This is it, y'all. The entire Pornokitsch legacy, resting on one final review. There's no guarantee that I'll ever have a platform like this again. Worse: these last words need to be worthy of the ten years of effort that went into building said platform. These words will represent the entire body of my work: now and forever. Terrifying.
And yet, that's not true, is it?
It is very easy to empathise with that kind of pressure – but it is also utter madness. Approximately 80% of our traffic already goes directly to ‘old’ articles - and that's soon to be 100%. Most people that encounter Pornokitsch, or me, will never even see this review, much less use it as their means of judging the rest of my work.
Understandably, it is a relief when I acknowledge that this piece doesn’t need to be the ur-blog. I can try something new, experiment with something old, or do what feels right to me without having to second-guess my own legacy. I could even phone it in. This post is not exceptional, and that's liberating: I have permission to fail, and that makes it easier to get on with it.
I don't, however, have permission to wibble endlessly. I promise this does lead somewhere, but let's park this discussion of empowering failure for now.
I’ve spent ten years trying to get to the bottom of what makes good or great fantasy. Whether that’s through sifting through the SFPBO, analysing awards, studying the Gemmell finalists, futzing with definitions and dancing on pins. If this is it, there’s the pressure to bring a decade of informal study to a formal conclusion; to write something exceptional. But that’s self-defeating: I don’t have an answer, I don’t think I should have one, and, actually... I want to write about the Rose of the Prophet instead.
Rose of the Prophet (1988-9) is yet another epic from world-building and shelf-packing powerhouse duo Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. In-between Dragonlance and Darksword, Death’s Gate and Star of the Guardians, they snuck out this comparatively tiny and self-contained trilogy. Comprised of The Will of the Wanderer, The Paladin of the Night and The Prophet of Akhran, Rose is probably best remembered, if at all, for its period-appropriate Larry Elmore covers (and by that, I mean the late 1980s: there's a lot of violet and mullets).
I read this trilogy when I was eleven years old. I had multiple Dragonlance calendars, and that's pretty much all you need to know about me. We were going on holiday to spend a week at a beautiful ranch outside of Tucson with other kids and horses and sun and sand. And I was going to spend the whole time hiding in the shade, blitzing through fantasy books. I had a brand-new pile of books from the authors behind my favourite series, and this was my everything. It was awesome.
So, picture this, if you will. Young Jared, floofy hair and Coke-bottle glasses, avoiding the sun and physical activity, holiday-reading my doorstop fantasy. And this is what I found:
- A big, dumb epic fantasy
- With the entire world at stake! and the fate! of nations!!
- And prophesies!!!
- Wizards and warriors and magic systems and demons and swords!!!
The Rose of the Prophet series is, in many ways, perfectly keyed for the mind of the pre-teen fantasist. The world of Sularin is governed by twenty gods – each circling, in a complicated geometric arrangement, a twenty-first ‘Sul’ – or Truth. The gods each represent one facet of the truth: embodying a combination of three of Sul’s characteristics. Akhran the Wanderer, for example, is the incarnation of Chaos, Impatience and Faith. His followers inhabit a quasi-Arabian continent, feisty nomads who respect tradition (but also love a good dust-up). Quar, representing Reality, Greed and Law, has more ‘civilised’ followers – for better or for worse. His worshippers are imperialists and bureaucrats, methodically subsuming other cultures and faiths.
Although Akhran and Quar are the central focus of the series, other gods – and aspects – are mentioned in a suitably tantilising way. Promenthas and Astafas, for example, are more classically faux-Medieval deities, clear analogues of a white-robed, beard-stroking God and a horned-and-hellfire Devil.
The setting, like most of Weis and Hickman’s work, is the series' strength. It is exotic and exciting – at least to an imaginative child, but also follows cohesive, rational, systematic rules. Even as the action all takes place in one small part of the world, with a few small gods as players, it leaves the rest open for interpretation. It is a magical universe that leaves small children reaching for their spiral notebooks: a connect-the-dots framework that is perfect for inducing and imagining your own stories.
The plot is less innovative, but it still serves its purpose. There are a huge variety of swashes to buckle: magical jailbreaks, an island of infernal paladins, a lost dimension of kidnapped djinn, plus more conventional battles and duels and cavalry charges. In the Dragonlance Chronicles, Weis and Hickman were stuck railroading a narrative through the accompanying RPG modules, and the story suffers from the heavy hand of necessity (“Go there,” the unicorn/wise old man/random wizard commanded, “and do this thing.”)
Rose, as a series, has a similar structure – a three-book collation of implausible – if breath-taking – episodes. But here, unlike Dragonlance, Weis and Hickman have two factors on their side. First, the gods are characters. So even when deus ex machina is applied, or any other shamelessly manipulative divine interference to keep the plot moving, it was at least nominally character-driven. Akhran and Quar are entertaining beings in their own right, and their legion of immortal minions – the djinn – are some of the book’s best characters. Which leads to the series’ second advantage: unlike Dragonlance, Rose has multiple fit-for-purpose characters, who drive the plot, and don’t just react to it.
Our three protagonists are Khardan, Zohra and Mathew. The former two are the crown jewels of their respective tribes: the prince and princess, as it were. They also hate one another, as do their people. So when Akhran (divine intervention!) orders them to marry at the start of the series, hijinks ensue. Hijinks escalate when Mathew enters the scene. A visitor from a far-off land, he’s the sole survivor of an ambush. A tactical nudge from his guardian angel (literally – Akhran’s immortals are djinn, Promenthas’ are angels, etc.) puts Mathew in the wrong place at the right time. Khardan mistakes the clean-shaven, long-haired, and loosely-robed Mathew for a woman and, to spite Zohra, claims him for his harem.
All Carry On, Conan! aside, this sequence of (prompted) events suffices to connect our three protagonists and make them – if not friends – reluctant allies. They’re deeply flawed: selfish and self-loathing; not even particularly smart. But, as Quar’s power grows, these three become the unlikely hub of the resistance. Two squabbling brats and a fish-out-of-water foreigner… versus an angry God, a legion of immortals, and the greatest empire the world has ever known. Huzzah!
Obviously, and no surprises here, they grow up, find their inner strength, recruit powerful allies, and – [spoiler!] – win.
All solid, meaty stuff. In substance, exactly what Wee Jared wanted – and, to be brutally honest, what Not-Wee Jared still wants a lot of the time.
In the shade of the Arizona sun, here's what else I found in the Rose of the Prophet trilogy:
- A female protagonist, who was powerful, accomplished, possessed of agency, and yet still indisputably female
- A gay protagonist, who worried about acceptance and learned that, actually, he could - and should - never be afraid to be himself, and embrace his own identity [Spoiler: he doesn’t even die]
- A cast that was entirely people of color. They weren’t even implied white through omission: everyone in it was physically described as definitely-not-white. The one white character was the sidekick: who got everything wrong, spoke funny, and didn't fit in
- An adventure set in a loosely Middle Eastern setting (inaccurately and messily, on par with how other fantasies are ‘based’ on medieval Europe)
- A world where, in fact, the ‘medieval European’ analogue was seen as the barbarian outsider culture
- A system of gods and cultures without an objective right or wrong, but instead, presents a series of complex perspectives and nuanced opinions, each struggling, clumsily, to be heard.
I mean, golly.
And you know what this all meant to eleven-year-old me?
At no point did micro-Jared pause, adjust his six-pound glasses, sit back in the deck chair and think, “gee wizz, the politics!” or even, on the simplest level, remark “wow, this is different”. It wasn’t that I didn’t notice – I read the books, after all – I simply didn’t care. Because, to l’il me, it was (see above) a big, dumb epic fantasy! With wizards and warriors and magic systems and demons and swashbuckling!!!
What I did was jot down notes about the magic system, and stare wistfully out the window at night, wishing the Sonoran desert had a few more djinn. I hadn’t been taught that non-Western cultures were the bad guys and women couldn’t do these things and gay characters served as tragic background for other people’s stories. Because, you know, 'realism' and 'tradition' and all those other things that would, eventually, come to shade how I - and millions of other micro-Jareds - understood what fantasy 'was'.
To kids, it is a lot simpler. Wonder Woman is a superhero story. Black Panther is a superhero story. The Last Jedi is an action movie. Love, Simon is a rom-com. As adults, we scrutinise and criticise and double-check for significance. As we should: that’s our responsibility, a pop cultural Original Sin – we make these things, we are obliged to consider their impact. Kids are innocents: we ruin them. To this kid, Rose of the Prophet was just another fantasy series. How was I to know that I’d spend another twenty-five years before finding something as casually inclusive?
Here’s the other thing about Rose of the Prophet - and this is, above all things, why I’m choosing to write about it now:
It kind of sucks.
Yes, there’s some solid, open-ended world-building; sure, the plot moves quickly; and hey, the characters are pretty fun. But is clunky and contrived, the dialogue can make you wince, and, hell, as one person thoughtfully pointed out on the internet, the geometric symbolism underpinning the world is actually impossible. It is what it is, and that's page-turning pulp.
That's why Rose is important: because it isn’t. It is largely forgotten because it is largely forgettable. It is yet another epic fantasy; sitting on shelves until, eventually, it wasn't. Rose of the Prophet is no match for Middle-earth or Narnia or any other ground-breaking, foundational work that merits study across generations. It is silly and inclusive; diverse and dumb; enjoyable, commercial, and utterly ordinary. And that’s why it is so special.
The reactionary elements of fandom spend a lot of time complaining that the politics take the fun away - like giving a speaking role to a black character or keeping a woman out of the fridge somehow turns creativity into a chore. On the opposite side, elements of fandom enthusiastically insist that every progressive work is a transcendent masterpiece - a position that is both optimistic and untenable. Books like Rose serve to fill the much-needed middle. Not every act of diversity needs to culminate in literary masterpiece; not every progressive fantasy has to be perfect too. That creates an expectation that is not only unachievable, but also actively discourages participation. True inclusivity makes room for imperfect works too: diverse books can be – and should be - dumb and stupid; flawed and clunky; swashbuckling and silly. Ordinariness, simple everyday ok-ness is what normalises cultures. We turn diversity into inclusivity by allowing progressive works to be as meh as everything else.
This is the truth we understand as children, and somehow forget as we grow older: that inclusivity is normal. Ordinary. Unremarkable.
We’ll see change not when we rely on heroic exceptions, but when we can point to a shelf loaded with mediocrity. Imagine a shelf full of forgettable books by hack authors, and, for once, they're not all white men. Inclusive works can’t all fit on the pedestal; they need permission to sit in airport bookshops as well. This permission needs to come from within the system: publishers and studios and agents and booksellers shouldn't demand that every diverse movie be Black Panther. There's no logic to applying a second, higher standard when you're trying to find new voices. Readers and fans and creators have an equally important role to play: stop trying to force great art, and give permission to fail instead.
Rose of the Prophet is totally mediocre. We need more like it.