WHY THIS KIND OF STORY?

21 12 2016

I rarely see the label of “military fantasy” applied to books that sell well, even when those books arguably fit the bill of what “military fantasy” might mean. Its most dedicated fans would probably agree that, despite the frequency of wars and battles in the works of Tolkien, Lewis, and George R.R. Martin, those stories do not fit into that category. An online search for “military fantasy” books that sell well invariably turns up Glen Cook’s Black Company series, but that was written a long time ago, when the realities of publishing were very different.

Rudimentary research into popular opinions of the Black Company series reveal that a significant portion of its fan base is real-world military, many of whom are happy to regard its characters as more believable representations of soldiers than they normally expect to find in literature, particularly fantasy literature.

This is a great endorsement of what Glen Cook has accomplished with this talent and hard work, but it narrows the category down considerably. I certainly haven’t tried to very hard to make any of my characters seem like soldiers of today. But I don’t think I should, since the story doesn’t have a 21st-century context.

Modern-day military personnel face much higher expectations than soldiers of the past. They have to understand multiple kinds of combat. They must understand, maintain and utilize specialized equipment. They all must follow command procedures and safety procedures far more complex than were required in the armies of centuries ago (if they were even required at all). There was a time when little was required of soldiers, other than courage and obedience. It was once feasible to keep order in the ranks by rationing daily doses of strong alcohol. But that time is long gone.

In Naomi Novik’s excellent Temeraire series, the story focuses on dragons, which bring forth flying aces and dogfighting to the Napoleonic Age. The people who maintain England’s draconic air force are presented as a breed apart — they are so specialized that they don’t mix much with other soldiers. They don’t act “like soldiers”, and no one expects them to. This is something that fantasy allows you to do, in a way that no other genre can.

Raingun’s protagonist is a commissioned member of a regiment comprised of spellcasting light cavalry. These cavalry often conjure their own mounts. They share the battlefield with lancers, pikemen, musketry — and wizards. Magic is used by the military not only for its tremendous power, but also because it’s economical: after an initial investment, keeping a regiment well-charged with basic attack magic is cheap and renewable. These mages think of expending their spells in much the same way that the men of Sharpe’s Company think of using up their bullets.

In the period of military history roughly corresponding to that of Raingun, commissioned cavalrymen literally bought their ranks. This was not only done in the open, it was an important part of military fundraising. Some commissioned cavalrymen were disciplined, some were brave, and some were competent, but many were none of these things. They enjoyed a lot of luxury (especially compared to the artillery and infantry of the time), and certainly did not behave the way we would expect modern-day soldiers or troops to behave.

Raingun, and the books that will follow it, is about a man born poor, who finds himself offered a commission — and the money to buy it — through a combination of luck and courage when his hometown is attacked by pirates. He is raised to rank and privilege, also taking pride in protecting his country. But as his country’s policies become more cruel, he gradually decides to put his new-found “good life” at risk by considering rebellion.

Raingun is not meant to focus on what “military life” is like. Instead, it focuses on the struggles that ordinary people face when they come to doubt the honesty and sincerity of their government. What freedoms do you trade for security? When do you speak out? When do you recognize a government’s misstep as a mere misstep, as opposed to a sinister long-term shift? When do you stop agreeing to disagree, and identify political opponents as enemies? When do you draw lines in the sand? And when do you rebel?

The wars of the past decade often left Americans polarized. Addressing the questions they wrestled with into a fantasy novel is a very liberating way of controlling the focus. I don’t need to research conditions “on the ground”. I don’t need to become an expert in Christianity, Islam, or the history of the Middle East. I can ignore persistent, distracting refrains about whether religion is to blame, or even whether it’s all a lie: the existence of gods in the fantasy world is indisputable, and most of them are readily identified as “good” or “evil”.

Even if the existence of gods was logically indisuptable, proven on a daily basis by small miracles called magic spells, human beings would still waste their lives on vanity and greed. We’d find a way.

I’m a big fan of Bernard Cornwell, George Macdonald Fraser, O’Brian and Forester too. These people didn’t write fantasy, but they know how to put the reader in a thrilling scene, next to people that the reader cares about.

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