The Magic Goes Away

It’s been tough to be a reader during lockdown. The struggle is real.

I downloaded four Inspector Montalbano books, but then really didn’t enjoy with the first one I tackled – A Nest of Vipers – not in the mood for Andrea Camilleri’s style (or that of his translator). The other three remain unread. I got 1% into The Overnight Kidnapper and stopped.

I gave up on Journal of a Disappointed Man just after the halfway point (61%, my Kindle informs me); I gave up on The Island after just 19%. 

Like many, I’ve struggled to concentrate on reading, especially during the Working at Home weeks, when I felt obligated to be doing work things or at least available for work things. And as so many people have discovered, the thing about WaH is there’s no clear off moment, when you get to walk away from your workplace and think about something else. So I found myself titivating spreadsheets or going through schemes of work or setting work at times when I’d normally not have been at work at all. And so the reading suffered.

During WaH lockdown, I managed to complete Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (it was all right, but found myself puzzling over literary fiction’s obsession with religion). I read David Sedaris’ Calypso, although many of the stories within were already familiar from the radio.

Probably my heftiest read was Le Carré’s A Delicate Truth, a book it turned out I bought twice on two different e-reading platforms. But it’s a measure of the impact of WaH that A Delicate Truth became the basis for much of my teaching when I went back into school to deliver some in-person sessions. I couldn’t read it and not think about teaching with it.

I also read I Capture the Castle (which also made me think of lit-fic’s religion obsession); and Sophie Hannah’s Haven’t They Grown, which first irritated me then won me over when I realised I was supposed to be irritated.

Two big SF genre reads were Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, and Peter May’s Lockdown. On top of this, a big collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy (Volume 13, edited by Jonathan Strahan), which was mainly enjoyable although I did lose the will to live with some of the stories.

Which brings us to the beginning of the actual summer holidays. I deleted my work email from phone an laptop, deleted Microsoft Teams, and determined to stop thinking about work so that I could concentrate.

I’d been promising myself the second and third volumes of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy ever since reading the first in the series. But given that the first volume came in at a mere 400-or-so pages, and each subsequent volume was at least 200 pages longer than the one before, I was saving it for a stretch of time. I was also vaguely concerned that pursuing the series to its end might lead to disappointment, as it so often has. I’m still smarting over Alex Marshall’s A Crown for Cold Silver series, which started well and ended badly. But it was time to put some faith in Robin Hobb.

The first in the series, Assassin’s Apprentice, introduces us to the character of Fitz, who is the bastard son of a royal prince, the heir to the throne. He’s plucked from his life and taken to the centre of power, where is introduced to his grandfather the King. His shamed father is too honourable not to abdicate, and Fitz’s uncle Verity becomes the King-in-Waiting. Although Fitz himself will never be in line for the throne, he can serve: he is to be an assassin, and so his training begins.

He also embarks on another kind of training: in the Skill, a form of telepathic mind control that the royal family uses to defend the kingdom of the Six Duchies. But Fitz’s life is complicated because although he has inherited some ability in the Skill, he also has something else: an ability to communicate and bond with animals, known as the Wit, which is considered an abhorrence that must be kept secret.

The first volume ends with Fitz near death, the royal poisoner poisoned, betrayed, exposed by his father’s youngest half-brother Prince Regal, who is a vicious schemer who wants the throne for himself.

The Wit and the Skill, then, are the main fantasy elements in what might otherwise have been a straightforward mediaeval romance-adventure story.

It is always one of the major tropes of the fantasy genre that the magic goes away, and we always enter a world in which – in the past – there were great wonders wrought by magic, but now we find ourselves in a world of faded glory with the tools of magic mostly forgotten or limited. This is true of Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series,Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series and countless others.

This difficulty – the loss of magic and wonder – is an essential part of fantasy world building, giving our hapless tiny hero something to both overcome and potentially use for good. And the magic going away of course relates to our own disenchanted world, the one made by Nietzsche and Darwin and Freud and Karl Marx, Clausius and Einstein. The world in which God is Dead and wars are fought on an industrial scale leading to inhuman carnage. Except God (and religion) has never really, fully gone away and the zombie corpse of God hangs around making everything somehow worse. The magic goes away, but not quite, and if our fantasy hero can just get hold of enough of it, we might have peace again.

The magic must be hard to find, must cost its users dear, and there must be skepticism and doubt surrounding it. Think of Game of Thrones: what is The Wall, are there dragons, how do you make Valerian steel etc. And who is the hero? Is it Dany, the product of centuries of incest, or the ‘bastard’ Jon Snow?

Then there’s the question of blood: both in terms of inheritance, and in terms of spilling it or having it boil inside you. Fantasy fiction often features a “berserker” character, one who loses his (or her) sense of self in the heat of battle and becomes a wild, rampant killer, not immune to physical harm but somehow able to keep fighting in spite of it. In other words, our hero is often “touched” in some way: touched by greatness, or a diluted form of noble/magic blood, or touched by madness, and so able to access something that regular people cannot.

It’s important that Fitz has some royal blood, but also important that he’s a bastard; his impurity (in the form of the Wit) giving him something the fading royal line has either lost or never had. It’s so often the case that the fantasy hero has to be ‘unclean’ in some way. Again, think of Jon Snow raised from the dead, or Logen Ninefingers, a berserker warrior with, um, nine fingers.

In one of my all-time favourite (and standalone) fantasy novels, The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers, our hero is a shambling drunk with no idea who he really is.

Royal Assassin, the second in Robin Hobb’s series, begins where the first left off, with a sorely injured Fitz being nursed back to imperfect health. He thinks he’s out, but they pull him back in. He returns to King’s Landing Buckkeep to find someone he loves, and discovers the court beset by intrigue, the king ailing, and the King-in-Waiting obsessively trying to protect the realm from raiders with no time for anything else. Somehow Fitz must work to put everything right while at the same time remembering his place, and not making things worse. His friend the Fool, who seems strangely obsessed with him, keeps calling him the Catalyst, which doesn’t help matters.

Intrigue, plot, murder, and then, in the third book, Assassin’s Quest, a quest. No fantasy novel would be complete without a (hero’s) journey, an endless trek across all the territories, facing dangers known and unknown, the resurrection, the belly of the whale, the dragon battle etc.

Ah, dragons. While Tolkein put them in The Hobbit, he didn’t have them in Lord of the Rings. Instead, Gandalf rode on the back of an Eagle. A Song of Ice and Fire of course features small quantities of dragons; viewers of Game of Thrones had great hopes for them which were largely dashed. GRRM seemed determined to upend the dragon trope and turn it into a metaphor for the industrialised destructive warfare of the disenchanted world.

Most dragons of fantasy are rooted in Celtic mythology. They’re not the symbols of greed and evil of Tolkein/Christianity but symbolic of sleeping power, the power that will awaken in a time of national need. Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther, sleeps in Avalon etc. 

I’m not sure how I feel about dragons. And how you feel about dragons might affect how you feel about Assassin’s Quest. I read, with enthusiasm, to the very end, and I’ll certainly pick up some more Robin Hobb at some point, but I’m not sure how I feel about dragons.

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