Fantasy novels are filled with war, and maybe that’s a default because human history is also filled with war. And violence is exciting, right? But I start to wonder: can’t we imagine a different way of telling a story? Fantasy is an imagined world after all.
After reading Laurie J. Marks’ Water Logic, I’ve come to the conclusion that writers use war and violence in fantasy novels partly because it’s the easy thing. Marks sets out to do the hard task, not the easy one. Trying to resolve a conflict in an alternate way is in fact incredibly hard; characters have to be stubborn and smart and there’s no simple-minded heroics in the task. Frankly, it’s mind-bending stuff, and refreshing.
Water Logic is the third book in a series that Marks has been writing called Elemental Logic – this fantasy world involves people who are gifted in one of the four elements, and the first two books, appropriately enough, were titled Fire Logic and Earth Logic.
By this point in the story, a brutal war has just concluded: the Shaftalese have defeated the invading force of Sainnites, or at least beat them to a standstill and cut off their retreat. But quite a few Sainnites are still in the realm, and some Shaftalese are understandably bent on vengeance. All through human history, that has been the reaction of those whose homeland has been invaded.
So who carries the flag of the conflict resolution camp? How does this work? As Marks sets it up, it’s a matter of taking personal responsibility first and foremost. A Shaftalese group called the Paladins, part of the governing structure in a loose way, are more warriors of philosophy than Conan-style head-bashers. And as the Paladin characters say many times: “Evil may enter the world, but it will not enter through me.”
At first glimpse, this seems like a set-up for the boring part of the story – the one that is usually wrapped up in an epilogue after the big climax. Marks, however, has something ambitious in mind: balancing realism (a gruelling look at the consequences of violence) with some of the other attractions of the fantasy genre, like nifty magic, feats of adventures, and so on. The invasion/war has already had its moment in the previous books, and now it’s the road less-travelled.
And it’s crucial too that Marks is talking about the aftermath. No longer does the story suffer from that structural deficit of all war-is-hell narratives: yes, violence is problematic, but then why is your book/movie so incredibly violent? See The Wild Bunch, Fight Club, and many others – good movies, but they break down upon closer examination of this very point.
In Water Logic, the inevitable excitement and glamour of battle is over, and now we have to work out how to live with the people we were busy slaughtering. That’s why this book reminded me more of real-world conflicts than the typical fantasy nonsense of destroy-the-dark-lord-and-utopia-ensues.
But Water Logic is not all one thing – not all excruciating and grim – and I liked the way the plot unravelled. The division between the Sainnites and Salmites wase not resolved – it continues as a background for other things that are happening. The gulf is so wide that it won’t be crossed all that quickly.
Other things are going on – the title refers to the very circuitous magic that springs from water. Marks keeps the reader a little too far in the dark at points, but once the “big plan” is revealed, everything falls into place. Nicely played, especially since there’s so much else going on in the book. The characters already have their hands full with the Shaftalese-Sainnite reconciliation, never mind a water logic adept to mess things up. Good stuff!
A few months ago, I talked about reading a series out of order. I haven’t read the previous two Logic books by Marks so this was like a flashback to my childhood. Interestingly, while there was some character history that I missed, from what I’ve seen of Marks’ writing style, I didn’t necessarily miss much explanation anyways. The world is presented as-is, and of course all the people in it know what is going on and why. I found the book quite intriguing, since Marks does have some unusual magic going on, and there’s certainly no overkill in the infodump department.
Water Logic is available in a lovely edition from Small Beer Press – they sent me another book called Interfictions at the same time and I was planning to write about both in this article. But Water Logic took over! Interfictions is a neat anthology from the Interstitial Arts Foundation, and it’s worth checking out if genre-bending sounds like your sort of thing.