Whoopsie, just realized I didn’t post last week. No excuse; I just forgot. Will try not to do it again, sorry.
This week, though, I’ve been re-reading the fantasy novel that had the most significant influence on my tween writing career: Steven R. Boyett’s Ariel. It’s been re-released recently, after decades out of print; it was originally published in 1983. I would’ve been eleven at that time, though I don’t think I read it ’til I was 13. Probably just as well.
See, when I was thirteen, I actually didn’t like fantasy. I’d tried Tolkien at the time, and bounced off it; too old-fashioned, too British. I’d absorbed the science fiction genre’s disdain for “that made-up stuff”; fantasy wasn’t about Real Science ™, it was about silly impossibilities like wizards and fairies. (But my favorite books at the time, in my smug superiority, were Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern”.) There was a gendered element to it too; as a self-avowed tomboy who’d internalized a whole lotta sexism, I wasn’t interested in anything girly, which I at the time perceived fantasy to be. (McCaffrey wasn’t girly. Her dragons were big muscular COMBAT STEEDS. With FIRE. Andsomeromancebutnotmuchsothatwasokay. Plus, FIRE.) So when I finally decided to give fantasy another shot, naturally it was going to be something I perceived as rough, tough, macho stuff. Hard core, with explosions and stuff. And maybe a fairy. As the mascot.
So I picked up Ariel. All the crucial signs of toughness were there: written by a man (grunt), starring a man (grunt), about hard-core stuff like survival after an apocalyptic event (grunt grunt). There were swords! A showdown with a necromancer! Stuff! Blowing!! Up!!!1! It helped that the story was at least partially set in New York, which held a kind of mythical power for me at the time; yeah, bankrupt crumbling NYC of the 1980s was my Camelot back then. What can I say? Growing up in the ‘burbs had bored me to tears. So I was willing to overlook the presence of a unicorn on the then cover. All these macho characters needed something to ride, right? And unicorns could probably kick serious ass with those horns, in battle.
(OK, look, everybody’s a little messed-up at thirteen, a’ight? I grew out of all this, thank every god in creation.)
Alas, the marketing completely fooled me. Sure, there were explosions and stuff, but the book turned out to be the most beautiful love story I’d ever read. All that action was sandwiched between poignant human dramas: people just trying to get by after a traumatic event, children growing up in a hurry, loss and grief. There was a ton of magic in the book, but the best was the kind that isn’t “made up” — the magic of eerily beautiful landscapes and surreal cityscapes; of lonely people and hopeless dreams. I finished the book and cried. Then I read it again. And again, and again, until my copy literally fell apart. Then I taped it together and read it some more.
I had begun writing by that point, so as a further sign of my admiration, I tried to incorporate what I’d learned from the book into my own work. I started chapters with quotes from poetry or Shakespeare, as Boyett had done. (This, of course, forced me to read poetry and Shakespeare, which I then grew to love. Sneaky, Boyett. Sneaky.) I made my characters angsty and gave them snappy dialogue. (If I’d been born ten years later, I’d probably have written Buffy fanfic. Thank goodness I’m a Seventies child.) I — cautiously — began adding romance and female characters to my stories, as an experiment (because at the time I’d somehow absorbed the notion that girls couldn’t be heroes in SF/F). I started trying to subvert the tropes of fantasy that had so repelled me; Boyett had given me a unicorn who swore like a sailor, so maybe I could write freaky fairies and monster angels and so on. I realized fantasy can be set anywhere; modern-day America works just as well as medieval Europe, and it can incorporate elements of SF. And I realized the best story elements aren’t necessarily the explosions, but the quiet moments of people just being people.
Basically, I read this book and grew up a little.
Re-reading it now, at 36, has been interesting. Boyett himself acknowledges the weirdness of reading an Eighties novel now, in the Naughties; the Twin Towers still stand in New York, and the characters mention TV but not cellphones or computers. I know a bit of lit theory now, so I know what to call this kind of story: a standard bildungsroman, though beautifully done. I’m a bit more widely-read too, so I can see the works that influenced Boyett in the bones of this tale. I’m noticing the flaws I didn’t back then — a few Handwavium ™ moments in the plot, and I’m laughing my butt off at all the white male characters oh-so-Seriously pretending to be samurai. (Boyett does offer a tongue-in-cheek explanation: after the mysterious Change in this world that causes technology to stop working and medieval-style weapons to make a comeback, all the people in the Society for Creative Anachronism suddenly jump several notches on the socioeconomic scale.)
But these are minor flaws, all things considered. I met Boyett at Worldcon this year; cool guy. He noted that he was 21 (!!) when this book got published, which impressed me even further. When I was 21, I was writing crap. So I’m willing to forgive him a few blips, considering the whole is so timelessly well done.
So I’m wholeheartedly recommending this book once again. And I can’t wait for its sequel, due out soon, called Elegy Beach.
Oh — and this is my own dip into the idea jar, as Diana put it. Periodically I’m going to review fantasies that I read during my “formative years” as a writer, which I’ll be tagging as, duh, “formative fantasy”. I’m curious to know other peoples’ formative fantasies, too, because I kind of get the impression I took a less-traveled road into this genre. Feel free to mention yours in the comments. In the meantime, go buy Ariel.