Sarah Rees Brennan (sarahtales) wrote,
Sarah Rees Brennan

Invertin' the Trope

“Dear C.S. Lewis…”
I respectfully but TOTALLY disagree. Love, Philip Pullman.'

We've all read books that make us think of other books. Some books are similar because they have the same tropes. 'The Chosen One saves the world' thing happens quite frequently. As does 'Child raises magical talking pony/griffin/dragon/goblin/THING,' and 'When a vampire loves a woman, and a woman loves her undead man...'

A familiar story handled well is comforting and lovely to read. Diana Wynne Jones's The Pinhoe Egg gives excellent traditional 'Child raises magical thing.'

But then there are the other books, which read as if someone read the first kind of books and said 'Actually...'

Like Pullman, who wrote a very not-Christian-analogy fantasy world which contrasts quite a bit with C.S. Lewis's.

I'm not saying that I think (or that the writers of the second type of books think!) that the first kind of books are bad. Like I said (The Pinhoe Egg!) when done well, they're excellent. But it's really interesting to see a writer's brain working behind the words as they carefully turn traditional plots inside-out.

So I decided to review two books who do it that way.

In Eragon, the dragon Saphira grows extremely fast and has instant telepathy with the hero, thus arming the hero with a Fully Loaded Dragon as he proceeds into battle with evil.

McKinley's baby dragon Lois is a bit different. In the world of Dragonhaven, dragons are an endangered species kept in wildlife parks. They're marsupial, which means that a baby dragon who should be in her mama's pouch is slimy and disgusting, and Lois is a fire-breathing baby who leaves the hero permanently and terribly scarred. Stress and exhaustion leave our hero pretty much crippled for much of the book - as do the awful eternal headaches that go with slowly learning a very difficult kind of telepathy with the dragons.

It was a really, really interesting examination of the trope. It felt really realistic. And that was sort of the problem.

Reading this book reminded me very vividly of an episode in my own life when I adopted a five-day-old kitten because he was so cute and he was going to die without me and I would save him, just like in the books! And then I had to wake up every two hours to feed him, and he got ringworm and half his fur fell out and the vets said not to touch him with bare hands so in a few days I had this nightmarish shrivelled mummy kitten screeching in my bathtub and I was in a permanent haze of exhaustion. I'm telling you, I started to believe that the kitten had telepathy. 'Release me from my bathtub prison,' I thought Shrivelled Mummy Kitten was purring from the bathroom. 'Then all the kingdoms of the world will be yours. And hurry up with my five a.m. bottle!'

The thing is, the tale of Sarah and Shrivelled Mummy Kitten isn't, you know, a terribly gripping one. There's no dramatic climax, no high stakes, and uh, that is okay, because it was real life and not a book. There's a reason raising magical things is portrayed as usually easier than this - Jake is in absolutely no state to battle evil at any time in the book. Dragonhaven does have high stakes, there's a whole very interesting fight for the survival of the dragons going on, but our hero Jake's first person point of view is pretty damn distracted from that fight because he's raising a baby not from his own damn species.

What I think I would've really liked was switching POVs, half Jake and half omniscient, or all omniscient with a lot of concentration on how Jake was going almost crazy trying to raise the baby dragon. Then we could've had the really realistic portrayal of raising a baby dragon and the adventure story.

Still, it was totally worth reading, because McKinley is one hell of a writer. Not something to start with (I'd recommend Beauty as a good starting place) but something you really should get to. And I love the set-up. Marsupial dragons! There is no way that any book by McKinley, or any book containing marsupial dragons, could not be my cup of tea. So I guess this makes the book two of my cups of tea.

Most of us have seen Star Wars and read Harry Potter. I for one really liked Harry Potter, though I wasn't all that sold on Star Wars. We know about the Chosen One.

The Chosen One, spoken of in prophecy, has come to the land of Un Lun Dun. The animals heralded her coming. The people regard her with reverence. She has her ever-faithful sidekick Deeba by her side. Soon, the Book says, her first triumph in battle will come...

But when the Chosen One gets knocked out in the first round, the book of prophecy has an existential crisis and Deeba hears that she's supposed to be the funny one in the list of her friend's sidekicks, everything changes. It's the Unchosen One's time to shine.

The first Miéville I read was Perdido Street Station. I borrowed it from my friend Las, read the first few pages in which a man sexes up a woman with an insect for a head, and was filled with horror and alarm about what kind of things my friend was into. Actually, it was a good book and the man and the woman with an insect head turned out to be very much in love, but it established Miéville for me as someone who might do something Very Shocking (which is good) and quite probably Unnecessarily Grim (less good) to me at any time. Since Un Lun Dun was written for children, there was a lot less grimness and a lot more fun.

I really loved it. I love having fun with a book. I love the land of Un Lun Dun where giraffes have long necks so they can wave around the skins of their enemies on high like a flag, there are deadly binjas - trained warriors who, of course, live in bins - and being a librarian is an extreme sport. Un Lun Dun is definitely my favourite Miéville.

In the manner of a lot of adult authors suddenly writing for children, a lot of things are a bit too pat and happy, wrapped up a little too easily in a way that felt a little like a cheat or a little obvious. But the way the villain was finally despatched was genuinely clever and anyway, I was having so much fun I forgave the book everything.

Exactly my cup of tea. No offence to the Chosen One, whom I'm often fond of, but it was wonderful to see the Unchosen One have her day.

Want to name me some really excellent reversin' the trope books? As ever, I am totally ready to buy big stacks of books - currently I wish to distract myself from my current problem of finding somewhere to live...
Tags: book recommendations, book reviews


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