People sometimes ask why fantasy is about kings and queens and princes and princesses — is it some strange authoritarian desire? Why aren’t there many stories about fantasy republics? One of the reasons is I think fantasy’s roots in fairy tale. Fairy tale kingdoms are families drawn large; when fairy tales talk about kings and princes they’re talking about fathers and sons. Sean Stewart’s Nobody’s Son (1993) is a very unusual fantasy novel. It’s rooted in fairy tale, but it’s not a retelling of one specific fairy tale the way these things normally are. It’s rooted in the concept of fairy tale, the world of fairy tale and what that means when it’s real. And it’s about growing up, which is one of the most common themes of fiction, but Nobody’s Son is not an instructive tale about coming of age for those who have not yet come of age. This is a story about growing up for people on the other side of that, people who know that it isn’t a thing people do once and for good and then it’s over.
Shielder’s Mark is “nobody’s son”, a peasant who succeeds in the quest great knights have failed at and wins a dukedom and the hand of a princess — and only then finds things getting complicated.
“What a crazy world it were.” Mark thought grimly, “When the happily ever after part is harder than the story part.”
This is a story about families and being worthy of love, and it’s the story of defeating ancient evil and current spite. It’s not so much about living happily ever after as how things you think are over and completed can still grab hold of you at unexpected moments.
Nobody’s Son is immensely readable and has genuine emotional depth. It also has excellent characters — Mark himself, with his best trick of changing his opponent’s ground and his self doubt, Gail, the princess who sees him as a way of escape from a cage, Lissa, her lady in waiting, who understands etiquette and how to get things done, and Valerian, the courtier scholar who has studied everything except what he’s supposed to know. The four of them and the way the friendship develops are the core of the book.
Stewart makes the world seem solid, even though we barely see any of it. There isn’t much you could call worldbuilding — there are castles and inns and blacksmiths and builders, there are fashions and theologians and duels. This isn’t the kind of book Where it feels real as in the references to “Grandfather days” when things were different, and in the magic seeping back into the world after Mark’s heroic adventure. The world is emotionally solid and logical and it’s as realistically solid as it needs to be to hold the characters and the plot. This isn’t set in a simulacrum of history, it’s set solidly in a fairy tale, which is a fascinating thing to do.
What Nobody’s Son is really interested in addressing is:
There are only four great adventures in life, being born, being married, being a parent, and dying.
It will not have escaped your notice that those are adventures which are possible for people to enjoy even without being in a fairy tale, and Stewart has smart observations about them.
Despite the lively and significant presence of Gail and Lissa, this is much more a book about fathers and sons than it is about mothers and daughters — Stewart’s mothers and daughters book is Mockingbird.
My only problem with Nobody’s Son, and with Stewart in general, is that his books run through me like water — refreshing and delightful but difficult to hold on to. This is either the third or fourth time I have read this and I couldn’t remember what happened to save my life. I only seem able to retain images and moods. I’m writing about it the second I finished it, rather than giving it some reflection as I usually do, because I know that rather than developing more, it will slip away from me.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo nominated and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.