The Big Idea: Shana Mlawski

Author Shana Mlawski is on a quest to rethink the “quest” fantasy novel. Does she succeed in her novel Hammer of Witches? Here she is to make the argument.

SHANA MLAWSKI:

Here’s a joke I sometimes tell when people ask me about the inspiration behind Hammer of Witches: “I was getting tired of medieval European fantasies, so I wrote a book about wizards in 15th century Europe.”

It’s not really a joke, though. I mean it. Let me explain.

Nowadays many authors subvert the tropes of traditional fantasy quest stories, mainly by making them meaner and bloodier. (As if the problem with Lord of the Rings was that it wasn’t violent enough!) But these subversions tend to avoid grappling with one of the biggest problems with quest fantasies: They’re friggin’ colonialist.

Consider the basic outline of the Hero’s Journey. A young peasant boy (he’s almost definitely a boy—also white, able-bodied, and straight) of unclear parentage leaves his home to answer a call to adventure. He quickly learns he has special talents because of his noble, or even divine, blood. He quests through dungeons, sea voyages, cities, and towns, which our omniscient narrator describes with guidebook precision. These stops provide the hero with villains to slay, victims to save, women to love (or be tempted by), and mentors who supply hints, prophecies, and magical gifts. Be they villain, bystander, love interest, or sage, these secondary characters have one purpose: to help the hero come of age and complete his quest. When the trials are overcome, our boy-hero takes his rightful place as a man, a warrior, a leader, a husband, a messiah, and, often, a king.

It’s a great story—one of my faves, and I say this without irony. And if the Gospels are any indication, Christians love this story as much as I do. The whole thing has a real New Testament vibe to it.

Hammer of Witches asks the question, “What would happen if you took that standard quest story and set it in the real world in 1492?” The answer is, things get real interesting real fast, because Christopher Columbus was a big fan of this story, too. In his letters and diaries he characterizes himself as a poor but brilliant man of mysterious origins who sets out on a holy quest to a foreign land. There, he is helped by the angelic Taíno people, who feed him and give him gifts to help him on his travels. But gasp! Some of the Taíno have revealed themselves to be aggressive non-believers who want to hinder our hero in his quest! Columbus reluctantly but bravely strikes down these foes and takes his rightful place as king—or, at least, governor.

Suddenly our favorite quest story doesn’t look so innocuous, does it? When the map in the front of the book is of Earth Earth instead of Middle Earth, the quest story reveals itself to be a justification for conquest. That’s why these stories tend to have omniscient narrators. For the justification to work, readers must hear only one side of the story, and no one must ever question the teller of the tale. Columbus would agree. He would never let the Taíno share their perspective. To him, that would be like asking if we should get Arwen’s point of view, or the orcs’. It doesn’t make sense, because, in his view, the Taíno are mere side characters in his own legend.

Hammer of Witches approaches the quest story from a different angle. Here the narrator isn’t an omniscient god but a semi-unreliable teenager who spends most of the book unclear on who’s the hero and who’s the villain (or if these terms are even useful). He’s surrounded by stories of Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Taíno, and Classical origins, which continually undermine his perspective. In this fantasy, characters’ powers don’t come from their pure, noble blood but from their ability to uncover and control the meanings of stories. Every time our narrator thinks he has a handle on these stories, some other character butts in to explain why he’s got it all wrong.

Call it postmodern, postcolonial, multicultural. You could even use the term “Talmudic.” It views history as less of a straight line leading to apotheosis but a series of arguments that are constantly in flux. That’s why the joke I made wasn’t really a joke. When you take the familiar medieval European fantasy story and actually set it in medieval Europe, the story doesn’t look so familiar at all.

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Hammer of Witches: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

20 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Shana Mlawski

  1. This sounds . . . awful.

    First it sounds as if the author is hating on the traditional fantasy story. Her business, but hardly a great business move. Secondly, she clearly misunderstands the nature of the coming-of-age story for young men if that is how she feels the psychological journey unfolds. There are very definite elements to all male coming-of-age stories, just as there are to all female coming-of-age stories, and if you ignore them or miss them, it comes across as inauthentic. Just from the excerpt it doesn’t read as if it was coming from the voice of a fourteen year-old boy; it sounds like it’s a twenty-something woman trying to sound like a fourteen-year-old boy. The whole thing has a very romancy-shmancy feel to it, and it just doesn’t feel authentic.

    If this is the direction heroic fantasy is going . . . meh.

  2. Interesting. I like the idea of mixing post-colonial awareness with an unreliable narrator, but then I have BA in English Language and Lit so I admittably have weird taste.

    This is something I will have to keep in mind for my own writing. I hope this is a success for you Shana. :)

  3. Perception of the past vs. the past itself. Hm. Maybe I’ll pick this up after all, especially if it manages to enrage gender essentialists and proponents of the Universal Experience (usually based, oddly enough, on the idealized experiences of a very particular demographic…).

  4. This is the first “Big Idea” that hooked me enough to read through it since I started following Whatever.

    It seems an interesting academic exercise at least, although I question the “tell it from the other perspective” as being a big idea anymore in the 2010s. Still, good luck in your endeavor!

  5. The writer here. Just wanted to jump on and let everyone know that the e-book isn’t out yet but should be ready to go soon, so if you want it, I encourage you to throw it on your wishlists. The hardcover is out now, as is the audiobook, which you can find on Audible and Amazon.

    Terry: For the record, I love the traditional fantasy story SO HARD :)

  6. “Maybe I’ll pick this up after all, especially if it manages to enrage gender essentialists and proponents of the Universal Experience (usually based, oddly enough, on the idealized experiences of a very particular demographic…).”

    I’m hardly enraged. I’m mostly bored and disappointed. Both by the book and the reaction to my attempt to discuss it. Knee-jerk reactions and disrespectful (if not overtly uncivil) commentary seem par for the course on Whatever, and the politics here are just a little on the cloying side. Worse, the discussions seem to be going further and further away from any meaningful dialog on science fiction and fantasy at all. I’m finding it harder and harder to take it seriously as a professional, and as a professional resource. If a little honest, robust criticism inspires this kind of reaction, then this clearly isn’t a place for serious discussion about the topic.

    Scalzi, your followers are rude, often shrilly ignorant, and your own recommendations have been tepid. Disrespect and insults on top of that? I don’t have time for that. The future of fantasy is bright . . . but this ain’t it. Unsubscribe.

  7. I’m hardly enraged. I’m mostly bored and disappointed. Both by the book and the reaction to my attempt to discuss it. Knee-jerk reactions and disrespectful (if not overtly uncivil) commentary seem par for the course on Whatever, and the politics here are just a little on the cloying side.

    You reap what you sow.

  8. This is not the first time I’ve zipped over to amazon and bought one of the books featured on your Big Reads–I don’t think I’ve ever said thank you, but THANK YOU!

    *rubs hands in glee and waits for fantastic new book to arrive*

  9. It sounds like a very different take on the fantasy quest story! I’m intrigued and interested to see how it goes, especially as a writer who is looking for examples of non-standard/atypical problem-solving, worldbuilding, and conflict resolution. (As in, stories that don’t revolve around “Problem? Monster. Solution? Sword, applied directly to forehead.”)

    (And yes, I realize that LOTR doesn’t exactly follow that angle; but it still has lots of swords applied directly to many various parts of orc, goblin, Nazgul, and Uruk-hai bodies!)

  10. This does sound like fun, but I can’t resist noting… Subverting the quest narrative by relocating it in early modern Spain… Hasn’t that been done before? Some guy, Cerv-something, something like that. Anyway, I feel like I’ve heard of this before.

    Dropping out of wiseacre mode, it sounds like a very different kind of subversion. Don Quixote doesn’t find himself in dialogue with Taino legend. I hope there’s a nod toward Cervantes in Hammer, though.

    Re “Suddenly our favorite quest story doesn’t look so innocuous, does it”, Charlie Stross recently linked to this old piece by Michael Moorcock, which I found very helpful. I’m sure it’s old hat to people who know their way around the relevant genres, but it was news to me and perhaps will be to some others. (That piece obviously offers many opportunities to derail this conversation. I’m not recommending it in that spirit — just pointing it out for the ways in which it is relevant.)

    I have to ask, though: what does any of this have to do with the Malleus Maleficarum?

  11. Huh. I like the Big Quest Fantasy ™ and I like riffs and subvertings of the BQF as well (to go along with “The Last Ringbearer” mentioned above, there is also “The Sundering” (two books) by Jacqueline Carey, which is also a “LotR from the point of view of evil”). Sounds like it is worth a read.

  12. But these subversions tend to avoid grappling with one of the biggest problems with quest fantasies: They’re friggin’ colonialist.

    Well, sometimes. Other times the main objective is to overthrow the evil king/usurper/etc., who is probably of the same nationality/race as the hero himself (and may even be a relative, if the hero turns out to have noble blood; in some cases, like Hamlet, that was never even a secret).

    In some cases, it’s even anti-colonialist — e.g. _Tigana_, where the villains are invading/colonizing armies and the goal of the quest is to throw them out and restore the rightful king (who is, of course, ethnically the same as his people, not one of those foreign oppressors — for whatever that’s worth).

    Defeating the foreigners who are invading and attempting to conquer *your* homeland plays out very differently than going to *their* homeland and defeating them there. For some reason.

    You definitely have to build your villains more carefully these days, but I think colonialist implications are quite evitable, and even often avoided in recent works.

  13. Hi again. Just got news that the e-books will be for sale next week. The Kindle version will probably be up sooner than the other versions (likely Monday or Tuesday). Thanks!

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