Thursday, September 10, 2015

Book Review: Epic Legends of Fantasy

This was a feast of fantasy. It's an anthology of 17 short stories and novellas by some of the greatest authors in epic fantasy, from Ursula K. Le Guin to (my personal god) George R. R. Martin. Over 600 pages of dragons, (non-explicit) sex, sword fights, gods, prophecies, and absolutely no rules.

The Thanksgiving dinner of fantasy stories. Includes the coma that immediately follows.

They got me right from the start with Robin Hobb's "Homecoming." It's in a diary format, which can be a bit of a turn-off because usually the protaganist ends up doing a bunch of ramblings that have nothing to do with the storyline. I'm doubly cautious of protaganists who are authors or artists of some kind, because they tend to be stereotypical emotional whimps. But Hobb made it work. Carillion goes from being a snotty, stuck-up bitch to a community leader and savior. And even in the beginning, you're rooting for her because her husband's a stupid asshole who gets her whole family banished and starts all of her troubles in the first place.

We've all read the standard epic fantasy of a great hero who leads an army of men (and/or elves and/or dwarves and/or whatever) against the evil army and dark lord, triumphs, marries the prettiest girl around, becomes a king, and lives happily ever after.

Except they tend to forget that war is a deeply psychologically scarring experience for everyone involved, especially the soldiers (except for 2% who are most likely sociopaths). In "Strife Lingers in Memory," Carrie Vaughn devotes all of two pages to that epic battle we've read in every other book. The rest is that pretty girl--now a queen--trying to deal with her royal husband's night terrors and depression that he hides from the people so they can remember the hero who saved them and not see the man who's been broken.

Yeah, see, there's no way none of these guys have PTSD. Where can we find a therapist around here?
   
While most of these stories have traditional epic fantasy settings, part of having so many authors is a huge diversity of worlds. Aliette de Bodard's "As the Wheel Turns" is based off of Imperial China, which I almost never see. The "wheel" is reincarnation, and every spirit drinks a potion to forget their past life, except for Dai-Yu. She's cursed with remembering every one of her lives because she has to choose which ancient spirit will rule the land: Tiger or Crane. I would place this story somewhere in horror, too, because the stuff Tiger and Crane do to this woman is terrifying.
  There was one thing I noticed about all of these stories that was both weird and troubling, and that's the place of women. A lot of these tales have very strong female characters, for which I'm grateful. For example, Melanie Rawn's Queen Olga stars in a "Kill Bill" times ten and destroys the people who killed her husband in "Mother of all Russiya," and Kate Elliot's Kareka is smart and strong and tricks her fiance into thinking he's saved her and killed all of his enemies. And then she back-tracks and runs away with a witch, in "Riding the Shore of the River of Death."

And yet, all seventeen of these stories were almost entirely set in patriarchal societies. Every. Single. One. Some had brief scenes or mentioned an equal-gendered or even a matriarchal society, but we either never see it or we get it for all of two pages.

The matriarchal society that was the opener for "Bound Man" was taken over by a guy a generation later and was essentially destroyed. The rest of the story is about a female warrior from that society who kills a bunch of trolls for the new patriarchal society she now lives in. (Although it does end on a slightly hopeful note that she and her daughter will bring change to this community, but we don't actually see it. All we see is a bunch of troll guts and woman-bashing from arrogant lords.)

And I get it. Epic fantasy is primarily based on medieval Europe, which is not exactly known for the suffragist movement. Heck, our own society today is patriarchal and sexist. And if you have a strong female character, putting her in a patriarchal society only makes her tougher because that's even more challenges for her to overcome. (And who doesn't love it when a sexist prick gets kicked in the balls?)

But come on. You're telling me that, when asked to write a short story or novella, none of the greatest minds of fantasy thought to place their story in an equal-gendered or (if you must have inequality) matriarchal society? None? And those writers who didn't even have a strong female character in their story treated their women worse than Supernatural (see my grudge against that show here). The entire book is over 600 pages and seeing story after story of the oppression of my gender got real old real fast. I started getting pissed around page 250 and had to put it down for a while.

"How come we never get to do anything fun in these stories?"
"How can we? I can barely breathe in this corset. You expect me to fight?"
"...that's part of the problem."

But in the end, despite the overall anti-feminist vibe, these were all fantastic stories and I loved every one of them. And George R. R. Martin's novella "The Mystery Knight" was set in the Game of Thrones universe and actually had a happy ending. How often does that happen?

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