Last night I finished reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades, the second book in Divine Cities series. This, along with the previous book, are some of most interesting, sophisticated fantasy novels I have read in the last few years. Speculative fiction (and historical fiction too, really) is at its best when it uses its fantastical or otherworldly elements to explore a real world problem. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite examples of this. Vampires, magic, curses all serve different purposes, but, especially in the first three seasons, they always explored the problems of growing up. Buffy’s status as a Slayer stood in well for a teenager discovering that she’s not who she’s always tried to be, who her mother and her peers want her to be. When Angel’s curse makes him turn evil after they sleep together, that is a heightening of the more prosaic drama that many teenage couples enact.
Bennet’s series proposes a world that used to have gods in it, but doesn’t anymore. An oppressed, enslaved people threw off the yoke of their oppressors, and in the war, killed the gods that kept their oppressors in power. In the first book, Bennet used the death of the gods, and the artifacts they left behind to explore the uses and abuses of religion. He tackles the problem that an involved, powerful deity can’t escape being a villain, at least to someone. If a god helps your sports team win, then he’s helped someone else’s fail. A god that does not fall into this trap has to cease to be a god entirely.
In the second book, Bennet explores war and violence through the aftermath of the death of the goddess of war. Different characters approach the uses and necessities of violence, what justifies it, if anything, and how civilized societies can and should use it. This exploration is very powerful–perhaps even more so than the first book, because our protagonist is a retired general who has committed atrocities in her past, and who can hardly live with those memories. She embodies one aspect of the cost of violence, as other characters do in different ways.
Mike Carey’s Lucifer series of graphic novels is one of my other top fantasy “novels.” In this series, the titular character, Lucifer, has abandoned hell, and is forging his own path. He is an uncompromising and mostly, but not entirely, inhuman character. The books explore Judeo-Christian and other mythologies, and invent new ones, while Lucifer rails against a problem that even a being as powerful as him cannot escape: a person cannot be his own creator. Lucifer cannot stand the fact that God created him and gave him a purpose. He cannot stand the idea that everything he is comes from his creator.
This is a totally different, yet still incredibly fruitful way of using the idea of gods and an all-powerful creator God to tackle the central problem of growing up and establishing one’s self as an adult. If Lucifer cannot escape his creator, who can? Sometimes I look at my life and the ways that I am like my parents, shaped by the things they showed me as a child, and think that I have not fallen very far from the tree, though I went farther and deeper with the ideas they gave me than they ever could have imagined. Who knew that D’Aulaire’s book of Norse mythology would take such root?
At the same time, it explores the question of whether a literal, all-powerful God can exist and not be a villain (theodicy) in a very different way from Bennett’s work. Lucifer shows, more than once, what happens when a creator gets too involved with their own creation–it is even more dangerous and destructive than not getting involved at all, and so an all-powerful God must be very remote.
Chuck Wendig is one of my favorite (and one of the most profane) writers on writing, and I very much agree with his statement that theme is what gives a work of fiction staying power. I agree with his definition too, that theme is the book’s central statement. What it is trying to say. City of Blades says, explicitly and implicitly, that the only just way to use violence, to be a soldier, is to use it in the service of greater good and expect no great rewards in return. To be a servant, who does the terrible things that are necessary sometimes to protect. Lucifer says that no one can be their own creator–and no one can escape their origins entirely.
If theme is well-realized, it grounds every conflict in a piece of work, whether the conflict is specifically about that theme, as most of them are, or serves to illustrate, in this case, the cost of violence, the cost of making a stand on one side or another of the argument.
I also agree with what Wendig says about theme being a statement, not a question. So far I’ve begun my works with a question, but by the end of this trilogy I will have answered it. (No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. Either it will come through or it won’t.) Theme can be hit too hard, but a work without a theme, or with disorganized approach to its theme will not come together. Speculative fiction gives writers the opportunity to explore themes in a more literal way than the internal struggles of real-world fiction do. I hope one day to write speculative fiction and try my hand at it as well.