Monday, April 6, 2009

The (Old) New Weird: Martha Wells

In the beginning, was the weird tale. Like science fiction and fantasy, it's debateable when it first emerged, but we can all look back at H.P. Lovecraft and definitively say "Yep, that's pretty effin' weird right there." As with punk rock, it's much easier to point to a definitive example (the Ramones) than to root around looking for precursors.

So when we talk about the New Weird, it's easy to point at Jeff VanderMeer or China MiƩville's work and say, "Yep, that's pretty new and pretty effin' weird." But like the Ramones, they did not emerge fully formed, and we can find examples of weirdness that may not even have influenced the modern practitioners directly, but which came before them.

The preceding is just a long way of saying that I'm going to be talking, occasionally, about some authors who wrote weird stuff. Starting today with Martha Wells.

In the 1990s, Wells wrote three fantasy novels for Tor, all pretty well reviewed, which chipped away at the conventions of fantasy literature. By 1993, when The Element of Fire was published, we were 16 years into Terry Brooks Shannara series, the first book of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series was three years old, and any number of people were starting to immitate those authors, rather than drawing inspiration directly from Tolkein or the original myths. Fantasy was settling into what it largely remains today: the realm of thick-as-a-brick books that come in lengthy series. All those books more or less mined from Tolkein's work, so you had a seemingly endless number of semi-European, quasi-medieval quests and knights and wizards and the whole fantastic cladogram of near-human species.

The Element of Fire has swords, it is true, but it also has firearms. Hero Thomas Boniface lives in an Elizabethan-style world, in the nation of Ile-Rien, whose capital Vienne is a mashup of Paris and London, circa 1550. And there are magicians, although they're usually addressed as Doctor, and they study at an analogue of Oxford. There are non-humans, but they're wild faeries, representing chaos and madness. Our second protagonist, Kade Carrion, is half-fey and the heir to great powers, and not entirely a good guy.

And there are fights with rapiers. I'm going to just take a minute here to say a personal thank you to Ms. Wells for this book. I fence. That is, I go to school gymnasiums and community centres, put on white jacket and gloves and a mesh mask, and practice trying to hit other people with analogues of 18th Century court swords. I am not very good at this. But even someone who is not very good quickly becomes frustrated by the boring descriptions of any kind of swordplay in a standard fantasy novel. Therefore, anything with actual rapiers, and with decently written fight scenes, and duels, is a breath of fresh air. Thank you, Ms. Wells.

Of course, I never would have guessed it's anything unusual from the jacket copy. Whoever was writing back-cover stuff for Tor back in '93 clearly didn't know what the hell they were holding. Check out the header: "Where high-tech wizardry meets fairy magic and a kingdom hangs in the balance..." It has wheel-lock pistols! This is high tech? It's like even gunpowder totally baffled the fantasy division.

As to the plot of the book, you can find it and read it yourself. (Again, ignore the back cover. The king's sister is not our for revenge, among other problems.) The Element of Fire is good, but her later two books would outshine it.

In 1997, Wells returned to Ile-Rien and the city of Vienne, this time several hundred years later for The Death of the Necromancer. It's now a city with steam engines and trains (which help keep the dastardly faeries away, all those iron rails, you know). And Nicholas Valiarde is the city's greatest thief, out for revenge on the man who caused the death of his adoptive father. Meanwhile, he's being pursued by the city's greatest sleuth, a consulting detective who keeps company with a medical doctor.

Yes, in the midst of some marvelous gaslight fantasy, we're treated to the Count of Monte Cristo/Moriarty being pursued by Holmes and Watson. Soon, of course, there is dark necromancy and even revenge has to take a back seat to preventing an apocalypse. Except for one section near the end where the action bogs down for several chapters, it's an almost perfect book.

Two things about the book always strike me. The first is that Wells implies a lengthy history for all her characters. There's a real sense that we're coming in on the fourth or fifth book in a series, that in some parallel world The Strand has been publishing Valiarde stories for years. If we could just dig up those older stories, we'd see how Valiarde met and recruited his band of thieves, eccentrics, wrongly-accused cracksmen and opium-addicted sorcerers.

The second I didn't realize until years later, because I read Death of the Necromancer before Element of Fire. This is the fact that Valiarde, the anti-hero of Necromancer, is actually descended from Denzil, the villain of Element of Fire. It's an odd but appropriate choice, because Valiarde is not your average good guy. At one point he notes that his first impulses are almost always wrong; he has to fall back on the moral teachings of his adoptive father and think about what's right and wrong. Valiarde at first pursues the story's true villain because the necromancer discovers his identity; after that it eventually becomes a vendetta for him. Justice and revenge, for Valiarde, are quite similar.

I've left City of Bones for last, although it was published between the two Ile-Rien novels. While Ile-Rien was one of many attempts by authors to tug fantasy out of Generic Medieval Europe, City of Bones is full-on New Weird, before there was any such category.

The main character is Khat, who lives in a city on the edge of a massive desert riven by steep canyons and infested by dangerous creatures. Khat is not human; instead he's some kind of near-human whose race was created in the distant past. And he has a pouch, like a marsupial. Oh, and the soldiers in the city of Charisat use rifles powered by brass air reservoirs, so they have to pump the pressure up between shots. And there are strange mind-magics and knife fights and racial politics. And I'm saying this from memory because I've been trying to find a copy of this book again for the past several years, and not only does it not turn up in my local used book stores, but my library has no more copies! Dammit! 

City of Bones has stuck in my mind since I first read it in the mid-1990s. If it were published today, it would easily be filed as New Weird, and people would compare Wells to other authors working in that tradition. But it was published too early; the reviews of it at the time couldn't even agree if it was fantasy, science fiction, horror or a combination of the three. These days, that's often how the New Weird is defined: as a melding of all three genres, much like the work of H.P. Lovecraft. 

There are plenty of Martha Wells books out there that I haven't even touched on, including a three-book cycle that features Nicholas Valiarde's daughter going on a dimension-hopping expedition. Check them out.

Next time on (Old) New Weird: Tim Powers.

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