Tue
Aug 6 2013 9:00am
I Hate Boats

Boat voyages in epic fantasy

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.


Carl Engle-Laird is an editorial assistant, Way of Kings Rereader, and Stormlight Archive correspondent for Tor.com. You can follow him on Twitter here, or by searching for #boatrage.

31 comments
a1ay
1. a1ay
This takes two paragraphs. Kvothe says outright that, as thrilling an
desperate as his adventures might have been, they are irrelevant to the plot and would only take up valuable time.

A trick managed very well by Rossignol, writing to Louis XIV in Quicksilver:


"Of my journey to the Hague, much could be written in a vulgar and sensational vein, if I felt that I could better serve your majesty by producing an entertainment. But it is all beside the point of this report. And as better men than I have sacrificed their lives in your service with no thought of fame, or of reward beyond a small share in the glory of la France, I do not think it is meet for me to relate my tale here; after all, what an Englishman (for example) might fancy to be a stirring and glorious adventure is, to a gentleman of France, altogether routine and unremarkable. I arrived in the Hague on the 18th of October and reported to the French embassy, where M. le comte d'Avaux saw to it that what remained of my clothing was burned in the street; that the body of my manservant was given a Christian burial; that my horse was destroyed so he would not infect the others; and that my pitchfork-wounds and torch-burns were tended by a French barber-surgeon who lives in that city. On the following day I began my investigation..."

Minor query:
The nautical setting also allowed Lynch to create Zamira Drakasha, a
widowed, black, middle-aged pirate captain with two children.

Is she widowed? I'm not sure we ever hear anything about her children's father (or fathers), alive or dead. I always assumed that she was just a single mother. But it's been a few years since I read it.
Sean Tabor
2. wingracer
I am a nautical person. In fact, I just passed my exam to become a licensed captain. Yet a agree with this article completely. Most fantasy makes a naval voyage seem like either the most boring moment in human history or an excercise in pastiche. Fortunately as you pointed out, it can and has been done brilliantly. Let's hope more authors figure it out.
Jeff LaSala
3. JLaSala
Well said, Carl. While I agree that many attrition-plagued fantasy novels can blame boat-shaped problems, I can't agree that Tolkien is to blame at large. At least the westward-bound boats at the Grey Havens granted a nobility—I daresay an immortality—to the seafaring condition. But those were endings, not...well, adventures.

In any case, you'll have me paying more attention to boats. I recently readThe Swords of Lankhmar, and far too much page space was given to time on ships. Even though that was central to the plot, it still managed to slow things down. And I like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.
Nick Sardella
4. Mithrandir42
It's true. We all do have those little things that bother us. I, for one, love war-oriented and action-packed novels. Yet for some reason I often have great difficulty reading battle sequences. I love the incorporation of them, but I read them and my mind drifts and I realize I have no idea what happened for the last three paragraphs and have to reread them in order to understand what is going on. Some writers do fight and war scenes better than others (I find Sanderson's very easy to read and exciting). As you can imagine, A Memory of Light was difficult for me...

RE: Boats: What you say is true, Carl. I particularly empathize with those sequences in WoT. Scenes on boats, I often do not reread with the care I do action sequences. It seems that there are often only two types of characters on ships: the grumpy captains and the idiotic, profane sailors. This can get quite boring...

On The Wise Man's Fear, wasn't the rest of the book after Kvothe's shipwreck just a series of increasingly irrelevant tangents? (I'll have you know, I still loved the book.)
a1ay
5. Hungry_For_Hands
I am surprised there was no mention of Robin Hobb in the article. I'd be curious to hear Carl's thoughts on the Liveship trilogy. I was hesitant at first when I saw that the series was centered around boats, but I ended up enjoying it.
a1ay
6. a1ay
And, indeed, the one outbreak of real shipboard derring-do in "The Lord of the Rings" is Aragorn capturing the corsair fleet, embarking the men of west Gondor and sailing to the battle of the Pelennor Fields - and we see absolutely nothing of it. It's narrated in about two sentences.
Toby Firth
7. scio
I had never thought about how many boat journeys are very similar but thinking about it now I can. And WoT was the first example that sprang to mind.

@4 I think that there was some relevant stuff in that part of the book but it is very well hidden amongst everything else.
Joseph James
8. wjames1204
The first example that came to mind is a fresh one for me: Captain's Fury by Jim Butcher. It lines up perfectly: main character seasick, there are descriptions of the beauty of the open sea (because he's never seen it), then the "one of four events" is actually two: a storm and pirate attack wrapped into one. Throw in the danger of the Leviathons and you've got just about the perfect cookie-cutter ship scene.

I've got one in the book I'm writing, but it's mostly a one chapter character reflection where the reader learns more about our two main characters before the break into Part 2 of the book. Simple, and purely intended to move characters from one place to another, geographically and emotionally.
Derek Broughton
9. auspex
From your first explanation of your reasons, I was thinking Red Seas Under Red Skies was a counterexample, so I was pleased to see it mentioned. But I do pretty much agree. And I love boats!

As for Rothfuss, sure he glossed over the nautical voyage (in such a way as to suggest he feels about them, at least in fantasy, much as you do), but then he spent pages 65 pages with a "freakin' hot sex fairy"…
a1ay
10. landofnowhere
Rosencrantz: Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no... death is not. Death isn't. Take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I've frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no... what you've been is not on boats.
The thing with The Name of the Wind eliding the sea journey bit reminds me of Hamlet.
a1ay
11. TBGH
Frodo and Bilbo took to the ship; not Sam who stayed behind with Rosie. (Was that her name . . .)

Otherwise though, I largely agree about the trope. Sometimes good, often bad.
Robert Dickinson
12. ChocolateRob
I've only just noticed who wrote this article, are you getting worried about Shallan/Jasnah's upcoming journey to the Shattered Plains Carl?
Nick Sardella
13. Mithrandir42
I don't think we have much to worry about for Shallan and Jasnah's voyage; Sanderson tends to skip over extended journeys and get to the good stuff.
Rob Munnelly
14. RobMRobM
Re bad examples of ship stuff - Naomi Novik's Temeraire books. Long sea voyages with nothing but dragons complaining and fighting among themselves, with the occasional crisis dropped in when a hurricaine shows up or someone causes a kitchen fire. Shoot me in the head. Please.

I'd love to hear Carl's counterexamples of good ship stuff. Robin Hobb Liveship could be counterexample 1. Robin Hobb's third Tawny Man book, with the long trip to the Outislands that had all sorts of things happening could be counterexample 2. I'm working on counterexample 3 as we speak....
Rafael
16. Ryamano
I did not like the ship voyage in Tanwy Man series. I preferred what happened once they reached their destination. To me only one thing was learned in that ship voyage, which was how matrilineal societies work and who is the male figure in the family in that case.
Alan Brown
17. AlanBrown
If you "landlubbers" think sea journeys set your teeth on edge, try being someone who has spent some time at sea, and reading all these collections of cliches and second hand thoughts that pass for sea journeys in so many novels. Sets your teeth on edge.
And it is not just limited to sea journeys. I have seen similar problems with land journeys. Blah blah blah, here's a forest, with some dark lurking creatures in it, blah blah, over the mountains with perhaps and avalanche or broken rope on a cliff face, blah blah, fall into a river, blah blah, through the valley of the hideous beast, blah blah.
I think the problem occurs when authors use journeys as a way to get somewhere so something can happen that furthers the plot. Where, as has been pointed out, when the plot advances and characters develop while the characters are traveling, and the journey becomes an integral part of the tale, the whole thing comes to life.
a1ay
18. Kasiki
@11 TBGH- There was one ship left waiting for Sam in the books. Sam was a ring bearer for all of a matter of a few hours so he was allowed to finish the book as well as live a loong life in Bag End. After his wife died he then took what is supposed to be the last ship some 80 years (guesstimate) after Frodo.

For the most part i agree with the premise, that Boats generally grind things to a halt, but even if they are fomulaic, the key is the story. Is what happens something that helps the story. @ 8. wjames1204 mentioned Captiains fury, and while it does fall into the fomula it also fits the story. There is a reason for this stuf happeneing and not simply having this stuff happen to pass time on a boat. When a return trip is in order the trip is reduced to a chapter that have little to do with the actual voyage and more to do with the story and characters.

There in lies the Key difference. Is the voyage simply filler, that pads the length of the book? or is it something that semlessly is a part of and adds to the story and its characters. ther is a feeling that too often authors feel obligated that if they are on a boat something must therefore happen, even if there is no reason for it.
Cheryl Sanders
19. RestlessSpirit
I too detest voyages by ship or boat, especially your references to the WoT. I'd like to present another counterexample: the Janny Wurtz "War of Light and Shadow" novels. These books have some brilliant nautical moments that are central to the plot and one of the major characters. The only thing that wore after a while was the brooding hero.
Nick Sardella
20. Mithrandir42
@18- I think you are correct. Authors so often need to move characters across Long distances, and I think they are afraid to just have nothing happen and skip the journey in the narrative. The issue is that being on a boat or traveling by horse with a group of people in close quarters for a long period of time is a great way to develop character interactions and introduce more little conflicts. It is hard to ignore that opportunity, and so author feel pressured to have something interesting happen. They should take a hint from "Indiana Jones" where we only see any part of the jlirney
Shelly wb
21. shellywb
I like times aboard boats, when done well. They serve as breaks from the standard adventure narrative and condense the world the characters are roaming in so that there can be more growth in relationships, since there's not a lot else to do one a ship. Some books are just really memorable because of their boat scenes. Le Guin's The Farthest Shore used a trip beautifully. Kage Baker's The Anvil of the World is another.
Nick Sardella
22. Mithrandir42
Edit to finish my comment at 20 (I pressed post by accident): journey when it actually has to do with the plot.
a1ay
23. Crane Hana
I've sailed small craft just enough to know how bad at it I really am. So when I had a major sea voyage facing a character in a recent short story, all I said was 'over half a year later' the main character saw his destination on the watery horizon. Nothing of note happened on the voyage, save the fact that he chose it instead of teleporting instantly.

Another vote for Kage Baker's tightly written micro-world of a riverboat, in her 'Anvil' series.
a1ay
24. Mitchmaster
Truly biased drivel. There are a ton of great stories that include boats but are utterly devoid of vomiting and sailor envy. And the plight of a person surrounded on all sides by a formless danger that could destroy them at any time is a classicly dramatic scenario, one which describes forests nearly as well as it does the sea. Where is your rage against forests? It is just a matter of taste, and as a mentor of mine is fond of saying: that's why we have different flavored jelly beans.
Nathaniel Gulick
25. PresN
Makes me wonder what your opinion of China Mieville's "The Scar", where, even when the characters are in a city, they're still on a boat. I don't think they're ever on land beyond a brief segment on an island.
a1ay
26. Nix
PresN, my understanding is that _The Scar_, _The Anvil of the World_ and of course _The Farthest Shore_ would not come under the 'I hate boats' heading, because in none of these cases is the boat used as an excuse for a bad and deeply dull travelogue and/or cliche-storm.
a1ay
27. DStaal
I think you are special-casing what is essentially a general problem: Journies. It doesn't really matter whether the journey is by foot, horse, boat, car, bus, train, dragon, portal, spaceship, or whatever other form of transport the author can dream up: A journey puts your characters in a limited company, for long periods of time, with little outside influence. Two things can happen on a journey, in a story: The characters can showcase who they are, or they can get to the next plot point. (Of course, the journey itself could be the story, but that's a different situation. You could generalize out to 'transitions', if you really wanted to.)

The problem nearly always comes when an author tries to do both. That is, the purpose of the journey is to get to a location that has a plot point, but the author has decided to use the opportunity to show of their characters. What you end up with then is essentially meaningless character interaction - it has no affect on the story, or the characters, and just fills pages. Your 'hardships of the journey, beauty of the journey, complication' pattern fits nearly all of these cases.

And the solution is universal: If the journey itself isn't part of the plot, remove it. Nothing important is happening, so don't make the readers read the unimportant filler.
a1ay
28. LyrialZander
Neil Gaiman's "Stardust" was a delightful little novel that I quite liked, as I do most of his work. However I was somehow bored with the Escape via Crossdressing Airship Pirate Captain subplot. I barely remembered the character when the film was made and when Robert DeNiro was cast in the role his part was expanded and it SWALLOWED the rest of the movie. It's strange how an actor I love, in a story I enjoyed, written by an author I adore, can translate so soooo badly onto film. It am certain it's because the boring boat part was made the focus. Great article. :)
a1ay
29. Tura
Perhaps because I seem to be immune to seasickness, I always feel frustrated reading when one of the party succumbs to a really bad case of it. I wouldn't mind it, except it is EVERY frigging time and takes way too much desription time. Or it played for humour, which must be galling to anyone really puking until they faint. Could you not for once have a group where no-one is sick? It's also true that you do not need to describe the tedium if nothing relating to the plot happens. Not every ship has a mutiny either, or shipping would have become an unviable business a long time ago, and there would be no ships to buy passage on for our intrepid party of adventurers.
a1ay
30. Strider
"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."
Bravo good sir indeed!!

I feel exaclty the same way.

Much as I try I still can't get past the opening chapters in Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders series.

I still remember being somewhat surprised 20+ years ago that Kings Buccaneer was as readable as it was... But that's the point isn't it. I still supressed a groan going into it that this would be a 'boat story'.
alastair chadwin
31. a-j
LyrialZander@28
Neil Gaiman's "Stardust" was a delightful little novel that I quite liked, as I do most of his work. However I was somehow bored with the Escape via Crossdressing Airship Pirate Captain subplot. I barely remembered the character when the film was made and when Robert DeNiro was cast in the role his part was expanded and it SWALLOWED the rest of the movie.
Except that the cross-dressing captain is not in the novel, only the film. In the book, the airship sequence only takes a few pages.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment