#writephoto: Una One-Eye

I’m into the last pages of the last polish of volume one of my new epic Norse-Celtic historical fantasy saga. Sue’s photo obviously takes me to winter in Vænnland. This bit for the Thursday Photo Prompt isn’t the actual text, but a scene from the story.


The little red horse was lost to sight among the dense tree trunks of the Jötunnskögr. Hakki’s cries of wonderment at each flash of bird-colour, each flicker of sunlight on a glittering icicle had faded into the distance. Una trudged through the snow, scarcely noticing the thickening silence, her thoughts too full of the thrall’s strange unsettling behaviour. She wanted to trust him, needed to feel that she was not alone with her baby brother to protect from the fishmen.

Fiachra was right when he said they had no choice but to flee. Bjarni, unnatural son and brother, would not hesitate to tell the Guardians that his sister and small brother were trollkarls. The thrall too. He had always hated Fiachra for being all that he was not, even though he was not a free man, and Bjarni had the right to beat him and kill him if he so desired. That was not the question. What troubled Una was why Fiachra was so keen to save her and Hakki from discovery. It would have been so much easier for him to take the horse and make for the coast and freedom. Why did he burden himself with a one-eyed girl and a child of three springs?

She shivered. A cloud must have passed over the sun. Suddenly, the forest was even darker than before. Una looked about uneasily, aware at last of the utter silence, the deepening cold, the choking, tense sensation of withheld breath, and the inevitability of approaching danger. A tree branch trembled and shed its burden of snow. Beneath her feet, Una felt the rumbling of the earth. A breeze, sharp and cutting brought the salt smell of the distant sea, and with the roar of snapping tree trunks, the ground before her erupted in a fountain of earth, snow and broken branches. A mass, a whale, a long ship with its oars and serpentine prow, surged from the earth and she was drenched in sea water.

Sea beast!

They had found her, tracked her along the underground waterways, into the roots of the mountain. The eye that wasn’t there throbbed, and power filled her from the soles of her feet to the tips of her fingers. An eyeless head swung round, drawn to her body heat, and opened a circular maw where curved teeth spiralled out of sight into the darkness of the sinewy throat. Swallowing her terror, she raised a hand.

Do it, Una!

In her head, Hakki’s voice commanded, and her features twisted into a desperate resolve. With a cry, she threw the sapphire fire that boiled inside her at the swaying head.


Feudal rant

This is a rant. Stop right here if you love pseudo-medieval epic fantasies because I’ll probably just annoy you.

Reason is, I am abandoning yet another ‘epic’ fantasy novel in pure irritation. Why, oh why, do fantasy writers think that they can create a believable world, where women have equal importance with men, an (American) frontier spirit where farmboys are taken as seriously as monarchs, based on a European feudal model?

Remember what happened to her? Raped, insulted, abandoned, burnt as a witch.

Think about it. Feudalism was based on the power of a tiny minority, the servitude of a huge percentage, a distrust and contempt of women, and utter, unswerving allegiance to God, Church and every bloke with the wherewithal to own a horse. How can you take all the symbols of that system—the forms of address, the ennobling ceremonies, the oaths of fealty, the hierarchical system, absolute monarchy, divine right of kings etc etc— and then stick your women characters in as generals, rulers, local magnates, chief wizard, merchants, and power brokers?

It just doesn’t work. It’s bonkers. And it smacks of ignorance of real history.

When I read titles like liege, sire, lord, lady, squire, sheriff, bandied about indiscriminately, when whole populations fawn over some kid with a magic sword and hail him as saviour, liege, sire or whatever, when louts called ‘knights’ lumber around in full plate armour slapping wenches about, when each local ‘squire’ has his personal torture chamber and a resident mad, long-haired, shackled ancient who expires before the hero can blow up the door of the dungeon, I just put out the light and go to sleep.

These aren’t tropes, they are ineptitudes.

You want equality in your fantasy?

Then think outside real history because you won’t find it there,

get rid of hereditary, absolute monarchs,

get rid of societies in a perpetual state of war,

get rid of religion,

allow freedom of thought and expression,

create a tolerant, open society.

Feudalism was not a golden age for anybody except princes, temporal and spiritual. No time that anybody knows much about was a golden age for women. No time has ever been a golden age for ordinary people exactly because they were ‘ordinary’ as opposed to ‘noble’. So why keep bloody harking back to it? Is it really beyond the wit of man to invent a world system that doesn’t rely heavily on lieges and squires, and knights clonking around torture chambers in plate armour?

Tolkien’s Middle-earth was the quintessential pseudo-medieval fantasy world, complete with hereditary aristos, forelock-tugging peasants and a handful of beautiful, silent women out of harm’s way on pedestals where they belonged. Tolkien did not make his women or his rustics into world leaders. Like the result or loathe it, it’s credible. If he’d turned Sam’s Rosie into some head mage or axe-wielding general with superpowers to bring down Sauron, he’d have been laughed out of court.

I don’t think I’m being unreasonably touchy about this subject, but I really don’t think you can democratize fantasy worlds simply by changing the sex of your important figures without any rhyme or reason. There has to be a social structure and a moral code to go with it. I personally would have found Hobbiton stultifyingly boring and oppressive, but at least I’d recognize it. Unlike many daft places I can think of.

My new super-hero is called Melmoth

Who wouldn’t be thrilled to get a review like this? It even made me want to grab a copy!