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 week’s topic is The Ace:
Some people are just ridiculously good at everything. Be it magic, swordplay, or all of the above. THE ACE has no equal.
The ace, I find, is a trope that turns up less in books than other mediums. The first character who occurred to me was out of an anime – Haji from Blood+, who spends every single episode just being effortlessly awesome. And then you’ve got countless characters in films and comics, including every superhero ever and the lead in almost any action film.
It’s a trope based on wish fulfillment, on a character providing the crowning dramatic moment, being the brightest star. They’ve got to be the best, the unconquerable, the one with the witty quips and roguish smile.
It does happen in books, of course – urban fantasy boasts a huge crop of them, but it tends to be more frowned upon generally. I’ll happily watch a film with a one-note awesome main character, but such a central flawless diamond is deeply tedious in prose. So authors have a choice – you either put up with accusations (frequently fair) of being a two-dimensional Mary-Sue, or you deepen the character, pushing them away from perfection, either by damaging them or making them a minor character.
The four examples I’ve chosen are all characters who, while incredibly accomplished and powerful, manage to be more nuanced and complex than the trope itself would suggest. They don’t get to enjoy their brilliance to the full – it comes with a cost, or forces them away from the rewards it brings. I find them much more interesting than the host of clumsy-but-adorable women or unreliable magically-gifted men who can also lay claim to the title of “ace”.
1. Cohen the Barbarian – Terry Pratchett, various books
Cohen is the greatest hero the Discworld has ever seen, and he is old. Not growing old, not slowly declining from his prime, but actually ancient. Cohen is in his nineties, with a bad back and dentures. By all the normal rules, he should be weak and feeble.
Except, as Pratchett points out, a man who has spent ninety years taking on insurmountable odds and emerging victorious isn’t close to death – instead, he is just very, very good at not dying. Swords thrust at him miss, because he has a lifetime of experience in the field of “not getting stabbed” – he doesn’t dodge or parry, he is simply not where the blade is.
Even when old, Cohen is unstoppable, searing a path across the Disc. Clad only in a loincloth, he’s overthrown empires, faced down entire armies, and launched an assault on the gods themselves. Cohen doesn’t so much defy death as choose to ignore it.
He has sought more treasure, captured more prisoners, overthrown more dark lords than anyone else, but he can’t rest. Every time he gets settled, finds somewhere to retire, he ends up out questing again – the oldest hero keeps being a hero, and ignores being old.
2. First Lord Gaius Sextus – Jim Butcher, Furies of Calderon and sequels
The Codex Alera series is, essentially, about a man maturing into the ruler of a kingdom, facing down the various threats that appear while he and the kingdom are in a weakened state. Throughout the series, the main character grows and increases in power, doing all kinds of awesome things.
But I don’t care about him. While the protagonist rushes around trying to solve all kinds of problems, Gaius Sextus is solving far greater ones, from his office, and has been for decades. While Tavi struggles with his entire extended family to survive a storm, the First Lord has been saving the entire country from much greater storms sent by a race of blood magic-wielding dogmen. Almost every other character’s actions in the first few books are only possible because he is saving everyone in the country, every day, without anyone ever knowing.
He doesn’t really ever get to leave his office though, or sleep, or enjoy being the most powerful man in the world. Even his public appearances are marred by the politicking he has to do to keep the squabbling nobles in check. He has to keep on exerting himself to the fullest extent, day after day without end, or the people who so cheerfully stab him in the back at every opportunity won’t live to try and even undermine him again.
He’s the best – even at the climax of the series, the protagonist is still not coming close to his normal, everyday mastery of the elements. But he gets no reward for his incredible power, and no thanks for his unending sacrifice.
3. Logen Ninefingers – Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself and sequels
Logen is not a civilized man. He spends a lot of The First Law trilogy being dismissed as an ignorant savage by various people. His hands are drenched in blood, both metaphorically and literally.
Logen is a champion – he fights the chosen men of lords and kings in the service of his lord and king. And he wins, because he’s very, very good at it. He isn’t just good at it because he’s skilled in combat, though that is part of it. Nor is he so successful because his rough Northern exterior hides a sharp and philosophically-minded brain.
Logen is successful because sometimes he enters berserk rages and becomes a nigh-unstoppable force of nature. Wounds don’t bother him, and he fights with unparalleled strength and ferocity. He’s the best – the ace of warriors and champions.
But those berserk rages don’t just make him effective – like the others on this list, he pays a price for being the ace, for being unstoppable. In his rages, he doesn’t differentiate between friend and foe. He’ll keep fighting until everyone is dead, and only later work out which ones were allies.
4. Jason Ogg – Terry Pratchett, various books
Jason Ogg isn’t good at everything. He’s a quiet man, who doesn’t speak much and who often gets thought of as stupid. But he is good at one thing – the best at it, in fact.
Jason is the Smith (capital “S”) of Lancre, and he knows secrets that only a Smith knows. Smiths are the closest thing, we are informed, to a male witch. They can communicate on a deep and private level with even the wildest horses. And Jason isn’t just a smith, he’s the best smith – he can shoe anything, from an ant to a unicorn.
But that primacy isn’t free – “the price for being the best is always… having to be the best”. The Smith can shoe anything, and so has to shoe anything – he can’t not shoe the unicorn when requested, and he can’t not answer the door to the tap of skeletal fingers when the Pale Horse needs maintenance.
To make an interesting character, any ultimate powers need to be balanced with a near-ultimate price. A character who wins all the time, and then enjoys the victory, isn’t a very compelling one. That’s why people prefer Batman to Superman; Batman is more able to lose, less perfect and more damaged. Sure, he wins in the end, but he has various psychological issues and wrestlers occasionally break his spine. Superman just finds another power and continues being the golden boy.
So I’ve tried to pick interesting aces then, those who fall more into the “damaged but effective” group, rather than the “magical wunderkind” one. Hopefully that came across. My four aren’t perfect, but each one is the leader in their various fields, within their various universes. They aren’t the most well-rounded characters, but an ace doesn’t need to be; they just need to be the best.
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 The Big City.