When you spend years and years immersed in any genre, I think it’s inevitable that you will come to develop prejudices. Patterns will begin to emerge before your eyes that change the way you experience the fiction you consume. Some of these biases will be reasonable, some will be arbitrary, and some will be, well, practically inexplicable. I know people who love fantasy but hate swords. This baffles me, because clearly swords are very great, but I won’t judge that preference. I certainly have my own prejudices, and today I’m going to explain one of them.
I absolutely loathe boats.
Maybe it’s unavoidable that, over the course of an epic fantasy, an author will discover that some of his characters are on a different continent from where he or she needs them to be. It happens! Epic fantasy is made of big stories in big worlds, and in the absence of airships or super-convenient modes of teleportation, boats are going to be the dominant mode of traversing an ocean. That doesn’t mean I have to like it, though.
Whenever my beloved protagonists get on a boat, I groan, put the book on the table, and pace around the room muttering angrily to myself, alarming friends and loved ones. I can’t help it! I know exactly how the whole thing’s going to play out. In the first chapter of the voyage, one of my land-lubbing heroes will experience terrible seasickness while another marvels at the oh-so-different-and-interesting culture of the sailors. The seasick character will be furious at how easily her companions are adjusting (I’m looking at you, Nynaeve al’Meara), but won’t be able to express that anger through the force of her vomiting. In the next chapter, there will be poetic descriptions of the ocean, which I will skip. In the chapter after that, there will be one of four events: a storm, a pirate attack, a mutiny, or a becalming. In the aftermath, if I am very, very lucky, the heroes will be washed up on shore, either near their destination or in some other, equally important place. If I’m unlucky, the storm will be followed by a becalming, which will lead to a mutiny.
This will invariably take at least 100 pages. I would like those hundreds of pages of my life back, but they aren’t coming back. They are lost to humankind, sunk to the depths of the ocean.
The Worst Offender: Spoilers for A Dance with Dragons
I like Tyrion Lannister. I don’t think this is a controversial opinion. And, since he wasn’t in A Feast for Crows, I was looking forward to catching up with him in A Dance with Dragons. But there was a dark, looming shadow between me and my favorite character. Yeah, that shadow is boat shaped. Tyrion spends almost all of A Dance with Dragons slowly traversing the ocean, and then even-more-slowly travelling up a series of rivers. As an aside, riverboat voyages are normally less horrid for me than oceanic expeditions, but in this case I can make an exception. Tyrion is a schemer, a man who thrives when thrown into contact with the widest sampling of humanity, and adapting himself to wildly different social challenges at every moment, so it’s understandable how a boat might not be the best place to show off his talents. There are only so many people on any given boat, you see! Sometimes you can get bored of those people! Especially when their primary purpose is to move Tyrion Lannister from one place to another! I waited eleven years for Tyrion to come back, and when I saw him again it was on a boat.
That would have been more than bad enough, really, I promise. But that wasn’t even CLOSE to the end of my problems. Enter Quentyn Martell, a character who made his first on-page appearance in Dance with Dragons. What are Quentyn’s primary characteristics? Well, the best way to describe him is “essentially a boring human, who is travelling across the world to accomplish a stupid goal.” I kind of wish I were exaggerating, but even the kindest of men, Ser Barristan Selmy, can’t make him seem interesting: he says that Quentyn “seems a decent lad, sober, sensible, dutiful… but not the sort to make a young girl’s heart beat faster.” I’m not exactly swooning either, Barry. Quentyn gets ferried across the ocean for about 200 pages, tries to do the thing he set out to do, fails utterly, and then ceases to be important. Well, continues to fail to be important. We all needed this to happen, GRRM. And don’t EVEN get me started on the Greyjoys.
Spoilers for A Dance with Dragons Are Over Now
I have some theories as to how and why this happens. Writers of epic fantasy usually spend a tremendous amount of time worldbuilding. They have to, if they plan to spend five to ten thousand pages on a series. I imagine that authors sit down and plot out their characters, the cities they come from, the countries that will go to war, the civilizations that rose and fell to pave the way for this one, and so on. More anthropologically and archaeologically inclined authors, like Steven Erikson, will then go a few steps further, plotting out what artifacts and fossils lurk in each soil strata, how the slow discovery of ancient histories have shaped and remade entire civilizations, and how each extinct tribe’s fertility rites fit into his larger cosmology.
Authors take these cities and civilizations and embed them in vast, sprawling continents, beautiful and varied ecosystems containing a million million stories. Then they take their continents, put one there, slap another one on the other side of the world, maybe put a third one down south, and say “very nice, the rest can be water. I think I’ll name it Ocean.”
You know, in the end, I have to blame Tolkien for this nautical epidemic. The Lord of the Rings stamped its themes and textures across the whole of fantasy, setting the stage in so many ways, that it would be irresponsible of me to assume that this is an exception. You may protest that boats present a minimal impediment to one’s enjoyment of Tolkien’s masterwork. In fact, I agree with you! The Fellowship travels by riverboat for a while, but this segment is neither extended nor characterized by the plot structures I take exception to. Compared to the endless jogging across the countryside that makes up most of The Two Towers, that brief voyage barely registers. Those aren’t the boats I’m talking about, though.
Return of the King doesn’t actually end with the destruction of the ring, or the crowning of Aragorn, or even the Scouring of the Shire. It ends with Frodo and Sam sailing into the West, away from Middle-Earth, to the faraway Undying Lands on the other side of the great ocean Belegaer.
For elves and ringbearers alike, sailing into the West constitutes leaving behind Middle-Earth, the land of strife, conflict, and war. It is a spiritual retirement from relevance in favor of peaceful and eternal rest. The boat is a method of dying and going to heaven, essentially. So I think it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that, in Middle-Earth, boats were established as the place where plots go to die.
It doesn’t have to be this bad, really it doesn’t. Fantasy authors don’t need to throw hundreds of pages away on boring and formulaic cruises. Take, for example, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear, in which Kvothe must journey over water. Kvothe reports that he was beset by pirates, wracked by a storm, and almost drowned, that he washed up on land and had to journey bereft of most of his resources until finding his way to Severen. This takes two paragraphs. Kvothe says outright that, as thrilling and desperate as his adventures might have been, they are irrelevant to the plot and would only take up valuable time. Bravo, good sir!
The sad thing is that I think stories about boats and sailors can be incredibly compelling. A vessel on the open sea is a full, totally enclosed world unto itself. Boats are cramped, with a small and constant population whose tensions are inescapable. Despite this they are constantly confronted with deadly threats that motivate them to work together. When all of your protagonists can interact meaningfully with a storm, or a sea monster, or pirates, or a mutiny, those plots are truly fascinating. In fact, this article came to me not in a moment of hatred, but through my enjoyment of Susan Palwick’s “Homecoming.” In her latest short fiction for Tor.com, Palwick crafted a cast of characters who yearn desperately for the freedom promised by the sea, and in doing so convinced me to care as well.
And it’s not the case that longer works of fantasy are incapable of writing well about boats, either. The majority of Red Seas Under Red Skies, Scott Lynch’s second Gentleman Bastards novel, takes place on a pirate ship. Although Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen, Lynch’s protagonists, aren’t sailors themselves, they are thrust into a position of command on a pirate ship. They do their best to learn the ropes, but their sailors quickly realize how useless and dangerous these untried officers are. It’s a great way to get these criminal masterminds out of their natural element and keep things difficult for them. The nautical setting also allowed Lynch to create Zamira Drakasha, a widowed, black, middle-aged pirate captain with two children. Owning her own ship empowers Zamira to control an entire world, and the respect of all its population. It doesn’t hurt that she’s damn good at her job.
The difference between the boats in Red Seas Under Red Skies and, say, A Dance with Dragons is the level of commitment the authors bring to their subject. If you want to make me care about a boat-based plot, you have to fully commit to bringing out what makes boats interesting, and empower your characters to interact with the challenges they will face. Don’t just treat your sea voyage as an opportunity to have things happen to your helpless protagonists, who don’t know any more about how to sail than you do. If you do, the only result will be wasted pages.