18 May 2010
So, after recommendations by a couple of my coworkers, I read The The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett this last weekend. The book was good, but not great. The concept is good, post-apocalyptic fantasy setting in which demons come out each night. What this means is that the humans as a species are barely holding on, only able to be out during the day, and everything is scarce. Good so far.
Then we come to the wards. Apparently, there are wards that can be used to keep out demons (the old combat wards that would allow humans to fight demons on an even footing are lost). I don’t have a problem with the wards themselves, but rather how they are implemented. I was hoping for something like David Farland’s Runelords series (where runes are very powerful, but require scarce materials, knowledge, and a donor to work), but instead I get a book where all that is required to create wards is knowledge and time (Arlen, one of the central characters, can do it by instinct before his teens).
This leads to all sort of problems (such as why the wards aren’t tattooed on people at birth), but the problem that I’m interested in is that it is one-sided, there is no sacrifice. If power can be had without sacrifice, you can rest assured that humans will have exploited it to within an inch of its life. More importantly, when you have magic that requires sacrifice, it creates moral complexity, and that is one of the things that differentiates between a good story and a great one.
Ultimately, I believe that all storytelling is based on conflict, and that the conflict that we like is the conflict that we can relate to. You may be asking what relatability has to do with Fantasy. Well, in this case, I would say that one of the central aspects of every single person’s life is the concept of sacrifice and trade-offs, which we encounter virtually every time we make a choice. Combined with speculative fiction’s ability to take issues and allow us to examine them without the baggage that we have in reality, you can tell a very powerful story. In short, when you are creating a fantasy setting, magic needs to be balanced with sacrifice if it is to be at all relevant.