Sunday, 27 March 2016

Am I missing something? (Part 1)

So, as you may have gathered from previous posts, I love good stories. However, that then begs the question; what, to me, makes a good story? In previous posts I've touched upon well written characters, so this time I want to compare stories with similar themes and/or premises. The catch here is I'm going to pick one story I liked, and one I disliked, and try to explore the reasons why one worked for me and the other didn't, despite their similarities.

Once again I'm going to look at different media, including books, video games, and film. First I'll focus on books (Part 1 and 2), then video games (Part 3 and 4), and finally film (Part 5).

To outline what's to come:

Part 1: Lord of the Rings vs. The Books of Pellinor

Part 2: Percy Jackson vs. Harry Potter

Part 3: Tomb Radier vs. Uncharted

Part 4: Bayonetta vs. Devil May Cry

Part 5: Wall-E vs. The Lorax

Disclaimer: These are just my personal opinions, and I'm sure the flaws in my arguments will be pointed out and thrown in my face, however just because *I* think something is not very good, that doesn't mean others have to agree. If you like something I don't, wonderful! Variety is the spice of life, after all.



A controversial one to start with, especially as the latter was actually inspired by the former! But this is a question that always intrigued me. As a writer of fantasy myself, why have I never gotten along with the founding father of the genre? It's not like I'm anti-Tolkein either; I enjoyed the Hobbit (just don't speak about the film(s) in my presence). But these books I just couldn't get into, and for various reasons...


This is something that I have a very strong opinion about. Yes, Tolkein lived through World War 2 which left a huge impact on him (and art in general), but his generalized denigration of the human race has persisted so deep that I've become completely sick of it. Sci-fi is very guilty of this as well. From elves of the deep woods to far-flung aliens in the darkest reaches of space, of course they must be better than us mere humans! And not only from a technological standpoint (which I could deal with), but from a moral standpoint.

As a doctor I've seen the nasty things people are capable of, but I've also seen the wonders people can achieve as well. We can be very resourceful and skilled when backed into corners. Hence, I didn't like how 'men' are portrayed as weak, inferior to the other races, and needing 'guidance'. Perhaps it's just my belief that we have more control over our own situation that we sometimes believe, and the tension between having an internal or external locus of control (which is something Tolkein explores; I just don't agree with his eventual outcome).

On the other hand, Croggon's take on the subject is a lot more morally grey. People are capable of good and bad things, and both are not mutually exclusive, either. Even the 'good' characters make questionable choices, and good people can be pushed into doing terrible things (her third book, The Crow, is a particularly dark example of this).

However, she doesn't need to split her world into races to show this, and rather shows problems with diversity within a race (Saliman's black skin, for example, and Maerad's gender). Croggon's portrayal is much more sympathetic, and for me, hits closer to home. It's much more horrifying to see a normal person brainwashed into doing something unspeakable, rather than just 'because they were evil'.


I will admit this is a slightly cheap shot, as it's probably more an effect of what came after LOTR as so many tried to 'copy' the master style. I'm sure if I'd read LOTR when it came out I'd not have this particular qualm against it.


The medieval fantasy setting has become something of a rut. Forget the progress of technology, let's have random magic and leave it at that! Who needs working pluming, or proper irrigation, or complex architecture (though Sauron got his money's worth with that tower...)

It's something barely ever commented upon, and for me, it makes the setting stagnant. It gives the impression that a) society exists in a vacuum and is never pressured to adapt to surroundings and b) there is never any impetus for change. I appreciate the story is not supposed to be a treatise on how the characters worked to increase agriculture yields, and the spread of Sauron's army would've put a damper on progress, but it would be nice to see hints of it. Heck, even watching the enemy army develop more powerful technologies would've been good, as war is actually quite a stimulus for technological advancement.

Croggon's books are not that much different in this aspect, but because she's worked in an interesting magic system, it's possible to see magic and technology working in harmony. She takes time to show how normal people live, so we get an idea of how Bards (the magic-capable people in her world) use their powers to make day to day life easier, and further their own technology. Again, while I wouldn't say these books do tonnes better than LOTR, it just seems to bother me less here.


So a lot of older media (and let's face it, a lot of newer media too) tend to over-represent males and under-represent females. The main quest with Frodo has all-male Hobbits, a male wizard, a male warrior, a male dwarf, a male elf, etc etc...and while there are female characters, they're not really crucial to the main plot, and are quite outnumbered by their male counterparts. Even when there are dire city sieges, with little to no hope of any victory, none of the women are given any opportunity to fight.

This is usually met with the 'but that's what it was like in those days, women didn't do anything!' excuse, which, as historical research has proven many times, is not true. Women did plenty; they just weren't recognised for it and so were written out. Again, part of this is a result of LOTR being a product of its time, and it's not that the women who do appear have terrible roles. It's just a bit more of them would've been nice. Women played a very large and active role in both World Wars, so it's not like Tolkein was lost for examples.

Croggon of course goes the whole hog and makes the protagonist a girl (but then if you know the author at all, this shouldn't be a surprise). But she doesn't stop there; there's a whole host of female characters who appear both as allies and enemies. This allows for a much better representation of the female spectrum, because (as most of modern YA will attest) having just one female character means you have to shove conflicting traits. She can't be docile, she's an action heroine, but she can't be too masculine so needs feminine appearances, etc etc. And it's not like there's a sparsity of men in exchange; Cadvan plays just as an important role as Maerad, and so does (spoiler: her brother Hem as well).


So, it seems I prefer the Books of Pellinor because...they're written with a more modern mindset, I guess? It also doesn't rely on the traditional fantasy races (elves, dwarves, orcs etc, which I just don't like outright no matter how they're written) and uses actual ethnicities instead. And while I can appreciate the enormous impact Tolkein's works had (and still have) on the genre, it's just not for me. Born in the wrong era, I think!

Stay tuned for the next part, where I pit the Percy Jackson series against Harry Potter!