With more or less success a great many writers have turned to fantasy as a vehicle for the exploration of philosophical concepts. A literature in which almost anything goes and anything can happen, fantasy is particularly suited to such discourse. Although the genre's writers in the past may have focused more on epic tales of good and evil, the recent trends are toward non-traditional settings and engagement with more subtle subjects: VanderMeer discusses the malleability of identity, Bakker questions self-determination and deception, Abraham takes on slavery and the morality of creation itself, while Miéville whacks everyone over the head with social politics and revolution. But the death-knell of the traditional epic hasn't sounded yet. Gary Alan Wassner's Gemquest proves both that epic fantasy, with all of its time-honored and time-worn tropes and conventions, still can serve as a fine platform for the discussion of progressive ideas, and that the fusion of the traditional and the progressive need not get in the way of a good story.
Let us be honest: odds are good that you may not have heard of Gary Wassner or the Gemquest series of books. Understandably. The freshman effort of a previously unknown author, issued by a small press without the marketing juice of a major publisher, Gemquest is tailor-made for obscurity. The first three books, The Twins, The Awakening, and The Shards, released simultaneously in 2005, offer all of the right elements for devotees of epic fantasy: a boy entering manhood is fated by ancient prophecy to confront a terrible evil that threatens all of life, an alliance forms to protect and train the prodigy, and the forces of good narrowly avert disaster time and again as the ultimate confrontation draws near.
The penultimate volume, The Revenge of the Elves, takes up this story in the aftermath of a nearly disastrous victory. The elven city of Lormarion has narrowly survived an assault by an army of the Dark Lord, Caeltin D'are Agenathea, but despite this victory, and despite the miraculous rescue of a powerful champion from the dungeons of the Dark Lord, the leaders of the men and the elves are more than ever subject to doubt and despair. Even utter defeat is a victory for Caeltin, who can breed entire armies of monstrous creatures to replace any of his losses. The deaths of his own creatures advance his cause, for Caeltin strives not merely to dominate all life but rather to exterminate it, to extinguish all existence. The pause after the battle at Lormarion therefore serves only to reveal the slow inevitability of ultimate defeat.
The backstory to Revenge is that the Lalas—ancient and sentient trees, guardians of great power—protect and succor all life. About forty years ago, the Lalas began to die off. Caeltin seized his chance to expand his power, and stepped into the vacuum. With every Lalas that dies his aggression and ambition grows. Against this power are pitted the kingdoms of the men and elves, one by one to face Caeltin's armies, some to survive his assaults for a while as others succumb and are destroyed. The hope of the world lies in Davmiran, heir to the shattered kingdom of Gwendolen, prophesied to find and use the legendary Gem of Eternity to finally defeat Caeltin himself.
Revenge sees Davmiran complete his training, and gather all that he needs to begin the quest for the gem; but numerous other threads run throughout the story, some parallel and some apparently opposed to the quest. One party seeks to destroy a map to the gem, while another attempts to stop this. Others seek to reach a young Lalas that has taken root while yet more characters worry over an apparent betrayal by the Lalas. Finally, towards the end of Revenge another thread appears that deals the eponymous vengeance of the elves. The sheer number of characters and storylines that the reader must keep straight could be daunting, and Wassner elaborately interlaces all of them in quick succession, but he does so with a sure hand. Thankfully, he also draws several threads together toward the end of Revenge.
Wassner offers all of the right elements for those who enjoy a good thick fantasy. The story quickens when it needs action and slows when the reader needs reflection. The latter chapters of Revenge, especially, become shorter, the tempo increasing to indicate the coming together of the story toward resolution in Book Five. Perhaps most importantly, Caeltin is compellingly evil without being entirely repulsive; he is despicably intriguing. If you enjoy nothing better than a tale of the struggle of good to overcome, or at least forestall, evil, then you need go no further. Gemquest is for you.
Yet Wassner has much to offer, as well, to those for whom epic fantasy usually holds little appeal.
One of the more interesting aspects of the series is Wassner's exploration of the potential of beauty and love as a dominating, twisting power. Beauty and ugliness do not necessarily equate to goodness and evil respectively in his world. Caeltin's minions serve him out of a perversion of love rather than fear. Witness Caeltin's first appearance in Gemquest from the vision of one of his followers:
He floated across the empty space slightly above the ground, and hovered directly in front of her. His skin was almost translucent. She could see the blood flowing in his veins, his heart pumping with power. Colton dar Agonthea had many faces, of this Trialla had suspected, but to her at this moment in time, he appeared to be the essence of loveliness, the most perfect of men, what dreams are made of. His smile seduced, his touch burned her with passion, his voice shamed her with the feelings it evoked. She would do anything for him, suffer anything for him, even take her own life if he asked her to. (The Twins, p. 84)
Caeltin is a far cry from an impersonal, flaming eyeball.
The Lalas represent another refreshing aspect of Wassner's work. Trees, of course, festoon the annals of epic fantasy: sentient trees, walking and talking trees, wise and good trees, evil and dangerous trees. The Lalas, however, serve both as character and setting, a juxtaposition reminiscent of Clarke's integration of the HAL 9000/Discovery spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Lalas know much of what transpires in the world, they know the stakes of Caeltin's bid for power, and they can profoundly influence events; but what if they have their own agenda? The reader gradually realizes that these trees may not be what they first appeared. At the end of the first three books, however, all that the reader has are hints and foreshadowing given by a narrator of ambiguous reliability. By the end of Revenge the reader is alternately convinced that the Lalas are working plans within plans to defeat Caeltin, or are really in secret alliance with him, or that they are actually lost and uncertain, divided as to how to act.
Beyond story and character, however important, lie two daring conceptions at the heart of Gemquest, departures from the conventions of the fantasy epic. First is the concept of dissolution. So much of fantasy deals with a struggle between good and evil, or light and dark, merely for power or domination for its own sake. For Wassner, however, the endless battle rages between life itself and nothingness, the dissolution of all existence. Caeltin's soul is infected somehow with nothingness, so that his very state of being is an unremitting agony. He strives not merely to dominate all life, but rather to extinguish it as the only means of freeing his soul from perpetual torture:
"It is so tragic. Look at the city," she said, and she rose and pointed to the horizon. "Is there anything you can imagine that could be so beautiful? How can he not see the simple beauty in life?"
"Do not try to understand his mind, my dear," Elsinestra said. "It will only frustrate you. There is no good in him to find."
"He is beyond good and evil," Teetoo said. "He does not live within that perspective. In his mind, what he seeks is not wrong. He needs to escape this world and he cannot do so if this world continues to exist. There is no other way for him."
"So we must destroy him first," she said contemplatively. "It is ironic, is it not? Could he not simply kill himself and end his own torment?"
"How can you annihilate a soul?" Treestar asked. "It would remain a part of this world as long as the world remains. The only way out for him is dissolution." (The Shards, p. 147)
This leads to the second progressive concept at the heart of these books, the dilemma of true amorality. Post-modern moral relativism and ethical ambiguity abound in the fantasy genre. Scores of flawed heroes and noble villains populate the pages of much of the literature, doing good, or evil as it were, almost by accident. Swimming against this current of gray, of course, there are still plenty of epic fantasy characters donning the traditional hats of either shining white or dead black.
Much more rare, however, is the character who acts through genuine amorality. That is exactly what Wassner gives us in Caeltin. Not in his actions or intentions, for those are decidedly evil. Certainly the threat of universal genocide is quintessentially evil from the perspective of those whose lives are to be sacrificed to free a single soul; yet just as surely we can imagine a soul and a mind so tormented as to be incapable of choosing to do good or evil, but capable only of seeking an end to the torture by any means. The forces of good in Gemquest must condemn that soul to eternal agony. Theirs is a brutal struggle for survival, for existence itself, not an unblemished crusade of good against evil.
Wassner deftly integrates these concepts with the conventional tropes of epic fantasy. The traditional elements—plot, character, setting—anchor the reader's experience so that the progressive concepts fit smoothly within the telling of the story. A more experimental style, or meandering plot, for example, would not serve so well as a vehicle. Indeed, Wassner's subtlety displays a confidence that he has done something special; the reader needs no beating about the head and shoulders with that fact. There is no need for preaching. Wassner offers a hint here, an offhand remark in dialogue there, and eventually the reader comes to realize the full scope of the ideas being presented. In this sense, a symbiotic dichotomy runs deep throughout Gemquest, a partnership between the traditional and the progressive that enhances the value of both.
To be fair, there are problems with Gemquest that must be noted. The Revenge of the Elves cannot be read on its own. The multitude of characters and subplots simply overwhelm; there is no possibility of understanding the story by beginning with Book Four. Start with The Twins and continue on through the earlier volumes. By then perhaps Wassner will have finished the fifth and final book. It is a commitment, granted, but one well rewarded.
The copyediting, particularly in the earlier volumes, poses a second problem. If a misspelling or grammatical misstep jars you out of the mysterious suspension of disbelief, then be prepared for a few slight jolts, albeit nothing too severe. An editor with a stronger hand, moreover, could have quelled some of the tendency to verbosity. (This editor apparently showed up for Revenge, however, and should be congratulated, for in this volume all the earlier issues with pacing and over-heavy prose are solved.)
More serious, perhaps, is the problem of the protagonist. Davmiran, as the heroic counterweight to Caeltin's threat, is overshadowed by an ensemble cast of tutors and mentors with all of the action of the story driven by others. Wassner hints at the power that he will have, and it is apparent that the ultimate resolution will hinge upon a confrontation between Davmiran and Caeltin. This slow development of the protagonist works well within the story that Wassner has composed, but it has the effect of focusing the reader's attention almost entirely upon either Caeltin or the hero's surrogates. It is an open question, when the time comes for the protagonist to assert himself and for other characters to step into the background, whether Davmiran will have the weight to take the story through to its conclusion. Book Five will tell.
I cannot decide, on a reading of the series through Revenge, how effectively Wassner achieves the goals he has set himself. Much is reserved necessarily for the final volume. Most tellingly, even through Revenge Wassner withholds the origins of Caeltin's torment. While the heroes of Gemquest act appropriately heroic, and while the reader can certainly identify with their cause and cheer them to victory, ultimately the effectiveness of Wassner's treatment of dissolution and amorality will depend upon the characterization of Caeltin. Will he have been culpable in the genesis of his torment? Or will he prove to be the definitive innocent? In short, and assuming that the heroes eventually overcome, will I feel sorrow or satisfaction at Caeltin's demise? Either way I think the reader wins, and I am not sure which might make the better ending. Perhaps neither would in any absolute sense, perhaps all depends simply on how convincing Wassner proves in the end.
Writer and attorney Brian Malone lives and works in Virginia, in the United States, where he studiously does not take himself seriously. His fiction writing has appeared in Flashspec and Alienskin Magazine.
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