Across the Face of the Bored

by Dan H

Dan feels like he's kicking a puppy.
~
Ferretbrain regulars should already know about my sordid love affair with Trudi Canavan, an Australian novelist whose work I am guiltily fond of (I'm anxiously looking forward to the paperback release of the Black Magician prequels). Trudi writes wonderful, pacey books about spunky heroines with magic powers which are amazing fun and never get boring (well, Last of the Wilds sagged a bit if I'm honest). It was on her recommendation (well, her blurb, which isn't quite the same thing) that I picked up Russell Kirkpatrick's Across the Face of the World.

I'll admit, I was also attracted to the sheer old-school nature of it. It's called “Across the Face of the World” for a start, and the cover depicts five people on horses riding in front of a gigantic moon. There are no fewer than five maps at the front, and at the back is a glossary which is only two pages shorter than the first chapter. It's the product of “fifteen years of careful worldbuilding” and when I say “worldbuilding” I mean “this guy is a professor of geography and boy does it show.”

So I kind of knew what I was getting into when I started it. But it came with the Trudi Canavan seal of approval, so I figured it would be slightly cheesy but good fun.

It was not good fun.

Oh, spoilers, FYI.

The story concerns a boy called Leith who lives in a remote village where he isn't terribly popular because he's slightly smaller and weaker than the other children. He has a crush on a girl called Stella (yes, Stella) but she is betrothed to another boy called ... Druin? I think? Not really sure. He is miraculously cast opposite her in the Midwinter play, and gets to do flirty improv theatre with her, before getting dragged away by his mysteriously-returned father, who has brought Terrible Danger with him.

So Leith's father and mother get kidnapped by the Lords of Fear (I kind of feel that I should have bolded that. I mean dudes: Lords of Fear) and Leith, his crippled brother Hal, the village “Haufuth” (think elder or headman) and a Simple Farmer Who Is More Than He Seems named Kurr set off to find them, and to warn the people of Faltha that they are about to be invaded by Bhrudwo.

Finding the names confusing yet? Just wait.

Stella stumbles upon the council of war, and since Leith and Hal are supposed to be dead, and they can't have anybody spreading rumours about their plan, they decide to take her with them (why no, she doesn't get any say in this, why do you ask?) when they head out to do their mission.

They pursue the Bhrudwans across the face of the ... well you get the picture. They do this very, very slowly. Very, very, very slowly.

Kirkpatrick has mapped out his world in exhaustive detail, and he leads you through every inch of it. Down every glaciated valley, past every erratic boulder, up every fold mountain and over every waterfall into every plunge pool. The single biggest impression you get from the text is “gosh, this person knows a lot about geography.” The second biggest impression you get from the text is “gosh, this dialogue is terrible and stilted and these characters are wooden and poorly realised.”

Sorry, that was bitchy of me, and I feel genuinely bad about saying it, because Russell Kirkpatrick comes across as a lovely man who has a genuine enthusiasm for his world and his story. The flyleaf informs us that:
“Russell Kirkpatrick's love of literature and a chance encounter with fantasy novels as a teenager opened up a vast number of possibilities to him. The idea that he could marry storytelling and mapmaking (his other passion) into one project grabbed him and wouldn't let go.”

How sweet is that? Unfortunately while Kirkpatrick's love of mapmaking has translated into an ability to draw pretty good maps, his love of storytelling has failed to yield similar results.

Where to begin.

Destiny Is Not A Virtue God Damn It

Throughout Across the Face of the World there is talk of “The Right Hand of God” (not to be confused with the Left Hand of God, which is Hugh Jackman). This is a dude who is totally destined to rise up and unite the disparate kingdoms of Faltha and fight off the evil Bhrudwans and defeat the Destroyer and generally be Awesomeness Personified.

The Right Hand is pretty clearly Leith. There are gigantic hints about this, almost to the extent of people coming up to him and saying “Leith Mahnumsen, You Are The Right Hand of God”.

It does not, in fact, bother me that nobody works out this extremely obvious fact. It does not bother me that Leith remains totally oblivious to the idea that he might be the Right Hand, despite meeting (a) a seer who says “you have a great destiny and will become a great leader of men” and (b) a bard who says “Hi, I'm looking for the Right Hand, who is destined to be a great leader of men, I think he might come from your home town.”

What bothers me is the fact that I am expected to give a crap.

I really hate destiny in fantasy. It's so often used to avoid explaining how a character was actually capable of achieving something. I don't mind the young orphan boy being able to pull the sword from the stone. I do mind him being able to use the damned thing without any training.

Leith has nothing to recommend him as a character. He's mopey, miserable, self-pitying and indecisive. He doesn't have hidden leadership qualities (or if he does they are fantastically well hidden) he doesn't even have tremendous compassion (his adoptive brother Hal does, but he's clearly an angel which is kinda cheating) or unusual courage. Hell, he doesn't even get described as possessing any of these quantities. All he does is mope about the fact that Stella seems to fancy somebody else and display a vague determination to get his parents back.

I wouldn't object to this if I thought it was deliberate, if I thought somebody was going to sit Leith down and say “seriously dude, stop being such a douche” and he was going to realise that dag nammit he had a kingdom to save I'd be okay with that, but it seems very unlikely at this stage.

The thing is I do understand why you get so many fantasy heroes like this. He's an everyman or, more precisely an everygeek. He's the speccy outsider who isn't very good at sports and is no good with girls, but who is secretly special because of some innate quality which is never really explained, and which he never has to demonstrate. The recognition and validation of your individual special-unique-snowflake-ness is basically every geeks ultimate fantasy (hell it's why I write these articles, I fully expect to be given a column in the Times any day now) and like Leith we expect this validation to come not as a result of anything we have done but in recognition of who we are. It's the slightly tragic result of being picked on at school.

Where was I? Oh yes: Leith is boring, self-pitying and has the leadership potential of a pillow with an anxiety disorder. He's going to wind up saving the world and I really don't care.

Stella By Starlight

Across the Face of the World almost avoids making it onto the Fantasy Rape Watch list, but not quite. I'm not going to talk about that quite yet, though. Instead I'm going to talk about Stella.

Since pretty much forever, there's been a strong tradition in literature (particularly heroic literature – including fantasy novels and action movies) of female characters whose sole function is to act as a reward for the hero. The fact that I'm not particularly squicked out by the fact that our society sees “getting the girl” as a natural consequence of “killing the baddies” (rather than anything the “girl” has – y'know – a choice about) is one of those things which makes me rather ashamed of my own internalised prejudices. It's a trope that comes up time and again in pretty much every book you've ever read and every film you've ever seen. It should bother me more than it does, frankly, and for some reason it really bothers me here.

Maybe it's because I really didn't like Leith, but the idea that this girl had been created purely so that, at the end of the series, she could complete the protagonist's wish-fulfilment fantasy by winding up with him had me beating my head against the wall. I wouldn't mind but he isn't even particularly nice to her. He shows no actual interest in her as a person, they don't have a relationship, he sees her as a trophy just as much as Druin, the boy she's betrothed to and terrified of.

Oh yes, about that.

Stella starts the story being abducted by the company because they want to keep her quiet. This is, itself, all kinds of fucked up. I mean, I get that it's better that nobody in the village know where you're going (they say it's for the safety of the village, but seriously, when has ignorance protected anybody from anything – if Dark Lord Psychopathus thinks you know something, he'll torture you to death, period) but seriously, you guys were the ones who had a secret meeting in a public building with no locks on the doors. The fact that they won't trust her not to tell anybody (because her mother's a gossip, apparently) is also a bit iffy, it's got slight overtones of “women need to learn to keep their mouths shut” - sorry, I'm Minority Warrioring again – so, yes, abduction.

Stella does not get a choice about joining the company on their quest, but she goes along with it in the end because the alternative is to marry Druin, and be subjected to a lifetime of socially sanctioned marital rape. Being the courageous, self-actualising fantasy heroine that she is, Stella sees her abduction by the company as an opportunity to throw herself at somebody else, so she can be subjected to a lifetime of socially sanctioned marital rape by somebody less horrible.

It doesn't occur to her that she could – y'know – make a life for herself in the enormous cosmopolitan city they're going to. I know she's a girl from a small village and was probably raised with a very narrow view of her future, but I think once you've broadened your prospects to include “saving the world” I really don't think “living without a man” is too much of a stretch.

Ethnic Jokes Are So Uncouth

So the basic plot of AtFotW is that the proud lands of Faltha are home to the First Men, the chosen of God who screwed up n-thousand years ago but who are destined to reclaim their rightful place as the Chosen of the Most High and redeem the world and stuff.

Anybody want to guess what their defining racial characteristics are? I'll give you a clue, it isn't dark hair and brown eyes.

The enemy of the First Men is the evil empire of Bhrudwo. Now I'll admit here that I've not seen much actual description of Bhrudwan ethnic characteristics but they do seem to live in a desert, is all I'm saying.

Now I know making allegations of racism about a fantasy novel is, as a great man once put it, about as difficult as putting on a hat. But when your novel has as its premise that some races of people are better than other races of people, you need to be really careful before making your chosen people look quite that much like Nazi poster children.

This again probably wouldn't bother me as much as it does, but Kirkpatrick seems to have actually noticed the problem and sort-of-not-quite tried to address it. There's quite a lot of evil races in his world (the Bhrudwans, the Widuz), but Kirkpatrick keeps making embarrassingly perfunctory efforts to pretend that they are not, in fact, totally evil. Mahnum (the protagonist's father) explains at great and patronising length how the common people of Bhrudwo are really excellent people no different from you or me, before explaining how he was captured by them, tortured by them, then rescued by one of them who, when said rescuer discovered that he was not as rich as he had pretended, betrayed him to the Lords of Fear. Similarly, when the Companions encounter the Widuz, we are told carefully that they have been cruelly treated by the other people of their land, and driven ever further into the most inhospitable parts of Faltha, only to be subjected to a sequence in which the Widuz line up dozens of naked, drugged captives and throw them into a dormant volcano to appease a hungry god. And lest we forget, there is only one God that canonically exists in the setting, so while they're ill-treated they're also violent, barbaric and wrong.

Now I admit, I've only read the first book, and it's possible that it will defy all my expectations and preconceptions. It's possible that Leith will grow the hell up and show some kind of leadership qualities. It's possible that Stella will learn that she doesn't actually need to get married, and will reject Leith on the grounds that she doesn't fancy him. But I'm unlikely to find out because I'm unlikely to want to wade through another twelve hundred pages of tedious geography for the privilege.

And finally:

Fantasy Rape Watch

Approximate Number of Named Characters Who Travel with the Company: 12
Of Which Female: 3
Of Whom Have Dialogue: 2
Of Whom Motivated by Past Sexual Abuse: 1
Of Whom Motivated by Fear of Future Sexual Abuse: 1
Of Whom Die: 1
Total Deaths Among Company: 2
Number of Women Abducted by Villains: 1
Number of Women Abducted by Heroes: 1
Number of Societies Encountered in Which Women Are Treated Literally As Property: 1
Number of Male Characters Who Object To This: 0
Number of Female Characters Who Object To This: 0
Reaction of Party Member On Being Told That His Wife Is Now The Property Of Another Man: “Oh good, he'll look after her until I get back”
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Comments (go to latest)
http://serenoli.livejournal.com/ at 12:00 on 2009-04-15
Lol the last line. Like, seriously?
Rami at 13:52 on 2009-04-15
I was mostly struck by the resemblance of the cover to a Wheel Of Time book, when I first saw it...
Arthur B at 13:57 on 2009-04-15
Hey, I remember that cover - it was on the only Wheel of Time book I ever attempted to read.

I got halfway through the prologue before I gave up.
Rami at 14:26 on 2009-04-15
Don't worry, you won't have to miss out entirely -- it's allegedly coming to the big screen in 2011!
Wardog at 16:00 on 2009-04-15
They're making a movie from The Wheel of Time? Wtf?! It isn't even finished... and it's really boring...
Arthur B at 16:07 on 2009-04-15
The long and boring nature of the Wheel of Time is actually helpful there: if they film everything then they'll still be on schedule even if the final book isn't published until 2050...
Rami at 16:14 on 2009-04-15
You never know, they could do something miraculous and tighten it up a lot (like the LOTR films, for instance, were tightened up) into a reasonable story...
Shim at 16:19 on 2009-04-15
I can see that. I mean, if you cut out most of the characters and all the sitting around angsting, it would be manageable.
Guy at 16:22 on 2009-04-15
I understand that, since Jordan is now writing generic fantasy for the angels, they have found someone else to finish the Wheel for him. Who was intending to write one book, but, haha, said that there was far too much stuff to wrap up in just one book so he is going to write a concluding *trilogy*.
Dan H at 20:16 on 2009-04-15
Lol the last line. Like, seriously?


Seriously, but deliberately taken out of context for maximum d'oh value. Said character is, in fact, a member of the treats-women-as-property community (albeit an adopted one) so it's not like his wife was just snatched away from him by people they met on the road, and he does know the guy she's given to personally so it's not completely psychotic. So the line is more "I know X will take good care of her". It's still kind of messed up though.
Dan H at 20:38 on 2009-04-15
there was far too much stuff to wrap up in just one book so he is going to write a concluding *trilogy*


You know what's going to happen, don't you?

He's going to write books one and two, and then die horrifically, at which point somebody else will get brought in to finish the trilogy, and decide that actually they'll need to divide the final volume into two parts, finish the first part and then they'll die as well at which point somebody else...

It'll become this terrifying horror story about the fantasy series that kills anybody who touches it.
Guy at 03:56 on 2009-04-16
I thought you were going to say, he's going to write books one and two, then realise that one book just really isn't *quite* enough to wrap up everything that needs to be wrapped up, so he'll extend the series by just a few more books... &c... but I like your version too. :)
http://pozorvlak.livejournal.com/ at 11:51 on 2009-04-16
I just wanted to say that Leith is the name of where I live. I don't know if that's a coincidence or further evidence of Kirkpatrick's deep love of geography, but it made the review rather confusing for me to read.
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 21:02 on 2009-04-21
Awww. It really is kind of a textbook fantasy book. I find myself liking the author even while cringing at the thought of reading the book.
Rami at 10:54 on 2009-04-22
liking the author even while cringing
Yeah, me too. If he spends that long lovingly building a fantasy world I get the feeling it'd be really fun to be sitting there exploring it with him, just riffing on ideas like what the people in the desert kingdom to the south wear.

On the other hand, that has very little to do with actually writing a good book :-(
Dan H at 13:31 on 2009-04-22
There's a rather cute bit on his website where he says that writing his books takes roughly 500 hours to write, with a further *thousand* hours of worldbuilding...
Wardog at 14:38 on 2009-04-22
Sigh. I'm pretty damn sure it should be the other way round ...
http://scipiosmith.livejournal.com/ at 18:23 on 2012-04-03
Now I admit, I've only read the first book, and it's possible that it will defy all my expectations and preconceptions. It's possible that Leith will grow the hell up and show some kind of leadership qualities. It's possible that Stella will learn that she doesn't actually need to get married, and will reject Leith on the grounds that she doesn't fancy him. But I'm unlikely to find out because I'm unlikely to want to wade through another twelve hundred pages of tedious geography for the privilege.


Kind of, as far as Leith goes. Instead of displaying any fantastic qualities book 3 becomes a rather hilarious deconstruction/parody of the idea of the Chosen One, as he leads his followers from one epic fail to the next before God and Hal save the day at the last possible second.

Stella on the other hand is treated rather savagely; by the end of the trilogy she's been seduced by the Dark Lord's trusted lieutenant (whom she does, in fairness, cause to be killed by the Dark Lord), then prematurely aged and palsied down one side by the Dark Lord during his enslavement of her, develops kind-of Stockholm syndrome before being rescued by God, and still marries Leith at the end.
Dan H at 18:11 on 2012-04-04
Instead of displaying any fantastic qualities book 3 becomes a rather hilarious deconstruction/parody of the idea of the Chosen One, as he leads his followers from one epic fail to the next before God and Hal save the day at the last possible second.


Obviously I've not read the book, but based on this very loose description, I'm not sure that constitutes a parody or deconstruction, so much as a fairly straight implementation of the trope. Sometimes it's authorial fiat, rather than a literal divine intervention, but the way the Chosen One narrative usually works (in my experience) is that they fuck up continuously for most of the story, then have everything come out alright at the last possible minute.

c.f. John Sheridan, Harry Potter, later Buffy, and so on.
James D at 20:10 on 2012-04-04
Yes, a better deconstruction of the trope would have the "Chosen One" be actually worthy of the title, but simply lose because the enemy is better at fighting and it was stupid to expect to win or even try to fight. The bad guys end up being magnanimous in defeat and things go back to the way they were, which wasn't so bad anyway, minus a bunch of warmongering rebels. The End. Maybe throw in a dash of how the former Confederate US is with its "The South Will Rise Agin!" mantra, playing up big gubmint being evil, states' rights being good, and conveniently lionizing the rebels while whitewashing the whole slavery issue. I guess the protagonist could be some sort of impressionable youth who buys the whole story.

There are probably already a hundred authors who've deconstructed the trope at length, to the point where its deconstruction is itself a trope. Such is modern fantasy. To be perfectly honest though, it just doesn't seem like a particularly interesting trope to deconstruct, because once examined at all it becomes so transparently stupid that hardly any deconstruction is required to lay that inherent stupidity bare. As mentioned in the review, the concept of a "Chosen One" is just more bald-faced adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy.
http://scipiosmith.livejournal.com/ at 17:45 on 2012-04-05
Obviously I've not read the book, but based on this very loose description, I'm not sure that constitutes a parody or deconstruction, so much as a fairly straight implementation of the trope. Sometimes it's authorial fiat, rather than a literal divine intervention, but the way the Chosen One narrative usually works (in my experience) is that they fuck up continuously for most of the story, then have everything come out alright at the last possible minute.


I think the difference is one of textual support. You can read the later Harry Potter books as the story of someone bumbling from one disaster to another, but that is not supported by the text which insists that Harry is a Hero with capital H to the point that even after his apparent defeat and death people remain loyal to his memory.

On the other hand, when Leith is loudly called out for every mistake he makes, called out for sulking about getting called out, and by the end of the war is getting pissed on by the common soldiery for his suckage (even Charlie Brown thinks he's a loser by this point) it's hard to argue that 'Leith is Useless' is not what the text expects you to take away.

It's also possible to interpret that Hal, who bears his brother's accusations of treason without complaint, dies in Leith's place and then comes back to life temporarily in time to save the day, was the real Right Hand of God all along, but then Leith was the one hearing God's voice in book 2 so that would be strange.
Tamara at 23:08 on 2014-01-28
How geekily-particular is it that what bothers me about this review is the implication that geographers make for tedious worldbuilding? I'm not-so-many credits away from a geography degree and love it to pieces, and it's totally obvious to me that the use of a solid foundation in geography in fantasy worldbuilding should be one of experimentation and exploration of spaces and landscapes that can't exist in reality, not the fussy construction of super-accurate worlds. The City and The City or The Half Made World is my idea of a great geography porn genre book, not something with really nicely mapped drainage basins. Just needed to say that, oh very old article about a series long since off the radar.
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