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Three Visions of Fantasy: An Ember in Ashes, Battlemage and Starborn

An-Ember-in-the-Ashes The DGLA is a publicly-voted, largely-British and exclusively-fantasy award. [Except when it isn't. But we'll set that aside, as no one likes a party pooper.] 

Looking at some of last year's debuts, it is fun to see how they - with the help of some wild extrapolation - represent the evolution of three very different traditions of British fantasy. So, without further ado, let's gird our loins, say farewell to the small village that never really understood us, reluctantly accept the quest that only we can accomplish, and head off in pursuit of our destiny...

Sabaa Tahir's An Ember in the Ashes is, perhaps, the easiest of these three books to talk about, as it is such a perfect archetype of what it is: an all-star gathering of YA tropes.

We've got two protagonists - Laia and Elias. One's orphaned, one's estranged from their eeeeevil parent. Both have special missions, awkwardly-discovered Chosen Destiny Powers, and harrowing day-to-day lives, periodically punctuated by the need to make Difficult Decisions. Both are spectacularly attractive. Both have 'obvious' love interests (in natural conflict with their Undeniable and Powerful Attraction to one another). Both are born to - and assigned - roles that they don't want to play. Both crave, in order, Freedom, Understanding, Something Different, A World More Fair, and a bit of sexy cuddletimes.

Furthermore, we're in a world that has, in no particular order: a secret revolution, an unspeakably (and randomly) vile fascist empire, a land with predestinated roles ('Scholars', 'Martials', etc.), a big behind-the-scenes evil, and - why not? - a completely inexplicable competition that pits teens against one another to decide the fate of, like, everything.

Stylistically, An Ember in the Ashes is exactly what you'd expect: quick-moving, angsty, well-paced. It is a page-turner: the reader is constantly distracted with dances, duels, fights, sexual fraughtness, midnight escapades. To sit still is to ponder what's happening, and once you do that, it stops making sense. This is an exceedingly televisual book - every scene is a short, sharp, shock, high on entertainment value, low on negative space.

This book is, as you might expect, immensely familiar, but it also works. These themes and archetypes are tropes because we understand them and they resonate with us, and, even with its slightly hectic, grab-bag approach, Ember is never anything less than ferociously page-turning.

Including this book on a list of 'British' fantasy is a bit of a faff on my part, as, unlike the others, the author isn't British. But... the DGLA is a British award, and the very presence of Ember in the Ashes is on last year's shortlist is noteworthy. The DGLA has never been particularly welcoming to YA Fantasy - up to and including an explicit ban on that genre in the prize's early years. This may be the DLGA's first explicitly YA book not by Joe Abercrombie. A long-overdue, and particularly meaningful, inclusion.

BattlemageStephen Aryan's Battlemage represents a very different set of tropes. Battlemage is the most Gemmellian of the lot and about as subtle as its title would have you think. It begins deep into the action, and neither apologises nor explains. There's a war, which is a thing because it is. Our primary protagonist, Balfruss, is one of the titular Battlemages - wizards that... get this... fight. He's the leader of his group, a handful of Battlemages (the last of their kind!), gleaned from various cultures and nations from around the world. They're united for this one last stand, in the face of overwhelming evil, and against impossible odds.

Again, Battlemage is very much exactly what it is. In the trenches, men hack and slash at one another; in the towers, they sling spells that are the eldritch equivalent of hacking and slashing. Secondary characters add some further layers - a bit of espionage, for example, but, don't get distracted. The emphasis here is squarely on the action. The challenges in Battlemage are not solved through creative puzzle-solving, diplomacy or the polite exchange of ideas. 

The Battlemages (Battlemagi? Battlemapodes?!) themselves have enough character to sustain them. (Mostly.) There are bonds of brotherhood, worries about their future, struggles with the use of magic - that sort of thing. There's even the hint of a love triangle, or at least some sort of romantic frisson.

Battlemage also introduces a secondary character, Vargus, that takes the book's magical concept up yet another notch: he's a God that fights in the trenches, gaining his divine power through bloody action. He is the Battlemage's Battlemage, and is, essentially, playing out a parallel story, with further (unexplained) world-building. If anything, his parallel quest oddly diminishes the primary antics of Balfruss. Whatever our ostensible hero is getting up to, there's now a character mucking about in the sub-plots that's clearly more important.

Whether it comes from (literally) divine exposition, or a monologuing villain, or just Balfruss quietly thinking about Why Things Are, Battlemage relies on a fair amount of 'telling' in order to ensure the reader knows the Significance of everything. There's the peculiar sensation that you've turned on a television very late in the game - this feels a bit like the penultimate volume of a 7 book series.

Where Battlemage slots into our genre smorgasboard is, as mentioned, the most Gemmellian. Here we have the tired, experienced veteran - ready to hang up his proverbial sword and see to more civilised matter. But, alas - his duty calls, and he's brought back to the front. He kicks ass, takes names, and even does a little mentoring and philosophising. To me, this entire strand of fantasy is wonderfully, explicitly British, and Battlemage is an entertaining, pulpy addition to this heritage. 

Someday we'll have to kick this around properly, but I think the contrast between 1980s Gemmell and, say, 1980s Eddings is fascinating. They're both archetypical high fantasies. But the former seems to represents a British national identity ("we're so old and weary and very good at what we do, oh fine, we'll rouse ourselves to get involved and tell everyone else what to do") just as the latter represents an American one ("we're young, powerful and the world literally belongs to us! destiny says so!"). What's fun: 1) both narratives are funnelled through the protagonist's 'why me' character development - but the Gemmellian-British tradition cites 'duty' while the Eddingsian-American one cites 'destiny'; 2) both narratives are exceptionalist - the American one literally so, the British one hiding behind coy colonial paternalism. Oh, and 3) both were super-commercially-successful, they're influential, so, like in Battlemage, we can see variations on these themes trickling down through new generations of writers. 

This all needs more thought, some other time.

StarbornAnyway, David Gemmell ain't the only tradition in British fantasy, and Lucy Hounsom's Starborn represents a different path. The term "rural fantasy" is bandied about a bit, and, although there's no single, cogent definition, I think I can neatly co-opt it here. This is the Bombadilian strand of Tolkienate fantasy: fantasy that emphasises the mystical rather than the magical; worlds where the supernatural is an intrinsic characteristic of the land itself. A lot of folkloric fantasy would fit in this category, as does, I suppose, some of the early Weird.

Jane Gaskell - who I seem to be writing about a lot lately - is an excellent combination of where the two converge: lands of unknowable, but unquestioned, unusualness. Robert Holdstock is commonly cited in this vein as well, as would Arthur Machen: books that examine the relationship between individual humans and the numinous. (I find Machen really interesting in this space, and not because of "The Great God Pan", but because his psychogeographical work bridges "rural fantasy" and urban spaces. Also to discuss later! Woo!)

Anyway, that's a lot of 50-cent words to say "rural fantasy" is that school of (mid-century) (British) fantasy that (often) examines the relationship between people and their (metaphorically or literally)(magical) environment. Aesthetically, it tends to prioritise atmosphere over plot, theme over character.

Also, trees and fairies and stuff. 

Which is to say: Starborn.

Starborn begins ordinarily enough. Kyndra is a young woman. As she comes of age, she partakes in the village's ages-old magical-future-pokin' ceremony. But something about her is deeply unsettling to the Powers That Be, and the ceremony fails - followed by other freaky and disconcerting natural events. Kyndra's village turns against her - violently - but she's saved by two mysterious strangers. Two mysterious strangers with SUN and MOON powers. 

In the company of her saviours, Kyndra discovers the world is wider and more mysterious than she ever could've suspected. An ages-old order taps into the flow of the world's immense magical power, and Kyndra has earned their attention. But, despite their supernatural strength, the order's ranks are weakened by politics and dissension. Plus, an ancient enemy has reawakened. And, unsurprisingly, wee innocent Kyndra is at the centre of everything. Who is she? What is she? What power does she have, and how will she choose to use it?

Heady stuff. 

Ignore the cover and its air of by-the-numbers YA heroism: Starborn is a rather cruel book. It is hard on Kyndra (who is toyed with, taunted, and tortured), brutal to her friends (who are forced to make sacrifices for causes noble and ignoble) and, hell, Starborn gleefully and repeatedly undercuts its entire world (which is built almost entirely on lies). Like Gaskell (again with the Gaskell!), Hounsom has created a magical world that is decadent and deadly; sickeningly sweet with a rotten core. It is the ancient, unBowderlised tradition of fairyland, where wondrous and the terrible intertwine. 

Atmospherically, Starborn is pretty damn Weird. It is chilly and remote; Kyndra is lonely and overwhelmed, and that sensation is passed directly to the reader. The magic is largely inexplicable - there are a few attempts to make logic out of it, but Starborn is best when it isn't trying to wedge itself into a rational system. There's a plot, of course, but I would argue that it almost isn't worth following. The payoff is suitably epic (and thematically appropriate, a literal betrayal of the land itself), but there's not a lot of emotional resonance to the book's primary conflict. The warring, scheming wizards are hard to understand and harder to empathise with, and the Weirdness of the world means the reader is wrestling with a lot of bizarre backstory. Suitably enough, Starborn leaps from scene to scene, many of which are insignificant in plot terms, but they're all through Kyndra's eyes, and engage the reader with her unique, bewildered, outsider situation.

And, again, in the best tradition of rural fantasy: ignore the plot and narrative drama, Starborn is best appreciated for its sensation and its atmosphere. It is a daunting, Weird book that is surprisingly chilling and a great pleasure to mull over.