White and Featureless
By Cheryl Morgan
Earlier this month Farah Mendlesohn invited me to come and talk to the students in her science fiction class. One of the subjects we got onto is the nature of genre. I don’t have my copy of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction to hand, but the gist of Mendlesohn’s argument in her Introduction is that science fiction is not a genre because it doesn’t have standard plotlines. Pick up a mystery, a romance, even a western, and you’ll have a good idea of the general nature of the story. Not so in SF. Anything can happen. I happen to like that, but genres are not necessarily bad things. For many readers the primary selling point of genre novels is their comfortable predictability.
Which brings us to the new series by Trudi Canavan. Having done very well with her Black Magician series, Canavan could have gone one of two ways. She could have produced a new series that was more interesting and challenging and made me happy, or she could have gone for something more in the formula fantasy mould and become very rich. Probably wisely, she chose the latter. Priestess of the White, the first book in the Age of the Five series, is already a massive best-seller in the UK — up in Terry Pratchett territory. It is not, however, a book I’d recommend to most Emerald City readers.
The world is a collection of fairly standard fantasy tropes. There are gods, there are magician-priests, there are bat-people and fish-people. There are, inevitably, excessively cute furry creatures (possibly possums) that talk. There’s a young man who is laughed at by his peers because he’s clever. There are bad guys who have dark skins and whose symbol is a five-pointed star. And the heroine is a young woman plucked from obscurity to become the most powerful sorceress in the world.
The two significant features of the book are the Dreamweavers and the fact that the gods are disturbingly real. I’ll come back to the latter point later, but the Dreamweavers are there to show that the supposed good guys are not all good (except our heroine, of course). Dreamweavers also do magic, but don’t worship the gods, so they are persecuted. This is very convenient, because it allows our heroine, Auraya, to have a doomed love affair with one.
Not that the book is entirely dumb. Canavan is well aware of what she is doing. Indeed, at one point she has a minor character point out that Auraya’s life is starting to resemble one of those tragic romance novels that noblewomen are so fond of reading. Canavan also tries to describe some of the complexity of Auraya’s life as one of the leaders of her people. Political negotiations do take place, albeit in a very safe and cartoon-like manner. But if a character makes a loaded statement Canavan is always quick to have someone else think, "ah, he said that because he wanted them to think…" just to make sure that the reader can follow what is going on. If you are writing for a very wide audience that sort of thing can help. But to me it felt rather like the stabilizer wheels they put on kids’ bikes so they’ll have confidence that they can’t fall off.
The plot, such as it is, boils down to, "the bad guys do evil things, but when the situation gets desperate Auraya discovers that she’s a much more powerful sorceress than anyone, including herself, thought." This confused me for a little while, but then I realized that it too is an essential part of the escapist formula. In escapist fiction the reader doesn’t want the heroine to have to work hard for success. That would take away the fairytale, dream-come-true, lottery-winning charm of the story. No, the reader wants the heroine to be successful because, as a L’Oreal ad might say, she deserves it.
The one area where the book could have been very interesting is in the matter of religion. The story actually depicts a religious war — the gods of the bad guys tell their followers to go and wipe out the unbelievers. Both sides insist that their gods are real and the others are just faking it. Given that religious conflict is very much in the news these days, this could become a very powerful piece of writing. Except that Canavan’s gods are real. They are, in fact, powerful magicians from ages past who are masquerading as gods, although for unexplained reasons only the Dreamweavers are smart enough to spot this, even though "ages past" appears to be only a hundred years ago. Consequently Canavan has produced a religion (in fact two opposing religions) whose only theology is, "the gods are real so we must do whatever they tell us." That, I submit, does not allow for a very searching examination of real-world religious conflict.
But what am I saying? If Canavan did produce such a book she’d offend all sorts of potential readers and only sell a fraction of the number of books she’s going to shift with this series. Canavan has chosen her market, and she’ll do very well in it. Good luck to her.