A Hundred Thousand Reasons Why
January 19, 2016 § Leave a comment
Graduate school has given me new lenses through which to enjoy the media that I consume. I know, better than ever, how to read books for pleasure and how to gauge their effect on my own patterns of writing and speech. A good diet of fiction and nonfiction, in several different genres and mediums, has made me a more thoughtful and articulate person, there’s no denying that
It has also ruined more than a few aspects of the media that I consume. I’m going to write about the negative rather than the positive here, because it’s more fun.
As of the composition of this blog post, I have read five pages of N.K. Jemisin’s 2010 debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. As of yet, I have no idea if it’s a good novel or not: it was nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo but lost both to Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear. It’s certainly well-written, with a lucid style that is still dense without coming off as self-involved. It also reminds me that my dissertation work, which primarily focuses on familial networks of power among the rural elites of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Italy, has totally destroyed my ability to appreciate fantasy novels, particularly when they hinge upon political maneuverings between aristocrats of a royal or consular court in neo-medieval style.
Even the best authors make assumptions. Writing a book on anything, let alone the actions of multiple persons in a world invented from whole cloth, takes an immense amount of effort and it’s not only preferable but necessary that shortcuts are taken where they present themselves. Jemisin has committed no great sin by partaking in the blend of tenth-century Byzantium, the fifteenth-century War of the Roses, sixteenth-century Machiavelli, the eighteenth-century court at Versailles, and the glamour of prewar Monaco in the twentieth century from which have been drawn the popular understanding of nobility in the English-speaking world from Sleeping Beauty to Game of Thrones, especially if she uses it at the basis for an interesting and compassionate narrative.
No, it just bugs me, because I’m awful. What follows is a non-inclusive list of all the ways that it bugs me, from the five pages of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that I read:
- The novel opens with mention of an aristocratic ball, thrown semi-regularly as a sop to the dignity of the “lesser nobility.” Works of fantasy do this all the time and it’s incredibly annoying to me, because it’s one of those things that just seems to happen and the I’m rarely told how and why. Who throws it, the monarch (if there’s even a monarch) or the great and powerful? What’s its purpose, is it an expression of the host’s power in particular or the power of tradition in general? These things aren’t cheap, someone has to benefit and it would be helpful to know who it is. As it stands, it’s almost like such events are run like aristocratic welfare or something.
- That reference to “lesser nobility” introduces several more about “councils” and “consortia.” The elite of the Middle Ages did act in concert to preserve their authority against outside challenges, but oftentimes this fact is parlayed in works of fantasy into various semi-formal regulatory bodies of the elite themselves. Why would anyone, least of all the most powerful people in the realm, submit to such close oversight? You do know that this group of people had the primary occupation of killing each other, up until the unification of Germany and Italy in the modern era, right? I’m sure there are appearances to be kept (there always are), but when the patriarchs or matriarchs of great families are forced to execute problem children in order to preserve the family name in some novel, I just wonder what exactly would happen if they refused. One could argue that the very definition of aristocratic power is the ability to ignore the law…
- Speaking of, make your bases of aristocratic power subtle if you want its exercise to be. Barring the favorites of a specific king or queen—or, as happened more often in the empires of East Asia, a primary consort—no elite family was ever just the “most powerful” without qualification. Are they powerful through blood, marriage, land, manpower, wealth, or institutional structure? Assuming that the realm is of a certain size or more, where is that power localized and by what means do they project it elsewhere? These are interesting questions to answer and make the characters to whom they apply less generic, please answer them.
- As something of a side note, it’s far too common that aristocratic elites are invariably from lineages either ancient beyond reckoning or just up from the mud. The latter are entirely improbable, given Thomas Bisson’s observations in The Crisis of the Twelfth Century that the overwhelming majority of elite families survived three generations on average and five generations at best in the male line, so unless the intent is Gormenghast-like absurdity, better to demur there. The former are more complicated, but they almost always result in digs at the nouveau riche that are in keeping with the evergreen accusation that Old World nostalgia of the fantasy genre is entirely regressive in action. In my studies, power is invariably self-legitimizing, as unseemly as the fact may be to the collection of closet royalists that is hardcore fandom.
- In recent decades, fantasy authors have become enamored with “uncrowned kings.” That is to say, they find it interesting to present an aristocrat who’s so powerful that the legitimizing force of kingship holds no appeal for them. I admit, it’s cool, but it’s also bunk. There are so very few examples of any person who, presented with the opportunity to crown themselves, deferred out of a sense of… I don’t know. It’s not ever propriety, because heaven forbid that there be a sufficiently centralized religion in any fantasy novel for sacral kingship to be a thing. It’s more like there’s just too much effort involved in becoming monarch, even if you hold all the power of one already. Maybe it’s the made-up “appearances” thing that I mentioned in my second point, that’d make sense.
- Stop copying the titulature of the British crown wholesale. It’s boring and stuffy with familiarity and overuse, not to mention there’s little correspondence to how authority was translated into power. If you’re going to have uncrowned kings, add some more character by having barons with the effective power of some dukes and counts with the power of some earls. Hey, that last bit there is a joke!
- Not all aristocrats are sheltered twits with no skills beyond yelling for servants to take care of things for them. In fact, very few ever were. A family in decline, something out of Dream of the Red Chamber, sure. A family at the height of its power, prestige, and influence? No. Stretch your authorial legs a bit and write these characters as well-rounded people with actual personalities. What’s the worst that could happen, really? In general, I’m surprised at how frequently the creators of fictional worlds either are blind to or have a very simplistic understanding of the truth-making and truth-breaking power of the written word. Even in the case of notorious tyrants like King John of England, incredibly human flaws like impulsiveness, stubbornness, and impatience become the madness of a half-human monster at the hands (and, more notably, the pens) of their enemies. It’s often even odds whose legacy is the one that survives to us.
- And, finally, we have scandalous marriages. Really, this one is the cause of this entire long-winded post. Look, unless incest isn’t a taboo in the world of your fantasy novel (and please please please can we stop with that being a thing, by the way), the overwhelming majority of elite families aren’t going to be in a position to be too picky with their scions’ spouses. Sure, we all have alliances that we’d like to cement with nuptial vows, but successful childbirths and non-lethal infancies aren’t exactly a sure bet in pre-modern times, so there’s no need to disown a son or daughter for marrying a bit low on the totem pole, not unless their wedding is to the progeny of your literal nemesis. Why let prospective children with perfectly good claims to your title be raised out of your sight, in the likelihood that they’ll grow up to hate you for the hardship that your actions forced upon their parents? Your typical fantasy realm has been in existence for almost two thousand years and, given that the aristocracy of the Middle Ages constituted two to five percent of the population, that’s plenty of time for everyone to be closely related to everyone—at least, everyone who matters. Take up the newcomer, put some of your substantial resources behind finding him a “noble” ancestor, and rest easy that one of your potential heirs owes everything they’ve got to you!
Yeah, that’s all I’ve got, but then it’s only five pages that I’ve read. Maybe the book will turn out good and I’ll be eating all these words!
Spoiler: It did and I will.