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 (early 1900s); everyone commutes around the capital city by bicycle or takes the train out to the countryside, and characters have reader-friendly names like Miles and Grace and Robin. In Witchmark, Miles is a doctor, treating veterans of a long war. He lives in a humble boarding house, but he’s really an aristocrat who’s run away from home and changed his name.
Then gradually, Polk adds the fantasy elements. Rather than electricity, everything is powered by “aether.” Some people have a few magical abilities, and besides the humans (the light-skinned Aelanders and the darker-skinned Samindans, plus the enemy Laneeri), there’s also a nearly mythical race of extra-beautiful, extra-powerful, extra-long-lived Amaranthines (for which you can mentally substitute, “Tolkien high elves”).
In this series, along with the entertaining storytelling, Polk is doing two special things. First, we have people with same-sex relationships and people who are non-binary, and powerful people who are not men, and that’s all treated as routine and ordinary. This is valuable, of course, for those who might be LGBT and who don’t often get to experience that kind of acceptance; here’s a world where people like them “fit.” It’s also valuable for the rest of us to see that a world that’s fair in this way really could work.
The books are especially remarkable for putting women into positions of power. The monarch, the head doctor at Miles’s hospital, the editor-in-chief at the newspaper where a main character works, the ruler’s honor guard, and several power politicians are all women. Even the founder of the royal dynasty!
And now for the second special thing. Witchmark was good – a mystery and a romance, but things really got going in the second book, Stormsong, continuing into the third, Soulstar. Polk really went for it! It turns out that the economic foundation of Aeland society was based on a massive, appalling social injustice. The characters found themselves exploring such big questions as: Can you really make transformational change gradually? How do you compensate those on the receiving end of extreme abuse? Is it fair to ask them to wait for justice (like reparations), when the economy is bad for everyone (except the super-rich)?
And, ahem, do these questions strike anyone as relevant to our real world?
Now, of course there were differences from our real-life situation, where we have yet to ensure the same chances of success for Black people, Indigenous people, and those whose ancestors immigrated from places that aren’t Europe, and where politicians working to give Americans the same safety net that most of the rest of the world already enjoys can end up getting called “communist” for it. In Polk’s world, the horrific system had been created and perpetuated by people who were still living, which makes it possible to punish them. And the people asking for fairness were the ones who had themselves suffered from the abuse, not their descendants several generations in the future.
But even with these differences, which make solutions simpler (and possible to fit into a trilogy of relatively short books), there’s a value to spending time in a world where people are trying to fix major problems that are all-too-familiar but explicitly NOT the same as those we already live with. So if you’re looking for something worth reading, check these out. Or wait ’til they’re on TV?