Morality Undone

So I’m right in the middle of a very enjoyable fantasy series.

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar:

So the world is threatened by a god of darkness, who was cast out from his own kind for his defiance against them.

Ages have come and past, and his power has been held back every time by the combined forces of men and elves.

Once again he is a threat, and a Company goes forth to lead the Bearer into the heart of his lair, where they will perform a small task to defeat him.

Along the way the Company is split up, and the Bearer must continue on his quest with only one companion for support.

The Wizard is lost, but returns reborn as the White Rider. He rejoins the armies of men and elves, who are led under the banner of a King without a land, the last son of his line who will lead the armies agains the Enemy and usher in a new age of peace.

Only…. the Company, the Wizard, the King, and all those folks above?

They’re the bad guys.

The Sundering, by Jacqueline Carey, is an excellent story that takes place over two novels. Despite the similarities, it isn’t simply The Lord of the Rings told from the enemy’s perspective. The similarities are there, but they are superficial at best.

At its heart, it is its own story. It is filled with unique and flavorful characters, many of whom remind us of typical fantasy archetypes, but many of whom are also developed and distinct beyond that. Good and evil are turned on their head, and the reader is rooting for the ‘forces of darkness’ to prevail.

The idea of perverting darkness and light is not a new one – it has been done before, both in the extreme and in the specific.

Villains by Necessity, by Eve Forward, takes such a role to the extreme – a handful of villains must band together, as the world is in danger of being consumed by the goodness that has overtaken it, and utterly destroyed. They must fight their way to the place where the armies of evil were sealed away, and release them and restore the balance. It is a very good read, and above all a fun book – clever, humorous, and quick with the action. But at the same time, such a perversion of good and evil is much easier to handle when placed in such a light-hearted setting.

Anti-heroes, and redeemed villains, are also present all over the place – from the Punisher, a hero who murders those who do wrong, to Drizzt Do’Urden, the inspiration for countless bland ‘dark elves who have seen the light’ in role-playing games everywhere. These characters have become archetypes in and of themselves, just like the villain who ‘was just trying to do the right thing’.

And these aren’t bad characters, of course. Roles of such built-in conflict present massive potential for character development, especially when done well.

Which is why it is all the more impressive when an entire world is turned on its head in the self-same way.

The Sundering is a well-written story. It is a serious fantasy work, and a genuinely enjoyable literary read. And while many other tales have toyed with twisting the idea of good and evil, very few have done it on such a level, or done it so well. The fact that I can only recall one other such novel off the top of my head (Villains by Necessity) emphasizes this.

One of the curses that has come upon me since pursuing a career in writing has been gaining much more knowledge and awareness of books – and thus I was forced to admit that many of the books I read were not actually all that good. I am now all too aware of when I read bad writing – or writing that was put out just to cater to the masses. And in many ways I miss being able to just grab some of the random shlocky pulp fantasy works that are mass produced, and enjoy the read.

But at the same time, I am that much more able to appreciate good writing.

And regardless of what definitions of good or evil are being used, I certainly find that I can very much appreciate the work of Jacqueline Carey.

5 responses

  1. If you like stuff like that, try darken, at It’s a D&D style fantasy story from the point of the evil band of folks trying to take over the world. I find it quite entertaining, myself.

  2. Hmm, that looks pretty neat. Thanks for the link!

    Sympathetic villains definitely tend to make for popular characters – probably because the audience has an excuse to cheer for them, and everybody loves a badass.

    On the other hand, those sort of characters are usually secondary characters, rather than the main focus of a story – probably because it can be hard to really write about evil people’s motivations without everything just falling into chaos.

    In any case, I certainly like the look of the strip thus far (which is to say the art looks nice and darkly cool, and I haven’t actually read any of the strips yet. So many comics to read, so little time!)

  3. Yeah, I really admire the way that the story’s set up, because I’m sure it’s difficult to write characters who are both uncompromisingly evil and also likeable.

    Good luck with your backlog. 🙂

  4. Well, comic successfully read – a pretty smooth read, as the comic flows rather well.

    Yeah, I like the characterization as well – by and large, they’re charming because of their specific flaws and quirks, rather than in spite of them, which I think is a good way to go about it.

    The fact that as bad-ass as they are, they’re also rather silly, disaster-prone, and reckless, helps too.

  5. 🙂 Glad you liked it. I’m not quite sure that all of the people in the party are evil, I think the were-bear guy might be chaotic good or at the very least neutral. It’s fun for me to watch because I’ve never done an evil campaign.

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