really seemed that Martin was trying to tell us something.

This idea – that fantasy didn’t have to equal simple escapism – took off and now we have a much richer genre as the deeper fantasy reaches broader audiences.

Enter Joe Abercrombie.

Questioning the Nature of Heroism

The Heroes is Abercrombie’s second most recent book and it blew my mind. The six-hundred page tradeback abandons any hint of magic (the “wizard” in the book uses politics, threats and three cannons), it abandons an epic scale, confining action to a single valley and it uses a medieval battle as an opportunity to interrogate the idea of heroism.

In the story it presents us with:

  • A boy headed to war for the first time with dreams of being a hero
  • An ancient corporal who survived many previous engagements and who has a terrible reputation
  • An old war leader, weary of the fighting and aching from age and misuse
  • A young princeling with a reputation for loose talk and cowardice
  • A disgraced sword master who wants to die
  • The politically ambitious daughter of the commander of the army
  • A collection of vain and useless generals and lords

And the story invites us to look at the unvarnished actions of these various protagonists as they fight and die over the course of three days and ask whether any of them are heroic.

Is the death-obsessed master a hero for being undefeated in the field of battle when, inside, he’s a bitter and miserable shell of a man?

Is the boy who hides in a closet and kills another boy on his own side one day a hero for saving the man standing next to him on the next?

Is the woman who recovers sixty prisoners and carries a plea for peace a hero when her own friend is dragged off by a brute to a life of slavery and abuse and she does nothing to stop it?

And beyond inviting us to ask what constitutes a hero the story is willing to ask whether heroism is something to aspire to in the first place. Why, in fact, would anybody want to be a hero?

Don’t get in your own way

Magic is fun. I wouldn’t be a fantasy author if I didn’t like putting some in my stories. But here’s where I’m going to make the pitch for toned-back magic. For reasons that should be obvious, Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing have been circulating a lot this week. The best takeaway from them is, in my view, that a writer should not “distract the reader from the story.”

Fantasy frees us to talk about big concepts. It gives license to our audience to suspend disbelief about the little things enough for us to test concepts that might not fit otherwise. It does this, in part, by requiring us to suspend our disbelief about big things like how physics works.

That’s a pretty big risk. Good fantasy is always a gamble.

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