Elves of God
Review of Divine Summons and A Greater Strength by Rebecca P. Minor
In the caption beneath the title of this blog, I have contributed to the erosion of the word “epic.” As it appears above (unless I since decided to change it) and in casual speech, “epic” means little more than “cool.” Even without the most casual use of the word, it has come to have several meanings. I feel that Tolkien would not have approved.
The Windrider Saga by Rebecca P. Minor is not especially epic by some of the more modern definitions of the term, but it presents at least some of the loftiness of the ancient epics. Windrider was originally published as serial fiction in the ezine Digital Dragon; it was then released as two ebooks by the Diminshed Media Group, entitled Divine Summons and A Greater Strength. Now, the two parts are available in a single print edition. The story isn't complete with this volume; there will be more to come. This review is based exclusively on the ebooks. It is also more oriented toward the first part, Divine Summons, because I re-read the first ebook after finishing A Greater Strength.
Like the ancient epics, Windrider tells the story of a mighty hero who is closely associated with his native land. The work that Windrider seems to take after more than any other for me is the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. This is largely due to the frequent alliteration and other poetic effects, which are especially pronounced in the action scenes. At times, the prose mirrors the Anglo-Saxon half-line format found in Beowulf, in which a line has two parts, the alliteration established in the first part being repeated on the first stressed word in the second part. One of the better examples from Divine Summons: “She forth-spoke the message; it flowed from her lips of its own accord.” Even the use of hyphenated words appears outwardly similar to the compound “kennings” found in Beowulf.
From the sentence quoted above, it would appear that the prose is full of archaic language and obscure, elaborate style. Although though much of the prose is poetic, that is not at all the case. Most of the language is actually simple, and the work was clearly not written primarily for literature connoisseurs. Sometimes words in both prose and dialog are too modern, clashing with the setting, as when an official is described as being “retired” or when a character refers to part of a plan as “stage C.” At other times, words are too generic. Although only the author knows for sure, some of the more generic nouns appear to have been chosen for alliteration. The worst offender in this regard is the word “place.”
But archaic-sounding words do sometimes appear, and the disparity between the lofty epic poetry and the casual modern adventure novel is most pronounced in the dialog and portrayal of the characters. The Windrider Saga is primarily a story about elves. Except for the dragon, all major characters in Divine Summons are elves, and only one of those is a different kind of elf. For the most part, the elven characters speak in a dignified manner consistent with the general conception of elves, but these elves have the same capacity to be terse, grumpy, and moody as us real-world humans. Their mannerisms are predominately Victorian; they have pretentious titles and sip tea and navigate delicate social and political situations, most of which clashes with my personal idea of how an iconic elf should behave. Other readers may have different expectations, but the more important issue is that this characterization of the elves clashes with the high Anglo-Saxon epic style of the narrative. Perhaps we Americans automatically associate any British-style setting with fairy tales and dignified behavior, but the English people fell far from their idealized heroism in the ages between Beowulf and Charles Dickens, at least in my mind.
The execution of the portrayal of the characters varies from noble and lofty to natural and relatable to annoying, rising and falling with the tempo and energy of the rest of the prose. However, the characters themselves, as fictional people and as inhabitants of a fantasy world, are thoroughly brilliant and unique. Despite the often fast-moving plot, the characters are the predominate driving force of the story.
The protagonist is Vinyanel Ecleriast, the elvish Beowulf. One would expect a heroic elven warrior to be the archetype of nobility and elegance. Vinyanel's whole character seems devoted to bringing down that stereotype. Not only is he flawed, but his flaws are not necessarily the dramatic shortcomings of characters in tragedies like Shakespeare's plays. Instead, Vinyanel is humanly irritable and insensitive. His crudeness comes off as shocking at times and humorous at others. However, he never begins to feel illegitimate as an elf; the intensity of his inner drive and the depths of his sorrows preserve the sense of nobility associated with elvishness. Gracefulness, which Vinyanel does not posses, is only one element of the elvish nature. Elves are creatures of transcendent passions, reaching greater and purer heights of joy as well as far deeper chasms of despair, and out of those passions they enact deeds that are larger than life.
Vinyanel's class of brawny warrior would never be sufficient as the only important character in any swashbuckling fantasy. There must also be a mystic. Vinyanel has a wise adviser to accompany him on his adventures. An old wizard with a long white beard? No. The major supporting character is a half-elvish prophetess who dresses like a gypsy. Veranna is just as quirky as Vinyanel, or at least just as normal. As a male reader, I've sometimes sympathized with Vinyanel at his annoyance with her externalized spirituality and insolence. The contrast of the arcane and mystical way in which Veranna is introduced with the moments where she is petty and whiny are often funny. Veranna can seem more like a parent than a prophetess. This may detract from her role at times, but it is also part of what makes her so unique and well-developed.
In the clash of their conflicting personalities, Vinyanel and Veranna move the narrative forward. Vinyanel relates his adventures in the first person, and these are the scenes where the poetic effect and the resemblance to Anglo-Saxon epic style is strongest. Vinyanel's first-person point-of-view is interspersed with sections of third-person narrative. I don't remember whether Veranna is the only POV character in the third-person scenes, but she is the predominate one. This makes for an interesting pattern of storytelling. I almost expect that at the end of the entire Windrider series, a meta-narrative will reveal that Vinyanel had been telling his story to his grandchildren, or something. That would explain the first-person POV of Vinyanel and the third-person POV of Veranna; Vinyanel would be presenting his first-hand accounts as well as what he knew of Veranna's place in tale.
A human character never appears until A Greater Strength, where the predominate human character is the alien in the fellowship. Perhaps the sparsity of humans in the story, as much as anything else, contributes to the feeling of humanness about the elves. There are evidently many human kingdoms in the secondary world, but the relationships between elves and humans – or for that matter, between elves and any other races – are not well developed.
The slight detail about the relationships between the races and kingdoms is one of the holes in the worldbuilding, or at least a leaky patch. We are told that members of other races are not allowed to live in Vinyanel's home city of Delsinon, and yet in Divine Summons we see that the city has centaur guards. A worse hole concerns Veranna; it is explicitly stated that she suffers discrimination due to her half-elf heritage. However, other than brief mentions of people looking down on her in the streets, once in an elvish society and once in a human one, she faces no difficulty conversing and being taken seriously. An important supporting character is Veranna's love interest. Did he realize that his society was wrong about half-elves when he met Veranna, or had he always been a supporter of half-elven rights? Shouldn't he be concerned about what his friends or family might think? It seems that those issues would naturally arise, but they are glossed over.
Sometimes the fast-paced style contributes to the holes in worldbuilding, because the prose rarely has time for description. I imagined that an elven city in a forest would have been built upon the canopy of the treetops, but that was only due to my preconceived notion of what an elvish city should look like. There were not enough details for me to revise my pre-formed image. Often, I was left deeply curious about the actual appearance of specific items that were mentioned in the narrative.
The Creator is know as “Creo,” a word that in our world means “I believe” in Spanish and “to create” in Latin. Most other cultures besides Delsinon, if not all, appear to be polytheistic. The pagan gods definitely seem to exist, and I hope their existence will not eventually be explained away by simply calling them “demons,” since that would miss a golden opportunity for more fantasy lore.
The representation of what amounts to magic, a word that is never used, is part-way between the austere but mysterious reality of the spiritual world in The Lord of the Rings and the definite, almost scientific approaches to magic seen in many fantasies (such as The Wheel of Time series, of which I am a fan). Prophets of Creo can “channel” miracles. Although these miracles are somewhat shown to be spontaneous revelations of the Creator's will, they still function like a magic system, complete with rules and formulas. The rules of the “magic” are never stated or clearly demonstrated, but they are implied by the fact that specific concrete results, such as invisibility wards, can be obtained. The miracles are at once both systematic and unpredictable.
It is not directly stated, but the elves' ability to channel miracles seems to be connected to their special status as a chosen people, charged with the burden of declaring truth to their world. To fulfill their calling, they have a book of scripture, to which they hold similarly to how Protestants traditionally have held to the Bible. This direct parallel with real-world Christianity could be very bad for immersion, for at least two reasons. First of all, it inevitably causes the reader to think about the real world. Furthermore, the existence of a book very much the like the Bible could seem artificial to the secondary world, since the Bible is intimately connected with the people and the history of our world and our world alone. That said, I am thrilled to report that Windrider makes the best and most realistic use of a fictional holy book that I have seen! First of all, the elves' scripture is called The Tree, a title that is fitting for the stereotype image of the forestal elves. “The Tree” also brings to mind Norse mythology and Tolkien's mythopoeia, where the Tree motif is a profound image. The title has just enough of a reference to our Bible, bringing to mind the first Psalm, creating a Biblical allusion without the blatant intrusion of a pseudo-Bible. Furthermore, the quotations revealed from the text of The Tree are not simple paraphrases of well-known Bible verses. They certainly contain Christian values that are expressed in the Bible, but their wording does not even sound like the cadence of passages from the real Scripture. What is even better is that the style and themes of these quotations are consistent. For instance, the image of the dragon seems to be important in The Tree, and the texts seem to use musical analogy by referring to the act of declaring truth as “trumpeting.”
The Christian themes are more than just props in the worldbuilding. Vinyanel's and Veranna's personal stories touch on the disparity or relationship between justice and mercy. There are a few moments that are probably too preachy, containing dialog that is explicitly parallel to specific Evangelical doctrines, but even most of the preachy scenes manage to feel natural in their context. One of the greatest successes of Windrider is that it takes mundane and awkward elements of Christian experience and elevates them to the depths of mystery and significance of the fantasy genre. Evaluating our world in the light of Windrider's, the Bible is intensely relevant to our lives, not because we can make it look cool and trendy, but because it contains real mystical insight, in the best possible meaning of the word “mystical.” Our personal problems are not petty and insignificant; only when we learn to get along are we true warriors of the Light, “trumpeting” the Creator's truth. I highly doubt that these moral and religious applications were deliberately inserted as propaganda; if they had been, the message would have failed miserably.
The Windrider Saga is ultimately not “epic” by some definitions of that word because it focuses on the personal instead of the monolithic, both in terms of plot and of theme. There is no Dark Lord figure, no universal, encroaching evil. Vinyanel actually is a Chosen One archetype, and that may give the story some claim to the title of modern epic fantasy, but Vinyanel is mainly chosen to defend his homeland and to spread the Creator's will, not to Save the World (or, just as often, to Break the World). The dictionary definition of the noun “epic” does apply to the story, however, because it is about one cultural hero's great deeds. In terms of modern sub-genres, however, Windrider fits more firmly into sword-and-sorcery than into “high” or “epic”fantasy (it very much is a story of sword-and-miracles). And yet, Windrider succeeds in giving epic scope to the small but real existential choices of our everyday lives, allowing us to believe that we are actually chosen warriors of Truth. That's epic enough for me.