Guest post: Ben Peek on A Trope of Self Determination

Ben Peek’s The Godless blew me away. I really loved it. I never got to reading the second book in the Children trilogy, Leviathan’s Blood, because time and it is a bloody BIG book. However, once all our books have been unpacked after the house renovation, I intend to rectify that and roll on into the final book of the trilogy, The Eternal Kingdom. In the meantime, Ben was gracious enough to come back to the blog and write a piece about his favourite fantasy tropes. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! The Eternal Kingdom is out from Macmillan tomorrow. 

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A Trope of Self Determination

I write fantasy novels and I read fantasy novels, but I am not, if truth must be told, a fan of the lost prince, or princess, trope.

I’ve never been able to distance myself from the central concept of that trope, the fantasy that you might be born into something better. By luck of birth, you might suddenly turn out to be rich and powerful instead of poor. In the end, I guess I just don’t find it much of a fantasy. It happens much too regularly in life. You only have to glance into any open media to see how those born right are enjoying their days. You don’t even have to be looking at princes and princesses to see it play out.

So, I am not a fan of that trope, I admit. It’s true. Fortunately, fantasy is filled with tropes I do like, and they call me back again and again.

Most of the tropes I love best wind their way back to the setting of a fantasy novel, to the medieval world that so many books construct.

Of course, the fantasy novel’s medieval setting is not a real medieval place. I prefer to think of it as a costume drama, a giant renaissance faire, where we overlook modernity’s touches in the stitching, brewing, and personal hygiene. It’s for the best, really. I’m glad that fantasy trilogies aren’t filled with endless chapters dedicated to disease, sores, and other things that we have gladly put behind us through the miracle of vaccines. Truthfully, I suspect I have an internal limit on how many pages I can read about people using piss to sterilise a wound.

(If you’re into that, that’s okay, by the way. I don’t pass any judgements.)

One of my favourite fantasy tropes is the clothes that people wear – or, to be more precise, the attention to craft and ownership that fantasy brings to clothes. In a fantasy novel, everything is hand made. Sure, more often than not, it is made by people struggling to make ends, but within all the clothes they make – from the shirts, trousers, boots, to leather armour – there is a sense of a craft, a link that goes back to the creator. There’s no factory, no crammed workers in a third world being paid nothing to mass produce an item that’ll be sold for what would be a fortune to them later on. Instead, there is a sense of ownership on the part of the craftsman or woman, a representation of an individual’s knowledge. Such an appreciation is so often lost when we consider our modern wardrobe.

I also enjoy the weapons. I admit it, I like the costume of the swords, the knives, and the axes. I enjoy all the weapons that drift in and out of a good fantasy story. As with the clothes, there is a sense of each being made by a person, but there is also, for each weapon, an acceptance that each must be learned, that each has a responsibility that the owner must show. In real life, I am not the kind of person who cares much for weapons – they are a tool for me, nothing more, nothing less, and I have no use for them in my day to day life – but I have always enjoyed watching people fight in fiction. I have a huge love of action scenes, for the deftness and the speed that seep into the best of those fights. In the best of them you can see the knowledge not just of the fight, but of the weapon, and the respect that they have for it. A failure to do that results in injury or, even, death.

I love the tropes of magic, as well. A good magic system is a fascinating thing in a fantasy novel. It is also, I must add, a thing that must be learned. Characters learn magic, much as people learn about philosophy, science, and yes, even magic in the real world. Characters experience the struggles and joy of education when it comes to a magic, and it is here, along with the histories of these fantastic worlds, that fantasy brings out its best trope: the joy in learning. There is hardly a fantasy book that takes place where a character doesn’t come to an awareness of how important learning is, of how great a thing is, of how valuable it is. It’s perhaps the strangest trope of fantasy, when you think about it, for the genre’s medievalism is often thought of as a backwardness, a regressive mindset that allows for characters to stay ignorant of gunpowder and penicillin. But learning about those things is never the point of a fantasy novel – to do so breaks the costume drama down, brings in other elements that alter the fantasy. But there is no fantasy book that tells you that learning to read is bad, or discovering how the world works is wrong. The best magic systems are all about this, really.

That love of knowledge is the element that binds together the tropes I like most in fantasy. As I said, I am not such a fan of princes or princesses, but I am a fan of knowledge, of the world being learnt, and of that being put into practice. Be it with swords, or magic, or politics, and be it in a castle, or a tavern, or on a dirt road, that is what I love in fantasy.

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Bio: The Eternal Kingdom is published by Macmillan on Thursday, 6 July as a paperback original. Ben Peek has been shortlisted for the David Gemmell Award for Best Debut Fantasy and the prestigious Australian Aurealis Award. He lives in Sydney with his partner, photographer Nikilyn Nevins, and their cat, Lily. You can follow him on Twitter @nosubstance and find him on his website.

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