And we’re back from the brief and unplanned Fourth of July Hiatus. I was away on vacation and didn’t have the means or time to work on these blog posts. But fear not! We shall return to the regularly scheduled posts on all things story and narrative related.
Thankfully, this break gave me an opportunity to catch up on my reading; so, for today, I would like to offer a book review of sorts. But rather than reviewing the entire book, I’m going to focus on narrative conventions that I feel the author did exceptionally well.
Without further ado, I present you the review of Age of Myth, an epic adventure-fantasy novel by Michael J. Sullivan. Here is the back cover description:
Since time immemorial, humans have worshipped the gods they call Fhrey, truly a race apart: invincible in battle, masters of magic, and seemingly immortal. But when a god falls to a human blade, the balance of power between humans and those they thought were gods changes forever.
Now only a few stand between humankind and annihilation: Raithe, reluctant to embrace his destiny as the God Killer; Suri, a young seer burdened by signs of impending doom; and Persephone, who must overcome personal tragedy to lead her people. The Age of Myth is over. The time of rebellion has begun.
I picked this book up on a whim: one day, I was at Barnes and Noble to pick up a Star Wars novel I had been waiting for when this one, located on the same rack as the Star Wars book, caught my eye. It seemed interesting enough and so, after reading some reviews, bought it as well. Unfortunately, it took me a little bit before I became invested: I started reading it the next day, but the first chapter seemed to jump right into the action with seemingly little thought. I started to read something else and I didn’t pick it back up until the past week; however, once I did, it sunk its hooks in and it was only a matter of days before I finished it.
A brief, non-spoiler filled review: For anyone looking to satisfy their adventure fantasy itch and have exhausted your options, this is the book – and probably author -for you. The world Michael J. Sullivan has is fleshed out and feels real… though it helps that he has written nine other books that take place in the same world, albeit far in the future. It manages to avoid being overly “grimdark” by having its characters, notably the ones who admit to being violent, still act in noble and admirable ways (and NOT dying because of it). Furthermore, the entire story has a clear underpinning of hope and striving to overcome the calamity Suri the Mystic predicts (this stands in contrast with the current fantasy genre heavyweight, A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, but that is a discussion for another time). It’s easy to empathize with its main cast of characters, whether it’s with Raithe and his desire to lead a peaceful life or Persephone in her efforts to keep her clan together despite recent events or even Suri and her great love for her best friend, Minna the wisest of all wolves.
For today’s Narrative Nuisance musings, I want to explore how Michael J. Sullivan uses time-honored narrative conventions to maximum effect: setup, payoff, and misdirection. From here on out, there will be SPOILERS. I am also assuming that you either have read or are at least familiar with the story. With that said, we can start in earnest.
Grin the Brown, the Demon Bear
At the beginning of Persephone’s story, we immediately know two things:
- Her husband and son are both dead
- They were killed by a vicious bear, named Grin the Brown
Grin the Brown had been a nuisance around Dahl Rhen, Penelope’s hometown (which are called dahls), for quite some time, killing livestock and attacking villagers and whatnot, but this recent attack was particularly horrible. Following the attack on Penelope’s son, her husband Reglan – who was also the chieftain of the dahl – gathered his best men and went out to kill the beast. The Grin proved to be too much for the men of Dahl Rhen, killing Reglan and maiming a several of the others. It didn’t help matters when Konniger, Reglan’s right-hand man and one of the survivors of the failed hunt, proclaimed that Grin must be a demon for she can’t be killed. This is further solidified when, on their way to converse with the great oak tree Magda, Persephone and Suri discussed potential dangers of the forest. Persephone asked about bears and if they would be a problem. Suri told her they had little to worry about since bears were often “nice” and “playful”. Intrigued, Persephone asked the mystic, “Does that include the Brown?” Suri, brow furrowed, replied: “Grin is… different.”
At this point, the reader only knows about Grin the Brown through the story’s “word-of-mouth”, so to speak. She has killed several people of the dahl and the eccentric teenage mystic – whose best friend is a wolf, keep in mind – finds something off-putting about this bear. Clearly, there is something about this animal that has to be otherworldly. Perhaps Konniger was right to call Grin the Brown a demon…
Fast-forward a little – after Persephone and Suri met with the “God Killer” Raithe and his companion Malcolm following a botched assassination attempt on the two women – the group were given their somewhat cryptic “instructions” from the tree Magda. As they departed, Suri and Minna intending the return to their forest lives, they were attacked by a pack of wolves. Suri and Minna rescued Persephone, Raithe, and Malcolm and led them to a safe place, an underground chamber that Raithe recognized as a “Dhearg rol”, a structure left behind by a race of underground dwellers driven out by the Fhrey. As the wolves attempted to find a way in to the rol, they are met with the demon that plagues the forest: Grin the Brown. The wolves attacked the demon bear, but one by one the Brown kills them all. Rather than feasting on her fresh kill, Grin instead started to break down the door to the structure. When she realized the futility of her attempts, she walked away, leaving the corpses of the wolves undisturbed. The four are left distressingly confused: what predator would completely ignore the fresh meat they had just killed and, instead, go for the nearby humans? Only one of the demonic variety.
Back at the dahl, Persephone and the others, wishing to know when the danger Suri predicted was going to arrive, ask the mystic to if she can tell the future. Suri, ever the confident mystic, simply asked for some bird bones. They graciously obliged, giving her the chicken bones from their dinner. After she performed the necessary rituals, the bones told her that there was going to be an attack the day after the full moon by a being named Grin… something. The last part was unclear (chicken bones are incredibly fickle, according to Suri) but they all reached the same conclusion: Grin the Brown was going to destroy the dahl unless they do something to prevent it.
Toward the climax of the story, Suri set out with Dahl Rhen’s Keeper of the Ways, Maeve, to find Grin the Brown. Suri had determined that Grin must be Maeve’s daughter who had been abandoned in the forest over a decade ago and was possessed by a demon who transformed her into a bear. This was confirmed by Konniger, who supposedly witnessed it happen. Since Suri knows how to exorcise demons, she was fairly confident that she could successfully do it. After they found Grin’s cave an set the trap, Maeve made a startling connection: Suri must be her daughter. Everything about her story fits: abandoned fourteen years ago and saved by the previous mystic. But her realization came too late as the bear had returned to her cave. Maeve made a last ditch effort to save Suri at the cost of her life. Furthermore, Suri’s traps – which were designed to exorcise the demon – failed and she was forced to resort to… alternative means: fire magic. Grin, wounded, fled the cave; Suri, processing the whole ordeal, reassessed her earlier assumption about Grin: she must be just an ordinary bear. Her taste for humans came from Maeve, who fed her the bodies of those who died during the Great Famine. However, she was left confused. The bones were clear: someone named Grin-something was going to attack the dahl. But their only culprit was just an regular bear. Unless…
Enter Gryndal, a powerful Fhrey sorcerer and advisor to their leader, Fane Lothin. He had come to dahl under the orders of the fane to deal with the troublesome warrior Fhrey who had defied orders and allied with the people of Dahl Rhen as well as another, rival sorcerer who had failed in the same mission. He was determined to destroy the Fhrey and the “vermin-like” humans of the dahl. It was in this moment that Suri pieced it together: it was Gryndal, not Grin the Brown, who was the threat to the town. Oh, those fickle chicken bones…
This isn’t the first time we meet Gryndal. By this moment, we know of his quirks, his superiority complex – namely that the members of his Fhrey tribe were the true gods and should be their leader – and his rivalry with Arion, the Fhrey sorceress who had failed in her mission. We also know he desired to be the fane and intended to use this as his start toward fane-dom. He’s a threat and we are told loud and clear that he is a threat. He had the power to literally move mountains and take control of the bodies of others, abilities we have heard about and seen in action. Fhrey not of his tribe fear him and his kind, and for good reason. We’re given all the reason to believe that Gryndal is truly the monster to destroy Dahl Rhen. But somehow, Grin the Bear remained at the front of our minds
The Art of Misdirection: A Conclusion
Michael J. Sullivan did an excellent job convincing readers that Grin the Brown was the true threat, an earth-shattering threat. At the beginning of the story, he set up that Grin the Brown was dangerous: she had not killed defenseless people but also trained warriors and hunters. While we did not see that directly, we saw the aftermath. This bear is bad news. It is all capped off with Konniger’s chilling assessment: the beast must be a demon.
He reinforced this several times: first, Suri told Persephone that Grin was, quite simply, different than other bears. This is made all the more disconcerting because Suri has a strong affinity with nature: her best friend is a wolf, she regularly converses with trees and bushes, and she’d rather spend her time outside in the rain than in a building made of her “dead companions.” She even went so far to say that finds bears to be pleasant. So for Suri, an eccentric nature-loving mystic, to be afraid of Grin is not insignificant. It clues to the readers, as well as Persephone, that something is amiss with Grin the Brown. Combined with Grin’s desire for nothing but human flesh and Suri’s bone-readings, the stage is set for Grin the Brown to be the demon that destroys Dahl Rhen. The evidence for Gryndal is laid out clear as day, but Grin the Brown is so more enticing.
The brilliance in this lies in two facts:
First, Michael J. Sullivan, just like Loki at his best, never lies to the audience. He doesn’t spring Gryndal on us at the last minute plot twist; rather, he slowly establishes his presence and his potential threat and imminent involvement with the story. But, he also gives us plenty of evidence that leads us to believe that Grin the Brown is a wild and invulnerable monstrosity with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. The people of Dahl Rhen as well as Raithe, Suri, Malcolm, and the fugitive Fhrey are all convinced of this as well, which makes this reality all the more compelling despite the known threat that is Gryndal.
Second, Michael J. Sullivan plays on the inherent fear most people have for the unknown. Grin the Brown, in many ways, is that mysterious sound in the night, that unidentifiable shadow in the darkness. She is a beast, one who hunts for people. Her behaviors are unusual, erratic, and chilling, unnerving the most stalwart of hunters and eccentric of mystics. Deep down, we want to believe that the real monster is demonic and otherworldly, something that is unfamiliar and inhuman. Gryndal, on the other hand, is something we all know: power-hungry, haughty, conniving, vengeful, and faithless. He is like so many villains we have seen throughout history (except for, you know, the magic part). But he has one important quality: an element of humanity. He looks like us, talks like us, holds beliefs that we either hold (though hopefully not) or know somebody who holds them. We want to believe that those we can identify with a little, even if it’s only on the surface, can’t be monstrous. Because if that were true, that would mean we all the capacity to become the demons we fear. It’s a difficult truth to accept and many don’t; that’s we continue to seek out monsters in the shadows, irrational beings that seek only to do us harm.
It’s easier that way.
Thank you for joining me for another Narrative Nuisance. I hope you found the discussion interesting, enlightening, and or thought-provoking and that I was able to show how a simple narrative misdirection can not only improve the suspense of a story but also lead to insights into our own believes and abilities to ignore what is right in front of us.
It’s also a great way to implement plot twists and keep us all on our toes.
Until next next…