Thursday, 20 March 2014

My Problems with Epic Fantasy


As everybody knows who follows my blog, I’m big, big fan of literary fiction. At the risk of sounding a bit snobbish, I try to avoid crime, fantasy and science-fiction books because, well, they’re not very good. Sure, I used to read them when I was younger, Agatha Christie here, Stephen King there, and I think they’re excellent fare for kids, but I grew out of them as I matured. But once in a while I still like to read epic fantasy just for old time’s sake; it’s one of my few guilty pleasures. Lately I’ve been reading lots of weighty literary fiction authors – Roberto Bolaño, Ivo Andric, Umberto Eco – and I figured I owed myself a treat. Besides there was a new series I was meaning to read because it reminded me of my childhood. But I seriously regret it. This book series epitomizes everything wrong with epic fantasy.

But first of all, some words on the author. I, like most people, before he became a New York bestselling author, had never heard of P.V. Maro. In fact his biography is a bit loopy. His earliest known published book is a series of poems, the Eclogues, rather pastoral in mood and setting, quite derivative of Edwardian poetry; think D. H. Lawrence and A.E. Housman, but even more insipid. He only wrote one book of lyric poetry, which should tell you something about how he perceived his own lack of lyrical gifts. Some time later he wrote a versified DIY manual titled Georgics, which explains how to plant, sow and harvest crops, what tools to use, the seasons of the year, etc. I don’t have the faintest idea who the publisher thought this book was for. Even in this specialised market of ours, full of microscopic interests, I think we can all agree that an agricultural manual in verse form is the niche of niches. Yes, it didn’t reach the readerships Maro intended, and I understand the publisher pulled the plug on a whole line of verse technical guides about several trades and crafts, and that’s a shame because I really wanted their forthcoming verse manual on clay pottery.

Jobless, but with rudimentary dexterity for the occasional good sentence and dialogue, Maro surveyed the market and realized the fantasy genre was booming with Harry Potter, Twilight, Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games. So he decided to reinvent himself. The Wikipedia details get murky here, and I guess we’ll have to wait for Walter Isaacson’s biography, but suffice to say he signed a major contract with a publishing house – rumours say he got an obscenely high upfront payment in the order of seven digits – to produce a 12-part book series called Aeneid. Even more remarkable, when details started to pour in, was that this series was going to be a sort of follow-up to the classic book series Odyssey, by Homerus.

Younger readers won’t probably recognize this name, but back when I was kid everybody devoured Homerus’ fantasy books. He was one of the most successful and prolific feuilleton writers of all times, author of two lengthy fantasy sagas: Illiad, a 24-part book series about Greek heroes trying to rescue a captive white woman from evil Asian white slavers (I admit the series, like Fu Manchu, hasn’t aged well); and its sequel, Odyssey, another 24 books, a high-octane survival thriller set in the high seas about a soldier journeying back home to save his wife from a band of rapacious cads. I remember the anxiety me and my classmates endured between finishing one book and waiting for the new one. Even as individual book series they’re amongst the longest ever written: longer than Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (5 volumes), Frank Herbert’s Dune (6), E. E. "Doc" Smith’s Lensman (6, not counting The Vortex Blaster), Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (7), Ponson du Terrail’s Rocambole (11), Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (14), Maurice LeBlanc’s Arsène Lupin (22), and surpassed only by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvstre, whose Fantômas series lasted a whopping 43 volumes! Those were the grand production days.

This of course was before I discovered literary fiction. Looking back, I realize how silly many of those books were: shallow characters, almost no psychology, crude structures, poor plotting, too many coincidences and implausible events moving the plot along. Nothing to compare with the better written, more realistic, more profound books I read nowadays. Still, allowing nostalgia to get the better of my judgement, I decided to buy the Aeneid Special Omni-Edition collecting all the 12 books Maro published before his untimely death. Usually I don’t like to read unfinished books, but reliving the adventures of the Fellowship of the Horse and the cunning Odysseus seemed like a good trade-off. If only I had listened to my instincts…

I think we can all agree that unofficial sequels and spin-offs are the nadir of the publishing world, yes? I mean, nobody really takes Dacre Stoker’s Dracula the Un-Dead seriously, do they? Or those embarrassing books Herbert’s son continued writing to milk Dune for all it was worth? So I didn’t expect a lot from Aeneid, but even so what a spectacular train-wreck!It exceeded all my fears!

The Aeneid is what we comic book geeks call a retcon, short for retroactive continuity, the practice of incorporating non-existing elements of a story into its past to pretend they’ve been there all along. Usually this tinkering with the original stories causes a lot of continuity problems in the future. But I won’t bother anyone with the consequences the Crisis on Infinite Earths cross-over had on the continuity of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, it’s so confusing in its dedalian effects it’s practically impenetrable and unsolvable and nearly destroyed the franchise. To Maro’s credit, he managed to avoid the usual pitfalls of retcons, making a smooth transition from Homerus' storyline to his own. He’s also to be commended for making a new reader-friendly saga that doesn’t rely too heavily on the two former series, and for filling in most of the background information. Of course nothing beats reading the actual series.

Basically Maro’s story retcons Aeneas and his chums into the story of Troy right when the noble Greeks have succeeded in liberating it from its tyrants. Aeneas is the leader of a small group of soldiers who desert, get inside a boat and sail out to found a new city in a far-away land called Latin-Earth. Yes, it's our typical fantasy book, with a quest and maps. Still, I did not expect the protagonist to be a Trojan, since the Trojans were the bad guys in the previous books. This was rather bold, not as black and white as I remember the other ones to be. The literary fiction fan in me, used to moral ambiguity, was slightly impressed. Alas everything’s in the execution and once the novelty wore off there wasn’t much to praise the book for.

Map of Latin-Earth contained inside my edition
There are tremendous problems with the way Maro tries to avoid legal entanglements with the Homerus Estate. It’s obvious that the publishers didn’t get permission to use many of the characters and so they had to cover them up a bit. But does anyone who remembers Poseidon, Zeus, Hera and Aphrodite think for a second that Neptune, Jupiter, Juno and Venus think are anything but second-rate copies? I haven’t seen such a shameless ploy to balk at paying royalties since Maurice LeBlanc pitted Herlock Sholmes (wink wink nudge nudge) against Arsène Lupin. Maro must have thought his readers were too brain dead not to notice the ruse! It’s a small matter, I agree, if you don’t care about things like author rights. But for me this is especially troubling because it proves that Maro’s imagination isn’t that good, which is worrying in a fantasy writer, instead he prefers to rely on familiarity, and in doing so the plot becomes too predictable and samey.

And this brings us to the matter of diminishing returns. Maro simply recycles many of the best scenes in Homerus’ stories, except they’re never as good as the first time they were told. There’s the bit when Maro retells the stratagem of the Trojan Horse; and then there’s an episode on the island of the Cyclops, and again they narrowly escape Polyphemus, because we haven't seen that before, have we? And once again the arch-enemy is Juno, or Hera or whatever you want to call her. In fact a big part of this series seems patterned after Odysseus’s (conveniently changed to Ulysses) sea journey, since the Trojans are also lost in the sea looking for home. I understand we old fans aren’t the only readers, obviously he’s writing for a new readership who never read Homerus so all this stuff may look fresh to them, but it’s a fact many of the old fans are going to read it, and obviously we're  not going to be satisfied.

Another problem with Maro’s storytelling deficiencies is that he breaks the golden rule of storytelling willy-nilly: show, don’t tell. Now Homerus was a great storyteller. The battle between Achilles and Hector, or Hector and Ajax’s cool duel, the awesome episode of the Trojan Horse, Odysseus blinding Polyphemus like a real badass, him kicking the ass of Penelope’s suitors: there were many epic set pieces in the series that filled my young heart with murderous joy. There’s nothing like that in Maro’s book, just lots of talking heads. Even when you think he’s going to spice a scene with a bit of action, he doesn’t relent from his monotonous verbosity. The most disappointing moment was in Book 6, when Aeneas travels to the underworld, and you think he’s going to fight orcs and goblins and balrogs, not to mention all his Greek enemies are there, Achilles, Patroclus and Ajax, right? It could have been a kick-ass sequence, but no, Aeneas spends all his time talking to his father, Anchises. And Books 1 through 5 were mainly him talking to Dido, a new female character.

Regarding female characters, it saddens me to say that the poor treatment of women by fantasy writers hasn’t changed since Homerus. I don’t have problems re-reading Homerus’ old books and making some allowances about the way he depicted women, because it was the way it was back then. But you expect a modern writer to be more gender sensitive. There’s the aforementioned Queen Dido – at least she’s not a princess – who is basically just a love interest for the protagonist. In fact she’s so madly in love with him (because women only care about romance) that she kills herself out of love, the only act of agency she demonstrates in the entire series. And don’t even get me started on Creusa, Aeneas’s wife: she barely shows up, in fact she spends more time in the story as a ghost than as a living person, and only to give her husband an absurd reason for him to make his journey alone, although I think the real reason is that Maro had difficulties writing male/female relationships. Still perhaps it was for the best, I don’t even want to imagine if Creusa had landed in Dido’s city. I can just imagine the series failing at the Bechdel Test by by having the two talk about men together.

Creusa is just a bizarre addition to the story, why didn’t Maro just keep her out? What good did her cameo do? Maybe he changed the series’ plans halfway through, maybe he just wanted to give the protagonist a personal tragedy (but then why also kill his father off? Not every hero needs to be Batman!) to make him sympathetic, more human. Or maybe he wanted to clear the path to allow Aeneas to court Lavinia without a fuss, to avoid writing about the grimier aspects of relationships – jealousy, lust, betrayal, etc. – that we literary fiction readers eat up, along with moral ambiguities. Lavinia is yet another female character mostly defined by her gender and is seen by Aeneas and the villain Turnus as an object to be possessed. Still no other female gets so mistreated like Juno, or NotHera!, who continues to harbour an insane, unexplainable hatred for the Trojans. Why? Homerus never gave us a reason, and it was one of those things as a kid you didn’t care about. Maro, it must be said, is slightly more sophisticated, almost literary, and he concocts a prophecy about Aeneas founding a city that will destroy Carthage, Juno’s favourite city, so giving her a reason to want to destroy him. I don’t know where this was going, it was one of the dangling plots left unsolved, since Maro died before finishing the series. At times, however, Juno just seems like a puppet whose strings the author pulls to give the characters’ conflicts and problems to overcome. She has as much personality as the Wicked Witch of the West.

Maro died shortly after Book 12th came out. He had planned to continue the series until volume 24, like Homerus did. As of his death the publisher hasn’t yet confirmed if they’ll hire a new writer to finish to series. In my opinion they should quit while they're ahead. If they decide to green light more sequels, though, I hope the rumours that Brandon Sanderson is in talks to take the reins are false. As for me, literary fiction reader that I am, each book I read is not only escapism, but also a growing experience, an opportunity to learn something new. And so I learned that you can never go back home, you can only be a kid once. I was better off with my pristine memories of Homerus’ stories, I realize that now, I did not need to have my childhood memories raped like this. And above all: nostalgia is good stalgia.

At least this series was so awful it’s unlikely it’ll ever be turned into a film franchise starring Brad Pitt.

6 comments:

  1. Bravo. Bravo. You have outdone yourself.

    No film perhaps, but I trust there will be a graphic novel version forthcoming.

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    1. Scott, I'm glad you liked it. I put quite a lot of effort into it.

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  2. Epic post. I can't describe the effect of the map! *chuckles*

    I myself can no longer get inside Ercule Poiroth's egg shaped head and the pseudo-lit of voodoo King Stephen.

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    1. Thanks, Rise.

      Apropos of Stephen King, TV shows are subtitled in Portugal, and once his name was actually translated as Rei Estêvão. I don't know what the translator was thinking!

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  3. Miguel, I think you were a little rough with P.V. Maro. After all, he did directly or indirectly inspire Inferno...Dan Brown's Inferno!

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