Subtly Literary – The Earthsea Series by Ursula Le Guin

There’s a lot of debate on what constitutes genre writing and what constitutes literary writing; a quick Google will get you any number of different opinions and comparisons. I’m going to add mine to that list, not to inflame further debate, but purely so you’re aware of what I mean when I use the terms in this and forthcoming blog posts.

So it’s pretty simple: For me, genre writing is writing that is primarily about the story, and literary writing is writing that primarily uses the story as a mechanism for communicating or reflecting on something else. That’s it. This definition will likely change as I mature and learn more about writing fiction, but for now I think that’s a good baseline.

You shouldn’t feel pressured to prescribe to my definition of these things, but there’s one thing that I hope you’ll agree with me on: neither genre nor literary writing is intrinsically superior. The Google searches I mentioned above will reveal that countless people, and especially writers, are convinced that whichever type they write or read is better than the other. They should know better. As writers, we should celebrate different forms of writing, not condemn them. Personally, I find genre writing good for the escapism. When I want to disappear from this world and enter another, I read genre. On the other hand, when I want to gain insight about the world, or if I want to learn more about what literary writing looks like (because I’ve read way more genre than I have literary) then I read literary. Both have their uses, but neither is better.

It’s also worth noting that most writing will have elements of both. Even the most dedicated  genre writers will have moments in which they inject their personal views into their work, and all literary fiction writers have to maintain at least a veneer of story, otherwise they’re just writing non-fiction.

The blend of genre and literary writing, the synergy between plot and deeper meaning, is something that Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series excels at. It’s probably the best mix of the two that I’ve read so far, and so I’m going to talk about the series briefly. This review won’t be nearly as organised as my last book review, but I’m hoping it’ll still be useful. We’ll start off spoiler-free, but there will be a clearly marked spoiler section later on.

The Earthsea series spans five novels and a volume of short stories. The first novel was originally published all the way back in 1968(!), so this is a series that has been written over a long time. There are some parts where you can tell, especially if you read the whole series back-to-back like I did, but Le Guin’s writing doesn’t slacken. The great part about her writing is that the themes and issues she’s commenting on through it all tie naturally into the story. None of it feels forced, though the representation of real world issues becomes stronger with successive books. The story itself is layered, the characters well-constructed and the setting deep and expansive, though Le Guin doesn’t overload the reader with exposition. The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, serves effectively to introduce the setting and familiarise the reader with everything, and in the sequels you’ll notice is that there will be threads placed in each book that the next book capitalises on. Considering how long it took for Le Guin to write this series, that takes some good effort and planning; each book is a complete unit and none of them end unsatisfactorily, but Le Guin always leaves herself enough material to neatly link a new book into the series. Each novel has its own plot and I don’t doubt that Le Guin would have no trouble introducing new elements without prior foreshadowing (which she definitely does), but it makes them so much more satisfying when they’re linked in with a tie to a previous character or event. In the foreword to “Tales of Earthsea”, which is the volume of short stories, Le Guin talks about how some of the short stories came about: she was “researching” some of Earthsea’s history so she could better write The Other Wind (the fifth novel). She says “When I was asked to write [another Earthsea novel]…”, so it seems that she hadn’t actually planned on writing it, but nevertheless the story flows on naturally from The Farthest Shore.

Even at the surface level, Earthsea is delightful to read. Ursula Le Guin is incredible at metaphors; her sentence-level writing is very pleasing. An example is a ship’s sails: “long and white as swan’s wings.” Her writing is compact and not too wordy, but rich and flowing and easy on the eye, and she likes her description, which aligns well with my reading tastes. I feel like a lot of fantasy places primary emphasis on dialogue, with immersing the reader in the world placed taking second priority (though maybe I’m just reading the wrong fantasy). Le Guin doesn’t compromise on this. Description and dialogue interface comfortably in her writing, and little snippets of colour and texture surprise the reader all throughout her books. In this way, Earthsea has served as a reminder to me of the possibilities of fantasy, and reading it told me that the way I like to write is okay too.

The plotting is a little slower than some readers might be used to, though that doesn’t actually mean it drags. Earthsea pauses to contemplate what is happening within it and the characters reflect on their actions and desires. This is not a sword and sorcery series; don’t expect battles and swordfights (though there is conflict). Expect, instead, a journey of discovery of the setting’s mysteries, as well as the characters discovering themselves. Plot threads intertwine nicely, and the climaxes are formidable, but I think they’re intentionally written not to be overwhelming: the series has a subdued tone all throughout that implies the reader should be thinking about the events, not just reading them. This is important, because although some of the themes and social issues the books tackle are out in full force and plain sight, there’s also a lot that isn’t obvious, and taking the time to fill in the gaps yourself only makes it more satisfying.

I’m now going to directly talk about events in the books, so stop reading now if you don’t want that. Go and read the books instead. They’re amazing, and have my wholehearted recommendation. To wrap up: no matter whether you want to run away to a different world, or to think more deeply about your own, Earthsea is great. Le Guin says that the novels should be read first, before the short stories, and I agree. Find these books and read them. You’ll be wiser for it.

The rest of the review contains spoilers.







There’s a theme of environmentalism to the books that I honestly didn’t notice until I read Le Guin’s Wikipedia article. On reflection, it’s definitely there. Every spell or use of magic has a consequence for the natural world. “Rain here might be drought in Osskil,” is a phrase used a couple of times. Le Guin urges us to live in harmony with our world and not to impose our will on it. I don’t identify with environmental issues as much as I do with gender issues (which is the other big running topic that I’ll get to in a bit), but it got me thinking and the idea of an intrinsic equilibrium that magic can disrupt lends credence to, for example, the archetype of the stoic wizard who only uses magic when absolutely necessary. When I switched to reading a different series after Earthsea, for a little while I was surprised that experienced spellcasters were freely using magic without caring, and after I remembered I wasn’t reading Earthsea anymore, the other book felt a little shallower. It’s a system that encourages thought and reflection on the impact that our actions have on the world, which it seems is the whole point.

I mentioned gender issues before. At the start of A Wizard of Earthsea, a couple of sayings are mentioned: “Weak as woman’s magic,” and “Wicked as woman’s magic.” Reading this broke my immersion in the novel for a bit, because I was surprised that a female author would actively put this sort of discrimination in her world right from the get go. It’s only two books later, in Tehanu, that planting this seed pays off. Tehanu takes a huge diversion from the tone of the first two books, and brings a variety of gender issues front and centre, often brutally. The most obvious ones are rape and violence against women. Personally, these are issues that are very important to me and ones I want to help make better in the real world, but as a man I suffer from a fundamental lack of perspective, and this isn’t the sort of thing you can just ask about in social situations. Tehanu, both the character and the book, provides some of that missing perspective. Reading the third book made me experience perhaps a tiny fraction of what women have to live with in the real world, and it affirmed my view that feminism is an incredibly necessary movement today. I was able to experience something of the ever-present fear of rape and objectification that plagues real people right now. This, more than anything, was the effectiveness of the book. It at times reads almost like a horror story, especially when Handy and his thugs show up at Tenar’s house, and the comparison is perfectly appropriate, because there are few things more horrific than rape.

One of the reviews of The Other Wind on the back cover says (and I paraphrase) “The magic of Earthsea remains as potent and as necessary as ever.” Necessary is the key word there. I don’t know what effect the later books would have on someone who didn’t support feminism, or on someone who was in fact a domestic abuser or a rapist, but I think it’s something someone could point to as a resource; the only trouble is that it somewhat relies on reading the first two books beforehand. Also, I want to reinforce the fact that the in-your-face issues that come up in Tehanu and continue to a lesser extent in the last two books don’t actually jar with the setting. Le Guin weaves it all naturally in, and uses the character development as an integral part of exploring the magic and the history of Earthsea.

It’s pretty clear that Le Guin longed to have her voice heard on these issues, but crafted the series patiently so that it drew the reader into its setting, so that the reader knew to listen by the time the issues came up. Tehanu makes the reader uncomfortable, but because it’s the third book in the series the reader is already invested and less likely to put it down. If it came first, I think many would. Le Guin’s foresight here is as much a sign of her mastery as the writing itself. The Farthest Shore and The Other Wind take these issues and continue discussing them, as well as branching out to others. It’s a refreshing read, balancing between immersing the reader and making them think about their own circumstances. I’m very glad that Le Guin sought fit to write about the problems she does, because they’re things that really, really need talking about, and her books might help people get a better understanding. They certainly did for me.

Vessels by Be’lakor – storytelling at its most primal

Music has the potential to make someone feel more in five seconds than a novel can in five hundred words. Music has this ability to speak to our emotions in a way that is both vague and intensely piercing. When you combine this ability with storytelling, you get one of the most effective and most unique creative avenues in existence.

Be’lakor have always been great at storytelling: gems such as Countless Skies, Venator, Outlive the Hand, and In Parting showcase their lyrical prowess. They’re also awesome at making metal music; songs such as Abeyance and Remnants are two of my favourites. So when I heard that the Melbourne-based band were going to write a concept album, I was thrilled. That album has been out for some months now, and my hype was absolutely justified. Let’s dive in.

The Sound

I’m a guitarist and a beginner drummer, but I’m honestly not that great at paying attention to qualities of sound, nor am I awesome at describing these. So let me just say on this that the Be’lakor sound hasn’t changed massively. It’s a polished and improved take on the sound they’ve consistently based their music on since the start. The low, bassy rhythm sections pierced through by high lead riffs won’t be a surprise to anyone acquainted with Be’lakor. There are a few acoustic sections, and the guitar there has a sound that’s warm, but not so warm and metallic that you can tell that new strings have just been put on (I’ve listened to a lot of music that’s guilty of this). At the same time the tone of the acoustic guitar doesn’t offset the mood of the rest of the music.

One random detail about the music sticks out to me, though: the snare drum. It’s got that hollow ring that isn’t overly present in the loud sections but in the quieter bits really hits home the sense of subtle disturbance that Be’lakor prides itself on. Good stuff.

The Music

Also not going to spend too much time on this by itself as I’ll dive deeper into this when discussing the lyrics, as the cohesion between the music and the words are what’s really remarkable about this album.

Be’lakor did say that Vessels would contain bits that would surprise some people. I’ll touch on a couple of these later, but it’s worth noting that while some parts might at first seem musically odd, once you become familiar with the songs and listen through a few times it all fits in together. Overall, the riffs are solid and supportive of the song in any given moment, the occasional piano section serves to bring a sense of melancholy, and the drums are clever, which is really important in making metal music stand out, as so much of metal drumming is very basic. This album is worth listening to for the music alone, and if you want a showcase, listen to An Ember’s Arc. That single song has pretty good examples of pretty much the album’s entire range.

The Story

I’m going to discuss both music and lyrics in this section as it all fits in together. I’ll step through song by song, talking about what each one brings to the concept as it evolves, and then finish with some conclusions about the whole thing.

Obviously, there’s heavy spoilers for Vessels below.

#1 – Luma

Straight off the bat, this song contains some unexpected bits: the high lead riff here makes me think of glam metal. But the buildup (this is an intro song, after all) is effective: it sets the scene with two short verses talking about “a thread that runs through all”. This is an important line, and I’ll get back to it later. One thing surprised me about the song is that the first word actually spoken (in the fade-in right before the main section) is “destiny”. That word is not in the lyrics booklet. Also worth noting.

UPDATE: As pointed out in the comments below, what I’d originally misheard as a distorted utterance of the word “destiny” in Luma is actually the quote: “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” These words are in the lyrics booklet, but on a page on their own before the words of Luma. On reflection, they don’t really seem to tie into the plot, apart from the reference to the sun. The fact that they’re on a page by themselves before the title “Luma” and the rest of the words makes me think that maybe they’re “outside” the concept of the album, and perhaps they’re just a thematic quote meant to set the scene.

#2 – An Ember’s Arc

Let me start off by saying that, musically, this is probably my favourite song on the album and one of the best songs Be’lakor’s ever written. It ranges from quiet contemplation to heavy confrontation. The formulation of the lyrics is great as well. In particular, give the introductory drum beat up to about 1:00 a few listens through. Awesome use of the high tom, but in general that part is just pleasing to listen to.

The song gives us our first big insight into the album’s tale: it discusses the formation of a star. Be’lakor doesn’t often reach for the skies with their lyrics, but this is done excellently. The riff at around 3:30 is probably my favourite part. In any case, we get a sense of primeval gas clouds coalescing into “a crucible for their collapse”, and the song explores the chaos of stellar birth (which is supported really well by the music). We find out that the star forming is in fact the sun, and the second half of the lyrics discusses two particles meeting and ultimately forming a particular photon. “Free at last, it’s final form, / The photon dashed for Earth.” Thus the song directs our expectations to Earth for the next song, but be warned that this is not Earth as we know it.

#3 – Withering Strands

At almost eleven minutes, this is the longest song of the album, and it starts off with a pondering, slow riff that leads into a recurring riff that will be something like the hallmark of the song. We learn of a small plant that the photon from the previous song directs us to. Overshadowed by titan trees, this plant has struggled to survive, with little light reaching it. The song almost mourns for the plant even as it dies.

But fortune changes: one of the trees around it collapses, and light pours through onto the plant so that it’s “Transformed by the day / As the fuelling light forged.” One small thing that irks me about this song is that some of the verses are repeated in different parts of the song. With such lyrical depth it’s a shame to see words reused, but perhaps it’s so that greater attention is paid to the music in those bits, or maybe Be’lakor just wants to reinforce the words. Another thing worth noting: at around 6:05 the rhythm guitar drops away leaving the lead guitar to echo hollowly, and we hear a wordless grunt from the vocals. Keep that in mind as well, because over the course of the album we’ll see recurrences of animalistic sounds that seem to be less for random emphasis and more to mark the primality of the situation in that moment. I’ll come back to this later.

The plant towers up, but the penultimate verse of the song warns us of its fate: “Fixated above, / The sky its sole purpose, / Its oblivious growth / Led the insects to surface.” The music here (at 9:26) is dissonant and striking, with strong accents that make me think of hammer blows.

Insects rise up onto the newborn tree and tear it down. This plant that we’ve seen on the brink of death that was saved has now been finally destroyed, and this sets the tone unequivocally for the album: this is a tragic tale. Expect no happy endings here. The final verse fades away with a lingering scream and the music vanishes, leaving only a foreboding, almost ticking sound that brings to mind clocks and mortality.

However, this seemingly desolate moment was where I got my first sense that maybe this isn’t all the album’s saying. I got a tiny hint that there’s something underneath. Remember that there’s “A thread that runs through all”. The next song confirmed my theory and it’s there that we start to identify the grand story that Vessels is weaving. Onwards.

#4 – Roots to Sever

I love how Be’lakor works the softness of the piano into otherwise heavy riffs. It gives your ears some room to breathe and your mind some room for contemplation. The intro gives way to a fast, rushing couple of verses that describe the final death of the plant from the previous song.

The piano returns, almost marking those two verses as an interim, then our attention turns to the insects that killed the plant. “Among them, one drone like any other” is our next character. We learn of two insects that have nurtured an egg, which is forbidden under the rule of a Queen. This fits in well with our knowledge of real insects like bees and so gives the fiction some authenticity.

However, the Queen finds out and the two insects are cast out, with their egg smashed on stones. There’s a line here that’s really, really important thematically: Be’lakor calls the broken egg “An offering to slake the earth” and this casts a light onto the harsh nature of the Earth that Vessels depicts: this is a world that has an actively malign nature. It hints at the foundation underneath the recurring tragedy we’ve seen depicted: the suffering of the two insects and their child perhaps makes the earth relent in its demand for sorrow, because “Despite its lot, the child emerged.”

The newly hatched insect searches for more of its kind and is watched by “A pack.” You can already see what’s going to happen here, right? The pack follows the tiny insect as it searches for its swarm, and once it finds them, the pack attacks.

This legitimises the theory that I’d started to hold since Withering Strands: there’s a cycle of tragedy here. The photon was consumed by the plant. The plant was consumed by the insects. The insects were consumed by the pack. See the cycle? Again, there’s this nagging feeling of dissonance inside me at this point in the album: there’s something connecting all this. But what? The rest of the album reveals the truth to us.

Roots to Sever has some awesome riffs, both in ringing guitar harmonies and the strong rhythm underneath. The drums here are strong but not overwhelming. They punctuate the guitar but don’t drown it out, and that’s one of the best qualities of Be’lakor’s drumming: the guys behind this know which instruments need to shine at which parts. Excellent polish.

Can I also point out that Be’lakor is able to set the mood really well? 4:18 and onwards really encapsulates a feeling of oncoming dread.

Another point: more animal-like grunts at 3:17 and 3:21. I’m strengthened in my theory that these parts serve to draw attention to particular points.

#5 – Whelm

That title. We immediately think of “overwhelm” since that’s the common word, but “whelm” by itself gives the same meaning with a more primitive ring. Perfect for the setting.

This is probably my least favourite song on the album. It has some good moments musically, but a lot of the riffs just didn’t sit right with me (the lead guitar at 3:05 is a huge exception; that’s amazing). Still, there’s some things worth drawing attention to.

Excellent uses of the words “chitin” and “ichor” in the first verse, talking about the death of the insects. This mirrors Roots to Sever: the final death of the characters of the previous song are summed up at the very start, and the rest of the song concerns the new focus. In this case, the pack.

Really important lyrical choice: “A rushing mass of fur and claws, / The host would move as one.” Keep the word “host” in mind, because it explains something that happens later in the album.

So at this point we expect some tragedy to befall this pack, and we’re not wrong in our expectation: as they travel the pack has to cross a river. We get a sense that this pack doesn’t hobble itself for the wounded: “Provided each could keep apace, / Those creatures feared none” and “Dispensable – when it should break, / The rest would let it sink.” So we know exactly what’s going to happen: one of the creatures falls while crossing the river and is “shattered on the rocks.”

5:40: A lingering, inhuman scream from the vocals. The creature that fell is watching its pack leave it to die. This sound goes on for a long enough time that it’s actually a little disturbing. It focuses our attention on the pain the creature is experiencing as it dies.

The cycle has continued: one of the pack has been consumed by the river. We’re close to finding out why.

#6 – A Thread Dissolves

Remember that thread mentioned at the very start? Well, the title tells us pretty clearly that it’s now dissolved in the river. This connection between all the characters in the story becomes a little more cohesive.

In the lyrics booklet, this song has no lyrics, but you can hear words when you listen to it. They’re all from the next song, which is interesting.

#7 – Grasping Light

Here we go. Here are the revelations.

Just downstream of where the furred creature died, a man contemplates life by the river. This song gives us the most direct explanation of the connection between all that’s been happening in this album: “To follow the river is to follow the arc.” Which arc? An Ember’s Arc. “To follow the river is to follow the thread.” Which thread? The “Thread that runs through all,” the thread that has now dissolved in the river. “Something of that ember lives! / He feels it bide, he feels it wake / Looking out, but at itself.” It’s the ember. That photon that started everything, that photon’s energy has travelled through all our characters. It hit the plant, which was eaten by insects, which were eaten by hunters, one of which has died and released its energy into the river!

Amazingly, this song also contains what seems like the crux, the delivery of the album’s climax: “But a vessel, adrift, / Not a theft, nor a gift, / That was all – / But a pulse.” Notice the name drop? The album here is trying to tell us, through the words of the human as he contemplates, that all these creatures are just vessels, that there’s nothing beyond them, that it’s all meaningless tragedy. But how can this message be effectively delivered when the entire album before it has shown us an immense cycle that connects all these creatures? Tragic, yes! Heartbreaking, yes! But it’s nevertheless there: all these creatures are part of something greater that started with the star. Vessels, after all, hold something within them! In this way the album incredibly and masterfully subverts and mocks the stereotypical death metal message. It’s through delivering that message at a surface level that the album has shown through deeper connections that message’s flaws. That is the amazing part.

But we’re not done. One more song to go. The man continues the cycle by drinking from the river in which the pack creature died. “To drink from the river is to meet with the arc.” The song’s title plays into this: the man is Grasping Light, because he’s grasping the energy of the ember as he drinks. We know that he’s doomed, but we also know that he’s a part of something now, and the final song will show us the part he has to play in the cosmic web that Vessels has crafted.

#8 – The Smoke of Many Fires

That opening riff. This song has a few jewels like it, and I’ll try to point them out, but that opener beautifully brings up that tragic expectation that we already have.

The man steps away from the river to go back to his clan. A lilting lead cuts through the background with sad notes. We know the man is doomed, and his doom becomes apparent soon.

“He soon found a failing, / Of flesh, and of mind – / They were no longer robust or bright.” The man has grown weak. Why? “What he could not have seen / Was the sickness upstream.” Remember the pack from before, in Whelm? Remember the choice of words? “The host would move as one.” What do hosts carry? Diseases. The man drank water with the blood or innards of the dead creature in it and has quickly fallen prey to the death it carried. “What he could not have known / Was the blight of the bone / In each ebb and each flow he had tasted.”

4:47: Absolutely amazing riff. Piercing and gut-wrenching. “It was then that he heard the sharp crackle of torches, / Carried past him by men from his clan.” He’s going to be burnt alive because “Those he loved feared his illness would wander.” Still that riff sounds out, and to me it’s one of the most emotional moments in the album, because it brings across the feelings of panic that the man must be experiencing at this point. The riff gives way to the only ever time I’ve heard a wah-wah pedal being used to communicate tragedy. The quiet bit after 6:40 or so is our final goodbye, our final contemplation of all that we’ve heard, but bizarrely there’s almost an assonant note at 7:15ish. Why would a spark of positivity be injected here? Our answer arrives with startling force.

“At the heart of the blaze, awareness dissolved / Light ascended devoid of desire / From a trail intertwined, / Life and death strewn behind, / To the stars, it returned, from the fire.”

Because in light of all this tragedy, all this death, the cycle is complete: that photon’s energy has been converted back to fire and is now on its way back to the stars from which it came. That ending is wonderfully tragic and bittersweet, and the music leaves that lingering feeling of shock, both filling and draining, that is the signature of a great tragedy.


What else is there to say? If you’ve read this without listening to the album, then you’re missing out; there’s a substance and energy that I can’t come close to communicating just in this post. The messages hit harder with the music. If you’ve heard it through before, I hope my reading of it has given you some additional insights. Vessels is an expert subversion of death metal that uses the genre to its fullest capacity. The storytelling here is primal: characters aren’t named, but are facets of nature and the world that Be’lakor has dealt with since Venator or even earlier. The music is stellar, and synergises with the words. The whole thing works together to weave an awesome story and is a perfection of what Be’lakor has been cultivating for a while.

A personal aside: one of my previous favourite bands, Parkway Drive, reached this exact same point with the release of Deep Blue in 2010. That was a concept album and my favourite album of theirs. Their albums after that weren’t to my liking and I drifted away from them. I hope the same doesn’t happen to Be’lakor.

But there’s a final point, something that I’m sure isn’t intentional but it’s awesome to pretend it is. Look at the album art:

Those look like kind of like people, right? I showed the cover to someone I’d listened through the album with and asked “What kind of people are these?!” Her response: “Well, they’re deformed, they’ve got bone disease!”

Oh no. “The blight of the bone.” The man’s clan didn’t burn him quick enough, and the disease spread to them before he died. Isn’t that a perfect, final gut-punch, even if it’s imaginary? This is my headcanon for the album, and an awesome finish to an emotional journey.

UPDATE: So I got a welcome surprise when I tweeted Be’lakor with this review:

Be'lakor liked my review!

It’s not every day that that happens!

How the depiction of religion in media degrades the real thing

I recently rewatched Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s a great movie, but there was one flaw that stuck out to me that I feel is worth drawing attention to: Ultron’s references to Christianity as a metaphor for the work he’s doing (initiating the apocalypse). First off, let me note that this comes out of nowhere. Ultron is definitely based off Tony Stark, and we see that in his attitude, his snide remarks, and of course his motivations. “He can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it,” says Wanda, “where do you think he gets that?”

Ultron’s religious allegories, however, have no prior basis in character. Stark may well be hiding strong disdain towards religion, but we’re not shown this in either this movie or the previous (it’s been a while since I’ve seen the Iron Man series, so forgive me if I’ve missed something from there). Nevertheless, the references to the words of Jesus (“On this rock I shall build my church.”) and the discussion in the old church with Wanda and Pietro are completely jarring and don’t serve any purpose other than to weakly associate Ultron with religious fanaticism. And why? Ultron’s instability could easily have been established with no references to religion whatsoever. The scene in the factory where he destroys one of his own bodies is a great example of how this could be done, so the mockery of Christianity is irrelevant and distasteful.

Christians, by and large, are terrible at defending our faith, so let me now illustrate why this aspect of Ultron’s character is not only unnecessary, but actually makes the film worse.

Firstly, Ultron is just one of many. Movies and TV shows are filled with such skewed and warped depictions of religion. Mainstream media hardly ever shows Christianity how it is or the outlooks of normal religious people. This is wide ranging: from Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes to Mary Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, the characters associated with religion in fiction are almost always at extreme ends of the spectrum.

Why is this bad? Consider that Age of Ultron made more than $2 billion at the box office worldwide. That is an insane number of people who have watched this movie. Consider also that many of those people would only ever encounter religion through media. This means that without the experience of the real thing, these people’s impressions of religion are invariably going to be shaped by these extreme depictions, and they’ll eventually start to think that real religion is like this, which just leads to more negativity and conflicts in real life. I’ve said this before: unless your story or world is actually providing commentary on a real life issue or topic, make it neutral towards that topic. There is the possibility that Joss Whedon was intentionally trying to say something about Christianity with Ultron’s character, but honestly, I can’t see it. We clearly don’t want to destroy the world, and the God that Christians believe in isn’t the malicious deity that Ultron talked about.

The people responsible for making these movies need to realise that they have the power to enact large-scale societal attitude shifts through the way they depict things, so why spread misinformation? Why foster negative attitudes when you can foster the positive? There’s immense potential in fiction to make people’s outlooks on life better, not worse, and it’s a disservice to society to abuse or not utilise this potential.

And secondly, the simple reality is that people who identify with the religion that is being depicted are going to be hurt by its use in this way, and that means they will enjoy the movie less. Even if money is all you care about, people enjoying your movie less will affect your bottom line. Besides, this isn’t about money or political correctness or taking sides, it’s about something simpler: if you have the choice to either hurt someone or not, why hurt them? Making other people happy is a basic life goal, and that can be achieved through movie blockbusters just as it can be achieved in normal, everyday life.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson – a fresh kind of fantasy

“A promise: This is the truth. You will know it because it hurts.”

These words, alone on a page before the story itself, with no context or explanation, are how The Traitor (my edition omits Baru’s name from the title) by Seth Dickinson starts. The first time I read them, and the second time as well, my mind hardened a little towards them. I started reading feeling a little on guard.

I often have to distance myself a little from what I’m reading when I read fiction. I don’t know whether it’s the particular authors or online magazines I happen upon, but anti-religious sentiments seem to pop up from time to time. The authors are, of course, free to write whatever they like, but as a Catholic, such themes alienate me a little from the content. The most extreme examples I’ve come across are Peter Watts’ Blindsight and Echopraxia novels (even the titles hint at some mindless devotion), which are (very well-written) science fiction novels that unfortunately strongly attack many trains of thought, but the ideas of God and organised religion especially. If you subscribe to those ideas, it’s hard to read such books without being in constant mental discomfort. Thus it is with some relief that I can say that The Traitor manages to be progressive on a lot of topics while being respectful at the same time.

Minor spoilers for The Traitor follow.

Religion in the world of The Traitor is depicted not as an invisible force nor as an iron fist ruling a naive populace. Instead, it’s shown as what it really is: a set of ideas, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world that accompany normal people through their lives, but do not dictate them. The Empire obviously opposes the devotions to Wydd, Devana and Himu, but Dickinson himself through his writing makes little commentary on it. It’s great to see this sort of neutral, hands-off approach in the prose: it lets the reader make up his or her own mind on the topic and not feel pressured to lean one way or another.

The book also presents that radical elements that identify with religions do not represent those religions as a whole. Tain Hu remarks on a mob in front of a temple: “These are very poor followers of Wydd… perhaps Himu moves them today.” We need this sort of clarity in the real world.

One of the few areas in which this neutrality is forgone is in the Empire’s choice of words: “social sin”. They use this term to refer to things like homosexuality and polygamy. This word may well purely have been chosen to make the Empire feel like more than simply a bureaucracy, but it does draw the only obvious connection between the Empire and real world religious institutions. Luckily for me, it’s easy enough to ignore this minor facet.

The concepts of homosexuality and the like are also depicted in a refreshing manner: they’re just there. Beyond the obvious exception of the Empire (and the social restrictions their rule imposes), no one makes a big deal about them, and they’re accepted as simply choices people make or things innate to them. Gender fluidity is even mentioned once. Fantasy fiction is saturated with straight-only, medieval depictions of sexuality, so it’s admirable to see these concepts worked into the novel in a clever and not over-the-top fashion. They work naturally with the setting, tie into the plot and make the whole book feel fresh and, well, modern.

As a last thematic point, gender equality is tackled gently but firmly here. Inequality between men and women exists, and it’s confronted as a matter-of-fact problem that’s real, but one that should not exist. Again, this is the sort of attitude we need to this issue in the real world.

I’ve talked about themes enough. Let’s talk about the story itself. Here is where I can really start to heap praise on Dickinson, and this is what the title of this post refers to. Baru is sent to Aurdwynn as the Imperial Accountant. Read that again: she’s an accountant. You’d think this would be a mark of a dreary tale. Economics? Yep. Monetary policy? Yep. Politics? Yep. All these things dominate the main body of the novel, but counter to intuition, they’re fantastic. The novel shines with intelligence here. Baru solves problems not with sword and shield but with pen and palimpsest. The novel puts you, the reader, above the political battlefield and illustrates the web of connections that make it up and how those connections can be manipulated. It’s a lustrous contrast to many fantasy works that have the reader in the middle of the fighting. This novel gives you a fresh perspective on conflict and its resolution.

The setting of Aurdwynn and its larger place in the world also feels cohesive and immersive. On a particular point, Dickinson has managed to name his characters in a way that doesn’t echo Tolkien (like many fantasy authors do) but also isn’t flat and unexciting. The variety of names also speaks to the characters’ different histories and heritages. I’m Polish by background, and having names include sounds characteristic to that language (and others like it) evokes hints of Europe but doesn’t break immersion. Names like Stakhieczi, with the cz sound fitting unnaturally with the letter i afterwards (to my knowledge cz never comes before an i in Polish), led to me trying for minutes at a time to pronounce them as if they were Polish words. A very original style of naming here that brings the setting to life and provides good escapism.

The dialogue and character interaction is perhaps the novel’s strongest point. Every conversation is loaded with double meanings and subtle hints that Baru works through and solves in a delightfully entertaining thought process that neither feels contrived nor makes the reader feel stupid. It’s plain fun to follow Baru as she gets into conspiracies and slowly peels them apart. Each scene is rich with little twists and turns that aren’t boring but aren’t messy either. A great balance.

Dickinson has always been good with characters, and they shine here as usual. All the plot threads are traceable back to some choice and consequence that Baru or someone else made (even if following the trail backwards requires rereading). A lot of these threads have only been made clear to me on my second reading (which comes many months after my first), and the joy of discovery is just as thrilling, if a little more mature this time around.

An aside: the ending of the book was first written as a short story, published in (major spoiler warning) Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I read this well before the book was written, and so I knew how it ended. I don’t know how not knowing would affect someone’s reading of the novel, but I know that mine was not lessened by knowing (part of) what was to come.

The writing style in The Traitor balances pace and density brilliantly. Dickinson’s writing has previously been described as “prose-poetry”, and there is an undercurrent of this in the novel. He doesn’t launch into lengthy descriptions of meaningless detail, but supplements the brisk writing with well-chosen descriptive phrases that melt into the prose. The writing pace is neither as merciless as Peter Watts nor as plodding as Patrick Rothfuss (don’t get me started on The Kingkiller Chronicle), but maintains a comfortable speed. The Traitor also contains remarkably little filler. The reader is warned of some slower paced sections because they’re titled interludes. Despite the name, you’d lose a lot by skipping them.

Somehow, The Traitor also manages to not sputter through the romance. I find most romance depictions in the books I read (maybe I’m just reading the wrong books) to be either ineffectively clinical, way too ham-fisted or just plain cringeworthy. This is perhaps the only area in which Dickinson’s descriptive powers edge a little into melodrama. It’s not noticeable if I’m immersed in the reading and reach a romance scene after already reading several others in the sitting, but going in cold highlights the intensity of the description, which can be a little immersion breaking without any buildup. However, the development of the romance and its pacing is careful and handled thoughtfully, which is something I applaud.

Overall, I highly praise The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Seth Dickinson is an inspiration to all aspiring writers, and an example of someone who’s made it into The Big Time. His novel debut is an exciting and fun read. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one.

Gender treatment in The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone

So let’s kick this off. One thing that anyone who reads my blog will quickly come to notice is that I’m all about gender equality. It’s an issue that’s become important to me over the past six months or so, and now that I’m aware of it I can’t unsee it (and nor do I want to). It’s incredibly deeply ingrained into every part of society and upending that is going to take massive social and cultural effort. I’m still investigating how I can play a part in this.

I’m a big Witcher fan. I’ve played all three games and own eight of the books, though I haven’t read them all as I bought them in an effort to step up my Polish skills (the language they’re originally in). As I’m a Pole living in Australia, and as my first language is English, usage of Polish in conversation with my family and family friends is often casual and not all that frequent. Anyway, not the point.

I played The Witcher 3 when it first came out and haven’t really touched it since. Only just now have I gotten around to getting the expansion pass and am working my way through Hearts of Stone. It’s here where I noticed some gender issues that jarred me a little.

Spoilers for The Witcher 3, Hearts of Stone, and the other two games follow.

Now, I’ll be honest and say that I don’t remember how the base game was with regards to portrayal of gender. I remember the important characters, of course, and I’ll get to their portrayal later, but I don’t remember the more subtle stuff, the “everyday” interactions in the setting and how women are portrayed in that. This is important, for reasons I’ll also get to a little later. I just wanted to state up front that I’ve been away from the world of The Witcher for a while, so that’s going to affect my perspective.

To the details: Vlodimir’s character and his possession of Geralt. While controlling Geralt’s body, Vlodimir was pretty crass about wanting to get with practically any woman he could lay his eyes on, and this was reiterated over and over again during the wedding, and it was pretty evident he didn’t really care about the women themselves. He only cared about having sex with them. Particularly the bit where he lunges at Shani and forces her to kiss him struck me as not okay.

Now, this sort of thing can be done intentionally in order to make us dislike a character, make us see him as a crude person, and Geralt does disapprove of Vlodimir’s actions, but it all comes down to the extent these character traits are used and what for.

Imagine if a character is a racist. If only a passing character, racism can be used to paint a character in a negative light, but if it’s a major or important character then there needs to be a story behind the racism. It needs in-character justification (even if misguided). Rarely will racism be used to define a character without some attention being given as to why the character is like this.

We’re at the point in awareness of gender inequality that the same standards need to apply to portrayal of women. The setting of The Witcher has always featured cultural issues, particularly racism. The unrest between humans and non-humans (elves and dwarves, mainly) was a major plot point in both the first and second games, though it shrinks a little in The Witcher 3. We see that unrest reflected in the setting: in Vizima, there’s a part of the city where non-humans tend to congregate to try and find safety in numbers.

The same in-universe justification is not given to why women are frequently objectified and made second-best to men. It’s not outright, by the way, but look at the gender spread of characters and it’ll become evident that this is a male-dominated setting, and nowhere is this issue confronted like the racial divide is.

The Witcher has some strong female characters, in the likes of Triss, Ves, Yennefer, Sile and of course Ciri, who’s pretty much the main focus of the third game. The games do well in this regard, but there’s still definitely a gender gap in the setting, and women are often only connected with the context of household work and sex. In Hearts of Stone, we see this when Olgierd and Geralt come down to talk with The Wild Ones, and Olgierd says to a woman “Go and fetch us food and drink.” (I don’t remember the exact words.) The woman comes back and one of the other men slaps her on the butt, and Olgierd reprimands him, and we then learn she’s the daughter of the owner of the manor. Olgierd’s words are “Is that any way to treat the owner’s daughter?” (Again, not sure of the exact wording.) Notice it’s not about whether it’s okay to treat a woman in this way, it’s only because of her “status” that he speaks out.

Vlodimir takes the issue much further, basically wanting to seduce women just to have sex with them. It’s evident in pretty much anything he says. The forced kiss with Shani is the pinnacle of it, and her reaction is pretty muted. She reprimands him, and he concedes and says “next time, I shall ask”, but again only because she’s said something to him. His attitude is that sex is something for the taking from women.

As mentioned before, The Witcher has some strong female characters, but it also had the sex cards in the first game (ugh), so it’s got a pretty mixed portrayal of women overall, and that’s why this comes back down to the setting. How does Vlodimir’s behaviour fit into the setting? How does the setting treat these issues? For me, Vlodimir’s conduct stuck out a lot, and I don’t think enough in-character justification was given for it. I also don’t think the writing did a good enough job of painting this behaviour as unacceptable.

Don’t get me wrong: The Witcher 3 is a stellar game. This is the first major blip against it that has come up on my radar, but I’m hoping that the rest of Hearts of Stone, and the Blood and Wine expansion after that, lives up to the quality of writing that we’re all used to.