Have I mentioned lately that I love books? Probably, but I’ll say it again. As much as I enjoy visual media, books will always have my heart before all else. So, when I got the chance to meet science fiction/fantasy writer Nisi Shawl at WisCon, one of my personal writing icons, I jumped at it. And then I asked to interview her about her writing, her novel Everfair (if you haven’t read it yet, GO DO IT), and her work with “Writing the Other.” Even if you haven’t read any of my other Creator Corner series of interviews, you have to read this one. And then go buy Everfair. (It’s SO GOOD, you guys.)
Gretchen: You’ve been published for almost thirty years now, so tell me, what inspired you to start writing science fiction and fantasy stories? Were they genres you grew up reading?
Nisi Shawl: I absolutely grew up reading SF and fantasy. Of course fairy stories are standard for children, and I blew through as many of those as I could—I remember hunting down Andrew Lang’s collections, for instance. Mary Norton’s Borrowers series was a distinct comfort, and Tatsinda, by Elizabeth Enright, influenced me deeply. (It’s a sort of Lost Race narrative taking place at the North Pole.) There was also a great series of books about Spacecat—an astronaut brings his pet to the moon, and to Mars, and so on. I recently bought a Spacecat t-shirt, which I wear with great pride. And of course I adored Eleanor Cameron’s series about a backyard inventor, a hidden twin Earth, and adventurous boys, which begins with The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet.
In 6th grade I convinced the librarians downtown to let me read from the adult stacks, so I graduated then from the juveniles to SF and F by Clifford Simak, Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury, and many other geniuses. Pretty much all of them were white cis het males in the early 1960s, the time I’m talking about. I didn’t let that stop me from living on them.
So when I began to write my own stories, they were speculative fiction, too. Of course. Starting with the postapocalyptic teen romance story I penned at 15. I have no idea where that ms. is, by the way, but I’m not worried by the loss. It was probably just awful. In college I wrote and actually submitted a fantasy about fornicating centaurs. That one, too, is blessedly missing.
G: You are probably best known for Writing the Other, which you co-authored with Cynthia Ward, and the workshops you and your team offer for writing diverse, inclusive fiction. How did that come about?
NS: There’s an account up at the publisher’s website that I’ll refer you to as far as the genesis of the original book and class. Later classes and essays are refinements on that work, and extensions of it, and they are based on student and reader feedback.
G: Have you faced any challenges or pushback in the process of creating the Writing the Other workshops? What have been the greatest rewards thus far?
NS: No one has doxxed me yet or issued death threats. There is a general, overall dislike and distrust in some literary circles of the use of sensitivity readers and the idea of paying attention to representation. A few proponents of the #OwnVoices philosophy have somehow concluded that we who advocate Writing the Other are a.) targeting the use of its techniques solely for white people and/or b.) opposed to the #OwnVoices movement. No one who has taken a Writing the Other class is under either of those erroneous impressions.
They say the sincerest form of flattery is imitation, and I’ve occasionally been flattered in that form. At one point, Cindy Ward (my Writing the Other co-author) copyrighted the phrase “Writing the Other” to help stem the flattering flood. But that’s somewhat counterproductive, as we’ve come to see—we *want* people to talk about this subject on panels and write articles about it and so on. Only, as I’ve told one person who was editorializing on Writing the Other, it would be nice to get credit for my two decades of work in this arena.
The most rewarding results by far are the many books and stories created by our students with the tools and techniques the class gives them.
G: Have your experiences as a black woman shaped the stories that you want to tell and your pedagogy in teaching others how best to represent marginalized communities in their own writing?
NS: Yes indeed! At least, I think so—I haven’t always been a woman (I was a girl for a few years), but I’ve always been black, so no idea what my stories and pedagogy would be like otherwise. But I draw directly on my experiences in both my writing and my teaching. “Wallamelon” (originally printed in Asimov’s SF Magazine and subsequently collected in Filter House) is set in my old neighborhood. One Writing the Other lecture cites an encounter I had while apartment hunting, and others are similarly grounded.
We writers tell ourselves “It’s all material” when undergoing a hardship or “interesting” experience. It’s all going to inform what we create. Getting my hair chemically straightened, getting beat up for “talking white,” getting cast as a black cat rather than the female lead in a youth theater production—it’s all material.
G: You also write your own fiction, primarily short stories. Are there any consistent themes or story elements that run through all of your work?
Themes are things readers find, not things authors insert. I’ve been told my work focuses on ecology, that it’s closely concerned with gender and race, and that it’s decidedly pacifist in its take on the world. Several people I respect say the element of voice is important in my fiction—that my characters’ multiplicity of dictions and rhythms and referents defines it.
What I care about is community. That is probably evident in my work as well.
G: Who have been your greatest inspirations, whether as a writer or as a teacher?
As I writer I will always point to four people who have helped me immensely. Two nongenre authors whose craft in the area of description I turn to again and again are Raymond Chandler and Colette. Both write so vividly of inanimate objects and settings that these take on all the life and unforgettableness of active characters. Two genre authors I rely on are Samuel R. Delany and Connie Willis. Delany does everything I want to do, and I’m constantly analyzing his style, his word choices, his pacing, his honesty, his granularity of vision, his prioritizing—and more. Connie Willis has taught me so much about the value of misdirection in with her writing. Her dialogue is a treat and a study.
Additionally, Eileen Gunn has learned me a few things about humor and audacity. Octavia Butler’s whole life was a lesson in graciousness.
My teaching inspiration will probably surprise you: I’m very conscious of the debt I owe performance artist Laurie Anderson. Really. Teaching is a performance. Most rock stars and actors contribute something to my practice as a teacher.
G: With Black Panther getting high praise for depicting an alternate history to colonized Africa, tell me a bit more about your own alternate history of Belgian Congo, Everfair. What was your inspiration for this story?
NS: I was inspired by my dislike of steampunk. I tell the whole story over on John Scalzi’s blog, “Whatever” (my contribution is available here). Basically, I had to appear on a World Fantasy convention steampunk panel, which led me to question my revulsion for the genre. During the panel I challenged myself to write a steampunk novel set in the midst of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Then I figured out how to do it.
As I wrote, I researched, and as I researched, I found more and more inspiration. The history of the Chinese railway workers Leopold imported gave rise to Tink and Bee-Lung, who’ll also now be viewpoint characters in Everfair’s sequel, Kinning. A photo of an outrageous Congolese hat led to the scene in which his headgear helps Matty fend off an assassination attempt. And so on.
G: The novel features several queer women as main characters, and they’re far from perfect or even entirely positive. Why, to you, is it important that characters of marginalized identities are allowed to be flawed?
NS: So if inclusiveness is going to reflect the world we live in, it needs to do that authentically. It needs to represent human stupidity, stubbornness, greed, and all our other regrettable qualities. Fully human beings have these qualities to greater and lesser degrees, and depicting marginalized characters as lacking them reduces such depictions to caricatures. We must insist on rounded and complete characters when including those identified with the margins, just as we insist on roundedness and completeness in characters identified with the dominant center.
G: I’ve been loving all the Afrofuturist stories I see coming out these days—Black Panther, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series and Who Fears Death, Janelle Monáe, N. K. Jemisin, and Octavia Butler spring to mind. What do you see is the primary importance of Afrofuturism in science fiction?
NS: The importance of Afrofuturism is two-fold. First, it shows African and Afrodiasporic readers and writers that representation within the genre is possible and powerful, that it not only exists but that it is a force to be reckoned with. Second, it shows everyone else the same thing. I am 100% certain that I owe the willingness of Tor to contract for an Everfair sequel to Black Panther’s success.
G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?
NS: So much! I just turned in revisions on a short story I’m hoping will appear in the special Disabled People Destroy SF issue of Uncanny Magazine. The story is called “The Things I Miss the Most,” and it’s about an epilepsy patient whose successful therapy has unintended consequences.
Next, I’m focusing on revisions to my Middle Grade novel Speculation, which Lee & Low are publishing next year. My great editor, Cheryl Klein, describes it as Toni Morrison’s Beloved as by Edward Eager, and I’m cool with that description. Simultaneously, I’ll be sending out edits to contributors to an anthology I’m editing for Solaris Books. That’s called New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, and it is fantastic! Seventeen stories, and an introduction by LeVar Burton. I posted the TOC some time ago, and it includes big names like Steven Barnes and Hiromi Goto, and newcomers like Alex Jennings and Darcie Little Badger.
But wait! There’s more! I’m about 65% done with a novella I’m writing for Rosarium, a sort of retelling of Jack Kerouac’s three-month affair with a black woman known in his books as Mardou Fox. And if there’s going to be a sequel to Everfair called Kinning, I better write it. I mean, I have an outline, but there’s gotta be more than that if I want my readers satisfied. My current plan is to swap viewpoints between two sets. First there’s Tink and his sister Bee-Lung sailing an aircanoe around the world, spreading the spores of anarchism. Then there’s Princess Mwadi and her brother Prince Ilunga, struggling over the succession for the rulership of Everfair.
If I have time, there are a couple of short stories I have promised to write too.
G: Anything else you want to share with us before we go?
NS: A cup of tea? I make my own blends…Okay, seriously, there are a couple of fundraisers going on currently which I’m involved with. One is in honor of Octavia E. Butler’s 71st birthday, to solicit donations for the Carl Brandon Society (CBS). Octavia was a CBS member, and we administer a scholarship in her name, and present a literary award linked to her legacy. More details are available on the CBS website. That fundraiser runs June 22 – July 22, 2018. The other is Clarion West’s annual Write-a-thon. I attended CW in 1992, and I’m participating in the Wat, which you can learn about here.
And with that, I bid you all a fond adieu. Stay strong. Stay loving. Stay true.
Nisi Shawl wrote the AfroRetroFuturist novel Everfair, a Nebula Award finalist set in an imaginary Utopia in the Congo; and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award-winning story collection Filter House. Tor.com invited her to expand her “Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction” essay into a monthly column, and she is obliging. She co-edited the anthologies Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany; and Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler. Shawl lives in Seattle, taking walks with her mother June and her cat Minnie at the pace of an entitled feline.
You can find Nisi Shawl on her website and Patreon. To find out more about her work with Writing the Other, visit: http://writingtheother.com/. Make sure you also check out her Tor.com column and Seattle review of Books column!
Images Courtesy of Aqueduct Press, Tor Books, and Caren Corley
The Tower of Cirith Ungol
“The Tower of Cirith Ungol” shares an unenviable position with “The Taming of Smeagol” and “Minas Tirith” as book openers. They are all responsible for taking a narrative speeding along at full steam, halting it in its tracks, rewinding, and starting something else. It’s a necessity for how Tolkien chose to structure his story but a tricky business, particularly after the strength of Book V. “The Taming of Smeagol” and “Minas Tirith” managed to overcome the disadvantages their positions by introducing a new, immediate dynamism. Smeagol and Gondor reorient both stories, creating near-immediate newness and momentum that propel their books forward. “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” doesn’t do this—we’re at the point for tying up loose ends, not creating them.
That’s for the best, but it does mean that “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” drags a bit as an opener. It’s not bad, by any means—we’ll get to the good stuff in a bit—but it does have a tendency to rehash older thematic and emotional beats that were conveyed more emphatically in “Shelob’s Lair” and “The Choices of Master Samwise.” Sam’s horror at what’s happening is affective, but not new. Evil sowing the seeds of its own destruction is a solid Tolkien theme. But its articulation here—as Shagrat and Gorbag tear each other apart, leaving a clear path for Sam—is more convenient and less potent than in an established, nuanced character like Saruman. And the reminder that Mordor keeps people in rather than out is an ominous one, but again, nothing new.
That said, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” does have some moments that work really well, and it serves as a nice, tender reminder of how kind Tolkien’s sense of heroism is at its heart.
Visions of Power
“The Tower of Cirith Ungol” is one of the loneliest chapters of The Lord of the Rings. Sam spends the first two-thirds of it, as Tolkien tells us, “utterly alone.” Merry and Pippin have flirted with loneliness earlier in The Return of the King but neither were ever really in a position of comparable isolation. Sam starts off Book VI by walking into Mordor by himself. His panic-induced adrenaline has worn off, and he first catches a glimpse of Mount Doom while standing small, cold, and afraid.
Tolkien repeatedly referred to Sam as the central “hero” of The Lord of the Rings throughout his letters and “The Tower of Cirith Ungol” is right in the middle of the chapters where he most explicitly acts out this role. He just maybe-murdered a giant spider of numinous darkness. He’s storming a presumably orc-ridden tower. He’s about to carry Frodo and the Ring up a mountain. And amid all of this, there’s an interesting examination of what Sam’s heroism is and isn’t. First, there is simply the question of power, as Sam faces his main temptation from the Ring around his neck.
As Sam stood there… he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor. He felt that he had from now on only two choices: for forbear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it; and to challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit.
As in other cases, Sam’s rejection of the Ring requires a voluntary abdication of power, even power with the intention to do good. Gandalf, as Tolkien mentioned, would have been far worse as a master of the Ring than Sauron precisely because of his good intentions. Sam—thanks to that solid hobbit common sense—is able to realize that benevolent garden tyranny is still a tyranny of its own.
The interesting thing about this chapter, though, is that Sam is also repeatedly saved by the power that he abdicates. He knows that “the one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm.” But at the same time, he is also saved in the Tower by the Ring’s transformation of his appearance into “a great silent shape, cloaked in a grey shadow, looming against the wavering light behind; in one hand it held a sword, the very light of which was a bitter pain, the other was clutched at its breast, but held concealed some nameless menace of power and doom.”
There is a sense of tension present throughout The Lord of the Rings around this question. The peace and simplicity of the Shire, its utter disregard for power and conquest, form the core of hobbit courage. But the question of how—and whether—such things can be maintained without force nearly always bubbles below the surface.
Tenderness and Heroism
Yet despite altered appearances and some surprising handiness in spider fights, Sam’s heroism is of course rooted almost entirely in love. When I read Tolkien as a teenager, I was always aware of a strong contingent of shippers who were deeply invested in the idea of Frodo and Sam being a couple. I doubt this was intentional on Tolkien’s part, if for no other reason than because The Lord of the Rings as a whole is a remarkably asexual work. But I also am not surprised by it in the slightest, because the relationship between Frodo and Sam is intimate and tender in a way that feels unique in the depiction of male fantasy heroes. There is hand-holding, spooning, and so many tears!
He lay back in Sam’s gentle arms, closing his eyes, like a child at rest when the night-fears are driven away by some loved voice or hand. Sam felt that he could sit like that in endless happiness; but it was not allowed.
It’s such a non-toxic version of masculinity that—from my perspective—feels very refreshing. Touch and affection are embraced as healing and strengthening. Tears are a mark of empathy and not of weakness. Sam couldn’t quite pop up on Steven Universe, but it’s also not that much of a stretch.
But now the vision had passed. There was Sam kneeling before him, his face wrung with pain, as if he had been stabbed in the heart; tears welled from his eyes.
After his more traditional heroic role in “The Choices of Master Samwise,” Sam here is heroic in the inverse. He sings, he cries, he hugs, he doesn’t fight anyone. I do wonder, to a certain extent, if Tolkien manages to be so old in his views here that he feels new. In any case, it does feel like another indication of the wobbly foundation for claiming Tolkien as the grandfather of modern fantasy. It’s hard for me to think of subsequent fantasy author who treats emotion in anything approaching a comparable way.
- The first paragraph I wrote for this review described the chapter as “rocky.” It occurred to me that this could be read as a pun in relationship to the landscape, and that seemed so terrible—lampshaded or not—that I just deleted the entire paragraph and started over.
- I’ve always been really into the Watchers and I’d forgotten how small a role they actually play. I apparently just had a thing for frightening boundaries as a child, between this and the Sphinx Gate from The Neverending Story.
- As a kid I also made up a melody for Sam’s song in Cirith Ungol and would sing it to myself when I was by myself because I was a neeeeerrrrrrrddddd.
- I like that Ring-ravaged Frodo is often indistinguishable from a nihilistically-depressed millennial on tumblr: “Here, take this elven-cake, and drink that last drop in your bottle! The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it’s not good worrying about tomorrow. It probably won’t come.”
- Was momentarily but deeply baffled to discover Tolkien talking about the orcs “fighting over the swag” in Cirith Ungol. Swag, though, has a long and fun etymological history you can start reading about here. The use here probably comes from 17th century English thieves’ cant.
- Poor Frodo. He tells Sam that “two great brutes came and questioned me, questioned me until I thought I should go mad, standing over me, gloating, fingering their knives. I’ll never forget their claws and eyes.” Sam, who believes in the power of tears but not psychotherapy, tells his best friend to lock that shit up in his mind vault and never think or talk about it again. No wonder Frodo has to sail off the face of the earth away from his problems.
- Prose Prize: Not a highlight for prose, to be honest. Everything’s perfectly fine but there aren’t a lot of standouts. I do quite like the ending of the chapter though. The drama of what’s occurring pairs nicely with a simplicity of prose. The will of the Watchers was broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord, and Frodo and Sam stumbled forward. Then they ran. Through the gate and past the great seated figures with their glittering eyes. There was a crack. The keystone of the arch crashed almost on their heels, and the wall above crumbled, and fell in ruin. Only by a hair did they escape. A bell clanged; and from the Watchers there went up a high and dreadful wail. Far up above in the darkness it was answered. Out of the black sky there came dropping like a bolt a winged shape, rending the clouds with a ghastly shriek.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Tolkien does it for me this time! He mentions that it is March 14th, just a bit before the Rohirrim arrive at the Pelannor. By the time they leave Cirith Ungol, the Battle of Pelennor Fields is well under way. As with the beginnings of the other books, Tolkien does make some (at least token) efforts to reorient the reader to the new narrative stream.
Art Credits: Film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. The painting of Sam approaching Cirith Ungol is courtesy of aegeri.
Politics in Polgara the Sorceress
Only two of the books in this series list both David and Leigh Eddings as co-authors. It’s fitting that they are Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress. This duology shows the way that POV shapes history and politics. The 1997 Polgara the Sorceress wraps up the entire series. It showcases the moments Belgarath wasn’t there for and the hidden moments where he was. This book is a fitting conclusion to their longest collaboration, and to their own hidden metaphor.
Spoilers for all of Polgara the Sorceress and the Eddings’s previous works.
So, What Happened?
Birth to Beldaran’s Death
Polgara starts with Ce’Nedra and Garion’s arrival at Polgara and Durnik’s farm. Ce’Nedra asks Polgara to tell her side of the story, and Polgara refuses. Ce’Nedra manages to manipulate Poledra into thinking it’s for Geran and the future to know ‘the truth’. Poledra then manages to convince Polgara that it’s a worthwhile task.
Polgara’s biography starts before Poledra gives birth. Poledra and Aldur shape Pol and Beldaran’s brains to better suit them for their tasks. Then, it details Pol’s grudge against Belgarath, and her adoration of Beldaran. When Belgarath arranges Riva and Beldaran’s wedding, Polgara protests and goes to live in the Tree for a time. They arrive at Riva, Polgara ‘pretties up’, and starts playing adolescent games with young courtiers.
After Beldaran’s wedding, Poledra and Belgarath educate Polgara in magic separately. When they return to Riva for Beldaran’s son’s birth, she also learns about medicine. After Daran’s birth Polgara and Beldaran go visit the Mrin and Darine prophets. Eventually, Poledra summons Polgara to Riva, because Beldaran was dying. Polgara can’t save her because the priest of Belar sabotaged any attempt to give Beldaran medicine. He’s a member of the Bear Cult. Belgarath puts Polgara and Daran in charge and leaves. Polgara and Daran accuse the priest of witchcraft and eventually exile the members of the cult. Eventually, she returns to the Vale of Aldur, and studies the prophecies for several centuries.
Arendia to Vo Mimbre
Poledra summons Polgara to Arendia, and tells her that Ctuchik was planning something. Polgara proceeds to stop three Murgo plots. She tells the Duke of Waconia that his advisor is a Grolim. The Duke of Asturia proves incompetent, and she initiates a rebellion against them. She then collaborates with one of Mandorallan’s ancestor’s. They prove to the Duke of Mimbre that the supposed ‘Tolnedran Legion’ on his banks is a fake.
She remains in Arendia for the next several decades. Polgara rescues the son of the Wacite Duke from the nephew of the first Asturian Duke. The three Dukes then give her the Duchy of Erat, which then becomes Sendaria. Polgara spends a great deal of time guiding Sendaria into competency. A tournament to name the Duchess of Erat’s champion leads her to Ontrose. Ontrose is the only man Polgara loves before Durnik. He’s the quintessential knight: intelligent, sensitive, powerful, and handsome. Eventually, Ontrose’s friend betrays Erat and Wacune to the Asturians, and they destroy Vo Wacune.
Belgarath drags her back to the Vale to keep her from fighting. However, she works through factors to protect Erat, the survivors of Waconia. For the next several centuries she protects Erat, as it becomes Sendaria, bartering with Tolnedran Emperors and Alorn Kings to keep it free.
This persists until the death of Gorek, whereupon she takes charge of protecting Geran and the line of the Rivan King. She apprentices various heirs to artisans, and then eventually buys out the shop of their childless teacher. They occasionally flee from Murgos and move around Sendaria and Aloria. Then comes the Battle of Vo Mimbre, which progresses as Belgarath described it. Poledra and Polgara spy upon Torak and Zedar in the form of an owl. Poledra helps Polgara defy him when Torak confronts Brand.
Gelane to Garion
From Vo Mimre, Polgara resumes her task of protecting the Rivan heirs. Gelane, the heir during Vo Mimbre, proves slightly troublesome. He knows who he is, and Chamdar, or Asharak the Murgo, finds him, and controls him. Belgarath and Polgara break this control and move the family away from Sendaria.
Things continue peaceably from there, with Polgara making a side trip to Nyissa at one point. She meets a former Salmissra, and prevents Chamdar and Ctuchik from manipulating her into causing problems. After educating and befriending ‘Sally’, Polgara returns and moves the Line to Annath, where Garion will be born. There’s a short trip to Nadrak, where she meets Yarblek and Drosta, when Poledra realizes that they’ll be significant.
Geran and Ildera, Garion’s parents, meet and get married in the usual fashion. Then tragedy strikes. Darrel, Geran’s father, is killed in a rockslide. His wife forgets that he’s dead, her mental health deteriorates, and Polgara and Ildera care for her. They later discover that Asharak engineered both events, as well as Alara’s madness. Alara wanders off on Erastide, and Polgara goes to find her. Ildera gives birth, and Asharak kills Geran and Ildera. Only Belgarath’s timely arrival prevents him from stealing Garion. Polgara heads to Faldor’s farm and establishes herself there.
The epilogue shows the life of Geran, Garion’s son, one winter in Riva. He plays with his baby sister, and Ce’Nedra reads to him from Polgara’s book. Ce’Nedra then fully realizes the impact that magic had on her life as she puts her son to bed.
Women vs. Women
One of the persistent problems in Polgara the Sorceress is how women are pitted against each other. Their relationships prove adversarial, except for sisters, mothers, or mentors.
Even then, Polgara spends a good portion of her childhood trying to be ugly. She never combs her hair, bathes, or changes clothes unless forced. Polgara rationalizes it by saying, “Beldaran and I were twins, and we should have been identical. The master changed that, however.” (p. 28). Polgara compares herself to Beldaran and finds herself wanting. Only when Beldaran and Riva fall in love does Polgara clean herself up. She looks at Beldaran when she enters and thinks, “I’d rather hoped to see just a twinge of envy there.” (p. 59) Beldaran remains nonplussed, to Polgara’s mild disappointment.
The precedent of comparing women to other women based on looks and pitting them against each other continues. At Riva, Polgara joins the other young courtiers and sets about breaking hearts. She captures the attention of all the young men based on her looks. Polgara remarks that, “quite a few of the ladies pled headaches and quietly left the room. It might have been my imagination, but after they left I seemed to hear a gnawing sound — a sound that was remarkably like the sound of someone eating her own liver.” (p. 70). She enjoys the pain she causes other women because of her conquests.
The competition between women continues even between Olane and Alara, Geran and Ildara’s mothers. The wedding planning devolves into one-upmanship between the two. Women can compete against each other, yes, and they frequently do. The fact that only the sparse mentoring and familial relationships remain free of competition makes this problematic.
Men vs. Women
Another thread in this book shows how men try to force women to submit. Polgara rebels against this, of course, and tries to help other women, but it proves slightly outdated in this respect. At Beldaran’s wedding Polgara notices something. “I idly noticed in passing that all the rights fell to the groom, and the duties and obligations were the bride’s domain.” (p. 85). This thread of spousal submission continues in the book’s discussion of spousal abuse.
After Beldaran’s death, Polgara helps Daran try a case where the husband abused his wife. The families quarreled over some land. Daran dissolves the marriage and then punishes the husband further by whipping him in court. When Polgara leads Erat, she establishes laws that harshly punish spousal abuse.
“A man who’s stupid enough to beat his wife isn’t likely to listen to reason, so I instructed the constable of each village to ‘persuade’ wife beaters to find another hobby. I did urge the constables not to break too many bones in the process however.” (p. 358).
While abusers seldom listen to reason, removing the victim from the range of the abuser would be better. Polgara created schools, hospitals, and an informal lady’s academy. She could easily create a system to remove the victims from their abuser’s reach rather than leave them at the continued mercy of their husband.
Men vs. Polgara
Polgara just notes these events in passing. She dwells more on the instances where men attempt to personally control her. Lathan, the man who betrays Erat and Wacune to Asturia, committed treason because he couldn’t possess Polgara. He hoped to beat Ontrose and be her champion. As Polgara says, “Arendish literature positively swarms with improprieties involving highborn ladies and their bodyguards, and Lathan seemed to be well read.” (p. 362). His loss to Ontrose led him to betray Wacune and Erat.
Torak also desires to control Polgara. When Poledra and Polgara spied on Torak and Zedar before the battle, they learned of Torak’s plans.
“She is not fond of me, but, truly, I shall much enjoy bending her to my will. She will obey me—nay, even worship me. … My brothers have cast me out, so now must I father a new race of Gods to assist me in my domination of the world. Who of all the women of this world is fit to share my throne—and my bed?’ ‘Polgara?’ Zedar asked incredulously. … “I will have Polgara to wife, and will she, nil she, Polgara will be mine.” (p. 563).
Torak wants to possess both the Orb of Aldur and Polgara. The Eddings’s frame the two in the same light. Torak with the Orb would control the Purpose of the Universe. With Polgara, he would further disrupt that purpose.
The Eddings’s use of gender politics showcases the biases when they wrote. They recognize the evil in spousal abuse and the submission Torak wants. But they don’t understand, or properly convey, the strength that women can give each other. It’s to their credit that they address these issues, and I strongly suspect Leigh’s hand in it. But time has outstripped their understanding in the past 21 years.
Politics, Economics, and Our Metaphor
We discover Polgara’s enjoyment of politics in Polgara the Sorceress. She attended the first meeting of the Alorn Council and established the Arendish one. Both of these events occur because of pressure by the Murgos and Grolims. The arrival of the Murgos, Nadraks, and Thulls on the Western Continent precipitated the Alorn Council. Polgara’s foiling Ctuchik’s plots in Arendia led to the second.
The Alorn Council grows into a pseudo-United Nations, and it began with the intent of preventing Angarak influence in the West. The parallels between the Cold War barely need to be drawn. It reads as the Red Scare all over again, except with less cause. With the Arendish Council, it’s more along the lines of the Middle Eastern Cold War-era conflicts. The guerilla warfare fits Arendia better than the political machinations in the United Nations. Also because the Arendish Council dissolved after Haldon’s betrayal.
Another aspect of politics in Polgara the Sorceress lies in duty. After Gelane’s seduction by Asharak, Polgara gave him a lecture. “There are two sides to nobility, Gelane. Most people only see the fine houses, the fancy clothes, and all the bowing and scraping by lesser nobles. The other side’s more important, though, and much simpler. Duty, Gelane, duty.” (p. 631-2). Polgara teaches Gelane that lesson because it proves the most important one to the Cold War. The politicians refocused on preventing nuclear war and considered that more important than everything else. Polgara’s treatise on duty to Gelane keeps him and his family safe, and it leads to Garion and the end of the cycles.
Polgara the Sorceress also showcases the only example of unrestrained capitalism in the entire series. We saw it through metaphor. But now, in her stewardship of the Rivan line and her shepherding Sendaria, we see it firsthand. She lectures Ontrose, and he repeats her lesson, economics 101, back to her.
“For certes now can [the emancipated serfs] purchase such goods as previously were beyond them quite. The merchant class prospers, and their share of the tax burden doth lighten the load borne by the landowners, thy vassals. The prosperity of the former serf is the base upon which the economy of the entire kingdom doth stand.” (p. 364)
Polgara spends centuries hammering that principle into the heads of her vassals. That shapes the national character of Sendaria and ensures it’s prosperity. Despite the archaic speech, it speaks truth in linking the economy on the spending of the masses, rather than the hoards of the wealthy. The fact that Polgara’s economics leads to a healthy Sendaria, the most sensible country, furthers the metaphor.
In addition, Polgara threatens to create a mall to some vulture-like merchants after the death of a Rivan heir. “Then, when the new widow is virtually out of her mind with grief, they make ridiculously low offers for the family business. … I told them quite casually … I was seriously thinking about expanding the business. … They wouldn’t have to spend whole days wandering around town to buy what they needed. … [they] bought me out at about three times what the smithy was worth.” (p. 520). In doing this, the Eddings’s take what’s normal to their audiences, a mall. Then, they insert it into their fantasy world, and in doing so, normalize the conditions and systems that create such things.
At the very end of Polgara the Sorceress, we discover that Geran dreams about Zandramas and remains terrified of her. It shows the very slow steps out of institutionalized fear of the enemy. Geran thinks, “if he refused to think about them, they’d go away entirely.” (p. 745). All of this plays into the final metaphor, because now the cycles are over. They just need to ignore the nightmares, and it’ll all go away.
The end of Polgara’s story undercuts that, however. Her history ends with Belgarath, Garion, and herself at Faldor’s farm, hiding from Asharak. The Eddings’s later pointed out that Polgara completed a literary cycle. You can go straight from Polgara to Pawn of Prophecy. This proves especially ironic because their entire metaphor counted on the breaking of cycles.
The entirety of this book, and this series relates in so many ways to its cultural context. No one could not write this now, because the events that underlie the plot and philosophy of the book. Despite the undercutting via the literary cycle, the metaphorical one is complete.
Image Courtesy of Del Rey Books
An introduction to Goblin Emperor
This week, I received some interesting news. A book I’d thought to be a rare standalone fantasy work will be receiving a sequel! I am talking about Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. The sequel is still a long ways off… but it’s also a good opportunity to introduce this book to our readers.
An unlikely Emperor
The titular “goblin emperor” is our protagonist, by the name of Maia. He is, in fact, half-goblin… which brings us to the first peculiarity of the setting. It takes place in Ethuveraz, also known as elflands, an elven empire. Maia is the son of the previous emperor, but his mother was a goblin.
Unlike in most fantasy, though, goblins and elves differ physically about as much as different human ethnicities. Goblins have dark skin, where elves are pale, and their eyes have different colors, but that’s about it. They can mix freely, with many people of mixed heritage appearing all over. Needless to say, political and ethnic tensions happen and in fact play a major part of the story.
When we meet Maia, he’s living in Edonomee, a manor in the middle of nowhere, where his father, Varenechibel IV, had placed him. You see, while a son of the Emperor and thus technically an heir to the throne, Maia wasn’t exactly his father’s favorite. His father married Chenelo, Maia’s mother and the daughter of the goblin ruler, for political convenience and wanted little to do with her afterwards.
When she died, Maia remained in a nigh-empty manor with only a handful of servants and Maia’s abusive, alcoholic cousin (whose placement there was a punishment) to look after him. Maia met his father exactly once, at his mother’s funeral, at which point the emperor remarked that “the whelp looks just like his mother.” Let’s just take a moment to pity poor Maia.
That is, until His Imperial Serenity Varenechibel IV and his three sons die in an airship crash leaving the half-goblin son he barely acknowledged as the sole heir to the throne. Maia is suddenly torn away from his dreary, unhappy home and thrust into the robes of the emperor, despite having no clue whatsoever what it involves.
Indeed, Maia is as clueless as we are about the workings of the Ethuveraz when we begin the story. His father’s concern for his education was even less than his concern for Maia in general. Ending up in a position you have no idea how to fulfill is stressful for anyone anywhere, and poor Maia’s sudden position is that of an emperor. Of an empire that’s not any nicer than empires generally are.
A very thick setting
This is unfortunately where the book’s first flaw comes in. We are introduced to many facts about the Ethuveraz at a break-neck pace. This puts us in the same state of acute confusion Maia is, although of course we don’t get his crushing anxiety, near-constant state of at least mild panic, and a deep wish he were anywhere else. This is realistic, but from a reader’s perspective feels a bit like cramming for a history exam the day before. The names of the people, their titles, the buildings, and the functions all blur together.
Of course, litanies of excessive world-building aren’t exactly an uncommon thing in fantasy, are they? And here at least we have a protagonist as ignorant as we are, so we learn at his pace. Which is considerable. Maia is a clever kid, but this is just too much for him.
But what do we find out as we explore the elven empire with Maia? As I said, it’s not a particularly nice place. It’s rife with social inequity – from the rich, ambitious noble houses to the masses of laborers breaking their backs to support them. It’s deeply patriarchal – a woman is her husband’s property in all but name. Finally, it’s racist – goblins and people with goblin heritage are looked down upon as barbarians.
A somewhat unusual feature of the setting is that it’s industrial. Ethuveraz is full of somewhat steampunk technology, such as the airships. There’s also some sophisticated clockwork contraptions – a fairly major plot in the books is an attempt to build a collapsible bridge. Unfortunately, it also means that the condition in factories and workshops are inhuman… or is it inelven?
Needless to say, the ascension of a half-goblin kid to the throne shakes things up considerably. Maia is ignorant, of course, but he is also not sheltered by the massive wealth and privilege that the noble houses live in. Moreover, he is simply a good, kind person. He wants to be friends with people around him, but unfortunately, to them he’s the emperor now.
Once Maia realizes that he can’t be friends with people around him, though, he never stops thinking in ways that are largely alien to the imperial court. To the highborn, the servants, workers, and commoners are background at best. They enable their lavish lifestyle and political ambitious but deserve no further consideration. Not so with Maia. He sees them as people, which shakes things up more than anyone expects.
I should note here that the message and atmosphere of the book are ultimately optimistic. While Maia goes through many hardships and his attempts at doing good often don’t work, eventually they do. While I obviously won’t go into detail about how it happens, it’s something to remember. Maia is a good and caring person who ends up in the center of a system of privilege, oppression, and tradition. He’s not going to upend it in a day, but he works to face it on his terms.
No humans in evidence
You may have noticed that while I’ve mentioned elves and goblins, I haven’t mentioned humans. That’s because there are none. There’s some mention of another race of people who don’t seem to be elves or goblins, but they apparently have sharp teeth, so they don’t exactly sound human.
You might wonder, why even have elves and goblins if they might as well be just human ethnicities? I think it does add some flavor to the story, myself. It’s a way for us to realize it’s not quite what we’re used to. One feature both elves and goblins display is their expressive ears. They’re described as moving to display their owners’ emotions, such as lying flat on their heads if they’re upset or distressed.
If it’s fantasy, you may ask, is there any magic? There is, but it occupies a curious role, a minor one. There are people who we’d call wizards, but in the book’s copious internal glossary they’re referred to as “mazei.” They do cast spells, but we only ever see one spell, with another one happening off-screen. Nonetheless, one of the emperor’s two bodyguards is a magician (the other one is a soldier). The emperor has four bodyguards, actually, but they take shifts. Two of them must attend him at all times. Including when he sleeps. Or, yes, when he consummates his marriage with his empress. If this sounds incredibly awkward to you, just imagine how Maia feels about the prospect.
Much more important to the plot is the ability to speak with the dead, which a priest of the god of the dead displays. It’s not exactly reliable, but enough so that his visions are legal testimonies (even in one case where he really wishes they weren’t). Does it mean the gods the elves and goblins worship are real? We don’t really get to find out.
Goblin Emperor shows us a fantasy world and a great empire, warts and all. It’s the story of how someone everyone thought was the worst possible person in the worst possible place turned out to be the right person for the job after all. What will the sequel show us? It will apparently take place during Maia’s reign, but he won’t be a viewpoint character. I won’t be surprised if the latter is the case; the first book mostly finishes his character arc. So, I am eager to find out where the next one takes us.