Randomly: Over the last few years, I’ve been reading a bunch of YASF set in (some version of) East Asia or South Asia. This is a welcome change from the dominance of European-ish Märchenwald stuff that I’ve read so much of, and if not all of this new stuff is great, not all of that old stuff was great, either.
One of the things that I have always found grating in fantasy stories is their approval of the hereditary aristocracy. Oh, Not All Fantasy Novels, obviously, but many, many, many of them rely on the understanding that what matters is which of the Duke’s children will rule, or whether the foundling really does have royal blood, or any of a zillion other assumptions that boil down to approval of the hereditary aristocracy. It gets up my nose, it does, as an American—and of course it particularly gets up my nose when it is written by Americans.
And these same ideas seem to be cropping up in those works set in pseudo-Asia rather than pseudo-Europe, and I find it aggravating. I suspect that it is intended to be colorful and local and accurate—many of these works are far more concerned with cultural detail than the swords-and-sorcery stuff—but (a) I would rather have the fantasy world of the book diverge from the actual history of the area than have terrible, detrimental ideas pushed on me as a reader, as in fact many of those books diverge from the actual histories in order to avoid endorsing terrible gender roles; and (2) if you are going to be in a fantasy world with a hereditary aristocracy, for goodness’ sake make it clear how awful that aristocracy is.
Here, obviously, I take a moment to glory in the works of Frances Hardinge, whose work has as one of its powerful themes that you should never, ever trust any member of the hereditary aristocracy, and that this continues to be true even if that aristocrat is individually well-meaning. Her greatest achievement, in my opinion, is in Fly-by-Night and Fly-Trap, when she creates an 18th-Century England where what matters is not to whom you are born, but what time of day you are born, and that system is every bit as dehumanizing and vile as, well, as the hereditary aristocracy. It’s a pretty near perfect example of how a truly great writer can throw off the chains of verisimilitude and get closer to truth. Still, that’s not really a standard I’m comfy applying to everything I read.
I suppose, really, what’s up with me is that I place far too heavy an expectation on these new books. And I wonder if any of y’all do that, too… The fact that these books are getting published and promoted and into my hands, and presumably in the hands of lots of readers, is such a Good Thing. The vast increase in representation, in diversity, in scope within the field is magnificent and moving. And so these books aren’t just entertainments. On some level, I want those books to solve the problem of the supremacy of European-derived culture in English-language YASF (and literature generally) (and, you know everything else). And when they fall short of that impossible goal… I notice.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,