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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Rhapsody by Elizabeth Haydon

Rhapsody is a book that may technically fall under romance, but the author is female and because it was in my list to review it anyway, I'll bring it to the fore. Both times I've read this novel I've really enjoyed it. Elizabeth Hayden borrowed nearly every fantasy trope and cliche in the book, but as I've written before, the use of cliche is the bread and butter of fiction, and when used well creates a yarn that echoes down to the very deepest recesses of our souls. Aside from the standard fiction and fantasy cliches, Hayden borrows liberally from Greek and Norse myth, which isn't typical in modern fantasy. And while children's novels Percy Jackson gets filed under teen fantasy, it isn't necessarily fantasy since it literally uses the Same Greek pantheon that the actual Greeks used.

One thing to note at the outset: Elizabeth Hayden is just a good writer. Tight phrasing, concise character development, she is a writer from the old school. many modern writers allow so much vernacular or poor phrasing into their stories, thinking of it as a stylistic. All it does is point to the simplicity of their writing. Hayden's story telling is masterful.

No great fanfic of what Rhapsody looks like, this is my guess, Taylor Swift
Character:  the first 200 pages or so uses only four characters really, so you get an excellent chance to know them. The Foremost is the book's namesake Rhapsody. Rhapsody's character is truly one to fall in love with, not only is she so essentially good and true and honest, she is also so modest that other characters are constantly bemused by her self effacing and willful blindness to the effect she has on others. She's also ravishing, which never hurts. One cliche breaker in Rhapsody's character is that she is a Fallen Woman, while itself a cliche, Fallen Women are rarely the lead characters of stories. They either get redeemed, get their just deserts, or simply get a measure of pity or empathy from the author. Not so Rhapsody, she was a doxy who sold her body freely and readily. Much later you find out that she had certain standards, but given that one of her return clients was a truly abusive and sadistic prick, you get the sense that even her standards were compromised from time to time. Another interesting thing about the Fallen Woman, and something that probably comes from a uniquely female perspective is that she is never redeemed. Without spoiling, an event leads to a certain physical restoration, but the mental anguish that ruined her never leaves her. This, I am lead to believe, is common among the raped. Such intelligent memes are welcome in New Fantasy, where the world is a complicated place.
Achmed, by MeetmebytheSea, Deviant Art

In fact this can be said of all of her main characters and some of the lesser. Achmed the Snake, her assassin friend is a great example of that, a man who is a cold-blooded killer, who despite our desire to like him, remains a merciless bastard well into the third book in the series where he threatens to murder children. On the other hand he develops a real and abiding affection for Rhapsody and becomes her protector. He also wields a truly neat weapon, an unusual device that is a crossbow/sling that fires off steel discs about the size of your hand at great speed. Unusual or magical weaponry is part of what makes fantasy great! The last character note on Achmed is that a turning point in his character occurs well before the entire story begins, through flashbacks and story telling you learn how he was broken. Not broken to become the bad ass assassin that he is, broken from being that bad ass and starting to flee for his life. Which, is how we first meet him. Hayden accomplishes this very simply in iust a few lines, and it seems utterly horrific. Like I said, tight writing.

There are many great characters, however it deserves mention that at least one of the three main characters is very simplistically drawn, the half ogre Grunthor, who speaks in a cockney accent and "sure loves tha lil' miss". Still he is a character intended to draw your affection, and to anchor you in the story, and he accomplishes both adroitly.

Cliche: In doing research for this section (yes, I do research, I ran across a truly excellent website, www.tvtropes.org.  They have an interesting quote on their front page, that I thought I'd reproduce for you:  "Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations."  They differentiate them from cliches, which is fine. For my purposes I will continue to call them cliches simply to keep my posting and listing of them, paralleled.   In Rhapsody, I will simply list them to start, as usual, where I haven't mentioned them before I will give them names. The Power of Names, the Broken Homeland, star crossed lovers, Welsh, Dungeons and Dragons, the BFG (or the Shrek), the Fallen Woman, the Bard, A Time to Remember, the Great Tree, The Druids, the sleeping child, the purification, the wise old man, the Greedy dragon. Phew: there are more, but I can't go on forever.

The Power of Names: this cliche is one of the most basic in fantasy, and in its cousin angel/demon/ghost/vampire lit. The concept that to know the name of a thing is to have power over it. This sort of cliche harkens to the Islamic belief of not being pictured or the Indian belief in totems, the Christian belief of not naming the devil, or the Jewish belief of not naming, or writing the name of God. In this case, Rhapsody is a Namer, an invention of Hayden's and it basically means she has the power to rename a thing, thus breaking the yoke of someone else knowing your true name, or healing or protecting someone through the power of knowing their true name. It's a neat concept and it was well done.  A concept Patrick Rothfuss, knowingly, or unknowingly aped in developing his Name of the Wind series.

The Fall of Atlantis, by Gaius31duke at Deviant Art
The Broken Homeland, this is a neat one and much more rare: there is a place, in this case an island, where a certain race, group or sect of people, all of great power or technology, came from, and it was destroyed by something great and terrible and inexorable. Some examples: Atlantis from myth, but also from Stephen Lawhead's Merlin series. Valyria, where Martin's Targaeryen's were from. Tolkien's elves are said to have left from their own plane to come to Middle Earth, presumably Upper Earth. The Tiste Andii, of Erikson's world fled mother Dark's wrath and left their home city a smoking ruin. Here the island is named Serendair, and the island was immolated by a giant meteor (arranged by, we learn, the evil F'dor) and though it's people are largely normal, the ocean voyage of the fleeing inhabitants all become immortal as they wander the seas for years crossing untold lengths of ocean.  My research here lead me to this essay from Robert Moss, on Tolkien and Atlantis.

Romeon and Juliet, outside the Papp Theatre in NYC
Star Crossed Lovers, is a common cliche in all fiction, and the phrasing of my cute name for the cliche, itself harkens from Romeo and Juliet. It means a pair of lovers chosen by fate to fall completely in love are ripped apart by events out of their control, and wander the world in desperate search of their other half. Plato's Symposium had a good example of this in Aristophanes tale of the four legged, four armed titans, ripped apart by the gods and forever in search if their other half. In this story, Hayden has her characters ripped from completely different time periods, thousands of years apart. They meet, fall in love, and then go back to their own time, with no explanation or parting words. As with Romeo and Juliet, this irrevocably changes the two lovers in dark ways.

Welsh:  While this is more of a theme then a cliche, as fantasy has its roots In western folklore, it's only natural when words, phrasings, names and character types hail from one of those old world tribes. In this case, the folklore of Wales, names like Gwydion abound, double ffs and silent Ls. Lloyd Alexander's chronicles of Prydain used this cliche, and certainly T. H. White's Once and Future King, (though King Arthur was supposedly Welsh to begin with, so perhaps calling it a cliche is unfair.)

Dungeons and Dragons: anyone who has read my reviews know what I'm talking about. Elves, dwarves, ogres, dragons, races and character classes. Hayden has given them new names, but it really wasn't necessary, most of the corollaries are pretty obvious: Lirin are elves, a spiritual race that adores nature, nain are dwarves, the firbolg are ogres. One cliche breaker that Hayden uses here to great effect is that the races are seldom pure, half breeds and mixed bloods abound. And in fact, much like real life evolution, old races die out or evolve to newer or different forms, it isn't until you go back hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of years that you see the first five progenitor races, which include the dragons, and the devils, the F'dor.

BFG: the Big Friendly Giant reference might be a little dated, and I have no idea if kids still read Roald Dahl in school. The BFG concept is simple: a big scary monster, is actually the sweetest character in the book, supposedly shedding light on how poorly behaved we humans can be. A good example from the Belgarion, was Barack, but even his character has more depth than Grunthor. Who just seems like a really sweet guy.

Lena Headley as Queen Cersei from HBO's #GOT
The Fallen Woman: I've already described this one above, but as a general rule this is not a common fantasy cliche. Even in modern fantasy women are virtuous, clean, as gentle. The one obvious example to this is Steven Erikson, who is really not afraid to drag his female characters through the mud. Both Felisin's come to mind. To be honest, it is probably a male hang up, I know its a personal hang up. The treatment of Felisin in Deadhouse Gates nearly ruined the novel for me. I suppose you could say that Queen Cersei, of Game of Thrones renown, is a fallen woman, but she is never raped, nor is she ever destitute, these are important qualities for the Fallen Woman. It isn't that the poverty is a justification, it's that poverty is its own palpable kind of degradation, one that has nothing to do with the sanctity of the body.  There is much to say on this concept, but I don't want to explore too deeply here.

There were a great many to choose from, but I just liked this image
The Bard: this is a great fantasy sub class. Too often you just see warriors and wizards, or in today's fantasy those who are masters at both, which was a major D&D no no.  You see tons of thieves and scads of assassins. But bards are a class of their own, much more rare. Although, again Patrick Rothfuss seems to have taken a leaf from Hayden's book in making his own main character Kvothe, somewhat Bard like.  The power of a bard is in his voice, in his music, but he can fight, and steal as well. He might even know low ranking magics, the type to get him out of sticky situations. They are scoundrels and wastrels and are just great characters. It's rare when they are the lead character, as Rhapsody is, and tend to be comic, or romantic relief.  Some great bards: Taliesin of Stephen R. Lawhead, Thom Merlyn of Jordan's WoT, Merry and Pippin of LOTR, and now Kvothe from the Name of the Wind. One neat thing about bards are that as a class, they pay homage to the fact that in a pre-industrial world, people can't play an iPod to entertain themselves. Somebody is playing or there is no music. And last it is an opportunity for the author to expound on the history and culture of the world that the author has built.

A Time to Remember:  Time travel is not fantasy specific, in fact, very few fantasy novels use this device at all. When they describe the past, it's through flashbacks or reminiscing.  In this story the central plot point, is caused by the removal of a modern man to several thousand years prior to fall in love with a woman and leave her, after promptly deflowering her. Also, as nearly all the characters in this book are long-lived, some are simply immortal and choose suicide after thousands of years of grief. There are a few other notables from the overall genre that use the cliche, including the DragonLance historian Astinus. The man stands outside of time, and writes the history of the world, but at the same time he maintains a temporal residence on Krynn and people can visit him. Feist's Magician series has the dragonriders whose dragons can see their own deaths and are themselves long lived to the thousands of years.

The Great Tree and Druids:  this is a neat concept, and a very green one. The elvish cliche holds that elves live in the forest, but frequently within those forests live other creatures of the woods, unicorns and dryads and ents, and massive trees the size of mountains. I like this cliche for two reasons, one it's primeval fantasy at work, this mythos reaches back to antiquity, and perhaps because of that, it finds its way into other types of literature. Some examples include Martin's heart trees in the North, Weis and Hickman's brothers Majere lived in Solace, a town built on such massive trees. Several iterations of the Robinhood myth have the Prince of Thieves residing in the trees, and of course Tolkien's forests are primeval to the extreme, featuring giant spiders, massive trees, ents, you name it. In Rhapsody's world, there are two or three such trees and their root system is so massive that they span the entire crust of the planet, reaching almost to the planet's fiery core. There is, on the surface, a group of mixed race Druids who live in the shadows of the great trees and serve its needs.
Because why not add Jean Grey?

The Sleeping Child:  The sleeping child is a very common religious theme, here's how it goes, the Earth is actually a dragon, who settled down for a nap millions of years ago, and hasn't woken up.  One day he shall wake up, and the destruction of the world is assured.  I had difficulty tracing the origins of this particular myth.  I had thought it was Norse because of a review I read last year, but since then I have been unable to dig it up.  That said, it's existence in popular culture is very obvious.  For one, Steven Erikson's Malazan epic, is based on the idea of Burn's Sleep.  Burn is the being at the center of the earth, and it is she that the Crippled God has poisoned, because he wishes to destroy the world.  Another good example would be the Hellfire Club of X-men renown.  The Hellfire Club worship the Phoenix, who they believe has been dormant in the center of the Earth, and will wake up one day, inhabit a young hot red head and "reform" the planet.  In Hayden's world, the F'dor, the demons locked in a gravity well at the center of the Earth, want to wake up the Sleeping Child, in this case an enormous dragon.  The dragon will wake up, shed the earth around it, and raize the rest.  What's kind of cool about Rhapsody, is that you actually get to see part of the dragon and get a sense of its immensity.  Sidebar:  Googling the "sleeping child/dragon at the center of the earth' was an education on just how crazy the internet is, and the Tennessee Valley Authority should never have been brought into existence if it meant these people got electricity, and fifty years later, the internet.  I'm also disappointed to note that I couldn't find a single appropriate image for this motif, which leads me to believe it is not as common as I thought.  Or the internet failed.

The Purification:  This is a common fictional motif, where the hero undergoes some sort of test, some sort of a cleansing, and comes out stronger, more peaceful of mind, and frequently with other powers.  This occurs all over the Malazan epic, when the Bridgeburners gain ascendancy, the Bonehunters survive the conflagration at Y'ghitan, Tattersail dying in the warren of Tellann only to be reborn a soletaken.  Gandalf the Grey, of course, becomes Gandalf the White after falling through the center of the earth and displacing Saruman.  In this case, Rhapsody does just that, passing through the center of the earth.  I like Purification cliches because the transformation from dark to light seems innately pleasing to me.  They also supply ample reasons for what in Malazan terms is ascendancy, the concept of gaining godhood or improved powers. We videogamers live for such moments.
One of my favorite images, the battle between Gandalf and the Balrog, before they plummet through the earth


I'm not going to bother with The Wise Old Man, or the Greedy Dragon Cliche.  This post is too long already, and they seem fairly obvious as cliches.

Scope:  Hayden's world certainly lives and breathes, so from that perspective it is a very successful fantasy novel.  The world does not seemed hurried or vague, and if it borrows perhaps a wee bit much from the most common cliches, having them all together in one world creates a very unique sense of the faerie.  One thing the plot suffers from is that the story is almost entirely told from the perspective of Rhapsody and her companions.  While that isn't necessarily a problem, it sometimes can feel like naught occurs in the world without our single-camera focus.  While there are other events that occur over time, in the next book, and the one thereafter, the details of what occur elsewhere are fairly general and do not provide the greatest depth.

Magic:  Magic in Rhapsody takes many different forms.  Rhapsody herself, through her art of Naming, is the practitioner of one type, the F'dor, shapeshifters also wield fire.  The various races have magic innate to their own races, and of course, dragons and druids have their own forces.  All in all, it's a hodgepodge.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, it adds to the sense of a bazaar of magic.  And at anyrate, it's hardly alone in classic fantasy.  That said, it does seem to fall victim to Sanderson's rule.  Meaning, it can become a plot device to extricate the author from a sticky situation.  Having rules regarding magic is important, and when done well can lead to very creative fixes.
Korlat and Whiskeyjack, I wish I knew whose art...

Theme:  The last category, always hardest to describe is also where I'll stick some general notes about the book.  As stated in the first paragraph, this book is often described as a romance.  And that is probably the best indicator of theme, the notes of high romance, long-lost love, unbelievably good sex, is omnipresent.  It's also irritating.  Fantasy isn't fantasy to me without a little romance.  I like the guy to get the girl, or vice versa, or whatever, whenever possible.  That said, even George R. R. Martin is a bit shy about the actual act of describing coitus.  The sex is often implied, sometimes spelled out, but it is always brief.  Rhapsody has several love making scenes throughout the series, and they go on just a page too long.  And sex's handmaiden, love is their in spades.  When love is mature, filled with anxiety, and tinged with bitterness, I'm on board, but sometimes the lovemaking can get a little saccharine.  It certainly did in Jim Butcher's Furies series, and it does here as well.  I don't know why it bothers me so.  Is it a failing on my part?  I'd like to believe that it is not.  Afterall, there are times when love in fantasy really does break my heart, as in Whiskeyjack's doomed romance with Korlat.  One last aspect of the theme, which is quite appealing is that the story is often times like a murder mystery.  The story is framed around a love affair that is 2,000 years dead.  And began a war that lasted 500 years.  The details of which take three novels to flesh out.  It's an excellent plot device.

If you haven't read Hayden's Rhapsody series.  You should read the first book at least.  It's a book of many tropes, it's true.  But it is also a very well written book.  That cannot be understated.  And if you've a mind for romance, then this book may be exactly your speed.

4 comments:

  1. An interesting review, with a lot of scholarship behind it, though as an avid Haydon reader, I disagree with much of it. But it seems as if you haven't read the whole series, so perhaps that's the difference. Haydon's magic system is based on String Theory of Physics, according to the interviews I've read, which is what the manipulation of Naming magic is about. Tolkein wrote a really long essay called ON FAIRY STORIES, and in it he talks about the concept of Secondary Belief, which is the basis of good versus bad fantasy. Essentially, anything is possible as long as it is consistent. That's what I love about Haydon's world. It makes sense. As for the romance aspect of it, every true epic tale has a love story as the basis of it--the 1001 Nights, the Arthurian Legend, the Odyssey. One of the failings the producers of GAME OF THRONES sought to fix from SONG OF ICE AND FIRE is the lack of one, inventing Talisa, the replacement for Jeyne Stark, who had no true romantic connection with Robb and could even have betrayed him. The interesting aspect of the Rhapsody world was not just the genre-crossing of romance into post-Tolkein fantasy, largely action-based Goodkind, Jordan, Eddings with little to no character development and boring female characters, along with the elements of horror and mystery. The villain of the trilogy was not discovered until the third book, while in each of the previously mentioned series the antagonist-protagonist are introduced in the first 20 pages. This was an interesting read, and we agree about a lot of things. I think there is a big difference between tropes and cliches. One is a neutral definition and the other is a negative and critical term. I don't find much cliche in Haydon's work. It often turns tropes on their heads. I particularly love the sex scenes, because each one has a different element to it. For instance, the scene between Tristan Stewart and his mistress is both erotic and really sad. That's what I like about Haydon's writing. It may make use of tropes, which is unavoidable in literature, but they don't become cliches. Even the so-called Shrek character, the lovable giant, is a cannibal.

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  2. Thanks! I love your comment! Would have responded sooner, but you're like... only my third commenter. So, no. I haven't read it. When I first bought the book, there were only three. And I mistakenly assumed the cycle ended there. In the course of writing my review, I found the other (two?). That said, I really did enjoy it. And, my use of the word cliche is never negative. My feeling is that like any word, a cliche is a powerful set of meanings that resonate broadly to a broad audience. They are useful. SO USEFUL in fantasy writing! I probably should call them tropes instead, cliche has a distasteful reputation. That said, my use of cliche was chosen intentionally to combat a common misconception about fantasy. Anyway, I do love romance in fantasy. As for the sex scenes... I don't know why. I couldn't stand it in the Codex Alera series by Butcher either. It might be a pervasive cynicism I have. It might be a lifetime of being saturated in pornography. It might be the fact that I don't particularly want to be aroused when I'm reading a fantasy novel on the subway. At anyrate, I think they're hard to do well. And next time you comment, please leave a name or handle!!! Thanks so much!

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  3. Found this post looking for something completely different on G images, but I read through the entire thing and really enjoyed your analysis. Gonna have to pick Rhapsody up on my next trip to the library.

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  4. Thanks Joe, I appreciate your read!

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