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 Unique Flora:
Self-explanatory. If you know of a plant that is either not on earth, or doesn’t act the same way in fantasyland as it does on earth, then you can consider it unique. Have fun.
Flora doesn’t get as much respect as fauna in fantasy – all the limelight seems to focus upon the monsters and the animals, not the plants. I’m not saying that monsters aren’t fascinating, but I would argue that fantasy contains countless magical and murderous plants that deserve as much attention as anything else. Often, they deserve more – a sentient plant, for instance, is far more rare and exciting than yet another orc.
I thought of so many ideas for this one, and then had to cut my list down. I started off wanting to write about Yggdrasil, the world tree that connects all the planes together, or the brambles that grow up around Sleeping Beauty’s castle and spell the end of so many knights. Tolkein has a host of possibilities as well – murderous Old Man Willow, the irritatingly slow ents.
Again, plants don’t get much attention, but once you start thinking about it, they are almost everywhere in books. Harry Potter deals with mandrakes, Whomping Willows and Devil’s Snare. Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree has a new world at the top of it every couple of days. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz warns of the dangers of sleep-inducing poppies.
So I was initially going to list about twelve things, but writing about them in any kind of detail would have taken ages and I felt that some of them would definitely be covered far more effectively than I by other bloggers. I decided to focus on three, slightly more out-of-the-way ones.
1. Bloodoak – Paul Stewart, The Edge Chronicles
The Edge Chronicles are at least as much about the Deepwoods as they are about the edge, a lush and mysterious forest filled with an incredible profusion of plant and animal life. Frankly, I could have filled this list ten times over with just interesting flora from the Deepwoods.
That wouldn’t really have been in the spirit of the list though, so I picked out one: the bloodoak. Prized all over the edge for their rarity, bouyancy, and toughness, bloodoak timbers are coveted by all the sky pirates, but rarely obtained. The bloodoak is not an ordinary tree, able to be felled by a normal woodcutter.
The bloodoak is not interesting in photosynthesis – it prefers to consume living creatures. By forming a symbiotic relationship with a tarry vine, the bloodoak ensures that prey is ensnared and brought to its gaping mouth. The vine catches prey and drags it to the tree, the tree uses its massive teeth to devour the helpless snack – a lost woodtroll, a shryke, even a banderbear – and the two plants share the corpse.
Bloodoaks are one of the apex predators in the Deepwoods, despite their inability to move. Around the bloodoak, there is an eerie silence and the stench of death.
2. Darakyon – Adrian Tchaikovsky, Empire of Black and Gold and others
Shadows of the Apt is one of my favourite fantasy series currently. It’s set in a world in which human civilizations, far back in the mists of time, bonded with giant insects, taking on some of their characteristics to help survive in a hostile world. Thus you get bustling city-states full of beetle-folk, far-off kingdoms run by inscrutable spider-kin, and so on. It’s an awesome setting for so many reasons, and I really recommend it. It appears on this list because of one particular place in the novels though: Darakyon.
Darakyon is a forest, a forest that no one enters anymore. Something dark and evil happened there a long, long time ago. It is a shadow on the psychic landscape, a lurking and angry evil that offers death and worse to any who disturb it.
It fits this list because, even though it is made up of many separate plants, the forest acts as a unit: as a whole forest, not a bunch of trees that happen to stand next to each other. Those who foolishly cross the forest boundary have to contend with the concerted efforts of moving trees, monstrous half-mantis half-plant creatures, and lethal thorns. Worse than all of that is the dark and twisted consciousness of the forest; Darakyon is not a passive threat, but one with goals and power and sentience.
3. Thorn Ogres – Robin Jarvis, Thorn Ogres of Hagwood
I only realised today that Thorn Ogres of Hagwood was by Robin Jarvis. I read it when I was very young, and never made the connection before. It makes a lot of sense – Jarvis writes children’s fiction full of talking mice and magical squirrels, and manages to do so whilst being one of the darkest authors I’ve ever come across. The talking mice don’t live happily in an abbey, they cower in the sewers, hoping that the rats won’t skin them in service of their dark god.
He’s an author who is very, very good at creepy and disturbing – the violence is ever-present yet rarely gratuitous. Over a decade after I read one of his books though, there are still lines and scenes which occasionally drop back into my mind to haunt me.
The Thorn Ogres appear in one of his more positive, less creepy books, but are themselves truly horrifying. They are, as the name might suggest, humanoid thorn bushes with depraved and violent inclinations. They bicker over their much smaller prey, fighting to be the one who gets to taste the blood. Like butcher birds, they display their victims upon their thorns, allowing anguished parents to eventually discover their drained children.
Robin Jarvis normally manages to put something horrifying in each book – the slow chuckle of cannibalistic hedgehogs, a blind leper discovering his murdered friend. Again, these books are so much more blood-drenched and disturbing than the norm. Thorn Ogres of Hagwood initially seems like a much lighter story; it has fairies and magic swords and clumsy, disheveled protagonists. And then the thorn ogres loom out of the darkness, and the reader and the missing children realise that something has gone very wrong.
All of my choices this week have been rather negative ones – there is not a single positive plant on the above list. I’m sure such positive plants do exist, but I rather prefer the idea of a plant that doesn’t have to sit there and be taken advantage of, a plant that can fight back against the traditional enemies of flora. Plus, there is something about the pitiless implacability of plants that makes them fantastic threats to protagonists.
The post on Fantasy Review Barn is here, and in addition to that list, there are links there to many other bloggers with their own take on the idea. Next week’s topic is Awesome Displays of Magic.