It’s Friday, and it’s time for my third guest post for Wyrd and Wonder! This time I have the absolutely fabulous Aliette de Bodard sharing her favourite fantasy tropes. Enjoy!
There are some things that I’ll quite happily swallow in very large doses.
Tropes get a really bad reputation in genre, but for me they’re like archetypes: they’re the basic building blocks of a story, and there’s nothing wrong with using them. On the contrary: when deployed right, they can imbue the story with resonance and heft because they’re already part of a shared language of fictional elements. It’s easy, I think, to focus on originality, but for me any combination of tropes can be deployed to devastating (in a good way!) effect. Maybe not to surprising effect, but there again I feel we overvalue surprise and novelty: I will quite happily read books where I know exactly how they’ll end, because it’s how we get to that ending that matters rather than the nature of it. I think it’s quite easy to lose track of characters and plot coherence in a relentless search for twists that end up alienating the reader or viewer because they’re so surprising they feel cheap and unearned. Good endings are earned, and part of earning them is laying enough groundwork, which means that they’re never a total surprise. They can subvert or meet expectations, but something that truly comes out of the blue is more likely to enrage than satisfy.
With that out of the way… here are some of my favourite tropes in fiction:
-Dragons in human shape. I’m usually indifferent to dragons in fantasy, especially the western kind: I don’t feel they make or break a story, but I also seldom feel an absolute necessity to read said story just because it has dragons in it. When these dragons can take human forms, however, all bets are off! Part of it is the fascination with liminal states, part of it is this trope harkening to stories from my childhood (in Vietnamese tales dragons almost always can take on a human form, and indeed one of the foundational myths of Vietnam is that the first kings are descended from the union of a dragon and a mountain immortal), and part of it is just that it’s cool! Though they’re not shape-shifters, I like the coiled menace, the ruthlessness and the utter loyalty of the Dragons in Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels (Morollan and his cousin Aliera are just the best characters). Michelle Sagara’s Elantra novels take place in a supernatural city where many races cohabit, one of these being shapeshifting dragons who cannot take on their dragon shape without permission, but who can armour with scales and weigh heavier than a human being. And Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown and its sequel The True Queen have the adorablest dragon/human queer couple, the level-headed dragon fairy Rollo and his debonair lover Damerell.
-Supernatural cop stories, with banter and characters. I have a huge weakness for detective stories in a fantasy or science fiction story in general: I just love the trappings of a good investigation in a different universe. But I have a particular one for stories where those detective stories are accompanied by solid characters, and with a solid dollop of humour to balance the fundamental darkness of the robbery/murder story. Simon Green’s Hawk and Fisher stories feature the eponymous duo trying to keep the peace in a corrupt city, and my very favourite episode takes place in a locked tower where no one is as they seem. Vivian Shaw’s Strange Practise and Dreadful Company aren’t quite murder mysteries, but they feature everything I like: a lot of humour, characters who are supernatural and yet have to deal with the difficulties of daily life such as a vampire needing to find a doctor, and the noir atmosphere of a thriller (plus, as a bonus, Varney the lunar vampire, who’s just such a cute character). And finally, the TV show Lucifer mixes murder investigation with a cast of supernatural beings such as angels and demons that have to contend with Los Angeles and to navigate their own disastrous relationships, in a cross between a procedural and a soap opera that just hits all my “give me more, give me now” buttons.
-Count of Monte Cristo retellings aka “political intrigue with vengeance from beyond the grave”. Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo was a huge foundational novel for me: I gobbled it up in high school and reread it every few years. There’s something about the revenge plot, the delicious Gothicness of it, that gets me every time–and it’s not just the revenge, but also the disguise plot, the idea that someone who was once quite familiar to the main cast now moves among them unseen and with their own agenda. I quite enjoyed Gwyneth Jones’s Spirit, a gender-swapped retelling, where the main character comes back and has to navigate her relationship with her own son (in a universe that actually leans quite a bit on Chinese traditions though it’s low-key and not made a big deal of). Not strictly genre and probably not a strict retelling either (it probably draws from a different tradition), but Nirvana in Fire has everything I want: court intrigues, the main character having to cross paths with his former sweetheart and disguise his feelings for her, and a varied cast of characters with various degrees of involvement in the crimes of the past that saw the main character left for dead. And Gankutsuou is a glorious, flamboyant anime version where the Count is in a parasitic relationship with an alien, demonic being, where duels are fought with mechas and the Grand Tour is taken to the moon instead of to Italy.
Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris. She has won two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and four British Science Fiction Association Awards, and is a Nebula award finalist and double Hugo finalist for 2019 (Best Series and Best Novella). Most recently she published In the Vanishers’ Palace, a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they are both women and where the Beast is a Vietnamese dragon (2018 Lammy Award finalist for LGBTQ SF/F/Horror). Recent works include the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which comprises The House of Shattered Wings, The House of Binding Thorns, and forthcoming The House of Sundering Flames. Visit aliettedebodard.com for more information.