In Dreams Awake

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.

(Henry David Thoreau)

Thursday, 26 June 2014

A Leap of Courage

  In a Fantasy novel there's going to be some fighting. Maybe a pitched battle, maybe a riot, but there's nearly always physical conflict of some sort. In my work I try to show it as an ugly thing, which means a degree of realism. I remember that I'm telling a story, people don't want to see anything too graphic, but I also think of Saving Private Ryan and know there's a place for a certain amount of gore.

  In the real world we've come to disassociate war from its horror, to a large extent. We've all seen the images taken from cameras on aircraft, or tracking a missile to target, and they really do look like video games, all green flickers and numbers down the side of the display. It's the reverse of what the ancient Greeks did, in a world where warfare took place at a distance, in an exchange of arrows and stones. Greek warriors were farmers who couldn't be away from home for long, and their homeland was mostly mountains with few flat places, both of which factors contributed to their preference for close up, hand to hand fighting. This was a choice, not a last resort: it's how they wanted it. But it was a genuine transformation of warfare, because up close combat is visceral and personal, and it takes a leap of courage to brave it. An arrow is aimed at an area, but a swinging sword is meant to kill you, and you can see the eyes of the man who wields it. The awfulness of death is right in your face the whole time.

  In truth, war is still like that. So is suffering, for people in pain or hunger. In the Western world we rarely come closer to such things than a picture on a TV. They're far-off events, made impersonal by distance. Yet hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq over the past eleven years, many of them killed with knives or marketplace bombs. Tens of thousands have died in Palestine over recent years, either at Israeli hands or one another's. Perhaps more than two million have been killed in DR Congo during its long civil war, often hacked to death with machetes in the bloodiest conflict since World War Two. In those countries, and many more, war isn't a distant or impersonal thing, it's a horror that walks at your shoulder every day.

  I have an upcoming series called The Blessed Land, in which the battles are made very shocking. I do it deliberately, because part of the story addresses a group who trigger a war simply for their own interests, and I wanted to show what they caused as unflinchingly as I could. I'm also writing the TROY series, of course, which of necessity includes a lot of battle scenes; there's no way around that. But having written these stories, I want now to move away from it if I can. There are other ways to show conflict, other means of raising tension.

  It's very hard to think of a Fantasy novel that doesn't include armies in battle though. Guy Gavriel Kay's The Sarantine Mosaic makes a stab at it but does have some scenes. Mark Chadbourne manages it sometimes, Storm Constantine goes through much of the Magravandias series without it, and there are Peake's Titus books, but for each of them, there are dozens which revel in it. Anything by David Gemmell or David Eddings, Jordan's Wheel of Time, Lord of the Rings, most of Terry Brooks' Shannara stories... the list just keeps going.

  There's a place for battle in Fantasy, of course there is. I'm not saying I want to cut it out completely. But I want some of my books not to focus on it, or wallow in it. If I'm any good at all I ought to be able to create an intriguing plot through more subtle conflict. After all, as the countries I mentioned above show, there's quite enough war in the real world without us escaping to invented battles as well.