Friday, January 6, 2012

Review: In Legend Born, by Laura Resnick

I read this novel twice, both times moving from "This is okay, I'll go for this ride," to "Forget it: scan and put aside."

I have a good memory, even an excellent one, but I read about 135 books a year and unless the book is well above-average, I won't have a clear sense of its details. In Legend Born, when I read it the second time (not sure I'd read it before ), passed the test for its first 294 pages: I could recall the details and enjoyed the story.

[Small spoilers ahead.]

The novel unfolds in an alternate world, where a despotic kingdom is crushing its inhabitants, especially attacking the mountain folk, long known for being independent-minded, though still subject to fear and trepidation of the Valdani. Josarian is a rebel leader, a young man who reaches the point of openly defying the Valdani. Tansen is a highly-trained samurai-type warrior who was sent to kill Josarian, but ends up becoming his blood-brother.

The world Resnick creates is solid, with a sense of power versus despair, characters that have clear motivations and characteristics and an overlay of magic (water- and fire-based) that serves the story well. There is the over-used cliché of "the chosen one" or the "the presaged one" (so very, very tiresome now), but the rest of the novel holds up beyond that.

Still, on the second go-around, I told my wife, "I know I've read this before, but something's wrong that I don't remember it all." Not two pages later, it happened: Josarian scowled at him. "What part of no don't you understand?"

"What part of no don't you understand?"

To quote everybody: Really? In a novel set in a world that isn't our own, in a time that is obviously not our own, Resnick chose to have a character use a phrase associated with late 20th century TV, movies and cheap dialogue?

And at that point--again--I scanned the final 430 pages of the book (Tor Fantasy, 1998 edition) and set it aside.

In The Language of the Night, the marvelous Ursula K. Le Guin explores how fantasy has a rhythm and metric to its language, a sense of poesy, of values, that the truly great writers can use. Le Guin points out that fantasy characters don't need to speak like stilted actors, but for the fantasy setting to truly rise above the mundane, the words must avoid the commonplace--our commonplace. Resnick's use of a colloquial, flippant retort for our times simply shreds the fantasy construction she tried to create.

Going back through the novel, after noticing this "break" in writing, it becomes more obvious that Resnick's use of language is less than "fantastical," that it could easily be placed in any sit-com or TV movie setting post-1975 and thus her novel falls into the trap of being a "modern tale told now" with Medieval poverty and magic tossed in to give it a veneer of "fantasy."

Le Guin also says that heroic fantasy, the most common form of fantasy, simply cannot have a hero or heroine who says "I told you so." No true hero or heroine would ever say that, for it is not in the nature of heroism to look back or need self-aggrandizement. Guess what Resnick's "heroes" say several times throughout the novel?

Another aspect of Resnick's novel is the sense that love makes a person a victim. I thought she would turn out to be a writer of romantic novels and--bingo--there it was. The sense that love shackles and confines, that it literally makes a person weaker, is the cult of victimization and distortion that makes the romantic sub-genre of "Love is killing me" so very popular. It also drives the "Men are bastards" sub-genre, with its boob-tube bastion being the Lifetime channel.

I don't agree with this view of love and don't care for it. Yes, love hurts, but it isn't an excuse for weakness and uselessness (Twilight, anyone?), and shouldn't be used as a cover-up for sloppy characterization, as it appears in this novel, where enamored characters behave as if they oly had two options: confess or flee.

Resnick is a very good writer, a Best New Science Fiction Writer winner in 1993 and amply-recognized for her works. She can convey a plot deftly, create a compelling story and can often portray characters that have intriguing depth. But in this fantasy novel, she fails to rise above her faults, flaws that might have been easily addressed by a closer look at her work, whether her own or an editor's. Based on what I read with the first novel, In Legend Born made it clear I should look elsewhere for the level of fantasy quality I wanted.

1 comment:

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