Back to business.
Last time we were talking about this, I told Guy I was looking forward to discussing Artesia. And you better believe I am, because Artesia is actually rather interesting. You see, Artesia is problematic as hell, and there’s a lot to dislike about it.
So…why don’t I?
Dislike it, that is. After all, the thing is a mishmash. It’s a mess, in fact. But, unexpectedly, it isn’t at all a muddle, even though it boasts what sometimes seem like aggressively muddly elements. The names, the languages, the histories, the maps, the religions…I would say they all add up to an audacious re-sampling of the classic fantasies of our age, chopped up fine and tossed into a stew of incredibly, deliberately obvious homages to the modern fantasy’s most typical source material…I would say all that, but I find I can’t, because then I would be ignoring the fact that all of that is just a fancy way of saying rip-off. And that Artesia is a rip-off is a big part of what makes it so interesting. All that other stuff is true, maybe…I think…but this is no sly postmodern exercise in prestidigitation, no story about storytelling. This is some of the most earnest stuff in this genre I’ve ever come across, and I’m far more amazed that it works, than I would be if it were less earnest and more knowing.
But give me just a second, I’m about to talk about how my impressions formed gradually as I turned the pages, but first I really need to say one thing first. I’ve just read the first two issues of Artesia Besieged, following up in pretty orderly fashion from the plot of the TPB which collected the series’ first six issues, and I have to say that our auteur Mark Smylie seems to have really hit his stride as far as pacing goes. I made a note of this while reading, you see, because it impressed me so much: and a lot of our current Big Two writers could learn a couple of things from the way he skillfully combines dialogue and narrative. Artesia’s universe, as I’ll show in a minute or two, is really very complicated, not just because everything has a tortured, tortuous backstory (which it does), but also because it’s unbelievably easy to get lost in the intermixture of Welsh, Latin, French, and Narnian name-grafts. Add to this, that every character but Artesia herself is only somewhat readily distinguished from the other figures around them – and bear in mind, Artesia’s creator wisely makes her the focal point of every illustration she’s in, so that’s no accident – and you have a recipe for disaster, especially for the new reader who is only just now jumping on board. Except, you don’t. This is the easiest confusing stuff I ever saw, swear to God. The little “Previously, on Artesia” blurbs included on the inside cover aren’t even necessary. It’s extremely accessible.
But should it be?
I’ll just say it again, so that if Mr. Smylie ever stumbles across my opinions he won’t miss this one: it’s terrific storytelling. If it wasn’t, I’d be so out of here that I don’t even know how to describe that to you, but it genuinely is, and so…hell, I’d read more Artesia, if I had it. Also, look, in Artesia there are a lot of what I think are inordinately cumbersome world-logic details, too, you know? Great Eastern Oceans of Dawn. So many Sun-thisses-and-thats that it makes me want to scream. Triple goddesses who are related to other triple goddesses…as the old bumper sticker had it, “yes, both ways, dammit!”…Khanates and Confederacies and Camelots, Sparkling Seas and Great Western Wastelands positively litter the place. And it’s awful, but apparently it’s necessary if the plot is to have a background…or, perhaps more importantly, it’s necessary if enough weight of detail is to be dragged in to keep Artesia from simply sailing away into irrelevance. Every sailor knows it isn’t the anchor alone that keeps the boat off the rocks, but the chain…and the chain here is one of fantasy-trope cliché, and I’ve rarely seen one heavier. It’s incredibly irritating.
If all that’s true (and believe me, it is!), then why have I just now been eagerly poring over the map of the Greater Therapolitan region, and letting myself be charmed by it? For God’s sake, why?
Artesia has me under a spell, it seems.
I’ll come back to this map, and this question, shortly. But now that I’ve finished the praise, it’s finally time to get to the poking around. Just one more thing to say: “so what’s with all the ash?” is one of the best anachronistic lines I’ve ever read.
Okay, that’s done. Let’s get going.
There’s no way in hell I should like Artesia. Well, it’s not written for me! Sexy Amazonian-barbarian warrior-priestess who kicks all the ass in the world, noble, brave, flawed-but-not-so-you’d-notice? The Great-Souled Leader who is (as I’ve said before, somewhere) the feeler of great feelings, the evoker of loyalty, the soldier-philosopher, the bearer of godlike duty, the wearer of hot chainmail miniskirts? Who can bring home the bacon, then fry it up in a pan? And then ringed about with crossbred Celtic portents and powers and patronymics, all robed in a gown of a velvet blue, and bound ’round with a silver chain. It’s all stuff that stopped being my cup of tea years ago.
At first it’s the art. Specifically, the battle scenes. Because you can’t look at them for very long without realizing the artist might have made it a lot easier on himself. So, why didn’t he? Easy answer: because this is a labour of love, and he’s putting everything he has into it. Me, I look at that and think “am I such a niggardly soul that I can’t even stir myself to turn these pages that he obviously sweated blood over? Is it so impossible that he’s got something to say, here, or am I so jaded that it doesn’t even matter to me if he does?” So, I keep reading. And I notice a couple or three things.
One: everybody looks kinda the same, but it’s all really quite well-rendered.
Two: the language is pretty brisk (though yet without the humour it’ll have in Artesia Besieged), and when it comes to the gods even occasionally crisp: the characters may all look similar, but they make sense, and that’s a big deal. The gods make sense, too, as tangled as their histories will get by the book’s end; and since as I always say to understand the gods is to understand the world, this is a promising sign.
Three: the matter of the warrior-priestess’ dual nature is handled in a way I’ve never quite seen before. Well, not exactly. In many ways, as with most everything in Artesia, it’s trite: and yet, there’s more feeling in this triteness than in most of the stuff it’s been copied from. You do feel it, when she goes to visit her sisters! Well, and that’s remarkable: because usually, especially if you’re me, you don’t.
Therefore, my interest having been piqued, I read the whole thing in a sitting. I ALMOST GIVE UP when the first map comes along, I really do. Because I’ve seen that bloody map before, seriously, so many times…but at the same time, it’s nice to have a bird’s-eye view of the action at last, and I think to myself “I guess at some point this stupid map-thing had to rear its head, anyway…better just accept it, and move on.” You see I have not yet made the connection, between how ruthlessly (even blunt-fingeredly) Artesia is appropriating the Standard Fantasy Tropes, and how it’s doing things that interest me. I know it’s a big mishmash of rip-off already…which by itself is obviously not a barrier to my reading, I have read thousands of such things in my time…and I know it’s got things I like in it, too…but I haven’t quite got to where I am now, yet. Oh, that damned map! And yet now the map is to me like the drop of civet piss they put in the fancy perfume, to solidly arrest the attention of the nose…
You know, if that’s even true, that civet-piss story…
Anyway, going a little overboard with the old ellipsis today I see! Another thing I can blame on my extensive reading of heroic fantasy as a youth…
Okay. So there we are together, me and Artesia’s big nose, and things start to make sense. I don’t like the map much, but the accessibility of the idea that (gasp!) the Empire is actually attacking?…that’s refreshing, because I don’t need an oceanful of context, I only need a little, and that’s what I get, here. But it wouldn’t’ve worked at all if I wasn’t at some level buying the characters, you see! I begin to compare Artesia to The Curse Of Chalion in my head as I read on…hmm. That book, as you may or may not know (or may or may not agree with me about) is also one that deliberately toys with standard fantasy conventions in a world where the gods are not only real, but interested and active…but relies utterly for its world on utilizing the stock characters of fantasy, by making them ring true to the reader. Now, I don’t care how quickly you may have inhaled The Sword Of Shannara as a kid, you’ve gotta admit that most times in fantasy a dwarf is a dwarf, and elf is an elf, and that’s all they are…you may be touched, you may care, you may totally get it, but since Tolkien this is nobody’s new ground to clear out. Even if you take things all the way along to those Thomas Covenant books, what you get there is not characters ringing true in this way either, so much as they’re being manipulated by circumstance into contrasting with one another to the author’s purpose, thematically. Not the same thing at all. I’m not saying anything’s worse or better than anything else, mind you (although Donaldson’s work was easy to tire of), I’m just saying that Artesia relies on its characters to make its particular sort of world believable, in a way that invites comparison with The Curse Of Chalion quite a bit, and with other things not very much.
Of course to my mind the true original of this approach is The Crystal Cave, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish…
Ellipsis. Damn it.
Well anyway, if The Curse Of Chalion is not something you’ve read (and my purpose here is not to recommend it, even though I did like it a lot, actually – L.M. Bujold writes great guilty pleasures!), you’ll just have to trust me: there’s a lot of similarities there. But be that as it may, let’s move along.
To the toying with conventions…or, better, the strip-mining of tropes, since that’s really what we’re talking about here. Rip-offs. Chalion isn’t a sly postmodern work either, you see: it, too, invites the reader to feel, and it does it very directly. In fact, just as Artesia, what it does is it uses the gods’ routine interaction with mortal people to create this atmosphere of feeling. And, the thing is so obvious, you kind of have to laugh: why did it take so long for people to start doing it this way? I don’t know, and that really is another kettle of fish, but to say that this technique creates involvement for the reader is probably to understate the case a little. The conclusion of the TPB’s storyline in issue #6, when the Gorgonae approve Artesia, is a moment of delayed payoff from ‘way back in issue #1 when she encounters the Queen of the Dead, and it’s the moment when I as a reader finally feel 100% approved as well…holy cow, I think, I don’t believe it, I was right! This is worth reading! There was actually a little mystery in there! Well, fancy that.
Understand, at the time I thought this was because all Artesia’s novel elements were being tied together for me, which in turn allowed me to ignore its more derivative ones.
But now, I think I may have a different take on it.
That map again, you see. The Therapolitan one. I told you I’d get back to it. In a way this is just the same thing I said about Mouse Guard, that sometimes the amount of logical backing-up you have to do for fantasy might just as well be substituted for by a shorter, cleaner logic: the logic of something else…and in that case I was talking about the secret identity of the traitor mouse, and the logic of the children’s story, but in this case I’m talking about the Gorgonae, and the logic of mythological figures. For all its obsessive cataloguing of the sword-and-sorcery bits-and-pieces, Artesia does contain a hidden calculus that it uses to make these easier to handle…and maybe that’s why I find it so surprisingly palatable. It’s earnestness about the “Augustus ap Owen d’Osiris” type recombinations it throws in everywhere very probably marks it as D&D-grade junk…and as it turns out, it’s an RPG too, not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m sure it’s a swell one…but only on the surface is it this kind of junk, I believe. Underneath, it’s a different kind of junk, a trash treasure if you will: this stuff is infinitely recombinable, it admits (whether consciously or unconsciously I don’t know, but to be honest I don’t think it matters), and it is essentially cultural refuse, especially when treated this way, but where the sly postmodernist may get away with calling it found-art collage by using it to make a “larger” point, he must also lose something in that translation from silly to serious. Because Artesia is actually completely serious, it is literally deadly serious, and the pomo prestidigiplay is fundamentally not. These qualities, that claim to be one thing on the surface, have their meanings quite reversed in their depths, and the enthusiastic fantasy-world-maker who loves this cultural flotsam for what it is can’t hide behind the mask of art, but he can do something else: he can tap into its old meanings, and earnestly refresh them for a new audience. The world of Artesia is cluttered, hokey, even ridiculous…after all, was there ever such an absurdly non-specific universe, as a fantasy-universe of this type? The shiningly cosmic Oceanus, the bleak Hadean highlands, the rich Elysian pasturelands…cursed King, dark Moon, red Mud. People from nowhere, fighting over nothing, in a world you and I could overfly completely in twenty minutes…and then what? Where would we be then? Would we be able to find a can-opener there, or a martini? Artesia’s world is incontrovertibly impossible, even by fantasy standards: it contains the Laird, the Sultan, and the Holy Roman Emperor all inside one tiny circle of space…and not only even that, but the gods too. But, it’s the gods that make it all real, isn’t it? Without them it really would be junk, but they make it a jewel. Because they make it so that none of the surface details matter.
Look at that map of Greater Therapoli with me: there is no country like that, never has been, never could be – it doesn’t even look like a real settlement pattern at all – and yet it’s eerily realistic. But, hold on, “realistic”? It’s silly as hell, how can it be realistic?
Strangely, though, I can imagine living there.
A little bit.
So long as the chain keeps the boat off the rocks…