Today's feature by Madeline Barnicle kicks off a new series of articles here at Fantasy Matters entitled "Unexpected Connections," in which we examine works of fantasy and science fiction that on the surface seem completely different, but that present an interesting connection when examined more closely. Enjoy!
In most works of speculative fiction (at least ones designed for an adult audience) the risk of character death looms over the plot. By and large, our heroes and villains know what they're getting into, and are prepared to risk their lives in the service of whatever their cause may be. As readers, having characters die alerts us to the risks and scale of the conflicts being narrated. Authors or movie-writers who don't want to go down that road can instead have less-permanent threats to their heroes as things go wrong, but as the stakes get higher, surely the risks escalate towards the end of a character's life, after which there is no more to be done...
Two series aren't content to let sleeping- the- sleep- of- death dogs lie. Both the epic Wheel of Time series and DJ MacHale's The Pendragon Adventures go back and forth on the permanence of death until the protagonists are almost as baffled as the clueless readers.
The Wheel of Time includes a gang of villains known as the Forsaken, thirteen powerful magicians from a bygone era who have been imprisoned and asleep for thousands of years, but who slowly sneak out to do the work of evil. With the series topping out at fourteen books, that would give our heroes plenty of time to pick them off one by one, even if they choose to induct a newcomer to the ranks.
The problem is that the Forsaken don't stay dead. When some of them get killed, they can be resurrected by "the Dark One," a personified force of evil. There is also an offscreen "Creator," but it doesn't go about restoring the good guys; instead, the heroes learn "death cannot be [magically] Healed" and leave it at that. So the protagonists have the deck stacked against them without a clear idea why, while the Forsaken have less skin in the game. By the end of the series, the Dark One is putting even its living followers in new bodies, just to annoy them, and the heroes are unable to keep track of just whom they've killed. Small wonder it gets mocked.
But when it comes to inconsistent stakes, The Pendragon Adventure has it worse. With a younger target audience in mind, it could certainly be excused not permanently taking characters out of the scene. But it doesn't go that route; a minor character is killed off in the first of ten books, and a more important character dies in the next one. Just as frustrating for the magical group of heroes, or "Travelers," the villain, Saint Dane, is able to quickly recover from injuries he sustains. Saint Dane taunts the Travelers with the idea that he's no different from them, but they can't keep up with him.
Then, suddenly, good news! Main character Bobby uses his powers to bring his friend Loor back from the brink of death if not beyond. At last, the Travelers can keep up with Saint Dane... although if nobody can be killed, the stakes have just unnaturally dropped.
But then bad news! The Travelers discover that their power comes at the expense of the otherworldly realm of Solara. Saint Dane is only too happy to draw on that power and disrupt Solara, but the good Travelers must ration their resources.
Good news! Solara is actually where everyone goes after their death, no matter what they've done with their mortal life! So even if the Travelers are parted by death, they will eventually be reunited!
Bad news! MacHale has written himself into a corner with no way to threaten any of his good characters, so he has to make something up about Saint Dane cutting off anyone who betrays him from Solara, with eternal oblivion the new reward for trying to return to the side of right.
Worse news, all of these sudden abrupt changes in the stakes arrive way too late in the series to make sense in terms of what has come before, and instead smack of confusion... oh well.
In both cases, the books are long and numerous enough that there's lots of room for twists in the plot and new discoveries about the rules of the cosmos before the end. But at the same time, that means there's been a lot more storyline that's gone before only for new developments to throw a spanner in the works. The series also both touch on issues of free will and determinism by the end, in ways that don't always seem to align with what's come before, but it's the impermanence of character death—and the confusion it brings—that stands out most for me.
By Madeline Barnicle