Williams, Jen (2014), The Copper Promise, Headline
Wiebe, Kurts J.; Roc Upchurch, Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery, Image Comics
So through the years I have reviewed quite a few fantasy novels on this blog, but I am still looking for recommendations, and trying to understand contexts and history of the genre. As far as I can tell, the big caesura in the genre was JRR Tolkien’s entry on the stage of epic fantasy. A lot of what followed copied the structure of Tolkien’s books pretty closely, with some changes here and there. The most recent style of fantasy is “gritty” fantasy, which is now pretty much the predominant genre. Gritty means a certain amount of soi-disant “realism”, which mostly means more sex, way more violence and intential cruelty. Some writers have done interesting things with this, and people like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, David Anthony Durham and the mercurial talent N.K. Jemisin have taken the genre in new directions, mostly by offering a more sophisticated understanding of social issues. Jen Williams, a debut novelist, opts for a slightly different path in The Copper Promise and that is best summarized by the word “fun”. She is not interested in grit, not in realism, not in carefully constructed portrayals of nations and cultures. Honestly, the main instinct for me as a reviewer here is to squeal about the fun I had reading this book and how much fun I suspect the author had writing it. The other book I want to mention here is Rat Queens, written by Kurtis Wiebe with artwork by Roc Upchurch (pencils, ink and covers). The first trade, “Sass and Sorcery” has been out for a few months and it’s an equally joyful celebration of fantasy, yet also cognizant of gender issues and narrative holdovers from tradition.
Another distinction I should have made in my first paragraph is the one between epic fantasy and the sword and sorcery line of fantasy, which mainly inspired Jen Williams. More accurately, she appears to have been inspired by Fritz Leiber’s legendary novels featuring his heroes Fafhrd (not a typo) and the Gray Mouser, called the “spiritual father [of] most fantasy writers” by Raymond Feist. Epic fantasy tells us stories of nations and cultures. It usually contains stories of adventurers embedded within, but the stakes are a bit higher, and these books tend to offer elaborate maps in the back. In George R.R. Martin’s increasingly lackluster work we even find whole lists of ‘houses’ and their living and deceased members. None of this for Williams. The world is small enough to traverse with a dragon in a short amount of time, it contains roughly four recognizable areas or nations and the narrative tends to just “switch” areas to tell different stories in different places. Her tradition is that of Leiber (and Burroughs), of intrepid adventurers in a world full of wicked people and magic and strangeness. At the same time, she takes that tradition and spins it cleverly. But it’s not an intellectual exercise. This book is a big steaming cup of fun. If you like fantasy, but are bored by the epic fantasy line of writing and/or the ‘gritty’ type of fantasy, read this. In fact, if you like fantasy, read this. And if you like both fantasy and comic books, I implore you, read Rat Queens.
The main characters in The Copper Promise are a pair of mercenaries, Wydrin, a female slender thief and Sebastian, a disgraced former soldier, a burly but conscientious man. The story uses Wydrin as a focal point although it is a third person narrative. As the book progresses, a wizard of sorts joins the two, as they endeavor to stop a gigantic dragon/god and her army from burning the whole world. The narrative moves us briskly along, and while we are never really surprised by the events, we are also never bored. The basic structure of the story is old fashioned in the best sense, a novel thoroughly happy with storytelling in the pulpy sense of the word. At the same time, the writing is always solid. Humorous, light and precise, a perfect storyteller’s tool. No fake archaisms, no purple descriptions of emotional agony or orientalist interiors. And this is not gritty. There’s none of the cheap glee many contemporary fantasy writers have in killing off or torturing ‘good’ characters. The story is paramount, not the self-regard of the writer. Have you seen Martin on a talk show, laughing his odd laugh when people ask him about all the characters he has killed off so far? He enjoys being that person. And increasingly, that shows in his work. Fritz Leiber’s tradition is different, a tradition of having fun telling a tale.
The basic setup of The Copper Promise already suggests similarities to Leiber’s work, but the connection goes further. On a superficial level, Jen Williams’ thief is nicknamed Copper Cat and puts stock in naming her knives, and not only is that also Mouser’s habit, but additionally, one of Mouser’s knives is called “Cat’s Claw” (and Mouser himself is “on the cat’s path”), as we learn in “Ill met in Lankhmar”, an early novella/story. There’s more, however. Fritz Leiber’s main audience were adolescent boys, and so there are women as decoration and the occasional odd sexually charged story. Moreover, Leiber’s stories, as far as I have read them, have a recurring interest in fatherhood, or more broadly, in the lasting ties created through sex, whether that would be offspring or families or tribes. A lot of his well known stories prominently feature these elements, from “The Snow Women” to “Lords of Quarmall”. In contrast to Leiber, Jen Williams’ audience are not adolescent boys, or not just, and her novel uproots many of the assumptions behind the use of those elements while keeping the elements themselves. She changes Leiber’s virile barbarian into a religious, conscientious soldier who gets the boot from his order due to his sexuality when his love for men is discovered. She gives the role of the irreverent thief with a big appetite for money, food and men to a female character. And while I can’t give details on this short of spoiling a major plot point, she offers a particularly inventive spin on the idea of masculinity and procreation. In fact, I enjoyed that part of The Copper Promise so much that I felt it got a bit short shrift. That’s the only real mark against the book: as you’d expect of a debut novel, it’s not extremely well balanced. Some parts are much longer than they’d need be and some interesting developments are handled in only a handful of pages.
Another aspect of the book is its love of telling stories. It’s not openly metafictional, like Rothfuss’ book with its framework is, but it offers an impassioned plea for the magic of words, and its more than just having magicians in the book, and magic words and scrolls etc. No, she offers us a take of personal awakening, a set of characters and their journey to discovering their identity, all of which happens through the act of reading words, discovering language as a thing in the world. Language, ordinary language seems so new, so magical to these characters that they start using it in lieu of names, picking new names out of the dictionary. This fascination with words and storytelling does not seem to me to be accidental. Indeed, Leiber is such an interesting choice for a young writer to pick up these days and signals an interest in the art of telling a plainly fun story. Interesting not because he is so unknown – in fact, there seems to be a kind of Sword and Sorcery renaissance in recent years, from movies based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars books to new Conan comics (with art by the fantastic Becky Cloonan, so you might want to have a look at those, too). No, interesting because the question of the value of “pure” storytelling is part of a public debate that featured most prominently one of America’s leading ‘serious’ novelists, Michael Chabon. In between his major novels, Chabon has consistently been publishing smaller texts, some of them nonfiction, some explorations of genre. One of them is Gentlemen of the Road, a historical novel set roughly in 950 AD in the Khazar empire. As Chabon explains in an afterword, he went off “on a little adventure” in it. He also explains the joy and importance of storytelling, of going beyond the confines of what he calls “late-century naturalism”. I feel a lot of fantasy in the “gritty” school of writing tries to defend itself by injecting that naturalism back into a genre literally meant to be fantastic. Chabon’s book is not a fantasy, and his stakes are much higher. His is a novel clearly written after the Shoah, offering a debate on Jewish identity that he would continue in what I think is his best novel so far, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. But the discussion about “adventure fiction” and the appeal inherent in the form, it also applies to The Copper Promise, which stakes out a place for itself as fantasy adventure fiction, both smart and joyful.
Another tradition that I found applicable, but that might not be intentional at all, is a much more recent one. Video games. More precisely computer role playing games, CRPGs, in short. Don’t look at me like that. I have played a few of them without being what they call ‘a gamer’- I don’t own a console and my laptop is rather old, that imposes inherent limits. But the new tradition of CRPGs gave role changes and especially stories involving women more of a push. Despite all the misogyny that is so rampant in today’s ‘gamer’ scene, the fact that these stories are more interactive, written by multiple authors and have to appeal more directly to an audience interacting with the game opened a large array of possibilities. In the arguably best CRPG ever published, Baldur’s Gate II, you play with a group of people, a group that you can staff with a large amount of female characters. Other, more recent games like Mass Effect, a CRPG in a science fiction setting, or Dragon Age, in the usual fantasy/middle ages setting, even allow you to pick a female protagonist or have a same-sex romance. All this is to say that I think video games, as much as they have supported and developed a new strain of misogyny among young men (recent events have been especially appalling), also have opened up vistas of action and thinking about things differently. The tradition Williams holds on to may be the Leiber kind of writing and I may be a horrible philistine here, but as I read the first 100 pages, my brain kept seeing the events in action, I kept translating them in my head into the familiar images of computer role playing games. And that’s not a bad thing. If you have ever played a classic CRPG, like the aforementioned BGII or Planescape Torment, what you come away with is a world alive with stories, and with humor and sadness and all the ingredients for a fun story. A lot of gritty fantasy has lost that by focusing on ‘serious’ stories, and I am not criticizing that. All I’m saying is that some writers, like early Robin Hobb on the epic fantasy side, and Jen Williams on the sword and sorcery side of fantasy, have a place in all of this too.
As do the Rat Queens. Kurtis Wiebe and Roc Upchurch collaborate on a story that is about mercenaries killing trolls, having sex with Orcs and generally getting up to all kinds of shenanigans. The fights are frequently pretty bloody and the jokes can be a bit bawdy. What makes the story special, apart from the general excellence of the art and the clarity and humor of the writing, is that Wiebe and Upchurch took a story that generally uses women as decorations and moves them into the foreground. The four main protagonists are women, although not all of them are human. We are offered hints of complicated backgrounds and intrigues, although the first trade does not go beyond hints. First trades are, after all, rarely more than exposition. But there’s enough for us to become invested in the inner lives of these female mercenaries. A group of vividly drawn and varied female characters as the main focus of a comic book is not a frequent sight. What’s more, Rat Queens is much more clearly indebted to and comments on the video game genre. The story is placed before a background of routine “raids” of troll caves and other cliché targets, mimicking the ubiquitous “tasks” in role playing games. The first half of the book’s arc plays fast and loose with its references and the various traditions it finds itself in. It’s an exuberant kind of book and that has an effect on its readers. It’s been a while since I had quite this much sheer fun reading a comic book. Comics, as well as fantasy novels, have become “gritty”, telling their stories in literal and figurative darker colors. Frequently, haunted male protagonists have to deal with a violent and brutal world. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy that kind of writing, but it’s such a relief when we find books like Rat Queens (or Kieron Gillen’s short lived arc on Young Avengers) that are much more invested in telling a colorful story. It’s a good time for fantasy and comics and both Rat Queens as well as The Copper Promise are excellent examples of that. And while Wiebe is already an established writer, there’s no telling where Jen Williams could go with her next books.
As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)