Saturday, October 11, 2014

One Good Man

About a year ago an editor at a major publishing house spoke at some length against portal fantasy (the subgenre of fantasy in which a character from a fictional version of the Primary World travels to a magical world, has adventures there, and at the end of the story returns to their own world), claiming that it generally didn't have strong enough stakes to carry the story. This pronouncement led to considerable debate on several online fora, with various people offering titles of successful portal fantasies both classic and recent, from Narnia and Thomas Covenant to Harry Potter and Spirited Away.

Although I was busy at the time with other projects and didn't have time to contribute to the discussion, it made me think of how many portal fantasies I'd read when I was younger, and that yes, a big part of the appeal of them was the element of "you too might get to travel to a wonderful magical world and have Adventures." And remembering some of the ones I'd read in those days made me realize how long it had been since I'd read any.

Even more, I noticed how the real thrust of the discussion was the way in which the current fiction markets did not welcome portal fantasy, or several other genres that involved characters going "too far" from the fields we know. The unspoken subtext was pretty clearly, "write it if you must, to get it out of your system, but be ready to put it in the dresser drawer and move on to something more publishable."

And of course the assumption was that traditional publishing and its gatekeepers were the Only Game In Town -- an assumption that is rapidly being smashed to pieces by the rapid growth of indie publishing. Even just a few years ago, self-publishing a novel was still pretty much an admission that it was unpublishable, and you were a loser as a writer. But within the last few years it has really taken off, to the point that several newcomers have rocketed into success that most traditionally-published writers would envy.

Indie publishing has meant the traditional gatekeepers no longer have the power to say that an entire subgenre is declasse or beyond the pale. If you the writer believe in your story, you can find a platform to publish it on and if readers find it and are interested in it, you will get read. And you'll have real metrics of your writerly success, rather than the often-questionable sales figures of the major publishers with their reserves for returns and the like.

Right  now one of the top serials on JukePop Serials is Kevin Boyer's Dread Lord Bob. With over 2000 +votes, it appears on the first page of stories sorted by most +votes.

Dread Lord Bob is the story of Robert Goodman, an ordinary teenager in Kansas who goes to the library one day, intending to study but ending up messing around, when a mysterious stranger appears to him, giving him a strange glowing orb and claiming to be his steward in some mysterious realm. Bob is skeptical, and Harrak's talk of power, wealth and beautiful women only makes him more dubious. But then Harrak tells him "your people need you" in a tone of such urgency that Bob can no longer refuse. Off he goes to a world where the moon is a huge many-colored disk hanging fixed in the sky and the sun creeps so slowly that a single day is a week of Earth time. (Readers familiar with astronomy will soon realize that the "moon" is in fact a gas giant planet similar to Jupiter and the world to which Harrak has brought Bob is in fact a habitable moon).

Almost from the beginning Bob is struggling to sort out the world on which he's landed and the people he's supposed to lead. It doesn't help that he feels like his so-called adviser is holding out on him, not telling him things he needs to know. Harrak claims he's never lied -- but again and again his answers to Bob's questions are so full of presuppositions that they confuse as much as inform.

Just as he's beginning to get his bearings, the promised day is up and back Bob goes to his familiar life on Earth, with all its conflicts between the football team and his own baseball buddies, and the roses and thorns of the dating scene. And of course the tension at home between his parents and his efforts to shield his younger sister from them.

And then the call comes again, and back he goes to that world of goblins, hobgoblins and elves, of war with the Empire and the peril of the Bound. Since this is a serial still in progress, it appears that he's going to have at least a few more trips back and forth between worlds before the story is resolved.

One of the things I've really enjoyed in this novel is the element of moral struggle, and particularly the ethics of power. Unlike JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and rather like Orson Scott Card's Seventh Son, it has a strong element of learning to use extraordinary powers in godly ways, for godly purposes. Bob Goodman is older than young Alvin Miller, his character stronger and more fully formed, but he still notes with considerable discomfort the rush that comes with exercising the power of the Dread Lord. Yet he is also aware that he is operating in a world where evil has a real and powerful presence, where whole communities of the people he's sworn to protect are being destroyed in a war he barely understands.

I also find it fascinating to see the underpinnings of science in the worldbuidling. Not only does it take place on an exomoon (a moon of a planet in another star system), but there are also repeated hints that the magic has a technological base that may well involve sophisticated computers and energy weapons, all of which are viewed entirely in magical terms by the locals. For readers who find regular fantasy magic uncomfortably close to occultism, the technological element may make the story more palatable.

And there is the wonderful characterization, right down to the interaction between various minor characters. Some readers may find it challenging to keep track of so many characters, but in a story of this scope (apparently we're not quite to the halfway point of the projected complete novel) the cast is going to be big.

Full disclosure: Kevin is my brother, and the person who introduced me to publishing on JukePop Serials. If you feel this affects my judgment of his work, you are free to discount it accordingly.

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