, by Jack Whyte. I've read Whyte before; he wrote a series about Templar Knights on the Third Crusade. In retrospect I had similar objections. They didn't come through so clearly, since they weren't talking about Arthur's father
At any rate, the novel is about Uther, father of Arthur Pendragon, etc etc and chronicles his life. From some reading on the author's site, he's written quite a bit in this section of history/mythology, with a parallel tale following Merlin, which was published before Uther
My objections, I suppose, rest on various genre conventions that I've come to expect in works set up a certain way. There was a discussion this summer about realistic vs fantastic fiction and the writing and expectations of readers that came along with other genres (it was a fantasy/horror course, so genre came up.) Anyway, we talked briefly about LeGuin's essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie*"
, wherein she argues that the author's style is essential for establishing a fantasy world, and that (unlike realistic fiction), that in fantasy the heroes can truly be heroic. That is, that there is no need to pull your punches; you can so
change appearance or character attributes or names or whatever to suit exactly what the story is asking for, with no need to consult whether it would be plausible in this real world. Green eyes for John Lackland, or something. I transcribed a passage from her essay:
"[the protagonists of three quoted fantasy novels] speak with power [,] with a wild dignity. All of them are heroic, eloquent, passionate. It may be the passion that is most important. Nothing is really going on, in those first two passages [...] but with what importance they invest these trivial acts, what emotion, what vitality!
[several paragraphs omitted]
Lords of Elfland are true lords, the only true lords, the kind that do not exist on this earth: their lordship is the outward sign or symbol of real inward greatness. And greatness of soul shows when a man speaks. At least, it does in books. In life we expect lapses. In naturalistic fiction, too, we expect lapses, and laugh at an "over-heroic" hero. But in fantasy, which, instead of imitating the perceived confusion and complexity of existence, tries to hint at an order and clarity underlying existence - in fantasy, we need not compromise. Every word spoken is meaningful, though the meaning be subtle."
LeGuin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ultramarine Publishing, 1980. Print.
It doesn't mean that your characters must be archetypes, but that it's not necessary to lampshade, because a reader will not kneejerk object, on "that's not plausible!" leaders will truly be
lordly and warriors will be honourable. Of course, LeGuin wrote this in 1980, thirty years ago, but a lot of the points she makes are very interesting. If the text is accessible from your part of the world, give it a shot! (Especially since this is mostly paraphrase).
Now: as for Uther
. In a lot of ways, this book swung inconsistently between what I think of as idealized- and realistic-leaning fiction. This isn't a value judgement, nor am I trying to imply that the realism must be grimdark and the fantasy must gloss over physicality. The idealized works are often in secondary worlds (like immersive fantasy, or portal-quest ones). Lord of the Rings. For realism, think contemporary, I guess. I put Pride and Prejudice
in the realism category, but Wuthering Heights
in the former category, for the whole Gothic romance bit. I find that this divides down genre lines mostly; for example, a lot of historical fiction I read is of the realism category, but a lot of Regency novels are in an idealized world.
Firstly, the setting clashed with the characters. The novel opens with Veronica, Uther's mother, coming unexpectedly upon a scene where prisoners are being burned alive by the inhabitants of the town she's going to live in. (She's Roman). This is generally quite the grim scene setting. And yet - the characters! There's his grandfather, who is noble and incredibly understanding of young Uther, though as far as I can see Uther is just secretive and insular and no wonder everyone laughs at him for trying (and failing) to bash open a giant piece of coal with a knife; the fact that Uther's grandfather can divine Uther's intention to smash the coal was a weird contrast. Uther's grandfather then goes on to tell the council that they oughtn't have laughed, and reveals to them what Uther meant - about breaking open at fractures, applying it metaphorically. Then there's the Champion, who forgoes an assignation to help a little boy who got beat up, which, lovely, but he doesn't get much characterization otherwise! Merlin drops out of the story some midway through and the thread doesn't get picked up again. Uther has a brief affair with the wife of a diplomat and they meet again and nothing is picked up again
Mostly though I had major issues with Nemo, who is a girl ("no name") running away from home because of really bad conditions there. She becomes utterly, fanatically obsessed with Uther, follows him around, keeps tabs on him (that's how we know about the coal-breaking incident; it's narrated by an omniscient POV but one who is clearly seeing through Nemo's eyes [though not her voice] as she is in the rafters spying). Nemo goes so far as to join his warband, though she's the only woman and to the point that the men cease even seeing her as a girl. AND THEN THAT'S IT. She's introduced early, and then NOTHING HAPPENS, except that she gets in trouble that once in the town (demonstrating her seriously misplaced loyalty for Uther and picking a fight).
What? What? This made me so mad. Characters basically enter Uther's life and they leave and that's it! Like the protagonist of the Templar Knights book, Standard of Honour
off-screen and the second protagonist goes on! Where is the follow-up? I felt cheated out of several character arcs. I am always game for a realism/historical-accuracy retelling of anything, because I love history, but this just shortchanged me; characters move through a parody of changing and then they freeze and don't keep changing, even though the narrative continues.
*Poughkeepsie, a place in New York State; fantasy to real, from the other to the mundane. (I had to look that up)..
[Hm, I guess I didn't really talk about symmetry that much. Another post, then.]