Every week, Fantasy Review Barn runs a feature where they seek out examples of fantasy tropes. Other bloggers are welcome to join in, finding their own books to match the given topic.
This weeks topic is Evil Lairs:
The evil lair is where a great fantasy villain will spend the plurality of his or her time. (Topic provided by Christopher Scott Hand).
I struggled, I will admit, with this one. Not because I can’t think of villains and their favourite haunts, but because “lair” has specific connotations – I could list villains for a while, and each villain has their own setting, but they aren’t all lairs. Lairs are places where beasts dwell, where heroes venture into the darkness to beard the abomination in its lair. Lairs are remote, and dark, and filled with leaping shadows and hoards of gold.
So that removes an awful lot of locations from the running; every vizier in an opulent palace, every warlord in a camp. They may be villains at the focus of their power, but that doesn’t mean that their primary location counts as a lair.
So I limited myself to non-human antagonists – creatures and monsters that lurk in the dark places of the world. At that point, it became much harder to think of examples that were even vaguely noteworthy. Still, I have tried, and come up with a few.
The Lonely Mountain – J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.
Smaug’s hoard of gold underneath the mountain was the first lair that occurred to me – The Hobbit has had such a huge influence on the genre, and plays this trope absolutely straight. Smaug is a dragon, who sleeps on a huge pile of gold in the middle of a mountain. That is about as Lair-ish as you can get. It’s been several years, I now realise, since I last read The Hobbit, but Smaug is still unforgettable.
The Catacombs under Priestown – Joseph Delaney, The Spook’s Curse.
The Spook’s series doesn’t seem to be that well-known: it’s aimed at a younger audience than much of fantasy, and tends to fall of the radar. It shouldn’t, because it’s a competent twist on a standard formula; monster hunting with a limited scope, in a rural psuedo-England. The titular spook and his apprentice don’t hunt dragons, but witches, and bind more than they burn or destroy: they protect the county, rather than save the world.
In The Spook’s Curse, they face more than witches – in the catacombs beneath Priestown, there is a dark and powerful spirit called the Bane. The apprentice (Thomas) has to go alone into the maze of tunnels, defenceless against the spirit which can strike from anywhere, crushing him with invisible weight.
Torech Ungol – J. R. R. Tolkein, The Two Towers.
I didn’t want to have Tolkein twice in one post, but I couldn’t leave Shelob out. She’s a monstrous spider, which is bad enough, but her lair adds so much to her aura of menace. It’s dark and confusing, with hidden passages that she can squeeze her foul bulk through, emerging unsuspected to sting and snare the helpless hobbits.
There’s a dark and oppressive feel to her sections, far more atmospheric than most of Tolkein’s writing, which makes her much more memorable than any of the technically more significant villains. No one is really scared of Sauron: all fear is reserved for the Ringwraiths and the spider – the villains who actively hunt, who are constantly searching and sneaking up on the protagonists.
The Wax Forest – Jim Butcher, Furies of Calderon (and sequels).
I’m not a huge fan of the Codex Alera, but one aspect of it I do find effective is the Vord. Their potrayal weakens towards the end of the series, losing a lot of the menace, but they are still an extremely effective and terrifying villain at the start of the series.
The Vord are a race of insect-like creatures with no drive other than to consume. They spread outwards constantly, devouring or converting (through brain worms, not reasoned debate) anything that stands before them. The Vord come in various sizes, constantly adapting themselves to new prey, evolving to devour and despoil more effectively.
Furies of Calderon introduces us to what turns out to be a dormant Vord colony: the Wax Forest. As they swarm outwards, the Vord workers spread a coating of croach – a kind of vile, glowing wax – over everything. The Wax Forest is covered in it, trees petrified and dead beneath the crust, and tended over by lethal, silent guardians.
It’s a deeply creepy image, and the scenes of people trying to traverse this frozen forest are incredibly tense: there can’t be any noise or sudden movements, because that attracts the guardians.
At this point, to my shame, I ran out of ideas. There are other things I could have mentioned, I suppose – Harry Potter has places that could count, I thought about Sara Douglass’ Battleaxe for Gorgrael’s icy home, but nothing seemed to fit that well. A snake in a bathroom doesn’t really compare to a dragon in a cave, and I couldn’t lay my hands on a copy of Battleaxe to check any details.
It strikes me that this is perhaps one of those tropes that is no longer current – all the stories that played it straight were told centuries ago, and now works either vary the theme or simply bypass it as hackneyed. Villains tend to be humanoid now, settings tend to be urban. Lairs are no longer as popular as they once were. Mythology is full of location-bound monsters (the Minotaur, Fafnir, Medusa), but they are rarer now.
I thought about giving up there, but couldn’t do it – three authors for an entire trope? It seemed ridiculous. I was sure that there were thousands that had just slipped my mind temporarily. In desperation, I asked my partner if any occurred to them.
Arachne’s Lair – Benedict Jacka, Alex Verus series.
This one even has the word “lair” in its name. Like Shelob, Arachne is a giant spider who lives underground. Unlike Shelob, and every other entry on this list, Arachne is extremely pleasant. Her lair is bright and colourful, filled with half-finished dresses. Rather than binding up hobbits as snacks, Arachne simply wishes to be left in peace to continue her tailoring.
She doesn’t really fit the “evil” part of the prompt, but she has a lair, and I was desperate for something to add to my paltry offering.
The link to the Fantasy Review Barn post is here, and at its base you should find several links to even more blogs on the same topic. Hopefully some of them will have found more examples than I managed.
Next week’s topic is To Blave. For those shamefully unfamiliar with The Princess Bride, next week’s topic is True Love.