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Friday, May 31, 2013
Imperial Nostalgia and the Fantasy Writer by Ian C. Esslemont
This subject came up recently at the last ICFA conference. The genre of fantasy has often come under criticism, fairly and unfairly, as a politically-naive purveyor of what’s known as ‘Imperial Nostalgia’. This is the nostalgic, rosy-tinted looking-back on earlier colonial and European Imperialist times as somehow preferable, or at least much less appalling, than they really were. Novels of this ilk cherry-pick images and themes (tropes) from these earlier times, while ignoring or papering-over the horrors (Boardinghouses and social/class hierarchies, for example—Harry Potter, anyone? Or, parading Victorian technology and accoutrement—Steampunk, you listening?)
While the charge may stick to fantasy here or there in the larger sense, in epic fantasy that label has long slipped off in a wash of blood. What may have once been an idyllic apolitical retreat is no longer. Pieces that appear to ignore these developments will seem quaint or naïve at best, or, at worst, distasteful or shameful.
Political machinations and the scramble for power have in truth long been outed. Critics from outside the field are simply mouthing the same old line. What was once cloaked in metaphor and symbol—rings for example—is now the open bloody blade and grasping hand. And what many decry as brutal and violent is in truth a return to the roots of the genre, in epic and saga, where power and rulership are a matter of life and death. And not at all pretty.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ian C. Esslemont grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has studied archaeology and creative writing, has traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, and lived in Thailand and Japan for several years. He now lives in Alaska with his wife and children and is currently working on another novel set in the world of Malaz, a world he co-created with Steven Erikson. Ian C. Esslemont’s previous Malazan novels include Night of Knives, Return of the Crimson Guard, Stonewielder, and Orb, Sceptre and Throne. For more information on Ian C. Esslemont and the Malazan novels, please visit the Official Ian Cameron Esslemont Wikipedia and Malazan Empire Website.
ABOUT BLOOD AND BONE:
In the western sky the bright emerald banner of the Visitor descends like a portent of annihilation. On the continent of Jacuruku, the Thaumaturgs have mounted yet another expedition to tame the neighboring wild jungle. Yet this is no normal wilderness. It is called Himatan, and it is said to be half of the spirit realm and half of the earth. And it is said to be ruled by a powerful entity whom some name the Queen of Witches, and some a goddess: the ancient Ardata.
Saeng grew up knowing only the rule of the magus Thaumaturgs—but it was the voices out of that land's forgotten past that she listened to. And when her rulers mount an invasion of the neighboring jungle, those voices send her and her brother on a desperate mission.
To the south, the desert tribes are united by the arrival of a foreign warleader, a veteran commander in battered ashen mail whom his men call the Grey Ghost. This warleader takes the tribes on a raid like none other, deep into the heart of Thaumaturg lands. Meanwhile word comes to K'azz, and mercenary company the Crimson Guard, of a contract in Jacuruku. And their employer . . . none other than Ardata herself…
There are many tattooed men and women. Tattoos are often religious incantations or symbols. They are held to offer protection against illness, curses and to ward off the attention of ghosts. The more superstitious the person, the more tattoos they are apt to have. Since tattooing is very painful, the victim chews mind-dulling leaves or inhales stupefying smoke, without relent, for the days of the operation.
The first significant attack upon the army came on the fourth night of the march through the border region of jagged limestone mounts, sheer cliffs and sudden precipitous sinkholes, the Gangreks. Golan had fallen asleep at his travelling desk. Long into the night he’d been reading U-Pre’s disheartening progress reports while the candles burned out one by one around him. Screams and shouts from the edge of camp snapped his head from among the sheets of cheap pressed fibre pages. The candles had all guttered out. Wrapping his robes about himself, he stepped out of the tent and met the messenger sent to bring him word of the disturbance. He waved the man silent and set off.
His yakshaka bodyguard fell in about him, swords drawn, and Golan sourly reflected that this was hardly where their swords were needed. Still, they were not to be blamed. It was not their job to patrol the camp perimeter. He found most of the troops and labourers up and awake. They murmured among themselves and strained to peer to the south. The whispers died away as Golan and his escort passed. He felt the pressure of countless eyes following him from the dark, all glittering as they reflected the dancing flames of the camp torches. He recognized the gathering panic fed by the darkness and their destination—a smothering animal coiling itself about everyone.
The south was a trampled battleground of torn tens, overturned carts, slaughtered men and animals. The butchery appeared indiscriminate, savage. Corpses lay where they had fallen, sprawled, revealing hideous wounds, and Golan gritted his teeth. Where was U-Pre? He expected better than this of the man. Droplets of blood and other fluids spattered the grasses and slashed canvas. Here and there limbs lay completely torn from torsos. He studied the corpse of a labourer eviscerated by a ragged gash across his stomach. Blue and pink-veined intestines lay thrown like uncoiled rope. Someone wearing sandals had walked across them. As reported: a fanged monstrosity emerging from the forest to rend men limb from limb. What else but an opening move from Ardata?
He sighed, and, chilled by the cool night air, slid his hands up the wide silk sleeves of his robe. Thankfully, a cordon of troopers had been organized and these, with spears sideways, held back the curious.
Yet even so, stamped on the faces of those survivors, in their wide staring eyes and sweaty pallid features, lay their obvious terror and near panic. Must separate these from the rest; such fear is contagious and grows in the recounting.
Walking unconcerned through the muck and steaming spilled viscera came the equally fearsome apparition of the Isturé Skinner himself. His ankle-length armoured coat glimmered like mail, though Golan knew it was actually constructed of smooth interlocking scales. As he stepped over the sprawled corpses his coat dragged across staring faces and slashed wet torsos. It shone enameled black except where spattered fresh gore painted it a deep crimson.
‘And where were you and your people during the attack?’ Golan demanded.
‘Elsewhere the foreigner responded, unconcerned. He clasped his gauntleted hands behind his back to study the field of dead. Golan strove to shrug off a feeling of unease at such a blasé attitude to this bloody business. ‘Well . . . now that you are here it is time you were useful.’
The foreigner, so tall as to literally tower over Golan, cocked a blond brow. ‘Oh?’
‘Yes. Track down this servant of Ardata. Slaughter it.’
In a scratching of scales Skinner crossed his armoured arms. ‘It is hardly a servant of Ardata.’
Golan waved a hand, forgetting momentarily that he wasn’t carrying his rod or fly-whisk. ‘What more evidence is necessary? It is a monster! It attacked us! We are entering Ardata’s demesnes!’
‘I would suggest that what we have entered is this thing’s hunting grounds.’
Golan eyed the man more narrowly. ‘Regardless. You have pledged certain obligations to the Circle of Masters.’
The foreign giant waved a hand in its banded, articulating gauntlet. ‘Yes, yes. You have in me a partner for the campaign.’
‘Very good. Your first task awaits.’
Turning heavily away, the foreigner murmured, ‘For all the good it will do . . . ‘
Golan followed his retreat to the dark forest verge. All the good? Well, yes, Ardata’s servants are no doubt many. But that is your half of the bargain, foreigner. The throne of Ardata’s lands could hardly be won so easily. And if you should destroy each other in the process . . . well . . . Golan shrugged, then waved away a swarm of flies drawn by the spilt warm fluids.
In the woods Mara awaited Skinner. With her stood Shijel and Black the Lesser, younger brother of Black the Greater, who had remained with K’azz. ‘Well?” she demanded as her commander appeared.
Skinner gave a slow shrug of disgust. ‘Our noble ally wants it killed.”
‘Ridiculous! In a few days we’ll be out of its territory.’
‘Regardless . . . ‘
Mara kicked the ground. ‘Damned useless . . . ‘
‘Who’s coming?’ Black asked.
Skinner studied them. ‘We should do it. Mara, tell Jacinth she’s in charge until we return.’
‘The trail?’ Skinner asked Shijel.
‘A blind tinker could follow it.’
‘So be it. Let us track it down. I’d like to be back by dawn.’
Shijel did the tracking. He wore light leathers and gloves on his hands, which were never far from the silver-wire-wrapped grips of his twin longswords. The trail, obvious even to Mara, led them on. The nightly rains returned, thick and warm. Mara’s robes became a heavy encumbrance that she cursed as she stumbled over roots and through clinging mud. The possibility of returning by dawn slowly slid away as they failed to reach the creature’s lair until a feathering of pink touched the eastern sky. The four gathered short of a jungle-choked opening in a tall cliff face and Mara cursed again. ‘Could go on forever, ‘ she muttered, keeping her voice low.
Their commander pulled on one of the hanging vines as if testing its strength. ‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘I do miss Cowl.’
Mara flinched at that mention of her old superior, now dead. ‘Meaning what?’ she demanded.
Skinner turned to her, frowned his puzzlement, and then nodded his understanding. ‘Ah. No slight intended.’ He drew on his helm. ‘I simply meant that I could just have sent him in and wouldn’t have to go myself.’ He waved them on.
Mara followed, stepping awkwardly over rotting logs and fallen rock. Well, there was that, she admitted. Cowl would actually have gone in alone. And no doubt Skinner did miss his old partner in scheming. Together they’d proved a formidable team. Always it had been just the two of them hammering out stratagems and tactics. Now that Cowl was gone Skinner was well and truly utterly alone. And it seemed to her that the man was even less human because of it.
She knew this cave was just one of the countless sinkholes and caverns that riddled this mountain border region. Over the millennia rains had rotted the limestone into a maze of grottoes and extended underground tunnels where one could suddenly find oneself exposed in open sunlight yet lost hundreds of feet below the surface. Some argued this was the true face of Ardata’s realm. As if she were some sort of queen of the underworld. But Mara knew this to be false. The Night-Queen’s demesne was open countryside. Yet likewise over the millennia, her presence had altered the entire jungle until it too resembled this border region where the unmindful traveller could suddenly find himself wandering half immersed in a Warren-like realm: the legendary enchanted forest of Himatan.
They pushed through the hanging leaves and vines then paused to allow their vision to adjust, and to become used to the stink that suddenly assaulted them: the overwhelming miasma of the layered urine and guano of untold thousands of bats.
‘You have the sense of this thing?’ Skinner asked Mara.
‘Yes. Downward and to the right.’
Shijel led. Mara summoned her Warren to improve her vision. The swordsman was on his way across the main section of the cave when she sensed a shimmering of power there on the floor – which to her vision seemed almost to seethe. ‘Halt!’
Everyone froze. ‘Well?’ Skinner murmured.
‘The floor of the cave. Something strange there . . . ’ Mara summoned greater light, then selected a stone that she tossed on to the oddly shifting floor. The stone disappeared as if dropped into water. The surface burst into a flurry of hissing and writhing. It seemed to boil, revealing a soup of vermin: centipedes, ivory-hued roaches, white beetles and pale maggots. Amid the slurry of legs and chitinous slithering bodies lay bones. The skeletal remains of animals. And of humans.
‘Strip you of flesh in an instant,’ Mara commented.
Shijel peered back at her, unconvinced. ‘They’re just insects.’
‘There is power there.’
‘D’ivers?’ Skinner asked sharply.
Mara cocked her head, studying the pool more closely. ‘Not as such. No. They are . . . enchanted, I suppose one might call it.’
A disgusted sigh escaped Skinner. ‘Himatan already . . . ’
Mara nodded. ‘Under here, yes.’
‘No wonder the thing fled this way. Very well . . . ’ Skinner gestured to Black the Lesser. ‘You lead. Mara, follow closely.’
Black unslung his broad shield and drew his heavy bastard sword. Mara fell in behind him, directing him to keep to the walls and to watch his step. They descended in this order for some time; Skinner bringing up the rear, perhaps as a precaution against their quarry’s attacking from behind. The route Mara dictated narrowed and they slogged on through knee-high frigid water. From somewhere nearby came the echoing roar of a falls.
Mara sensed it as it happened: she opened her mouth to shout a warning even as a shape lunged from the dark water to latch itself upon Black and the two went down in a twisting heap. From the slashing water rose the monstrosity to launch itself upon her. She had an instant’s impression of a glistening armoured torso like that of a lizard, sleek furred arms ending in long talons, and a humanoid face distorted by an oversized mouth of needle-like teeth. Two swords thrust over her shoulders impaling the creature in its lunge and it shrieked, twisting aside to disappear once more beneath the water. Black emerged, gasping and chuffing. His right shoulder was a bloody mess. He cradled the arm. Mara nodded her thanks to Shijel, just behind her.
‘It went for you,’ he said.
‘It knows who’s sensing it,’ Skinner rumbled. ‘I believe you wounded it, Shijel. Mara – is it far?’
Still shaken, she jerked her head. ‘No. Not far.’
‘Very good. Black, fall in behind Mara. You lead, Shijel.’
They found it close to an underground waterfall. It lay up against rocks, half in the water. Blood smeared its chest and naked torso. Its dark eyes glittered full of intelligence and awareness, watching them as they approached, so Mara addressed it: ‘Why did you attack us?’
Its half-human face wrinkled up, either in pain or annoyance. ‘Why?’ it growled. ‘Stupid question, Witch.’ It gestured a clawed hand to Skinner. ‘You are a fool to return, Betrayer. She will not be so patient with you a second time.’
‘We shall see,’ he answered from within his helm.
‘Again I ask,’ Mara said, ‘why attack? You are no match for us.’
It bared its teeth in something like a hungry grin. ‘No. But our mistress has spoken. You are no longer welcome and I honour our mistress. You . . . ’ it gestured again to Skinner, weakly, ‘Himatan shall swallow you.’
Mara frowned, troubled by what seemed a prophecy, and she crouched before it. ‘What do you—’
The heavy mottled blade of Skinner’s sword thrust past her, impaling the creature. Mara flinched aside. ‘Damn the Dark Deceiver, Skinner! There was something there …’
‘Well,’ the giant observed as he shook the dark blood from his blade, ‘there’s nothing there now.’ He turned away. ‘Bring the body. The damned Thaumaturg might yet demand proof.’
At the cave entrance Skinner paused, raising a gauntleted hand to sign a halt. He regarded the wide cave floor, now as still as any placid pool. He then went to the body, which Shijel and Black had dragged all the way. Grunting with the effort, he gathered up the muscular corpse and heaved the carcass overhead and out on to the floor. As it flew Mara flinched to hear it give vent to one sudden despairing shriek, cut off as it disappeared beneath the surface. The pool of vermin foamed to life in a great boiling froth of maggots, beetles, writhing larvae and ghost-white centipedes.
Mara turned away, nauseated. Skinner watched for a time, motionless, then headed for the surface. Passing Mara, he observed, ‘You were right – stripped in an instant.’
To read another excerpt from Blood and Bone, please click HERE.
12:00 AM | Posted by Robert | | Edit Post