First, some happy thoughts:
So, I visited the local library recently, which is something I do far too rarely. While there, I was delighted to find an entire section devoted to graphic novels – and even better, more than a few webcomic collections merrily displayed within. None of the suspects were surprising – Penny Arcade, Megatokyo, American Born Chinese – but still, it was a pleasant surprise.
Now, with that out of the way, follows a rant concerning a trilogy of novels entitled The Rise of Solamnia. Spoilers will Follow, regarding Books you Probably Haven’t Read, and Really Shouldn’t Anyway. This is a rant, make no mistake – criticism is there, but it is largely just me raving about some writing that left me frustrated and enraged. Read on at your own risk.
The Rise of Solamnia is written by Douglas Niles. It takes place in the Dragonlance universe, a campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons. Now, as such, I didn’t come into it with the highest of expectations. When I was younger, I devoured all such works without discrimination, but over the years I’ve become more discerning, and recognize than many of these books are just hack and slash indulgence on the behalf of the authors.
Oh, there are a few gems among them, most certainly, and some of them are very good hack and slash adventures – and that’s why I read them. But I recognize that odds are I won’t discover it to be any great work of literature – and as such, I’m rarely let down when my expectations, in fact, hold true.
The Rise of Solamnia let me down.
It isn’t really the flaws in the research, though that is a bit disappointing for an author so well-connected to the setting. Or the decision to add gunpowder to a fantasy world, which is almost universally a bad idea. Or the fact that villains and armies seemed to spontaneously form when needed, and despite all being manipulated by the same evil deity, seemed to constantly be working at cross-purposes.
No, what really upset me was that the main hero, Jaymes, was a thief, a murderer, a rapist and a tyrant, and at the end of the series, everyone said that was just fine with them.
In the first book, Jaymes is on the run for a crime he didn’t do. He takes some questionable actions during this time – robbing churches and killing the priests who try to stop him, cutting down without hesitation the knights who try and take him in – but I can somewhat accept it. He’s an outlaw, he’s been abandoned by the ideals he believed in, and he’s doing what he has to in order to survive.
By book two, he’s cleared his name, and all other crimes have seemingly been forgotten. Now in a position of power, and vying with rotten nobles, he decides he needs the full support of one of the book’s strongest female figures – the daughter of the country’s corrupt duke, who helped clear his name.
As such, he goes to the other strong female figure, the powerful archmage who saved his life on many occasions – and is, for no good reason, madly in love with him. He forces her to make him a love potion, with which he magically compells the love of the duke’s daughter, makes her marry him, and then runs off to shag some other widow before returning home.
Now this… this is not a nice thing to do. On the author’s behalf, this is reducing pretty much every female in the series to lovesick fools – but you know, as sad as it is to say, that alone doesn’t surprise me. These sort of novels are badly written and sexist all the time – I mean, hell, Ed Greenwood cranks out one of those a week. And simple wish-fulfillment characters, I can understand. I don’t like characters who can do no wrong – they might be one of my biggest pet peeves in webcomics, sure – but some people seem to like them, and they are more obnoxious than outright malevolent.
But when the hero of the story essentially date-rapes the female protagonist? Glorifying the act of drugging women for personal benefit? That’s a scary thing to see, especially in a book read by kids.
Nonetheless, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. At the end of book two, it looked like characters were actually recognizing some of our hero’s behavior as unsavory. I held out hope that he was being written the way he was intentionally, and would face the consequences in book three.
The third book arrived, and my hopes seem to hold true. Several years have passed, and Jaymes has declared himself the Emperor of Solamnia. He rules with an iron fist. In the first few chapters, he makes war on one of his most loyal noble, whose people can’t afford to pay the taxes the Emperor demands. When they arrived to parley under a flag of truce, Jaymes violates the truce, killing their lord in an attempt to capture him. When they try and fight back by destroying his cannons – and failing – he is enraged, and starts blowing apart their city even when they beg for surrender.
Take note that this is a nation founded on the ideals of honor and integrity, which he is throwing to the wind. Fortunately, the people notice that this just ain’t cool. His knights are upset over his behavior. When he returns to his capital, and wanders the streets in disguise, he hears the common-folk speculating on what atrocities he’ll commit next – so he has the speculators thrown in jail or exiled, and decrees it to be treason to speak out against him or his actions. His wife, now pregnant, has realized she was magically charmed, and so he has imprisoned her within her tower against her will. His best friend, a dwarf he traveled with for years, refuses to make any more explosives for him to use against those who defy him. His people hate and fear him, his allies have turned from him, and it looks as though his entire Empire will rise to overthrow him.
At this point, I’m really getting into the story. We have the set-up for an almost perfect tragic hero, as his own righteousness starts to destroy the nation he wants to save, and his own belief that the ends justify the means alienates his closest allies. This is good writing. His flaws have been exposed, and everything in the earlier books starts to fall into place – the shoddy acts of the villains seem to have almost been designed to throw him into power, as that itself would lead to the nation’s downfall. The struggle between the hero and his allies promises to be interesting, compelling, and cathartic.
And then some bad guys attack, he saves the day, and everyone forgives him.
Seriously. The same ogre warlord he defeated in the last two books somehow finds yet another army, and comes raging into town. Largely through the actions of others, the bad guys are defeated, and all his former faults seem to once again be forgotten. The son of the duke he killed forgives him. The girl he raped says that while she won’t be his lover, she understands why he did what he did, and agrees it was for the good of the nation, and she’ll be glad to raise his son. He apologizes for getting a little overzealous, and promises to be slightly less of an evil tyrant. Everyone cheers.
I suppose what upsets me isn’t that we have a character who was an anti-hero. If the author was just out to have a another amoral ‘bad boy’ warrior saving the day, without quite realizing the moral and ethical implications of the character’s behavior, I could write that off as ignorance on the author’s behalf. It wouldn’t mean I’d think highly of him – but it is far more forgiveable than recognizing that a character is a terrible human being, and then celebrating all the things he has done to make him so.
I mean, he came so close to making the novels work… and then backed out. I don’t know if it was editorial demand, or if he was simply too attached to the character. Maybe we were supposed to see it as character development, as Jaymes realizing his flaws and redeeming them – but as they say, redemption is not for everyone. It certainly takes more than simply saying, “I’m sorry.”
Anyway. Rant over, my raving is done. This isn’t the first book I’ve been disappointed in, and I’m confident it won’t be the last. In some ways, I miss my younger ability to read through such trash and still cheer at the conclusion – though not so much so that I’m not glad to be able to recognize a bad story when I see one.
There is something to be said for blissful ignorance, sure – but if I enjoyed all stories equally, how would I be able to appreciate the ones that are genuinely good?