September 27, 2012
(+++) SCIENCE AND FANTASY
Bloodstar, Book One: Star Corpsman. By Ian Douglas. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
The Crown of Embers. By Rae Carson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
The distinctions among science fiction, science fantasy, high fantasy, heroic fantasy and other genres-within-genres have become increasingly blurry, as writers feel freer than in the past to pick and choose among forms and formats in order to create books that they think readers will find appealing. Book covers and descriptions tend to push readers in one particular direction or another, but actually reading the books can lead to some confusion about what sort of novel a reader actually has in hand. Star Corpsman, for example, seems on the face of it to be military-style science fiction in the Robert Heinlein mode, and it reads that way, too, stylistically speaking. It is blunter than Heinlein’s work and has more references to sexuality – allowable now, but not in Heinlein’s heyday – but the basic story is Heinleinesque throughout: powerful, loyal space marines head for a hellish, nearly uninhabitable world where religious fanatics from Earth have settled, to head off an invasion by evil, impossible-to-understand warrior aliens called Qesh. In fact, the basic plot is almost laughably old-fashioned, as are some of the specifics of this supposed 23rd-century story, such as the use of the “Encyclopedia Galactica” for information, as if the term “encyclopedia” is likely to have any currency hundreds of years from now. The military slang is decidedly 20th- and 21st-century, too, from SNAFU to “you’re on report.” And the basics of narrator/protagonist Elliot Carlyle are old-fashioned as well: young medic who loses the woman he loves to a medical condition is determined to prove himself – to himself and his father – through Fleet Marine Force training and extraterrestrial heroics. Oh – and his decisions may affect the future of Earth itself, of course. Ian Douglas (pseudonym of William H. Keith, Jr.) writes space-opera potboilers like this rather well – certainly the action rarely flags and there is no time for characterization, descriptive passages or any particular insights by or about the characters. And Douglas throws around military-style terminology with aplomb while trying to convince readers that, yes, this really is the future, as when Carlyle mentions that he is not very religious: “So far as I was concerned, I’d live the usual three or four hundred years, then die, and then I’d find out what happened next.” But it is precisely comments like this that show Star Corpsman, the first book of a planned trilogy, to be fantasy rather than science fiction. Comments about a starship that “accelerated under Plottel Drive…seeking the flat metric required by the astrogation department…[that] allowed us to switch on the Alcubierre Drive” are less grounded in scientific reality than the concepts of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact, the whole notion of invasions by evil aliens (formerly called BEMs for “bug-eyed monsters) across uncountable light years is the stuff of fantasy – for decades, science-fiction writers have been aware that the resource needs would make interstellar war impossible. What Douglas wants to do, though, is to throw some excitement around in a somewhat exotic setting, presenting plenty of chances for derring-do and a touch of surface-level self-discovery here and there. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this – the original Star Wars movie did the same thing quite brilliantly, although Star Corpsman is no “Star Warsman.” In any case, for those seeking science fiction, this is not it. If it matters.
The exotic nature of events and characters in The Crown of Embers, in contrast, does place the book in the realm of fantasy. But where in the fantasy genre does it fit? Rae Carson’s novel is the sequel to her debut book, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which opened a trilogy centered on now-17-year-old Elisa, who has become queen through the power of the Godstone but, in the second book, must find out where that power comes from so she can defeat the many enemies that remain despite her first-book triumph over an evil sorcerous army. In the first book, Elisa overcame the feeling of being always in the shadow of her older sister, found out that she was chosen to rule by prophecy (an overdone cliché in fantasy nowadays), and came under the sway of a dashing revolutionary who awakened new feelings in Elisa’s heart – turning that first book into something of a romance novel as well something of heroic fantasy. The Crown of Embers continues along the same lines, and still uses dialogue that sounds as if it belongs in a 21st-century romance book rather than in the quasi-medieval setting of this trilogy: “I have everything set to rights.” “I hate myself right now.” “Perhaps it is the price of ruling.” “I’ll think about it.” The ordinariness of the verbiage jars against a story that is intended to have elements of both the exotic and the romantic, as Elisa unwillingly learns self-defense, comes heroically to the rescue during an attack by mercenaries, and learns from a banned manuscript that the information she seeks in order to rule and defend her people may be available across the ocean – after, of course, a perilous journey. A little bit of humor, of awareness on the author’s part that she is treading well-trod pathways in this story, would have gone a long way toward giving The Crown of Embers a more-distinctive touch. But Carson takes the whole adventure entirely seriously, even when putting together the completely obvious companions that Elisa will take on her ocean journey (they include a one-eyed warrior, a defector and the man she has been falling in love with). Carson does allow Elisa to get an occasional clever idea, as when she entices a ship’s captain to help by promising to appoint a particular Royal Vintner. By and large, though, Elisa is just as heroic and just as fully engaged in a journey of maturation and self-discovery as many other protagonists of fantasies, romances and fantasy-romances – no less involved, certainly, but no more. “I have channeled this power before,” Elisa tells herself near the book’s climax. “I can do this.” And so she can, ending up with “power beyond imagining” but still feeling “like a hollow shell of a girl” – since sacrifice, responsibility and fear have all been elements of the price of that power, and since there is still one more book of the trilogy to go, with additional troubles, betrayals and romantic entanglements promised by this novel’s particularly inconclusive conclusion.