This week we tackle the question:
Ah, my favorite fantasy trope….the human/horse shapeshifter.
I’ve always liked horses. I was the only one in my city-raised family who wanted to ride. As a kid, I drew horses, I read all the horse books, I wanted to be a horse sometimes. I took horsemanship in college, and rode when I could drum up the cash.
So when it comes to Fantasy, I love reading the horses. Well, not so much the horses but creatures who are sometimes horses, sometimes human. My favorite book by Judith Tarr is A Wind in Cairo, wherein the heroine finds herself atop a particularly intelligent horse. He is actually a human transformed into a horse as recompense for his crimes (not a spoiler, I promise) and the story follows their time together. Another I particularly adored is R.A. MacAvoy’s The Grey Horse which does a lovely job of showing us a pooka’s life and loves.
And yes, I’ve even written this trope, just so you know. (My novella “Iron Shoes” and its sequels cover this ground, heavily inspired by the two above novels, I confess.)
I have a number of favorites–magical horses (high five to J. Kathleen!), selkies–but my very favorite trope is one that’s usually relegated to side characters in books and games: healers.
From the age of 12, I fixated on white wizards, clerics, priests, and most any occupation that involved healing the injured. This all started with my greatest, deepest love of the fantasy genre, Final Fantasy II for Super Nintendo (now best known by its true Japanese number, Final Fantasy IV). The game came out soon after my grandpa died after prolonged terminal illness, so the idea of curative magic resonated strongly with me. In FF2, I always changed Rosa’s name to “Beth.” I was the queen of Mary Sues before the term Mary Sue existed in that context. Within months, I fell into the fantasy book genre–Prydain Chronicles, Dragonlance, and so on. It always frustrated me that healers were never the heroes–just like in Final Fantasy II, they were relegated to the back row in battles.
My obsession never went away. When I resurrected my writing dreams in my late 20s, I still gravitated to that kind of magic. I wrote a superhero urban fantasy novel about a healer; that connected me with my literary agent. Then I wrote my steampunk fantasy novel about a healer–The Clockwork Dagger. My heroine is a medician, but she’s not relegated to the back row in battle.
In all honesty, I feel like I wrote the book I would have absolutely adored at age thirteen.
I’m torn. Surprising absolutely no one, I love fantasy food tropes – the banquet, rivers of chocolate, elevenses. My touchstone for much of Cooking the Books is going beyond STEW (as described by Diana Wynne Jones in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. But my other favorite trope is The Unexpected Swordswoman. From Eowyn to River Tam. Yup.
My favorite trope — which I tend to see more in SF than F, because I read much more SF than F — is the classic bit of coming to understand humanity through the eyes of the other. It sparks that same awe that I felt that day in some introductory course in college when I was introduced to the bizarre habits of the “Nacirema” (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, by all means Google the word and prepare to be amazed and feel foolish at the same time).
What makes this trope work for me is the way it plays on the unconscious assumptions we all have about our culture, our society, our every day behaviors. All the things we take for granted that other people (whether they be elves or aliens) have to dissect with meticulous care when they meet up with us. It’s like being an infant, thrust into a world that overloads the senses, and trying to determine what is important and what is not, what is signal and what is noise.
The other side of this is of course that the POV group has its own set of rules and rituals that it is often as not equally oblivious of as well (because they’re as commonplace and automatic as breathing) and the author has to not only paint humanity’s behaviors in tones of confusion, bemusement, and/or disgust from this POV, but also let the reader in on what passes as ordinary for these folk, when in fact the reader would be horrified, delighted, bewildered to encounter them firsthand without the insiders’ perspective.
This trope runs rampant throughout genre, but if you’re looking for a few authors to start with, let me suggest Ursula K. Le Guin as well as C. J. Cherryh, both who have written many books that might be construed as having an “anthopological” bent.
I normally like my fiction — both the stuff I read and the stuff I write — to end on an optimistic note. This trope gets in the way because at its core is the notion that any kind of First Contact situation is going to be doomed unless both sides are very very patient, open-minded, and forgiving. Oh look, just that easily, we have plot conflict from the beginning.
I never get tired of self-sacrificing characters who give up what they want for what they — or their world — needs. This has to be one of the most ubiquitous and oldest tropes in fiction, seen in lowly hobbits and lonely Spidermans. It made me cheer for Katniss Everdeen, who loved her sister more than her own life. It tore my heart in two at the end of Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron, the second book of the classic Prydain Chronicles. It’s probably fair to say that most books on my shelf have some aspect of self-sacrificing heroism, but I never get tired of it. There are so many different kinds of heroes and so many different costs they pay for being heroes.
This is one of the things that sucked me into historical k-dramas. The stories often pit the character’s larger goals against their personal desires. Achievements and victories always come with a price. If you haven’t watched any k-dramas and want to jump in, I highly recommend Faith.
I’m sure if I kept thinking I would come up with my favorite fantasy trope, but my favorite SF trope IMMEDIATELY leaps to mind, and that’s time travel. I LOVE time travel stories, and I probably wouldn’t even notice that I love time travel stories so much, except that everyone’s always complaining about how much they hate them.
There are lots of things I love about time travel stories. You can easily play with nostalgia and regret. Depending on what sort of time travel you come up with, you can see the butterfly effect from changing little things, or you can have fun with the immutable timeline (time can’t be broken, but we can reveal what REALLY happened twenty years ago…) There’s lots of room for cleverness in time travel.
A middle grade book that immediately springs to mind is Diana Wynne Jones’ A Tale of Time City. Not precisely time travel, as Time City is *outside* time, but it plays with a number of fun time things. And, it has butter pies (which are a little bit like those new Ben & Jerry’s core flavors, if the core managed to be hot at the same time that the ice cream was cold, all the way down.) Mmm…butter pies…I’m sorry, what was the topic again?