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, appropriately for the week containing Valentine’s day, is To Blave:
Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world. Except for a nice MLT, a mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky, I love that. But that’s not what he said! He distinctly said “to blave.” (Thanks to Wendy again. Let’s find those examples of True Love!)
I don’t know who Wendy is – I lifted the prompt wholesale from Fantasy Review Barn. Still, despite not having the pleasure of her acquaintance, I have compiled a list of fantasy examples of true love.
That list follows shortly, but I’ve placed my justification for that list before it. Feel free to skip down to the subheadings.
One of the things that I like about the “Tough Travelling” thing (feature? Meme? series?) is that it makes me aware of how common certain tropes actually are. This is my third attempt, and I am quickly realising that many clichés are actually quite hard to find – they are rarer than everyone supposes.
This one wasn’t hard to think of obvious examples for, but I did struggle to find worthy examples. Almost every book has some form of romantic subplot, but I wanted only convincing relationships – books in which they genuinely seemed to be in true love, not narratively convenient love.
That was harder. Romance in fantasy so often feels tacked on, there to cross off an item on a list rather than a developed relationship – save the princess, get the girl. In this list, I aimed for believable romance – couples who interacted in ways that made sense, whose love for each other actually matter, whose protestations of adoration didn’t seem awkward or forced.
As a result, this list is somewhat limited in scope and excitement. Few deathless romances, very little clasping of heaving bosoms against manly chests. These are characters who made me feel that they were actually in love with each other, and those relationships have tended, it appears, to be either tragic or prosaic.
Sabriel and Touchstone – Garth Nix, Sabriel.
I will sing Sabriel‘s praises on almost any topic, but one of the things it does exceptionally well romance. I say “exceptionally well” because Sabriel is not a book that seems as though romance should have much place in it – the protagonist is a schoolgirl fresh from a single-sex boarding school who is distrustful and unfamiliar with men her own age. Added to that, she is struggling with the loss of her father, incredible necromantic responsibility, and being hunted by the dead. She is not in the mood for love.
Meanwhile, her romantic prospect is trapped inside a boat, and has been for centuries. He is haunted by his past, and the whole made-of-wood thing puts a cramp in his ability to whisper sweet nothings.
Their first meeting is supremely awkward, which is what makes the romance effective – the expected schoolgirl’s reaction to a naked stranger materialising from a figurehead plays out, the expected response from someone woken up after hundreds of years by a battered, broken nosed waif with a sword meets it. The occasion is horribly embarrassing, she doesn’t trust him, and it takes a long time for any more significant relationship to appear.
It’s realistic, quite sweet, and above all likely. When they finally do confess to strong emotion, it makes sense: this isn’t pallid love at first sight, or a dramatic device. It’s roughly how these two people would end up together.
Morden and Griselda – Paul Dale, The Dark Lord’s Handbook.
This book is comic fantasy, a genre I don’t have a lot of time for, but I picked this one up quite cheaply at some point, and found that the relationship in it was surprisingly nuanced.
Morden is a dark lord – not a full one yet, a novice. He has the help of The Dark Lord’s Handbook to train him up into his full evil majesty. Following its guidance, he should soon have minions, an unholy fortress, and all the other necessaries of being the dark force stirring in the far reaches of the world.
Griselda is a foul-mouthed peasant girl with a habit of running off with strangers.
Their romance is not a typical one – she ignores him and treats him with contempt, he gazes at her, tongue-tied.
They’re on this list because he does seem to love her – despite her callous disregard for his feelings, he follows after her and tries to win her love. It’s touch and go at points, but ultimately unsuccessful. In the end, he has to choose between wooing her, and his dark power which allows no dissenters.
It’s a deeply strange relationship, and all kinds of problematic. She hates him, and he is technically capable of just commanding her obedience. However, he does all he can to win her fairly – his eventual embrace of his full power is the death knell of both their relationship and his own humanity.
I’m not in any way recommending this as anything other than a deeply disturbed relationship dynamic. However, it is a portrayal of love that’s about as true and selfless as the setting and narrative will allow. I found his attempts to win her over rather touching, and his eventual failure somewhat tragic.
Maev Ring and Jaim Graymauch – David Gemmel, Ravenheart.
This one is sad. Jaim Graymauch and Maev Ring don’t get to be in love – practicality and pride get in the way. It’s something that everyone who knows them has seen for years: the longing glances, the careful not-saying of certain things. But they can’t admit it.
It’s only when they absolutely can’t be together – when an army and an idea stop them from being happy – that they finally manage to express how they feel. They get one chance to run off together, be as happy as they could have been for the last thirty years, and they have to throw it away. Their love dies in sacrifice to a revolution, and it is awful.
They’re on the list because they have true, believable love, which doesn’t end happily because they are also true, believable characters, and the characters can’t act any other way.
Vimes and Lady Sybil – Terry Pratchett, various books.
In all books, I find that the romances that stick with me the longest happen offscreen. James Herriot’s wife is my normal example, who we see only as a sleepy presence in the bed as he struggles out at 3am to do unspeakable things to a cow. Likewise, throughout Bill Bryson’s books, you slowly build up an image of his wife, through throwaway sentences and introductions to longer anecdotes.
They don’t get much space on the page, but the writer, or the writer through the character, write about them with such affection that the love shines through, and you end up falling for them a little too. It sounds gooey and gushy, but I’d argue that that is the hallmark of a great romance: you end up somewhat in love for the duration of the story.
Vimes and Sybil have such a relationship. Sybil is a bit-part in Vimes’ books – occasionally appearing as a witness, or mothering older and younger Sam in a rare domestic scene. But Vimes doesn’t have many domestic scenes – he’s arguing about kingship in the dark with a madman, or being hunted through the woods, or wearing lilac. He never gets to rest, and couldn’t if he did – he has to be the watcher. Sybil shows us the softer side of Vimes, gives us an idea of what it is he tries to protect, who it is he’s watching over.
Their romance, marriage, and often-interrupted life together takes place offstage, and is all the stronger for it. They’re clearly devoted to each other, exasperatedly affectionate, and happy – it’s a relationship anyone would envy.
I’m going to pause there – my lists seem to be stopping at around four entries at the moment. It’s short, but the amount of writing I’m doing for each one means that the post itself becomes massive and unwieldy.
The Fantasy Review Barn post is here, with so many bloggers at the bottom who are well worth reading. Next week’s topic is Knights.