On the concept of power in fantasy, and the lowly foot soldier

I read a lot of fiction. I’ve read and loved many of the blockbuster fantasy epics, the cult hits and a lot of the lesser-known stuff too. I love these books, but there are blind spots in this genre. It is primarily because most novels follow a very similar formula when it comes to the treatment and distribution of power, especially in terms of the protagonist and their imprint upon the world. This isn’t a bad thing, but it leads to a significant paucity in alternative perspectives that can be just as interesting; they are perspectives that could and should be explored.

In familiar fantasy the protagonists are often exceptional in some way; be it through birth or an innate ability. Then they are set on a collision course with a rival power that will have dramatic and far-reaching implications. They are progressively infused and suffused with power, the power to fight, to rule, to conquer and to lead. Some books play around with this course of events a little, but in essence they all follow the same trajectory. But, there are certain books that have bucked this trend. I think that they are critically undervalued and some of the most interesting genre writing available today because of it.

Stories will often start with the protagonist bereft of power, helpless and often faced with seemingly impossible odds against unknown or powerful aggressors. Some may have certain traits, quirks or abilities that allow them to scrape by at the beginning, showcasing innate potential, but this isolation and the knowledge that one is hopelessly out of their league is intensely interesting as a concept to me, and what I’m looking to capture here. I find myself wishing that writers would do more to ensnare this idea. Sure, it is satisfying reading as a character develops, finds a power that allow them to equal and surpass their rivals and antagonists, but that helplessness, the knowledge that the world is just so much bigger than initially comprehended, and the sudden certainty there are people and things which hopelessly outclass them, that dwarf them, is an idea that really warrants further exploration. One such series, illuminating this point, are The Black Company books by Glen Cook.

The Black Company is one of my favourite franchises and it is precisely because Cook explores this idea, especially in the initial trilogy, The Books of the North. The story follows the solemn and weary narration of Croaker, the chronicler of the Black Company, a long-standing band of mercenaries. What makes this story remarkable is how down to earth and gritty it is. The Black Company are just men, common soldiers, surviving in a world populated by entities that would normally form the forces of good and evil clashing in a traditional fantasy novel. This perspective highlights the stratification of power present in genre fiction. Those holding the power, be it a physical or figurative, are often the ones that hold the gaze of the reader and the narrative. This is natural, because the concept is interesting, established and time honoured. But I argue that the opposite is just as interesting, and not only that, it’s fresh.

The Black Company lifts the veil on the black and white conceptualisation of morality and power in fiction and shows you the men and women that are merely pieces on a chessboard in other books. It demonstrates that there is no good or evil in these constructions; both sides are equally capable and willing to send people to their deaths to achieve their goals, while they remain safe and resolute in their power. They may have lofty ideals and a vision for the future, but for those on the ground it really doesn’t matter. It achieves a melancholy and hopelessness and a resignation that you don’t get elsewhere. The Company contend with forces that hopelessly outmatch them, and they do what they have to do to survive. Alliances shift, ideals are long abandoned and all they have is a collective and cooperative will to survive. They are pragmatic and realistic and they are unapologetic about it. Moral sanctity and idealistic justification are for those wielding the power; these guys are simply concerned with survival.

This is such verdant ground for a story, and it feels so fresh to me because so few writers explore it. There is always a common population that are bystanders and victims in the epic power struggles, but they are at best an afterthought. Despite any humble beginning, they are often lost in the maelstrom. This is worth consideration. These stories are interesting, they provide a world-view that is often unexplored and unconsidered. The idea of a simple soldier, with no innate abilities or superhuman strengths or noble birth, walking in a world populated by giants is such an evocative idea to me. It captures the imagination. I want to revisit it but the options are so limited. I’m surprised that more writers have yet to tap into it. That being said, however, there is yet another series that is absolutely worthy of discussion within this theme.

Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson bridges the gap between the stratified power of fantasy, and the disaffected foot solder. This is one of the few examples that come to mind that identify with Cook’s school of thought. This series is epic in every sense and it covers the world from the ground up. It spans hundreds of thousands of years; it has warring, feuding gods, semi-divine immortals, physically and figuratively powerful humans all the way down to soldiers and the peasantry. This book covers it all. Everyone is involved. It is an extreme and special case. It’s a marriage of my desire for a base view of the world and the stratified powerbrokers of traditional fantasy. It is absolutely epic in scope and the breadth of content is immense and intimidating. I don’t think there will ever be another series like this because I simply don’t see how it could be done. It is a masterwork of imagination, but I sincerely hope somebody attempts it, because the genre could definitely use more of this sort of ambition.

Erikson clearly uses Glen Cook and the Black Company series as an inspiration, and he excels. They both focus on bands of soldiers, treat notions of brotherhood and cooperation in the face of immense power in the same way, and they both share qualities in the conceptualisation and exposition of characters and their motivations. The way their world’s layer power and events are similar and very compelling, but they are both very much an exclusive and original work. Erikson has taken Glen Cook’s methodology and built upon it, and the scope is incredible. It is the next logical step in this style. I just wish that there were more of it.

The Fantasy genre needs fresh perspectives like these; it is a consideration that all writers should keep in mind. The traditional course of fantasy fiction is popular for a reason; the formula works and works well. It is pure escapism and we never really lose the imagination and desire to daydream we had as children, to be all-powerful and heroic. These books are powerful because they allow us to tap into that and explore it. They provide a narrative headspace for us to inhabit and dream. I’m in no way saying that these need to be done away with, I love them too. I just feel that there is such a breadth to genre fiction that it would be an incredible shame for stories that focus on other aspects to go unnoticed or unwanted because they fail to conform to expected and familiar thematic development and progression. There is a whole untouched literary frontier here, just waiting for writers to inhabit it, to capture our imaginations. The common soldier has always been there, he or she has always had a story to tell, and it is one that I absolutely want to hear.

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