How hard should sci-fi be?

Both Star Wars and the Foundation series fall under the umbrella of science fiction. There’s an galaxy of difference between the two, including the ‘hard’ aspect that most readers think about when discussing sci-fi. While Star Wars is a space opera in its essence much like the Vorkosigan Saga, Legend of the Galactic Heroes and so many others, it falls somewhere between science and fantasy. Perhaps, it is more fantasy because of its inclusion of space wizards and improbable creatures and environments that make little scientific sense. After all, not all science fiction must be hard. Some novels and shows can occupy the cozy space between fantasy and science.

Harder than it looks….

Maths and science. This wobbly space in the middle is difficult to define. On the one hand, we have Lem, Asimov, Bradbury, Robinson, and many other classical science fiction authors, who are more abstract philosophers than storytellers. Many of these authors share a couple of distinctive features. First, the vast majority of them have degrees in science (getting a PhD pays off!), although sometimes a scholar shows up among them (Le Guin). Second, they focus on grand ideas and, to a lesser extent, on characters. Even newer and younger authors sometimes adhere to this pattern. They can have degrees in science (Daniel Abraham has a B.A., for example), although they are rarely on the academic level of Asimov or Lem. They focus on grand scientific questions and abstract ‘what-if’s like their predecessors. Unlike their predecessors, they often pay more attention to their characters.

Story-driven VS character-driven. If you ever read any classical hard sci-fi, you’d be hard-pressed to fall in love with any of the characters they featured. I still recall Asimov story about a planet, where the sun never set, causing eventual madness, but I have trouble remembering any particularly exciting hero from the Foundation. I trudged through the series because I liked the concept: I copied citations and underlines paragraphs that I found useful, but I did not really swallow the series or rave about any of the instalments. I can’t say I enjoyed the Foundation. It was turgid. It was work, not entertainment. Not hard sci-fi, but hard-core sci-fi. Such are also most of Robinson’s books to me – very timely, very grand, but ultimately, not entertaining. They don’t need to be.

Don’t know math? Add a UFO and talk about the unknown!

Nowadays, the situation has shifted slightly. The Expanse (both the series and the show) gives you unforgettable characters (ok, Holden is not particularly interesting, but everyone else is) and also sprinkles science on top of the pie. The Expanse is believable. Moreover, it plays with our understanding of science and sociology because gravity influences not only our bodies, but also our social structures. However, I would not call the Expanse series hard sci-fi.

A simple comparison of Robinson’s books (think Red Moon) to the Expanse reveals how the level of hardness in sci-fi influences the work: the harder the sci-fi, the more irrelevant the characters become, the more abstract the story becomes. It’s neither a positive, nor a negative shift. It simply happens.

Character-driven stories also explore grandiose ideas, but those are the people (elves, aliens) that run the show, their minds introducing the reader to the world. I read many books I did not really like because there was a certain character I appreciated (a favourite type of character, usually). But none of those novels were hard sci-fi. As a kid I had trouble digesting Lem because my general understanding of science was not up to snuff. What I realized back then was that truly hard sci-fi focuses on the concepts, but not on characters. Also, hard sci-fi thrives in a short story format, allowing the ingenuity of the concept to shine. Think Bradbury’s short stories. They don’t offer great character development. They offer concept development instead.

What are the implications?

Exploding minds. Hard sci-fi is, perhaps, one of the most difficult genres to get into. First, if you don’t have rudimentary knowledge of certain disciplines, you will only understand half of the author’s message. You may enjoy the novel, but you won’t get the full package. Second, if you are not into the concept that is discussed (if I am not obsessed with planet terraforming as such and unable to understand the science behind it, I am bound not to get all the intricacies of Red Mars), you won’t like it.

Some of us seek certain character types they enjoy. Others pick up a novel, searching for beloved tropes – worthy opponents, enemies-to-lovers, stoic genius, etc. In hard sci-fi, you come to challenge your mind, not to let it rest.

There is, perhaps, one exceptional hard sci-fi that I read because of the characters. The Three-Body Problem (I am also, probably, the only person, who loves the first book of the trilogy more than the sequels). Ye Wenjie is an amazing example of a scientist utterly destroyed by society and, perhaps, science itself. Even today she remains one of my favourite characters as well as the brilliant and ruthless Thomas Wade from the last book. Again, perhaps, these two are variations of my favourite character types (especially Wade), thus I do appreciate them immensely.

The murky in-between. The space between the most challenging sci-fi and the lightest science fantasy is occupied by…everything else. Most novels written by Scalzi fall into the category of ‘fun sci-fi’: it is easy to get into and it focuses on characters, while still exploring grand concepts. Nowadays, the only undeniable feature that labels something as sci-fi is…well…a spaceship. If you find one, you are reading sci-fi, even if it is piloted by elves. Futuristic setting is optional (you can create a Byzantine Empire with spaceships and still call it science fiction). In a nutshell, science fantasy is a more accessible version of hard science fiction with cooler spaceships. Laws of physics need not apply, laws of character development are obligatory.

If you have a spaceship, you have a sci-fi on your hands!

How ‘hard’ can a sci-fi be to be enjoyable? For my engineering parents, the sky is the limit. I, on the other hand, rarely choose books because the grand concept alone piques my interest (unless the grand themes are nationalism, dissolution of Empires and propaganda). In that case, you have my eyes, ears, and cash. In another case, I still prefer to encounter fascinating characters before discussing climate change, space travel and sociological shifts.

Judging a book by its cover

We’ve all seen it – the dreaded fantasy cover that looks like…well…an explosion in a confetti shop with humanoid forms in the background. The story behind that cover can be anything – from hard-core military sci-fi to a fairy-tale. What that story does not include, however, are fireworks, half-naked ladies and buff barbarians. But the cover is still there.

Yeah, like this one. We all know it when we see it.

The tacky and the funny. First chainmail bikinis and unnaturally buff guys graced paperback covers somewhere in the 50s, becoming more popular by the decade. Simultaneously, in the East, the situation was similar – popular sci-fi journals in the Eastern Block took inspiration from Italian and Soviet futurism and added a tacky note to it.

A lot of sci-fi and fantasy came from cheap journals that became a milieu for experimentation. On the one hand, new artists could test the limits of their creativity in all possible ways together with authors and editors. It was a open field, where everyone was welcome. Thus, we got some great names that have defined the way modern sci-fi looks like with aliens and spaceships – think Paul Lehr. On the others hand, in some cases that rising creativity had nothing to do with the source material, representing a thing of their own.

Among the craziest, most outlandish book covers that I own, my old Russian edition of the Witcher beats everything. I am not certain, what the artist smoked, when he created that, but I sure want to find out.

Behold! The creepy guy is Geralt. I think. Probably.
And this is my pretty and recent Croatian edition. Perhaps, popularity helps with designs.

To be honest, old Russian fantasy covers can compete with old Polish fantasy covers when it comes to crazy illustrations and good translations. This is the Polish edition of the Reflections of Aeterna series by a Russian writer Vera Kamsha. (I like the Polish spelling more). The first three books of the series deliever a brilliant mixture of the Three Musketeers and The Song of Ice and Fire with a lot of politics and great characters. The rest of the series goes downhill. Judging by this cover, the descent begins earlier.

This guy is supposed to be the jaw-droppingly handsome Marshall Roque Alva. (I guess) They know it’s not Dracula, right?

While my collection of bad covers is uniquely rich, it includes almost exclusively genre fiction pieces. I acquired a couple of abysmal designs of classical novels, but they were a rarity. Notably, genre fiction gets a lot of its bad reputation from those tacky covers. It is understandably difficult to explain someone that the book you are reading is a profound excavation of pain and sorrow, when all you see on the cover are fair maidens with boobs the size of balconies. Yep, they still can be very philosophical, even if there is pixie dust in the background. And they are riding a dragon. And there’s some guy with a sword. And a gun.

Many otherwise decent fantasy and sci-fi works suffer from strange covers. In some cases, it is almost impossible to point out where exactly the problem lies. For example, Dragonlance taps into this creative mess, but somehow manages to remain fairy-taleish enough not to rip your brains to shredsa the way old Russian Witcher covers do.

Crysania is fine. Mostly. But they took it too far with Raistlin.

The problem with most of these covers is not the artistry itself (sometimes it is), but the clash between looks and context. The book may look like a middle-grade novel, while it delievers a story about genocide. One of the reasons I never judge books by their cover is my experiences with all these misguiding pieces of art that promised Crime and Punishment on the cover and delivered Cinderella. Or vice-versa.

The troubles with cues. It is standard nowadays to add all possible visual cues when designing book covers. When it’s Slavic fantasy, you’ll have domes. Think Grisha Trilogy, Wicked Saints, etc. For some reason, most Western designers believe that there is nothing inherently more Russian than an onion dome. Even if the said story does not have a single church in it. You’ll still get the dome. Everywhere. If you don’t get domes, you get an icy scenery. Because, apparently, there is no summer in Russia. Ever.

The DOME! Behold. It’s as Russian as it gets.

Great covers. Among the few examples of great covers, perhaps, my favourite editions would be German. They match the contents of the novels and manage to look impressive enough while not giving away too much of the plot. One of those is Wedora by Markus Heitz. The novel tells a twisted story of a flying city and its inhabitants with a touch of politics and adventure. While a lot of Heitz’s work is translated, this one is not. For now. It is one of the novels I bought because I could not ignore the design of its cover. It is abstract enough to be intriguing and appropriate enough to be the exact reflection of the book.

This is how a great fantasy cover looks like. Also, the font is easy to read.

The same is true for Cixin Liu’s German translation of the Mirror. It’s one of the most elegant designs that I own. And it’s one of the few sci-fi novels that manages to stand out while not assaulting your eyes.

Another good example in sci-fi.

Perhaps, in genre fiction the only good cover is the one that does not distract you from the world of the story, the one that does not seem jarring. Unfortunately, we all rely on our visual perceptions when making decisions. However much we want to deny the power appearances have over us, we are always under their spell. We buy things because of looks and we find certain people attractive because of looks. More often than not book covers define our perception of fiction. And sometimes they nail it.

My trouble with battles in genre fiction

Having moved back home (yey, I am back to writing stuff and paying bills), I finally found time to rearrange the books I’ve been lugging around, while visiting conferences and parents. Going through the shelves, I noticed an interesting pattern: half of my academic interests revolve around military matters and social networks, while everything else is delegated to the side-lines. In genre fiction, however, I avoid battle scenes and war drama like plague, military sci-fi being my least favourite genre (ok, Honor Harrington gets some points from me just because she is Honor Harrington). Moreover, I dislike even the most well-written and well-researched battles. They simply bore me.

This admission seems strange given my undying love for the new Thrawn Trilogy and Legend of the Galactic Heroes that centre around brilliant military minds. Both series feature political and military struggles, not shying away from action. I adore them because they are not about battle descriptions, explosions and accuracy (‘Prussia in space’ is not supposed to be super accurate). They don’t focus on military manoeuvres as such, but rather on military thinking.   

Battle of minds. Not battles of weapons. Great strategists are masterminds. They already have a chessboard in front of them. All an author needs to do is to set the game and watch them play. And an action sequence is the most obvious, but not the most effective way of showcasing the game. It won’t work unless you are following the turning gearwheels of a commander’s mind. Detailed descriptions of troop movements do little for the story. They are boring to read, they occupy precious space and they only demonstrate, how well you did your homework. Someone’s inner struggle, on the other hand, is everything.

The brain – your most beautiful battlefield!

Assomeone, who is keen on military history, I do appreciate the thorough research required to produce great fantasy battles. I know how difficult it can be. Considering the effort, I still don’t care about spectacular fights and heavy artillery in genre fiction. It distracts me from the clash of minds and ideologies that is far more exciting. I can always read Clausewitz if I want to satisfy my craving. The only thing that stirs my interest in fiction is the struggle inside the person’s head, so I’d gladly watch an admiral going insane, while a battle is raging on…without the said battle actually being shown. 

I know how battles happen. What I don’t know are the commander’s thoughts.

Replacing a battle. There are quite a few approaches to elegant ‘battle-skipping’. The so-called blackout is one of my favourites. We all remember how Bilbo Baggins passes out at the start of the epic battle of the Five Armies, effectively missing the action. Well, I don’t regret not reading five chapters about the fighting. The battle itself is not nearly as interesting as the characters grappling with its consequences. Also, I would say a skipped battle is far better than twenty pages of military porn. We have all read that.

Your traditional sci-fi/fantasy battle: bigger, higher, cooler! 100 pages!

The bloody montage. The second battle-skipping technique is what I call a ‘horrors of war’ montage – a viceral description of how everything is going to hell without any nitty-gritty tactical details. With explosions. With gore. With dirt and blood. The Poppy War has a fair amount of these scenes, and they seem to fit the tone of the story well. The series does not focus much on the commanders’ psychology, but still captures the right mood. After all, the ‘horrors of war’ montage delivers everyone’s favourite message about war being disastrous without spending too much time on the details.

This approach merged with ‘battle-skipping’ is extremely popular. Especially in historical fiction that focuses on the social aspects of political turmoil. Many historical novels profit greatly from skipped wars, including my childhood’s favourite Hungarian Classic – Sons of the Stone-Hearted Man. At one point the protagonist Ödön and his Russian friend are literally trying to outrun a wolf pack, while on their way to Hungary. The chase is as hilarious as it is absurd. Simultaneously, the bloody action of the 1848-1849 revolution is barely in the novel.

While I don’t deny the impact of censorship in the Habsburg Empire at the time Jokai lived, I still find it most interesting that we never get to see any military action, although it is always in the background, influencing the destinies of all the Hungarian/Austrian/Russian characters, who appear in the novel. What matters is that the revolution happened and turned their lives upside down. The battle of Világos, thus, is only important in the novel because a beloved national poet died, and the course of history changed.

Your typical post-battle hero, staring at the mess he’s created. Cool and impractical.

Realistic does not mean believable. An action sequence in fiction may be both very accurate and very unnecessary. A fictional battle is only interesting when volley fire takes a back seat. Cool tactical manoeuvres do not make a story more interesting. In my beloved Legend of the Galactic Heroes, the true stake is not whether Yang Wen-Li will find a cool solution to a new military challenge (of course, he will), but the aftermath.

There is no such thing as a realistic fantasy battle. Memoirs of commanders and strategists are realistic (even though this statement is up for debate). Genre fiction remains fiction first. And while I do enjoy military memoirs, I grow tired of authors trying to replicate their accuracy in genre fiction, depicting every tiny detail. Artists do not need to compete with historians when analysing military tactics. Fiction does not need to offer a perfect unbiased analysis of military manoeuvres and realistic fights. Believable does not always mean historically accurate. Not in fiction.

Consequences make realism. Believable means consequences: ruined infrastructure, political shifts, mental breakdowns, etc. Action scenes, showcasing great battles are fun, but, ultimately, they are as good as the commanders, who participate in them. I expect a great character to lead your battle. Otherwise, I can go and read the ‘real’ stuff. I can buy your Mary-Tzu general, who wins battles with some arcane technique that would not have worked in real life (ok, that’s Grand Admiral Thrawn and his art in a nutshell). I don’t mind if you just state that this is the Admiral Yi of your universe and never really show his tactical miracles. If the book is about him navigating court intrigue, I don’t mind never seeing him lead an attack in real-time. His military accomplishments can all happen off-screen. I don’t mind the skips if I see the result of brilliance and the impact it has on him.  

I understand there are some superb examples of well-crafted fantasy battles – the battle of Blackwater in the Song of Ice and Fire is one of them. I realize that many genre fiction fans crave fantasy battles. And I am hardly one of them. I don’t see the point in a lengthy description of military action. Even if it is spectacular. Even if the commanders are the best characters one can imagine. I’d rather have them talk and predict each other’s moves.

Fantasy military action has ruined a couple of otherwise decent fantasy novels for me – I simple could not trudge through fifty pages of heavy cavalry attacks from both flanks. The only battles I can sit through are the ones, where the real action happens in a person’s head, while all the surrounding noise serves as a background. 

Fantasy and sci fi battles are undeniably a great part of the genre that many people enjoy. I don’t. Not because I don’t like gore. I do. I often notice that these battles sacrifice the most important psychological and personal stakes in favour of something so grand that it ends up being a simple action sequence.

Romantic subplots in fantasy and sci-fi

Most genre fiction novels have romantic subplots. That’s an unwritten rule. The rare exceptions usually fall into the category of hard or military sci-fi. But even the toughest of those occasionally push a romance into the mixture of strategy and science. The Foundation series doesn’t do a great job at it. The Honorverse is a little better. Honor Harrington gets obligatory love interests, while leading her people into battle and saving the Manticore for the Xth time. For the most part, her relationships are not annoying, although the story would have still progressed without them. Why are these romantic plotlines there? Because most individuals romance someone at one point or another. So do most characters in fiction.

While romantic subplots can add a great deal to the story, they can diminish its impact as well. The more sci-fi and fantasy I read, the more I realize that not every genre fiction novel needs a romantic subplot. In some cases, these storylines do nothing, but take up space without adding value.

You’ve got a fantasy romance for me? Just add a unicorn. Unicorns often make it better. And sometimes not.

Hijacking the story. Some romantic subplots demonstrate a unique ability to break the immersion. I may be not the greatest specialist on the Kingkiller Chronicles out there, but even I see the issue with the main romantic subplot that drags on and on without any apparent reason. The main character’s love interest appears out of nowhere, impresses him (sings, smiles, says something mysterious) and then vanishes without a trace. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Nothing happens between Kvothe and Denna, although things do happen to them. Their relationship is too chaste to become a true masochism tango and too overwrought to reflect the struggles of teenagers, who lack power and influence. Why can’t they be together? They neither support opposing sides in a war, nor are tied by politics, obligations, or loyalties (again, both are simply too young and unimportant for any of that).  So, what is the problem with them getting together? Ah, well, there’s the mysterious past, of course. Only it’s laughable in the case of two teenage orphans. This romance might have worked had the two been older and/or carried political weight or responsibilities on their shoulders. Instead, they don’t even have jobs (Ok, Kvothe has a scholarship and Denna acquires some powerful sponsor, but that’s the limit of it).

The Kvothe-Denna relationship only distracts you from the story. There’s no problem with the characters themselves. It’s just that their ‘love’ is contrived. Because two teenage hobo-tricksters without political affiliations and a heavy baggage from the past cannot behave like Geralt and Yennefer from the Witcher. Again, all that mess may be somehow salvaged and justified in the last instalment, but I tremble, imagining how many pages that might take. After two books roughly the size of Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy we still haven’t seen any kings killed. And the series is titled the Kingkiller Chronicles.

Sometimes you don’t need to add an elephant to your sci-fi. Even though elephants are cool.

Invisible romances. Another strange type of fantasy/sci-fi romances is what I call the ‘invisible romance’. It’s there because our characters must have relationships, but none of their infatuation is properly shown. Oftentimes, this lack of …well…romance in a romantic subplot throws you out of the book’s world. In Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris this is the case with all the characters, who barely ever kiss. Yet, they are supposed to be passionately in love. The main couple Raoden-Sarene are both exemplary chaste before their eventual wedding (and both are older than twenty-five). The same is true for everyone else.

Not everyone writes Kushiel’s legacy and Silk and Steel. I get that. It’s definitely a choice not to include erotic scenes and/or problematic content into your story. Only all that lust and passion needs to appear in one way or another, if that’s the direction that your story is taking. Love can be platonic. Sure. In the case of ‘invisible romances’, however, it’s not. It’s just not there for some reason.

Send your message! I never thought that Raistlin Majere needed a relationship in Dragonlance. He was pulled into one, nonetheless. Because the authors had to deliver a message about selfishness and selflessness.

The same way, most love stories about someone choosing the good guy/girl over the dark and edgy guy/girl tend to be there to deliver the message rather than to enrich the plot. Also, I cannot name a single story (except for the Witcher series, of course), where the dark and edgy is the right choice. These are not romantic subplots but rather messages hammered into your head that reflect none of the complexities of life. I understand the fear of writing problematic and abusive relationships without passing a judgement. After all, there’s a fine line between an abusive relationship and a weird or unconventional relationship.

Not all relationships adhere to our modern standards of appropriate and healthy. In certain cases, what may seem the sickest kind of relationship to someone, is the best those two can pull off. Especially if the participants are masochism tango champions. After all, you can’t expect two eccentric and driven people to have a perfectly calm relationship. There are no right or wrong romances. There are some that work and others that don’t. Two necromances will die happily ever after, and you can’t really make their love conventional.

The dark and edgy is the right choice! If you can handle it.

Despite the popular belief, the omission of romance does not kill a novel. On the contrary, the lack of official couples opens new possibilities for many fans. Yep, you can ship whoever you want. You want those two crazy warlords to be together? Who knows, maybe they are. Unless otherwise proven, you can assume they are into each other.

If that’s how your romantic hero/heroine looks like, I want to read that story.

Less room to screw it up. Have you ever hated an ending because you couldn’t stand the forced romance? If there is no apparent romantic line (square, triangle or whatever), you won’t get that pain in your brain. No disappointments ensure. Your beloved hero will not end with that idiot of a partner defying all logic.

Romance as a genre does not suffer from the issues listed above because of its’ primary focus on the love between characters rather than politics/war/intrigue/technology. Pure romance novels simply have more space to develop the romance. It’s difficult to keep the balance, when a love story is a subplot. Sometimes, it’s not even necessary. After all, it’s better not to have a romantic subplot that to spoil the story.

Villain VS Antagonist

‘Villain’ might be one of the most overused terms in media: we analyse villains in fiction, we write about best villains in film and television, we rate villains in comic books. As a result, the term has become so vague that the only definition that remains is somewhat moralistic. A ‘villain’ is evil. Whatever that may mean. As we throw the concept around, we rarely wonder how evil exactly a character should be to be considered a ‘villain’. Also, in whose eyes should he be evil?  

As a historian, I never use the term ‘villain’ because it comes with a certain ideological baggage. When I hear about ‘villains’ and ‘heroes’, I smell propaganda. If I need to describe the nemesis of the main character, I’ll use the term ‘antagonist’. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, not), most ‘antagonists’ easily come off as villainous, even though this trend is slowly fading away. As a rule, the more the term ‘villain’ gets thrown around, the less subtlety awaits you.

You’ll be surprised to find out that this charming guy has hidden depths, won’t you?

The total monster. I was never interested in either Ramsey Bolton or Joffrey Baratheon. Both are so irredeemably murderous and psychopathic that there is literally no one sane, who can take their side. Rephrasing the famous ’a villain is the hero of the other side’ quote, I dare say that nobody but mindless orcs or an army of zombies will join the typical ‘total monster’. Yes, sometimes Evil Overlords are fascinating to watch, but, ultimately, their absolute evilness makes them dull. You can’t sympathize with them, you can’t connect to them, you don’t even see their goals as anything worth pursuing. In the best case, they are subjects for a psychiatrist’s study. In the worst case, they just serve as nightmare fuel for both the audience and characters.

It may be interesting to watch serial killers plot their crimes, but, ultimately, genre fiction does not accommodate them as well as thrillers do. Had Prince Ruven been some serial killer from a thriller, I might have found his whole story arc interesting. However, since he was the antagonist in a YA fantasy trilogy, his presence in the otherwise interesting political story made it somewhat unbelievable: he was the only one-dimensional character. Thus, his psychopathic feats and murderous zeal made him bland and dull, not terrifying.

Forced morals. Another reason for my dislike of the term ‘villain’ is the forceful preaching it entails. If someone is labelled as a ‘villain’, his opponents are automatically ‘good guys’ (in most cases): The Rebels are good, the Empire is bad! Why? Because, villains kill, and heroes save. You can’t root for the villain without facing criticism from society, can you? You will unwillingly face moral judgement from either the author or fellow-fans.

As someone, who values efficiency and vision to the extreme, I oftentimes refused to support joyful idiots overwhelmed by righteousness because they neither were competent, nor had clear ideas and plans that could advance society. Unfortunately, most classical ‘fantasy heroes’ are stuck in the camp of ‘righteous idiots’. The designated villain, however, is often the only capable person in the novel/series/trilogy. Thus, this intentional ‘hero-villain’ dichotomy does nothing, but annoys the readers, who are ‘expected’ to see one side as ‘good’ and the other as ‘bad’.

Vilifying ambition and intellect. This point is an old pet-peeve of mine that is often associated with villains. In many fantasy and sci-fi works, villains or anti-heroes will share two qualities – creative intellect and daunting ambition. For some reason, this vilification of ambition and rationality goes too far. Partially, I stopped reading YA fantasy because it is the ‘power of love and friendship’ that defeats intellect. It is ‘selfless love’ (or whatever it was, I did not really get it) that takes down the Darkling in the Grisha Trilogy. The list goes on, but the theme remains: the cleverest and shrewdest person is the villain because he/she dared to have both ambition and the will to carry out his plan. Oftentimes, the plan will be ridiculous and unnecessarily bloody just to drive the point home. Most of these authors somehow forget that human progress is the result of intellect and ambition. Absurd Bond Villain Plans – not so much.

It’s a bonus point if your villain has horns! Photo by Oleg Magni on Pexels.com

Black and white. We all love Tolkien. We also don’t mind the black-and-white morality of the Lord of the Rings. After all, there are plenty of complicated characters on the ‘good side’ that have their struggles and problems. Boromir may be the brightest example. However, nowadays the term ‘villain’ does not belong in the worlds that are everything but ‘black-and-white’. Is Glokta a villain? He is definitely not a good guy given his profession. He may be revolting. But he is hardly a villain in his native dark setting.

The term ‘villain’ reduces complex and conflicted characters to simple obstacles that the heroes must overcome. Similarly, the heroes themselves become one-dimensional once they are paired with villains. From a historian’s perspective, this is a cringeworthy topic.  It is something many of us refer to as ‘the partisan dilemma’: Your partisans are someone’s terrorists. And your oppressor is someone’s hero.

In my childhood, I was blown away by this contradiction. As a kid, I despised one man – Count Ivan Paskevich. He was a military leader, who not only crushed the Polish uprising, but ended the Hungarian revolution of 1848-1849. Simultaneously, the count was a hero of the Russian Empire – a brilliant and respected officer, an epitome of bravery known for his unwavering loyalty to the Emperor, a man of his word according to many of his contemporaries. As one of the greatest fans of the Hungarian revolution of 1948, who had (still has) a picture of its leader Lajos Kossuth on her nightstand, I did not see anything, but an oppressor and an imperial lapdog in Paskevich.  I missed the complexity of his character, because the only side I saw was that of his opponents, whose romantic nationalism I adopted and internalized as a kid. I still don’t share Paskevich’s views, but I understand his motivations. And I no longer consider him a villain. (ok, I do, whom am I kidding?)

Sometimes it’s only you, who sees a hero, where others see a villain. Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

History with its imposed distancing makes you allergic to the term ‘villain’. Thus, my favourite novels are the ones that don’t have real villains. Instead, they show us worthy opponents. Why? Because it is an art to present conflicting points of view without passing immediate judgement. Literature is not as linear as philosophy. Fiction can let readers decide, who villains and heroes are. After all, Yang Wen-Li from Legend of the Galactic Heroes was right about one thing: ‘There are few wars between good and evil; most are between one good and another good.’

My trouble with Young Adult Fantasy

I repeatedly tried to get into young adult fantasy. Without success. Most of the time, I simply could not stand certain approaches that were not the fault of the authors, but rather the common trait of this specific literary niche. And, while I believe it is uniquely rich, inventive and has a lot to offer, I still have trouble digesting most ‘young adult fantasy’ – even the best of it (Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy almost coverted me…almost). I understand the appeal. But I do not share this fascination. Perhaps, young adult fantasy is labelled ‘young adult’ for a reason. Most of these works are not for ancient mammoths like me. However, I neither loved them ten years ago, when I was a teenager myself. For a number of reasons.

A young-adult heroine in a nutshell: she has the rare ability to call magical butterflies, and that gift will somehow save the kingdom. How? Nobody cares. It’s rare.

1. Emotional roller coaster. Artful dodging, political games, military strategy, poisonous affairs – all that is a background for exaggerated and unwarranted emotional sufferings of the main cast. And given the unusually high stakes (your state is falling apart, the assassins are after you, a rival Empire declares war), the question, whether the protagonist confesses her feelings to her childhood friend, is irrelevant. I want to know, what’s going on in that rival Empire. What I get are 5 chapters of teenage angst, peppered with questions like ‘does he really love me?’, ‘do I really love him/her/them both?’  

2. Smart kids – stupid and incompetent adults. All young-adult fantasies will inevitably feature a super-competent 17-year-old that puts all the 50-somethings in their places. He will be brighter, faster, smarter, greater, while the so-called ministers or teachers will suck. Badly.  And in most cases, they are not supposed to be total idiots. It seems that those authors have never been students and have no idea, how politics works. As a rule, adults do not listen to teenagers and do not obey their orders, ask them to lead a revolution and command an army. Teenagers are marginalized. That is why being a teenager sucks. Yes, a teenager can put a stupid adult in his/her place, but not a brilliant adult.

Notable exceptions: Such things do happen. Rarely. There are two example I can think of. The first comes from low life expectancy. If life expectancy is thirty, then….yeah…you are pretty mature by the time you are 15. Thus, an 18-year-old will lead a regimen, if all his soldiers are 16-17. (think Alexander the Great). The second example would feature field promotions or nepotism. This one is illustrated in my favourite Legend of the Galactic Heroes, where Annerose uses her position as the Keizer’s mistress to push her prodigy brother Reinhard into the Fleet. The said brother eclipses everyone in due time. But that feat he does not accomplish alone. Reinhard’s adversary, the brilliant Yang Wen-Li, on the other hand, gets a field promotion and eventually becomes a super-young marshal in his thirties (not at 18).  Even if these scenarios are improbable, they are believable.

The prettiest shall lead. And all shall listen.

 3. A brilliant man of immense power and intellect falling in love with a plain teenager. Not only should her appearance be unassuming (or she should believe that it is), but she herself should not be anything out of the ordinary, except for an occasional super-power. It won’t stop an ancient mage, a fairy king, a supernatural being of immense power from falling in love with her. Why would that outstanding vampire/demon/king be charmed by an average teenager? Also, he is usually drop-dead gorgeous – think Morozko, the Darkling, the immortal Dragon. In some cases, he’s had centuries of adventures and has met the most distinguished, strategically capable, talented and charismatic people history has known.  Think…he met Marie Curie and Sarah Bernard, and Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and Catherine the Great…and he falls for an underage kid. What is wrong with him?

4. Too much blood and no sex. These works are mature enough to show genocide, talk about murdered parents and spilled blood, but the protagonists will barely kiss. There is usually a lot of angst, but no sex. Simultaneously, you are bombarded with violence and bloodshed and teenage drama. These teenagers cut throats left and right but worry about their first kiss and are otherwise exemplary chaste.

5. Simplified politics and simplified strategies. Our protagonists have no military experience, a handful of allies and shitty weapons. Their strategy is to infiltrate the guarded compound, use the McGuffin and win. Their deceptive intrigue is hiding in the bushes and waiting for the enemy to show up. I guess I can buy that if these guys fail…but they don’t. And they are viewed as the Admiral Yi of their respective universes. Am I supposed to believe that teenagers are the pinnacle of strategy and intrigue? Are these plans supposed to work against infinitely wise, super skilful military experts, often adults with years of experience?

6. Protagonists with unbelievable skills. ‘He is good at math at 18’ is believable. A super-assassin at 18, who takes down 17 grown-up bodybuilders and kung-fu masters in one outing – that is already too much for my taste. Usually, this extraordinary set of abilities receives one type of explanation: ‘he lived on the streets and had to survive’, ‘she went to a super-assassin school for gifted mages’. And there is a problem with this explanation. Many peers of the said-genius also went to the same super-school and many others had even worse lives. Did their opponents recruit their leaders among farmers and orchid breeders?   

7. All important characters are kids. I am most drawn to extraordinary minds. Your average teenager does not have one. Your brilliant artist and commander opposed to society is usually around thirty. But there are notable exceptions to the rule. Artemis Fowl is exemplary – a brilliant strategist, a conflicted prodigy and a morally grey almost-villain with a knack for philosophy. Oh, yes, he’s somewhere around thirteen. He is also Byronic-all-over-the-place. He is basically an adult in a kid’s body. An ordinary kid would not have been half as interesting.

Are there great young adult fantasy novels that subvert all these points? Definitely. Perhaps, I have not come across them. Also, there are some that are still great even if they focus on super-competent and chaste teenagers. It is, perhaps, that I am a bloodthirsty mammoth, who has outlived her usefulness. And, perhaps, I just miss fantasy books with relatively old protagonists.

Why Grand Admiral Thrawn should not be the Villain in the Mandalorian

I originally posted this essay on Medium, but decided to leave a copy here. Because the difference between an ‘enemy’ and an ‘antagonist’ is something that gets lost all too often when we talk about complicated characters in fiction. Because TV adaptations are tricky. And because Zahn’s books deserve recognition.

Spoilers ahead! (Star Wars Thrawn Trilogy, Ascendancy Trilogy, Star Wars: Rebels animated series and everything else you can think of!)

Grand Admiral Thrawn (both in canon and legends) is one of the most strategically capable, intellectually brilliant, and principled characters in the whole Star Wars Universe. While many expect him to become the primary villain in the Mandalorian, I argue that such a turn would contradict the character’s backstory and motivations. A decade ago, Thrawn was indeed the antagonist in the non-canon book trilogy (now considered Legends) that featured Luke, Leia, Han, and the New Republic. While the current Thrawn shares his predecessor’s intuitive intellect and appreciation of art, his backstory and motivations are different. With his internal conflict, mixed loyalties, and unwavering sense of honor, the Grand Admiral is many things, but a villain is not one of those.

His perceptive intellect is unbeatable and his eyes see right through you….

Thrawn’s origins. Before becoming the brilliant military tactician we all know, Thrawn (Mitth’raw’nuruodo if we use his full name) spends years honing his analytical skills in the Chiss Ascendancy — a prosperous and technologically advanced Empire in the Unknown Regions of the galaxy. From his coming of age in Zahn’s novel Chaos Rising to his subsequent rise through the Imperial ranks, Thrawn strives to achieve his goals with minimal casualties. He is not a megalomaniac. He is not obsessed with power. He is merely efficient and has the means and will to do what must be done. Becoming a Commander of the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet, Thrawn does not seek to conquer or gain personal glory, but to protect and advance his people and their interests. He is a career officer and a man of his word above all else.

Thrawn first encounters the Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars, when both come to the distant world of Batuu to defend the interests of their respective governments. While for Anakin the mission is more personal due to Padmé’s involvement, it is his duty to the Chiss that motivates Thrawn. The mission becomes equally personal by the time he parts ways with Anakin. When given a chance to leave the Jedi and Padmé behind, he returns to help the two people he barely knows to sabotage the Separatists’ factory and escape. While Thrawn is by no means a paragon of kindness, he never acts out of spite or malice. Everything he does has a perfectly logical and understandable reason.

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You don’t want these two as your enemies.

When Thrawn leaves the Ascendancy to infiltrate the Empire, he does so on purpose. He knows that his people do not have the resources to face the looming threat in the Unknown Regions. In the first book of the new Thrawn Trilogy, he outright tells his major opponent that he needed to see whether the Empire could be an ally or an enemy of the Chiss Ascendancy. Thrawn is unyieldingly loyal to his people. He does not shy away from telling Darth Vader how the future of the Chiss matters to him. He says it to Darth Vader’s face (ok, mask). Directly. Without hesitation. While Vader is standing ready to force choke him.

Beyond good and evil. Thrawn chooses the Empire because, according to him, it is the lesser evil. He is neither Sith nor Jedi. He views the Galactic Empire as an orderly state that can help his people withstand the threat coming from the Unknown Regions — the threat they don’t fully comprehend. While Thrawn doesn’t have a high opinion of the rebels and their military prowess, his view is justified. It’s easy to understand why someone as brilliant as Thrawn would think that they suck. They are not efficient. Thrawn is. His efficiency does not make him an evil overlord, though. Thrawn merely thinks that power is useful. It is not his goal. Neither is the advancement of the Empire’s xenophobic and outright oppressive policies.

Thrawn is the only alien to reach the rank of Grand Admiral in the xenophobic Imperial Fleet. On-screen (in Star Wars: Rebels), the only time the cool-headed Grand Admiral goes into a fit of rage is when an Imperial officer insults Twi’lek culture. Nearly strangling the unfortunate officer, Thrawn quickly gets a fresh grip on his emotions and points out that not everyone appreciates art as much as he does. It’s logical to assume that he simply cannot be the radical fascist to sow the seeds of the First Order.

A military intellectual. Thrawn’s obsession with art and his use of people’s culture as a means to understand their military potential and social structures is his most discerning feature. Thrawn will go to great lengths to preserve the culture of others. It is very uncharacteristic of him to strip planets bare, order people to enslave or destroy other species and their cultures as Moff Gideon and his minions are doing in the Mandalorian series. Thrawn despises the destruction of resources and regrets the loss of life caused by wars. He theoretically can sacrifice one planet to save a hundred, but he would never choose oppression and enslavement as his main strategy. It would simply be inefficient. Again, Thrawn may be ruthless, but he is very reasonable. Unlike the Grand Admiral, all the antagonists we see in the Mandalorian are needlessly cruel and often fanatical. Fanatism and blind cruelty are among the qualities that the Grand Admiral despises. It makes no sense for Thrawn to trust such allies.

Another argument against Thrawn’s villainous nature is his unique attitude to his enemies. He is not Vader, Tarkin, or Palpatine. He won’t simply kill a person because he/she doesn’t share his opinions. In the first book of the trilogy, Thrawn goes out of his way to save his archenemy — Nightswan. He risks everything to meet Nightswan and convince him not to sacrifice his mind and abilities for a lost cause. The Chiss even promises him a safe passage to the Ascendancy. Moreover, Thrawn confesses to him that he serves the Empire because it can unite the Galaxy against a greater threat that he and his people have already faced in the Unknown Regions.

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This is how I want to look when I do presentations!

A pragmatist and a man of honor. Another important thing about Thrawn is his lack of interest in vengeance. In the first book of the trilogy, he outright tells his aide that revenge is not the solution in most cases. After surviving an attack by xenophobic students at the Academy, Thrawn’s first action is not to plot revenge, but to make use of their gifts. In the end, he turns his bullies into starfighter pilots, who later assist him. Given the Grand Admiral’s attitude to revenge, it is unclear why he would want to resurrect the Empire after Palpatine’s fall. Why would he fight the Mandalorian or his allies? It is more in Thrawn’s character to bring both Ahsoka and Din to his side rather than to hunt them. He is someone, who would prefer to convert his enemies rather than kill them.

As it stands now, Thrawn’s only possible motivation for resurrecting the Empire would be to create a fleet that can face something enormous and terrifying in the Unknown Regions. The enigmatic Grysks, perhaps? But even this assumption is somewhat far-fetched. Thrawn’s last canon appearance was in the Rebels series, where he was ordered to take down the rebels by the Emperor. On the verge of victory, Thrawn is whisked away by space-whales together with Jedi Padawan Ezra Bridger.

We have no idea where (and when) Thrawn and Ezra disappeared. But given Thrawn’s highly rational mind, I doubt he’s been fighting Ezra after their departure. It’s more likely that the two have been cooperating in some way. After all, Thrawn is not evil per se. He is the opponent of the rebels because his aim is to pacify the Empire, while they seek to destroy it. Also, Thrawn cannot and will not renege on his vows. As an officer, he is bound by his oath. He will not break it no matter the cost. He may be an enemy to those, who oppose him, but to the soldiers under his command, he is a hero. Thrawn is not on the side of the protagonists because of his circumstances. But those circumstances do not make him a villain.

Thrawn’s conflict. For now, it does not make much sense for Thrawn to be the Mastermind, who pulls Moff Gideon’s strings. He may still work with Gideon in some way or supply him with information. However, it would be highly uncharacteristic of Thrawn to rely on people like Gideon or Morgan, who seem fanatical, incapable, and overly zealous. After all, his previous close associates were all competent and reliable people with an ability to think critically — Eli Vanto, Commodore Faro, Colonel Yularen, etc. He was never a supporter of Tarkin and, while he respected Vader for his courage and dedication, he never trusted the Sith Lord.

Another argument against Thrawn being the villain in the Mandalorian is his history with force-sensitives. For Thrawn, force sensitivity is a painful topic. In Chaos Rising it is revealed that his sister was recruited by the Ascendancy because of her force sensitivity and later discarded when she lost the gift. This event took a toll on Thrawn. Years later, he risks his life to convince Vader to save the force-sensitive children of the Chiss, whom his people use as navigators to travel in the precarious Unknown Regions. That is why it is highly unlikely that someone with such an attitude toward force-sensitive children will order his minions to torture Din’s little protégé Grogu. The only way he may do so is if he has no other choice. Thrawn may and will kill one to save a million. It is, certainly, a possibility in the Mandalorian, albeit unlikely.

The unsung hero of the Galaxy. Finally, there is one last fact that cannot be ignored. If indeed a greater threat is rising somewhere in the Unknown regions and Thrawn is doing the impossible to gather resources and stop the Apocalypse, how can he be a villain? We should, perhaps, ask a different question: why is nobody in the New Republic doing anything about the dangers looming in the Unknown Regions? Din spends his time gallivanting around the galaxy with his adopted son, Cara Dune loiters in front of a cantina with her roguish friends, all the New Republic Politicians bicker somewhere on Coruscant. In the end, Thrawn is the only one, who tries to act. The only logical reason for Thrawn to stay in the shadows collecting forces is to save his people and the rest of the Galaxy. And if that is indeed the case, then he is much more of a hero than any other character in Star Wars.

Point of View and why it matters

Point of view is the lens through which you either tell your story as a writer or discover your story as a reader. We don’t spend much time mulling over the differences between POVs unless we are trying to muster the craft. And, yet, they exist and they matter. First-person, second-person and third-person points of view are not created equal. While the vast majority of classical genre fiction is written in third-person omniscient (aka the Voice of God in the background), nowadays third-person limited reigns supreme. A Wizard of Earthsea is one of those classical novels that comes to my mind when I think about third-person omniscient. Although it focuses heavily on Ged, his thoughts and actions, it still does not shy away from head-hopping.

POV? It’s all in your head!

The Voice of God. Third-person omniscient point of view is something every scholar loves and uses. There is a certain power to it that makes people malleable to your literary flair. It is easier to explain thoughts and backstories through multiple eyes, reflect all the nuances and collect all the details. Many works of classical fantasy make good use of third-person omniscient POV, including Pratchett’s Discworld Series. I would say the main reason for using this POV is the control it offers – true, pure control over the secrets you reveal and the stories you withhold. That’s what I call power! Ha! With all that unlimited power at your fingertips, it’s definitely one of the most difficult POVs to pull off. That’s where the limitations come into play.

First, it’s much easier to conceal secrets from your reader when you write in third limited, second or first. Delving into dozens of heads, you lose yourself easily. Worse still, you tend to disperse your energy while writing or reading anything written in third-person omniscient. Since my favourite series (yes, Legend of the Galactic Heroes) is written in third-person omniscient, the greatest trouble I experienced while reading it was my inability to stay in the head of my favourite character. Yes, I wanted to spend eternity with Paul von Oberstein. My wish was denied.

Does third-person omniscient POV work? It definitely does when you have intrigues of galactic proportions, loads and loads of characters and conflicting interests. I’d say it’s the best POV to use when painting a grand picture or devising a grand scheme. And, certainly, it is irreplaceable when describing tactical manoeuvres. I’d say any military fantasy or sci fi would profit from third-person omniscient. Fantasy romances or stories about crimes and investigations – not so much.

It’s all about seeing a bigger picture.

Literary flair and second person. Before I read On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, I did not pay much attention to second-person narratives. I first enocuntered it in genre fiction, when I picked up Scalzi’s Redshirts, The novel stands alone and jumps from third person to second…to first. Despite my initial reservations, Redshirts managed to convince me one could write science fiction in second person. In the end, I didn’t read the novel for the characters (I barely remember their names). I didn’t read Redshirts for drama or intrigue. I read it because it was an astonishing example of artistic experimentation. This narrative simply refuses to conform, suprising you at every turn. That’s what makes it great.

Redshirts is not unique among genre fiction novels in this aspect. The Night Circus and the Fifth Season both rely on second-person POV to draw a reader into the world. In the first scenario, you visit an otherworldly Night Circus, while in the second you follow a woman, who seeks her family. The POV itself offers a unique opportunity to convey the most visceral, the most revolting and the most beautiful, injecting you with all the details at once. Second-person POV is intense. I would say, it works wonders in horrors. It also brings your favourite characters into your world in fanfics. As a reader you simply cannot get closer to a characters than with the help of second-person POV.

Despite its many positive sinds, I often find second-person POV jarring. After all, what if I refuse to wear the skin of one particular character I didn’t write? What if I don’t connect? Unless it’s a fanfic about ruling the galaxy, it may simply not push the right buttons. Is Emperor Palpatine the ‘you’ in your story? Please, go on. I am all ears then.  

Third-Person limited. Fantasy’s most beloved third-person limited POV wins hearts and minds. It’s an omni-tool. First, it borrows the intensity of first-person narratives, but does not require you to recreate the exact voice of each character (especially if that voice is annoying or confusing).

Second, it’s the best way to incorporate mystery into your narrative without giving away the most important parts. If your reader only follows three people, he won’t know all the secrets, but will still taste your worldbuilding. Third-person limited worked miracles in Elantris. While I was personally interested only in Hrathen, two other POVs offered very helpful insights into the mystery of a cursed city, Elantris’s twisted magic, and, of course, the political machinations of the opposing parties in the kingdom.

Third-person limited POV does exactly what it promises – it limits. Characters are not created equal. Why should we lose too much time scanning the mind of someone, who is irrelevant? Third-person limited is a universal POV. There’s literally nothing you can’t do with it. Best of all, you can combine it with first-person POV.

Tricky first-person POV. In first person, you can reveal as much about the character as you want, read his mind, and even hear his accent (mine is harsh). For some reason, most novels classified as YA fantasy prefer first-person POV. While I am not the biggest fan of the niche, I can see how they benefit from this choice. First, it limits the perspectives of both readers and writers. It is simply easier to follow one character than a whole marching army of individuals, most of whom will appear once or twice in the novel.

Second, if your narrator is a provocative person in an interesting situation (think Jude from Cruel Prince), first-person is the way to go. Third, first-person POV reflects your character’s tone. While I don’t like purple prose, I grudgingly admit that a lyric voice can be breathtaking. Unfortunately, it can also ruin the story if you despise the character or his manner of speaking/writing.

I personally prefer first-person POV when the narrator deeply intrigues me. In one way or another. He may be a monster or a saint or anything in-between. But he must be unusual. In any other case, I would settle for the good old third-person limited. Because it is perfectly versatile. And because the possibilities it offers are unlimited.

All Sides of Fantasy: Fantasy Settings expand

Given the genre’s Western origins, it is not surprising that works of classical fantasy rely on a pseudo-European setting to convey the story. The level of ‘crapsack’ in that setting depends heavily on the niche the author chooses – the pendulum swings from a ‘knight in shining armour’ to a ‘serial killer knight on drugs’. Choices are endless, but the pseudo-Western setting remains. Since fantasy has its roots in folklore popularized by the 19th-century Romantic artists, it always brings familiar aesthetics to the table: an idealized version of Western Middle Ages with mystic beasts, dramatic clothing, and dreamy landscapes. We all know the beats.

Despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, this special attitude toward folklore is not an exclusively Western phenomenon. In one way or another, almost every culture has its ‘Golden Age’, its version of ‘Renaissance’ and its promoters of folklore. However, in the 20th century it was Western European fantasy that took off. For better or worse, it was the first to be declared ‘classical’.

A Western setting? Just add towers. More towers. Pointy towers.

Expanding borders. Nowadays, Western settings are somewhat out of fashion. On the one hand, it is a promising development that breaks the boundaries of genre and demonstrates communalities between cultures. After all, one of the greatest pitfalls I see in history and literature is our focus on ‘othering’. The only way to breach the dichotomy of ‘us’ vs ‘them’ is to show how, in fact, most cultures follow similar patterns of development. Yes, they follow them differently. However, differences do not make us incompatible.

New fantasy settings highlight the likeness, while expanding our vision. You can enjoy and dissect all kinds of novels in all kinds of settings, recognizing the same bits and pieces and discovering new ones. In the end, art’s purpose is to challenge and change the world. Often, the change starts when you fall in love with something new.

Acknowledging the importance of representation in literature, I see a great bonus in this expansion of fantasy settings. It is not only a way to promote ignored and/or marginalized cultures and voices. It is also way to show how every culture and historical legacy (real and imagined) can have multiple interpretations. There is never a singular correct one. A fantasy setting reflects not only the fluidity of our perception but the differences in our approaches to historical legacies as well.

The Poppy war, the Secrets of Jin-Shei, Huntress are just a few novels that come to my mind when I think about fantasy settings based on China (a version of it). Yet, each of these novels weaves a very different world. They, perhaps, share common aesthetics, but they are otherwise not particularly similar. What they represent is not just one culture, but the great potential a culture offers.

And the sky is your limit….

Many settings and many voices. As a social historian, I constantly search for patterns. Acknowledging exceptions, I seek likeness to draw conclusions and build strategies. While all authors can get inspiration from all cultures and create original settings, your own background can give you a boost.

Few people understand the appeal of Eastern European history better than I do. I’ve been dealing with it since I was 17 (more than ten years, really). I know how it can capture minds and burn hearts. I also know how our regional biases can ruin us. I admit that sometimes foreign authors have fresher perspectives that we ourselves lack. I don’t need to agree with their interpretations. I almost never do. But I appreciate their attention to our folklore and history. Still, I will always tell them apart from one of our authors.

When a foreigner choses a Slavic setting, he will most likely focus on the story rather than on exploring our marginalization, conflicting legacies, and our place in this world. That is why the vodnik in Urban’s Hastrman feels so authentic to me. I understand where the author’s background and get his historical and cultural references. Because it is personal. Because Hastrman is not an urban fantasy to me. It is something only a Slavic author could have written and experienced – torn between empires and conflicting nationalisms. On the other hand, China Miéville’s vodyanoy dockworkers in Perdido Street Station are a brilliant addition to a thought-provoking book. Miéville’s novel is not a reflection on legacies or nationalisms. It does not need to be. He uses interesting mythical creatures to enhance his worldbuilding. (I have touched upon this in the article I wrote for Tor.com half a year ago)

It is, I surmise, a similar experience for all authors and readers, who draw inspiration from their own cultures. Our settings will always be ‘personal’ to us, even if we create a secondary world of our own. They are always in our bones. In this case, foreigners offer great insights that escape us because we refuse to keep the distance. After all, beautiful fairy-tales like the ones written by Novik and Arden are a nice homage to Russian and Polish folk stories. They don’t need to be Dukaj’s Ice and Urban’s Hastrman. It’s not their point.

Eclectic settings. Competition in publishing (and pretty much everywhere else) is so brutal that we all try to grab our readers by their eyeballs. The crazier the better. When real-life cultures no longer cut it, we turn to eclectic settings. Ever so often you’ll strike something so original and poignant that it outshines everything else. After all, one of the most recognizable fantasy Empires, Nilfgaard, is a mixture of the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, the Roman Empire….and what not. And these are only the inspirations I see there. The same is true for many other brilliant settings out there. Eclectic is always the way once you want to depart from the familiar.

Towers and lasers. And lakes. And ninjas. Dressed in togas. And on camels. The rule of cool at its best.

Good old Tolkien-style fantasy. There is no problem with traditional fantasy settings. Really. They are out of fashion currently, but, eventually, they will return. Better and fresher, perhaps. Some already have. Silk and Steel is one of those novels that contain the familiar races of humans, dragons and elves, but bend them in the most unexpected of ways. I wouldn’t call it a ‘traditional fantasy’. Because while we do get a hot elf and an even hotter dragon, the dark atmosphere, explicit sexual and mental abuse and the grim context turns the novel into a ‘PTSD-fuelled Kushiel’s Legacy meets Elder Scrolls‘. Is it still pseudo-Western? Not really. In some aspects. After all, it’s not just the setting that brings originality. It is the approach of the author and the ideas he choses to explore than make a book shine.

Fantasy sins all historians notice

We all have our pet peeves and favourite tropes. In some cases, our professional inclinations determine them. After all, years of rigorous training in one field inevitably shapes the way we grasp and interpret fiction. We can’t escape it. Professional deformation is real. It makes us shout, “This is not how heavy cavalry works!” and “What kind of idiot commands this unit?” every time we watch a historical show and every time we come across a dreaded fantasy battle that goes on and on and on for 100 pages. While some mishaps do not destroy immersion or ruin a decent story, there are those that stand out. So, yes, we will always notice(and sometimes love and hate) the following issues.

Oh, the dreaded fantasy battle!
  1. Not every big state is an ‘Empire’.

Big does not mean Imperial. It sounds cool, I admit it. Awesomeness does not make it logical. When a state is authoritarian or totalitarian, it’s not necessarily an Empire. When a state is big, it’s not necessarily an Empire. When a state is run by a dictator, it’s not necessarily an Empire. It is an Empire, when it has a sovereign, non-homogeneous population and vast territories that are not well connected (ok, these lines are becoming blurred in our turbulent times, but I focus on fantasy, not hard sci-fi here). An Empire is a political system, not a fancy way of describing a big country.

2. Unnecessary and/or ridiculous fantasy battles.

You don’t need to read The Art of War and Zhukov’s memoirs to nail a fantasy battle (although I highly recommend both). Fantasy military tactics is something that even the best or us manage to screw up. While it is difficult to write compelling (because you don’t want to write Zhukov’s memoirs unless you are Zhukov) and believable battles, it is easy to criticise them.

Poppy war with its’ brilliant chapter featuring guerrillas in a swamp (shaman-partisans!) offers a good example of a tactically sound action scene. However, all Nikan defence strategies (the lack thereof) make me wish I could fire half of their commanding officers and shoot the rest in from of the elite Sinegard Academy. How did they get their posts? Another burning question on my mind is “How did it happen that the only capable commanders in the whole Empire of Nikan are teenagers?”

Admittedly, the series is not about military strategy. It draws you in with mysteries and tragedies that are far more fascinating and thought-provoking than all the military affairs in the background. In general, I am wary of detailed fantasy battled and their detailed descriptions because they are incredibly difficult to pull off. And even if they are masterfully executed ( just thinking about the brilliant battle of the Blackwater in the Song of Ice and Fire series brings a smile to my face), I often wonder whether all that labour is necessary at all.  

3. ‘Crackpot’ technology that combines inventions from different centuries.

I don’t mind the ‘rule of cool’, but I notice when your Victorian steampunk novel has flintlock pistols, while glorious zeppelins float above your cities. It is even better when your medieval peasants from pseudo-Western Europe invent a submarine! Looks cool. Makes no sense.

There should be a helicopter behind this typewriter.

4. Diversity or the lack of it.

There should be logic behind your populations’ demographics. A good example of a demographically believable state is Staveley’s Annurian Empire, where very homogeneous regions interchange with diverse centres, featuring characters of all races, backgrounds, and religions. But not in all places. Both homogeneity and diversity are logically explained and fit in the historical context of the world.

Often, an author will have to clarify how all people got together but did not mix with each other to form some completely new race or community. Also, some political systems are diverse by nature, while others are not. An Empire is defined by non-homogeneity (national, racial, religious, etc.). A unitarian and isolationist state, on the other hand, will be more homogeneous. In any case, your populations’ demographics is as important as your magic system. Sometimes more than that.

6. Messy timelines.

Every time I hear about a war that lasted for 99999 years or an Empire that has endures 8888 years, I snort. Loudly. In truth, a thousand years of war will leave not just scorched land behind, but literally no survivors. A series of skirmishes can last for ages, a full-blown war – not so much. The same is true for states. There is no such thing as a stable political system that last a thousand years. Checking the timeline of any civilization can fix this problem.

A state may claim an ancient legacy. Sure. That does not mean the descendants are the same ancient people. Modern-day Greece is not the Greece of 5 B.C. And modern-day Bulgaria is not exactly the First Bulgarian Empire. Cultural legacies and popular imagination do the trick, but political formations do not endure that long. They transform and fail quicker than most of us expect.

7. Impractical costume porn.

Oh, my favourite uniforms from the Grisha Trilogy”! Really, did anyone ever ask themselve how they fight in boyar dolmans (ok, they are called Keftas, apparently derived from Kaftan) in the pseudo 19th century? Also, fencing in ball gowns is something half of fantasy heroines do on a regular basis. Gowns look good. I agree. This is more of a TV trope, but it still comes up in fantasy fiction ever so often. It is always fun to spot it.

Cool costumes are a must. Cool Slavic-inspired costumes.

8. Politicians, who have 0% approval rating.

This is an issue usually associated with Dark overlords in all types of media. When I watched W.I.T.C.H. as a kid, my first question was how the tyrannical and incapable Phobos holds his power despite his inefficiency and the overwhelming hatred he receives from his subjects. In general, you don’t need to be a Machiavelli to figure out how something in your policies does not work if 90% of your citizens are partisans, who are desperately trying to kill you. Ok, such systems can survive for a time. But they don’t endure long. Because those partisans will come after you. Oh, they will!

9. A fantasy novel featuring only monarchies and monarchs.

In many fantasy settings monarchies are literally the only political system present. Nowadays, this is slowly changing. (It’s about time!) First, monarchies, are in no way the most ideal form of government – whether absolute or parliamentary. Second, monarchies often crumble when an unsuitable ruler comes around. Third, not all fantasy words even should have monarchies, because there are many other interesting political systems to experiment with. Why not try them out?

10. Idiotic politicians.

I developed that idea in my previous post. And, yes, I still consider idiotic political intrigue to be a problem in very many otherwise decent works. I can’t list more than 5-8 capable and believable fantasy politicians. Glokta? Raistin Majere? Vilgefortz and Avallac’h from the Witcher series are somewhat there. Admittedly, the situation is way better with fantasy military minds – these ones rock! However, there is literally almost no one, whom I can call a fantasy Metternich or a fantasy equivalent of Cao Cao from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Where are they, really?