Review and Digression: The Black Magician Trilogy and Fantasy in General

by Dan H

Dan remains unnecessarily complicated
I don't read a lot these days. I'm lazy and easily distracted. When I do read, I tend to read fantasy. Growing up on Narnia, D&D, Warhammer and Terry Pratchett left me with the kind of mind which adapts to fictional worlds far more easily than real ones. Unfortunately despite having an abiding infatuation with the Fantasy genre, I don't actually ... well ... like it very much. Leaving aside the fact that a lot of it just isn't very good (a criticism which could be levelled at any genre, including literary fiction) it tends to be overlong, rambling, and full of annoying details about the history of imaginary places. George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, for example, began amazingly, creating a rich and detailed world with a complex multiple-viewpoint narrative, creating a real sense of the unfolding of history, and I loved the early books with a passion. The later books, however, got horribly bogged down in history and worldbuilding and the annoying obsession with detailing every last second of events in the Seven Kingdoms as it unfolded. Similarly while I loved The Hobbit, I could never get past the first book of The Lord of the Rings because of all the goddamned scenery. And the least said about Harry Potter the better.

I picked up Trudi Canavan's The Magician's Guild out of a smug sense of irony. The blurb on the back, which describes a none-too-original situation with a Magician's Guild who march through a city protected by a shield of pure magic driving out vagrants, only to find that a plucky young slum girl can penetrate their defences by means of her hitherto unknown magical power, left me with the impression that the book would be at best amusingly awful, but worth picking up on buy-one-get-one-free.

I started reading the book with the same patronising self-assurance, quietly laughing at the rather generic fantasy names and the peculiar made-up wildlife. About three chapters in, however, something happened. I realised that I was actually really enjoying reading the book. I wasn't storing up scathing comments to put on the internet at a later date, or constructing detailed point-by-point analysis of why the series was subtly advocating neo-Marxist doctrines through the medium of a story about wizards. I was actually enjoying it. Taking a moment to think about it, I realised that the source of my enjoyment was something I had seldom seen before in a fantasy novel: the plot was actually progressing. Every chapter, something happened which built on the things that happened in the previous chapter, and set up the things that were going to happen in the next chapter. It introduced conflicts and then resolved them, usually in the space of less than two hundred pages. Not only that but, wonder of wonders, once something had been resolved, it stayed resolved. There were no "protagonist gets captured, protagonist escapes, protagonist gets captured again, protagonist escapes again" sequences. Not a page in the book is wasted on irrelevant descriptions or pointless sidequests.

On her website (which I will say more about later) Trudi Canavan describes herself as having a short attention span, if she is bored writing something - says Trudi - then she assumes people will get bored reading it. Perhaps the reason I loved these books so much is that Trudi's attention span seems to match my own almost exactly. Every time I found myself thinking "okay, I've had enough of this plotline now," the plot would be resolved within two pages and taken in a completely new direction. Each book in the Black Magician Trilogy is in two parts, and in between parts one and two, the book changes gear completely. In The Magician's Guild, for example, the first half of the book focuses on Sonea (the protagonist) trying to avoid being taken in by the magician's guild, while the second half focuses on her trying to avoid being thrown out again, and the transition comes at exactly the point where you start thinking "okay, I've had enough of this girl running away from people now". This pattern repeats in books two and three, with the change of pace at the half-way point being both refreshing and genuinely surprising.

Canavan's mastery of pacing extends to the overarching plot of the trilogy as well as to the individual books. A common problem in Fantasy series is for it to be obvious from chapter one of book one how the series is going to end, which makes the rest of the series into so much pointless preamble. I know I promised I wouldn't bring up Harry Potter, but the last three HP books are an excellent example of this problem. Once Voldemort comes back, it's obvious that we're just waiting for Harry to hit eighteen so he can confront the bugger, and books five, six, and seven are just 1500 pages of buildup. Canavan, on the other hand, very carefully reveals her plot elements only at the point at which they become relevant. The plot of book two is set up in the last chapters of book one, the plot of book three is set up in the last chapters of book two. At no point do we have to ask ourselves why we care about subplot X when main issue Y is clearly more important.

To put it another way. Trudi Canavan is blessedly aware that she is writing a novel, a work of fiction intended to entertain a reader. There is a popular adage that a fantasy novel is like a window into another world, and too many fantasy writers take this literally, seeming to view their books as something which you look through in order to see whatever happens to be going on in their secondary creation at a given time. Canavan never loses sight of the fact that she is writing fiction, telling a story, trying to entertain people.

This becomes ever more apparent if you look at her excellent personal website, which is full of beautifully down-to-earth bits of information and opinion. A rather nice section on her weblog explains the sorts of fanmail questions she won't be answering, one of which is "Pedantic Irrelevant Detail Questions". In particular she points out that "You know, if I didn't mention it, it was probably not relevant". As our esteemed editor has already pointed out elsewhere on Ferretbrain there is a nasty tendency for modern writers (particularly fantasy writers) and modern readers (particularly fantasy readers) to view works of fiction as having some kind of set, external reality, and to view questions like "is Dumbledore gay" or "how do you explain the discrepancies between the Star Wars prequels and the implied backstory of the original trilogy" as having a definitive, relevant answer. Throughout her website, Trudi espouses a beautifully sensible view of her work. She views writing as a craft you get better at by practising, and her books as works of fiction she created to entertain an audience. She also comes across as charmingly geeky (check out her pinboards full of notes and hand-drawn maps).

Looking back at the above 1200 words, I seem to have been rather embarrassingly gushy. I'd love to redeem myself with some sarcastic barbs about style or characterisation, but I genuinely don't have any. I could make some kind of joke about the made-up animals (all of the animals in Canavan's worlds are fictional, with the peculiar exception of horses) but it seems frankly churlish to do so (particularly given the fact that she has explained and defended her decision to pack her world with invented rodents on several occasions). The Black Magician Trilogy is by no means great literature (which is good, because great literature bores my tits off), but it is well written, engaging fantasy. It's tightly plotted, masterfully paced, the protagonists are all interesting and likeable.

I still wish she'd call a cow a cow though.

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 16:31 on 2008-01-04
Also she's hotter than Scott Lynch...
Rami at 18:26 on 2008-01-04
Yay! I liked the Black Magician trilogy too -- although I thought bits of it did seem just a tad contrived -- and I'm glad it's not been ripped to shreds :-) at 08:03 on 2009-11-25
This is an excessively late comment.

I, too, really enjoyed the Black Magician trilogy, but there were two things in the final book which annoyed me enough that I'm unlikely to ever go back and reread it.

(Spoilers ahoy, gentle reader.)

First: Akkarin's death felt pointless, and seemed to mainly happen so that the trilogy could end on an "awesomely tragic" note. It sat poorly with the tone of the rest of the series, and broke my immersion in the world. Actually, the death itself I'm okay with... it was Sonea finding out she was pregnant that really got to me.

Second: The only character in the series who's sympathetic to gay people turns out to be gay... it's just he could never admit it to himself until now! This just bugged me. All it would have taken is for him to not be the only tolerant person, and I'd have been fine with it.
Dan H at 11:22 on 2009-11-25
I'm okay with Akkarin dying - I kinda felt it was heading that way. I mean once you've got life-energy transfer magic it's pretty much mandatory for somebody to sacrifice themselves with it.

The "and then she turns out to be pregnant" thing was a little bit irksome. If only because I'm beginning to get sick of the fact that people in fantasy settings only *ever* seem to get pregnant after their partners die (and then *always* do). It's like some kind of extremely severe population control policy in Fantasyland.
Wardog at 13:27 on 2009-11-25
This is completely off-topic but zomg, you write WoW add-ons! That is way cooler than being a director.
Rami at 17:12 on 2009-11-25
zomg, you write WoW add-ons! That is way cooler than being a director.

I almost agree. I mostly think is much more amusing than Mulholland Drive ;-).
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