I read a great trilogy this past week, and I’m going to tell you all about it, but bear with me a moment – first I want to share a personal story. My late step-dad, Arnold, was in many respects an excellent human being, but like many aging senior citizens, he was reluctant to give up driving. My mom was naturally loyal to Arnold, so telling her directly that he was having a few problems behind the wheel wasn’t likely to get anywhere.
I suspect that’s a fairly universal principle – social bonds generally outrank principles, so if someone says, “Your partner did such-and-such bad thing,” your first reaction is likely to be skepticism. Or if you do believe they probably did that thing, you’d start making the case that it really wasn’t that bad, there must have been good reasons, and so on. But there’s a way to get past that, which I used with my mom.
At our post office, there’s a main parking lot, then there’s a special lane where cars can pull up next to a set of mailboxes and you can reach out the window and put your letters into the box. This special lane has right of way over the parking lot exit – if you’re leaving the lot, there’s a stop sign for you. And one day, when I was dropping off my mail, Arnold was leaving the parking lot and ran right through the stop sign.
Did I say to my mom, “Hey, Arnold ran the stop sign at the post office”? No. I said, “When I was at the post office just now, someone ran the stop sign in front of me.” She reacted sympathetically – she was concerned about me, of course, and she agreed with the principle of the importance of the stop sign. Then I added, “…and it was Arnold.” Sure enough, Arnold stopped driving soon after.
So if you want to get people to think in terms of principles, it’s good to bring the principles to the forefront, and to show how they affect people (or fictional characters) we can care about. And one of the best ways to do that, curiously, may be through speculative fiction – science fiction and fantasy. That’s because our own identities and relationships can’t get in the way, as they can when we’re reading something set in the real world and we already know how we feel about the different “sides.”
Science fiction has been doing this for decades. Alongside all the books about amazing technologies and what we could do with them, there are also writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Lois McMaster Bujold who let us see what the implications of amazing technologies, or different social systems, might be.
Fantasy novels, on the other hand, have long been associated with European-style castles, young men on quests, or wizards in training – which is fun too, but doesn’t really stretch the imagination the same way.
But things are changing. And that brings me to the Witchmark–Stormsong–Soulstar trilogy by C.L. Polk. I had greatly enjoyed Polk’s other book, The Midnight Bargain, set in a wonderfully vivid fantasy world modeled after Jane Austen’s Regency-era England (but with magic spells and powerful magical spirits), so I decided to try the trilogy too.
Witchmark had won the World Fantasy Award in 2019, and unlike many fantasy novels, where you start a bit disoriented, this book has a low barrier to entry. The setting is very much like Edwardian England Continue reading