It’s all about the antagonists

Here’s a quick question for you; who is the most important character in the Harry Potter series? The answer is obvious, right? It’s the Harry Potter series; every book is called Harry Potter and the…It has to be Harry, surely? I would argue not: it’s Voldemort. That’s not to say Harry is some dully empty vessel who’s only purpose is to be he reader’s eyes into the world. On the contrary, Harry is a great character. He’s far from being a Luke Skywalker, true blue hero who is less interesting than the folk around him. Harry is wounded and sympathetic and occasionally flawed (although I’m not sure you’d get all this by just watching the films). Harry has many qualities but he is not the main mover of the narrative: that is Voldemort.

voldyThink about it. The book begins with the apparent first defeat of Voldemort. Harry is only famous because of the fame Voldemort bestowed on him by being unable to murder him. Likewise, the Harry potter series finishes with the final defeat of Voldemort. His absence is what tells us it is all over. Harry has a life after this but the series doesn’t continue to follow him in his life without Voldemort. Sure, there may be Cursed Childs and whatnots to come but they are addenda to the story of how Voldemort was defeated.

Speaking of Luke Skywalker. How interested are we in his life when there is no big bad around? The main story finishes with the death of Darth Vader. We don’t rejoin him until the reboots have another antagonist to throw at us. Likewise, it’s no surprise that we leave Middle Earth with the demise of Sauron.

I’ve been thinking about antagonists recently while reviewing the Defenders’ respective series. The broad consensus seems to be in terms of quality they go; Jessica Jones, Daredevil and then, someway behind, Luke Cage. Is it just merely a coincidence that while Jessica had David Tennant’s brilliance as Kilgrave and Daredevil had the grinding fury of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, Luke Cage had to contend with the short-lived and nonthreatening Cottonmouth and then the silliness of Diamondback?

I’m only halfway through Iron First but the major problem so far seems to be the lack of a good antagonist. All of which makes me think, maybe it’s all about the antagonist after all. At least when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy. Other genres have other considerations. Detective novels while benefiting from good antagonists are more about the protagonist.So what is it about sci-fi and fantasy that make antagonists so important? Partly, it is that a lot of sci-fi and fantasy is about conflict against an exceptional threat. If the threat is not sufficiently threatening then defeating it is less compelling.

Another reason is sci-fi and fantasy is often (though not always) less morally ambiguous. In a fight between good and evil the only way the evil is going to be defeated is through terminal justice. There will be no accommodation or settlement. The bastard needs to die and we need (for the most part) to be ok with the bastard dying. Therefore, their death must be both utterly necessary and morally and narratively satisfying.

joffYou might argue that some fantasy is not so black and white, A Song of Ice and Fire, for example. While there may be some truth in this, the series does also provide us with some genuine hate figures for whom we will endure all kinds of suffering to our heroes just to see them get what is coming, like Joffrey and Ramsay. Equally, the Ice and Fire overarching it all pretty unambiguous. Those white walkers/Others have to be defeated.

Ah, that’s fantasy but sci-fi is different, you might argue. Sometimes there is an accommodation in sci-fi, like in the Matrix and Mass Effect. In the case of the Matrix films, they clearly cottoned on to the fact that we were more interested in an antagonist battle so they made it more about the recognisable Smith than the amorphous Matrix itself. While Mass Effect 3 has one of the worst endings ever, so let that be a lesson about deviation from the template.

Other examples? Look at Star Trek. What are considered to be the best Star Trek films? Generally, people say Wrath of Khan, Undiscovered Country and First Contact. For which we have Ricardo Molteban’s Khaaaaaaaan, Christopher Plummer’s Shakespeare quoting Klingon and, arguably the greatest Star Trek villain of all, the Borg.

For that matter, look at the series. What turned around DS9? The introduction of proper antagonists in the form of the Dominion. What was often the difference between a good Babylon 5 episode and a cringe-worthy one? Did it have the Shadows in it? In the same vein, I never really had much interest in Star Gate but I bothered with Stargate: Atlantis because the creepy Wraiths seemed like a genuine threat. Oh and lest we forget, what’s the surefire way to up the stakes in any series of Dr Who?I give you everyone’s favourite demented space nazis wailing EXTERMINATE!

It’s a lesson to all of us when we write. While we all want to give the world the next brooding hero who will show us complexity, humour and virtuoso fighting skills so far uncontemplated, make sure there’s someone out there for them who is capable of killing them and and shaping the narrative of the world they wish to terrorise. As much as heroes, villains have a challenge to answer. Let us hope they rise to the occasion.

loki

 

 

 

 

New pages on fire magic coming soon

After a quiet summer on the Nexus front we are now settling down to a new run of activity. A new book is coming this season – Mars Fallen – where we will be taken into the classical world of the Senatian Empire where the element of fire is dominant. To tell us more we have the author JW Whitmarsh dragged back from exile by a pair of obedient centaurs.

Nexus Fiction: First of all, welcome back. It’s been a while. What have you been up to?

JW Whitmarsh: Yes. I’d love to say I’ve been working hard in my writing retreat reeling out chapter after chapter of new stories but alas the truth is more prosaic.Humdrum realities such as earning money and moving house have got in the way of creative endeavours of late.

NX: Normal life can be so inconsiderate. So what can we expect from the fire magic of the Imperium?

JW: As I think I might have said in a previous interview, magic is handled very differently in the Imperium. There it is believed that all magic comes from the Gods of the Pantheon and the magically-gifted are, on the whole, absorbed into the clergy.

NX: The classical world had many deities.How do you fit that into the way you have broken down magic before by the elements?

JW: I have restricted myself to 12 Gods (arguably the more prominent ones from classical mythology) and grouped them into four groups of three, four triads, if you will; Heliomantic, which includes Jupiter, Apollo and Minerva, Geomantic – Vesta, Vulcan and Ceres, Astromantic – Mars, Mercury and Neptune, and Lunarmantic for Diana, Juno and Venus.

NX: You’ve decided to go with the Roman names rather than the Greek.

JW: Initially, the story starts in the equivalent of the Western Empire so that made sense. Also Vesta has a role not mirrored by Hestia and the Vestal Virgins are a pretty important element to the novel.

NX: Going back to the groupings, are the priesthoods of each triad linked in the same way that the three disciplines of Enchantment are?

JW: No. The devotion of different Gods is kept entirely separate. The traitor Empyrean who was the architect of how fire magic would be learned gave thought to what might follow if one who was magically gifted could learn all that he had learned and so deliberately propagated the idea that one could only be blessed by a single deity at a time.

NX: So the Imperium has no great wizards like Caerddyn?

JW: No. Indeed the concept of a wizard who was in control of their own magic is a foreign one. The clergy of the Imperium are taught that magic only goes through them by the will of the Gods.

NX: Moving sideways slightly and with due care for spoilers, can you tell us why the contemporary wizards can’t learn all spells from their element in the way that the traitors did? Does that mean the past can never be matched?

JW: It’s a mixture. You have to remember that the traitors were the greatest wizards of their day in an age where magic was at its zenith. They were the guys who were left standing from the fight with Xyraxis and his arch demons where all others mages (bar Loreliath) perished. So all things being equal they would be hard to emulate anyway. There’s also the matter of what happens when you specialise. To go deeper into certain Arts you need a way of thinking that may be mutually exclusive with learning others. The expert specialists of the world contemporary to the stories would definitely be able to do magic within their Arts that had never occurred to their originators.

NX: So in a sense the magic of the contemporary world is more advanced than that used by the traitors?

JW: I’m not sure about advanced because that implies improvement. It’s more involved. An analogy might be something like in classical times Latin was widely spoken across western Europe. Now instead we have Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. If you pulled someone from the ancient world and compared them, speakers of each of those languages would be better at them than the Latin-speaker but if those speakers had never had any training in each others’ languages it is quite possible that the Latin-speaker would have the best cross language understanding because his/her language is the basis for all of them. Does that make sense?

NX: Actually yes. Does it follow that the priests and priestesses of the Imperium would be better at their disciplines than their Western Lands counterparts because of their focus?

JW: No, because they have been beset by false limitations. I think overall if you were to look at the world of the Elemental Cycle the places with the most impressive mages, the ones who most fit our idea of wizards, would most likely be found either in the Western Lands or in one of the mage cultures of ancient world.

NX: By which you mean the pre-classical civilisations?

JW: Yes, the equivalents of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and Persia.

NX: When will we get to see them?

JW: Not for a while yet. Not this year certainly.

NX: On which subject, can you share your progress with us?

JW: Mars Fallen is nearly finished. There’s maybe one or two chapters to go. After that it will have to go through editing. We will see it this season, I expect. I intend to write Venus Ascending and A Clash of Gods in parallel so there may be a long wait before we see anything more. This time next year we could be talking about what’s to come in book 6 or book 9, who knows? As I said at the beginning of this, for authors as much as anyone life sometimes takes us in unexpected directions.

Fallenstraightened

Am I getting more childish or has childish got more mature?

I went to see Captain America: Civil War last night. Nothing wrong or strange in that by itself, but then I thought about the last few films I’d seen at the cinema. Before this it was Deadpool and before that it was Star Wars. Two comic book adaptations and a family film. Going back further, the last film I saw that wasn’t a comic book film or a family film was The Martian, a sci-fi film.

Still nothing wrong with this. Thanks principally to the cost of a visit I don’t visit the cinema very much any more so when I go, I want to be guaranteed to be entertained. Seeing something that may challenge me or not be to my tastes is more of a risk when there’s the best part of £20 on the line.

So then I thought about TV. Currently, the two shows I’m watching most are Game of Thrones and iZombie. Again, both somewhat genre. Over the last few months, I’ve also eagerly consumed Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Gotham – three more comic book conversions. Bear in mind this is from someone who is not a comic book reader (send your hate mail to no1 Noteveryonehastolikeeverything). That same description can be levelled at many of my friends who have also enjoyed these shows. So what, one might ask, is up?

I think the answer is partly about me and partly about what is is we consume. I’ll address the first first because it’s easier. I’m something on an expert on myself.

When I was in my late teens studying English literature at A-Level, I voluntarily tried to read a number of classics. I switched genres and read things out of my comfort zone. At the same time I was happy to go to art house cinemas and watch indie films about a dysfunctional family in the mid-west (as I write this I’m not entirely convinced that wouldn’t have bored me then but the point stands). Scenes of actors looking out silently at the landscape seemed to hold meaning for me then.

Now in my thirties when I’m supposed to be sensible and mature I just don’t have the patience for this any longer. I tried to watch the much-critically acclaimed The Master a few years ago and was almost to the point of tears for the lack of plot or action. Cohen brothers’ films seemed to send me to sleep. As for challenging documentaries, I can honestly say there’s enough depressing stuff in my head already. In short I have become a total pleb.

These days entertainment is paramount in my entertainment and this is one of the reasons genre films appeal. They don’t waste my time, usually. They have a plot and they have action and, most of the time, they have a resolution. I don’t have to spend time afterwards wondering about the meaning of what I just saw or interpreting what the message was. My post-game analysis focusses on whether I enjoyed it or not. In a sense, in a life with a job and worries and writing as my creative outlet I can only spare so much brain-space for films as well.

With TV I think it is slightly different. In a post box-set revolution world of binge-watching streaming services, TV has changed. TV has become more like novels with long narrative arcs and plenty of time for reflection. Actors can now stare out into space because they’ve got another 9 hours to do the action stuff. Contrary to films, it doesn’t feel like eating up valuable time.

TV has also become emboldened and a lot of what we’re watching now just wouldn’t have been made previously. Budgets weren’t forthcoming as they now are and this is another reason I think we have so much genre TV now. Fantasy used to look naff and cheesy on TV because they hadn’t paid for it to look otherwise. The acting was hammy because good actors couldn’t be lured to do it. It’s less embarrassing to watch Game of Thrones than Hercules, principally, because it’s a much higher quality product.

Now we are in a virtuous cycle for genre pieces. They get more money and make something good, because it’s good it gets more credibility; with credibility more quality actors, directors, writers etc get drawn to these projects and they are consequently better, starting the cycle again. That’s why, my decreasing maturity notwithstanding, I’m not alone in watching about dragons and superheroes.

Is there a downside to any of this? Simon Pegg wrote an interesting piece a while ago about how as adults we are having our childhoods sold back to us to keep us infantilised. There’s a lot of truth in this. Many things that used to be for kids now successfully populate the adult world. You see people who were once considered too old for it getting excited about Dr Who, lining up to watch the latest Star Wars film and openly discussing which superpower they’d have. The average age of a gamer is 35 not 15, as all non-gamers would love you to believe. People proudly instagram themselves at conventions, where before it might have been a guilty pleasure. Fear of being labelled a nerd isn’t what is used to be.

All this might be more concerning if genre pieces were cheap and unthinking. Fortunately, this is increasingly not the case. If you see a number of films this year, the dumbest one you see won’t be a genre piece in all likelihood. Increasing success has led to increasing confidence and genre TV shows and films are more prepared than ever to ask deep questions. Having a costume doesn’t mean you can’t have the same existential trials as someone in a beret and turtle neck.

What if this is the only place people are finding this though? Is it not a bad thing if we are substituting real intellectual rigour for their slick, simplified versions in entertainment? Yes, thinking a little should not be a substitute for thinking a lot but I’m not sure it works that way. Most the people I know who love genre are also highly-engaged, informed and politically active. Ultimately, if dumb fun becomes a little less dumb then that’s a good thing. After all, I was never going to watch a documentary tonight anyway.

The Elemental Cycle continues

Things have been a little quiet on the website front for a bit and we’re hoping to rectify that. The reason behind this is we’ve all been busy with our principle task of producing exciting new books.

While we hope to get back to producing web content soon, in the meantime we thought we’d provide an update on the writing front. In short we are well under way.

VlakyriegoldvrperValkyrie Rising: Valkyrie Rising is in the editing process now and we fully expect it to be ready for release in advance of the July release date. At around 100,000 words it is slightly longer than Enchantress Apprentice/Destiny and a bit shorter than Enchantress Awakening.

It is a new story with a new set of characters and requires no prior knowledge of other books to read, though those who’ve finished The Book of Water will get something extra from it.

FallenstraightenedMars Fallen: Mars Fallen is at present about 85% complete and we hope will be ready a long time in advance of the October release date. At this point, we’re not ruling out the possibility of an earlier release but we’ll wait on that last 15% before we decide anything.

Overall we’re very excited by the rate of progress. We had always hoped to have the first five books out by the end of the year and we’re on target for that.

Never fear that the Elemental Cycle will be be done too soon. When we started out we saw it as a 6-10 year project to bring the series in its fullness to life and we’re still in the beginning of month 2. There’s a long way to go yet.

 

New Edition Covers

 

Yes. Hot on the heels of what we refer to as the ‘stones’ editions, we are releasing the alternate ‘spellbound’ editions. We want our readers to have a choice so we are going to release them as soon as the original ‘stones’ edition of Enchantress Destiny is for sale.

We will be adding new pages here shortly so that web viewers will can easily select their preferred version.

Hope you like them,

Nexus Fiction