Losing It, Judy Blume and John Fowles
Review Round-Up: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Warships

Underground Reading: Malice by John Gwynne

This is part of a series of reviews - my attempt to cover all nine finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Award before the winner is announced at the end of October. I'll be approaching these books in a slightly templated fashion: plot summary, good stuff, not so good stuff, conclusion.


MaliceSo what's it about?

John Gwynne's Malice (2012) is a fast-paced (although still over-sized) epic fantasy that combines a lot of familiar plot elements: a coming of age story, a quasi Western European setting, a Chosen One, the rise of an (evil) empire, gods that have abandoned the world only to communicate with it through dreams and omens, and a search for lost magic.

The primary point of view character is the young Corban, growing up surrounded by his friends, family and a mysterious mentor figure. Corban's main goal in life is to go through warrior training and become a proper badass, like his pa. There are bullies and challenges, of course, but they're more like character-building roadbumps. And, as Corban soon learns, there are far larger problems afoot. 

There are a few other characters, but, for the most part, their experiences mirror Corban's: a pick n' mix of second-sons and unwanted cousins, all coming of age in various places around the world. They're tempted, they're challenged, they're likeable underdogs going through tough times.

Behind all of this: THE DARK SUN IS RISING. Dramatic, right? In the most epic of all epic prophesies, there will be a Bright Sun and a Dark Sun and they will go kablooie for the fate of the world. Angels and demons alike are all lining up for the great cosmic smackdown. Everyone agrees - the end times are a-comin', and Corban and his ilk are all caught up in the middle of things.

(There are omens and dreams and such. Hint: The Chosen One is Chosen and the Bad Guy is Bad.)

What's to like about Malice?

Quite a bit, actually. The pace is good, the lessons are solid and, you know, stuff happens. The chapters are all cliff-hangers and Mr. Gwynne does a nice job of juggling his (virtually interchangeable) point of view characters.  

I hasten to add that there's absolutely nothing new about Malice, but with that familiarity comes a certain sort of squashy comfort. Malice is the heir to David Eddings: a fantasy cozy where good always triumphs - after a carefully measured dose of adversity, that is. Lessons are learned, hearts are warmed, let's all go home for cocoa and carolling.

Given the grimdark trend of contemporary epic fantasy, Malice is an odd - and not wholly unwelcome - throwback. There's neither torture nor rape, the manners are courtly, honesty is rewarded and truth will out. Only liars lie, animals can magically sniff out our hearts' desire and good people are always the best at the things they do. Like Anthony Ryan's Blood Song, Malice is a book that has all the entertainment without any of the darkness. There's something relaxing about being able to embrace the characters wholeheartedly and without reservation: they're not going to disappoint you and you'll never have to question your trust in them. 

What's not to like?

When I say "Malice doesn't do anything new", what I really mean is "I've read this a hundred times before". Young male Chosen One (with bullied best friend, tomboyish sister, seemingly-impossible-crush) pieces together the "mystery" surrounding his birth. He is special - whispered conversations and mysterious dream sequences tell him so. There's an enigmatic mystery-warrior and a wise old (wo)man to train him, which helps, as he is simply better at stuff than everyone else. Meanwhile, bad people do bad things - caution kids, you may start as rural bullies, but you will wind up as minions of the dark lord. Good people are fooled by transparent ruses from bad people, because only bad people lie and good people take everything at face value. Etc. Etc.

There's even a pet wolf. Named "Storm", no less.

The result is something that, if still enjoyable, doesn't do anything that's particularly distinctive. The big "reveals" and "twists" are telegraphed for hundreds of pages, and I genuinely can't imagine any part of this book being surprising to anyone that's ever read another fantasy book ever

That said, when I first read Malice, I thought:

 "Hey, a YA novel finally made it to the shortlist!"

And, you know... I stand by that. But, upon doing a bit of research, Malice is apparently not YA. Which led me to the following (slightly tangential) questions: What is YA? Why do I think Malice is YA? And what does it mean for Malice to be YA or not?

So what is YA?

"Young adult" is traditionally difficult to define because it relies on a different sort of categorical segmentation - one that's based on the audience, not the text. Genre segmentation is based on the book's aesthetic or themes, audience segmentation is based on the text's expected reader. 

This sounds bizarre, but YA is not only category that works this way - think "chick lit", for example: books intended for women, but the content within will vary across genres from mystery to romance to literary fiction. Another comparison can be found in the US, where "African-American Interest" is a common section in retailers, wherein all genres of fiction and non-fiction can be found, with the one connection between them being the expectation that the book's eventual reader will African-American. (Similarly, a wander through Amazon reveals the categories "Gay and Lesbian", and "Christian Books" - two more demographic categories that each encompass a variety of genres. "Local Interest" would be another example in physical bookshops - demographic segmentation based on the audience's home address.)

Because these are different segmentations, they can work together, so this means a book can be YA and fantasy, YA and science fiction, YA and romance, or thriller, or Western or... etc.*

But if YA is based on an "assumed reader" - who is making this assumption? Retailers? Obviously they've a vested interest in sorting books by the audience most likely to purchase. And YA sections are a godsend for them - wave families with reading children thataway. Or is it publishers? They have the sales projections and the marketing strategies, they'll have done the comparisons, briefed the cover, written the blurb... their expectation is perhaps the most transparent. Or does it come back to the author? Who are they writing for? Certainly they have the most control over the original text... but this also makes me nervous as it means we're forced to assume their 'intent'. The concept of authorial intent is a big no-no for reviews, but in this context it is also unavoidable - the entire category is based on someone's expectations.

Ultimately, I think the "who" is a collection of all three - a sort of Nebulous Establishment entity that can predict with a fair amont of accuracy (by creation-with-intent, marketing and shelving) the final reader of a given book. Who isn't involved in defining YA? Us - the reader. Which is why adults reading "YA books" are still reading "YA books", and non-YA books read by young adults don't spontaneously transform into YA.*

Why is Malice YA?

Sticking with our definition of a "YA book" as a "book that we expect young adult readers to buy", with the "we" being the Nebulous Establishment, what is it that we think YA readers want? YA books often share common traits and tropes as a result of what the Nebulous Establishment believes will appeal to the audience.

For example:

  • An empathetic hero - someone "like me" (age, interests, relative popularity, intelligence)
  • ...who has forgivable flaws - e.g. a hero that behaves the way that the Nebulous Establishment thinks that young adults think they would behave (how's that for a complex statement?)
  • Escapism - a sense of inflated, but captivating, drama
  • Self-centred plots - relying on the (inspirational) assumption that the protagonist can make a tangible difference and change their world
  • Plots that are metaphors or extrapolations of recognisable young adult "issues" - e.g. "I don't fit in", "my parents don't understand me", "everything is changing", "I want to be taken seriously", etc.
  • A moral compass - with firm definitions of right and wrong

This list is an extreme generalisation, but, tonally, it is easy to spot a great deal of overlap between YA and epic fantasy. All of the above are also key features of David Eddings, Robin Hobb, Raymond Feist, Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, Patrick Rothfuss and other key names in the genre. This isn't to say the two categories are the same: not all epic fantasies are YA, and not all YA books are epic fantasy (in fact, I'd guess that fantasy makes up a pretty small minority of YA), but the demographic category of YA and this genre category of epic fantasy both share some traits.

As a result, it is not surprising that in recent years, books like Eddings' Belgariad have been repackaged as young adult titles.***

And, returning to Malice, we have a book that ticks all the boxes. Corban is a young empathetic hero, a bit of a misfit but smarter than his peers. He makes a few mistakes, but they're all aspirational ones - he ruins his clothes while saving other kids from bullies, for example. The escapism can be taken for granted, as can the fact that he's the Chosen One (all the angels tell him so!). Malice is a coming of age story - Corban wanting to be taken seriously as an adult, and then realising that "real" adulthood comes from knowing what's of "real" importance, plus, of course, believing in himself. And there's a particularly strong moral compass - Malice is predicated on an absolute battle between Good and Evil, and, on the character level, the Good people do good things, the Bad people do bad things. The prophecy says so, and the text never gives us a reason to question it.

Why does Malice benefit from being YA?

I've left off one other trait of YA, and again, this harkens back to the demographic (not aesthetic) nature of the category:

  • YA novels assume naive readers

By this, I don't mean that YA novels treat their readers like, er, children. In fact, some of the biggest authors in this space have argued the reverse, that the best in YA needs to reflect the confusion and darkness of teenagers' reality. Rather, due to the age of the readership, YA novels can assume that their young audience aren't as experienced in (and/or exhausted with) recurring tropes, plots and archetypes. Basically, YA readers aren't jaded - so stories about Chosen Ones with magical wolves can be passed off as new and interesting.

For this reason, I was shocked to see that Malice wasn't marketed as a young adult "gateway" fantasy. Indeed, several of the blurbs and shoutlines compare it to A Game of Thrones, which leaves me entirely perplexed. A Game of Thrones is largely defined by being dark, racy, nonlinear, sprawling and surprising: all traits that are the anti-Malice. I suppose they both involve (loosely) coming of age in a vaguely-historical setting, but then again, so does Cold Comfort Farm.

Instead, Malice is a linear, morally straight-laced coming of age story with wolves and angels and just desserts and flagrantly-telegraphed plot twists. It is fun, but entirely predictable, and the only way I can see to get around around the latter point is to market it to those readers who haven't seen it all before (repeatedly). As a first fantasy, Malice captures all the uncomplicated magic of the genre. As something presented to more experienced readers of epic fantasy, it feels paint-by-numbers.

Is there a conclusion in there somewhere?

Yes. Malice is... fine. It entertains in a safe, comfortable and painfully familiar way. At the halfway point of my shortlist reviews, I'm starting to think that I may have set my standards a little too high. If Malice were a YA novel, I'd probably find a way to rate it higher: it is a family-friendly gateway book with wolves n' swordfights n' stuff, and I can see a role for that, just as I can see myself buzzing through it as a twelve-year-old.

I am, no longer, however, twelve. 

*This also means that we can have books that are both YA and not-YA. I'll touch on a few examples later, but perhaps the most famous is the Harry Potter series, which, although initially intended for children, picked up a massive adult readership. To capitalise on this growing market, Bloomsbury re-released it with "Adult" covers, to be shelved with the general (non-youth) fiction of the bookstore. If we stick with our definition, this actually forces a Schrödinger's Cat scenario: if you order a copy of Goblet of Fire sight unseen, until you take it out of the box it is both YA and not-YA simultaneously.**

**And if you take the dust jacket without looking at it, the book ceases to exist. True fact.

***Because jacketing a book in an attempt to change its genre has never happened.