The Big Idea: Carol Berg
Posted on December 9, 2015 Posted by John Scalzi 25 Comments
How do you know you are you? And if you don’t know, are you really you at all? Carol Berg ponders those questions in her novel Ash and Silver, and in today’s Big Idea.
There are many literary tropes that I love, especially those that characterize fantasy fiction. Mistaken identity, the innocent who discovers great power, the rogue who finds purpose, sentient dragons, magic as rare, the guide/advisor, shapeshifting, magical portals, the fae, the trickster, gods/saints/angels that are discovered to be real, even the occasional quest with a jewel at the end.
The word trope has a bad reputation, having taken on the burden of cliché, stereotype, and dry imitation. I’ve certainly thrown aside many a book because of yet another elf-dwarf-human road trip or another angst-ridden vampire or one more ever-snarky female cowboy/tank driver/longshorewoman who is really a pixie/ghoul/pond sprite with tattoos and a hunky male guardian angel.
But motifs, characters, plots, and metaphors evolve into tropes because we humans find them innately fascinating and deeply satisfying. What is more delicious for the kid in all of us than Platform 9 ¾ – a portal to a world of magic and adventure? What makes our heart ache like the visit to elfland and the irrevocable choice to stay – abandoning our human loves and homely pleasures – or to go home, relinquishing for all time the exquisite passions of magical life? See Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer for a brilliant example.
In my own writing, I consciously embrace certain tropes, but then do my best to embed them in layered worlds and complex characters, twisting them into something that will draw the reader onto unexpected paths into a deeper story. It’s part of my particular pleasure in writing fantasy.
Ash and Silver is told by a man who can’t remember his own name or anything of his own personal past. Yep, hero’s amnesia, one of my favorite tropes. (Remember that splendid case of amnesia that opens Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber?)
But don’t throw the book across the room yet, because Greenshank’s memory loss was not caused by a blow to the head or a car accident or mafia-delivered drugs, but was magically induced when he chose to accept sanctuary in a strict, secretive military order. Mind-altering magic doesn’t work in this world without the consent of the subject. But, of course, my hero can’t remember what circumstances would induce him, a mature man quite obviously untrained in military skills, to seek sanctuary in such a place or submit to such breakage. This question – along with the why – is the igniter for his story.
Magic that can remove, preserve, and restore memory provides wonderful grist for a fantasy writer’s mill. Simply obliterating all knowledge leaves us a character too ignorant to be interesting. Greenshank is well educated, and I need him to have access to his wide knowledge of the world, history, society, customs, his kingdom’s current war of succession and strange skewing of the seasons. But he can have no recollection of tutors, family, friends, lovers, preferences, biases, or the reasons behind the particular academic disciplines he finds most comfortable.
As hints of his past begin pummeling our hero, demanding his attention like hailstones out of the fog, (you knew that would happen) I had to tread carefully, scouring what I wrote for evidence that he knew more than he should, or felt, suspected, or deduced more than he should. Every scene presented choices. Should he feel sorrow at mentions of the family he can’t remember or only loss? When he meets a person from his past, is there any hint of recognition? Do I want there to be?
Greenshank does know he is a sorcerer, and over two years has become a far more skilled one, because the Order of the Equites Cineré, Knights of the Ashes, fights with magic as well as sword, spear, and fist. But he has no idea of his own particular magical talent – his bent – or how he studied or practiced that talent in the twenty-something years he has forgotten. This implies a precise, almost surgical, excision of memory.
Herein lies the Big Idea or perhaps the Big Question. What part of us remains when our personal past is gone?
Do our experiences shape us as human beings? Undoubtedly. But if we yield the memory of them, do we somehow become someone different? Are we left adrift without the guidance of our growing? Do we lose the emotions connected with lost faces, forgotten relationships, and missing life, or do those somehow linger in our bones? Are our choices based solely on reason and our reactions on solid evidence, or are there resonances of old biases and yearnings still lurking inside?
Greenshank’s commanders at Fortress Evanide say they remove all personal memory so that their trainees can learn without boundaries or preconceptions. So they can maintain the singular focus on the present that is necessary to survive, because the Order’s training is rigorous and mortally dangerous. Those who survive their years of training can choose to have their past restored and leave with honor (but no memory of the Order itself.) But those who stay, those who choose to be invested as Knights of the Ashes, must relinquish their past lives forever. Going forward in service to the Order, each must continually forego all personal memory of the great deeds he does, as well. Thus, no glory. No accumulation of power or spoils of war. The new knight commits to a simple life of comradeship, skill, and just purpose. (Whatever could go wrong with that?)
As the writer, I had to shape answers to all these questions in the context of my story, creating a logical, consistent structure. Those answers led me in directions I never imagined. What began as a favorite trope, ripe for renewal, became the struggle at the very heart of Ash and Silver. In a single, chaotic conjunction of murder, politics, enchantment, history, love, family, grief, anger, and corruption, Greenshank discovers that the fate of the world depends on his identity – his ultimate decision about who he actually is and who he yearns to be.
Ash and Silver: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s page. Follow her on Twitter.
Sounds delightful. Does it stand alone, or do you need to read Dust and Light first?
I gotta admit, I’m a sucker for a good amnesia novel. ;) Particularly if there’s a better reason than “because he got clonked on the head” for the memory loss. The idea of a character’s core personality and essence emerging in those situations has always been what’s attracted me to those kinds of stories.
And I’ve read Berg before and quite liked what I saw of her. This needs to go on the To Read list!
Sounds like fun. I just recently watched Dark Matter that applies a similar amnesia to an entire crew of people…
You’ve just made my morning. Waiting for this book for SO LONG. Must have. Must have. Want. Oh, gods. *happy, incoherent flailing*
*Okay. Relative to how long some waits in various fantasy fandoms can and have been, I recognize that it hasn’t been SO LONG. But it feels like it. And I’d forgotten this was coming. And it’s still a happy surprise to see that cover in my feed, so I stand by my happy flailing.
One could possibly read ASH without reading DUST, but you’d miss a lot.
LONG? Oy! And there aren’t even 13 earlier books to reread! (Author collapses on fainting couch, secretly smiling…)
can I just go all fangirl and say THEREALCAROLBERG!!! I love your books, this is on my to-buy list (and I’m re-reading Dust and Light right now. :) )
I really enjoyed Flesh & Spirit. I’m looking forward to reading more books by Carol Berg. She truly does go beyond the tropes.
My copy is on the top of my TBR pile :-)
Fangirling…boying…personing appreciated at any time.
Glad I read the comments… Dust and Light now acquired, and this one added to the wish list – it sounds fascinating! Main character amnesia is one of my favourite tropes, when it is done well it lets the reader really learn along with the protagonist.
Hey there John, just noticed the linky thing at the bottom says Ash and Shadow, but should say Silver?
I’ve just begun the Sanctuary duet and it is shaping up to be another wonderful read. I’ve spent many, many happy hours in the worlds Carol Berg creates. I enjoy the magic systems in those worlds. But her poor protagonists! She usually bends, folds, spindles and mutilates them pretty hard over the course of a story. Is it wrong that I so very greatly enjoy that too?
I loved the first book (and the earlier lighthouse novels set in the same world too). I’m looking forward to reading it.
Sounds worthy. I’m reading the YA novel The Fifth Wave right now. It’s got that “Who are we? What are we? Who’s the enemy?” vibe going on.
It really helps to read Dust and Light first. There’s so much nuance in the backstory!
Wonderful post. Novels that both entertain me and make me think about meaningful questions earn a permanent home on my shelves. All of yours have done so, Ms. Berg.
Okay, I’ve ordered book one. We’ll take this a page at a time.
Thanks for all the good words here – and for reading, of course. Or for thinking about reading. And yes, Matt, I am known to be a bit tough on protagonists. But it IS their own fault for walking into my novels! I used to be known as a nice person, too! I’ll never forget the heads popping up over the walls of the cube farm (the software lab) where I worked on the day Transformation came out. Everyone had gone and bought the book that day and – it seemed – were reading it…
I just finished Ash and Silver and loved it. If you are a Bujold fan, I highly recommend you take a look at Berg’s work. Her writing, characters, and plots are superb, and her books are addictive. I’ve only just finished Ash and Silver, but I’m about to reread the Lighthouse novels because I can’t get enough of Navronne and all of the fascinating characters that populate it.
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Thanks for having me, John. And thanks to all for good comments.
Hi Carol. I love your work. I’m ready to read whatever you throw down, and I’ve been looking forward to this one.
Thank you; I am not often aware of what’s available in Recent SF, and this looks like something I wouldn’t want to miss. (Yes, I will get Book 1 first.)