Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Untold Tale by J.M. Frey

Let me start by saying, for those who are of the "TLDR" persuasion, that I think that J.M. Frey's The Untold Tale is the most important work of fantasy written in 2015. It may be the most important work of fantasy written this decade, but I'll have to get back to you on that in 2020.

I was excited when I first received an electronic copy of J.M. Frey's The Untold Tale, as I loved both Triptych, her breakout novel and one of the best time-travel tales I've ever read, and Dark Side of the Glass, her funny and smart metafictional response to Twilight. When I learned that The Untold Tale was going to be fantasy, I felt like it could be her literary hat trick in speculative fiction - science fiction, horror, and fantasy.

I'd also heard this was another work of metafiction, but given what Frey had done with Dark Side of the Glass, I was curious to see what she'd do with a secondary world of wizards and warriors, swords and sorcery, dungeons and dragons. It turned out to be very intriguing: The Untold Tale begins with an unlikely hero, Forsyth Turn, a stuttering, intellectual lordling who moonlights as a fantasy Zorro/Batman in the employ of the King. He's not Conan or Aragorn or even Elric. He's a nice guy. His servants and subjects really like him. But he lives in the shadow of his awesome brother, who is more cock-sure than Conan and more arrogant than Aragorn (and I mean Tolkien's Aragorn, who's pretty arrogant when compared with Viggo's Aragorn) without even a smattering of Elric. He's a young version of Zemeckis' Beowulf.  Add the mystery of a woman who's been exquisitely tortured turning up on Turn's doorstep, and our story is off to an engaging start.

I expected metafictional commentary on fantasy, and I got it. In addition to Forsyth Turn being an unlikely fantasy hero (though only insofar that he's not a hobbit - Tolkien's hobbits and Forsyth Turn have a few things in common in their unlikeliness), Pip the mystery woman is not your typical fantasy heroine. She does not swoon - she swears (like the proverbial sailor). She is not powerless, she is empowered. I could go on, but you likely get it. She is the heir-apparent to Princess Leia, Ripley, Sarah Connor, Buffy, et al. Part of my brain said "hey, neither of these things is really all that original, but I appreciate reiteration, since women are still fighting for positive representation in geek narratives. It's still meta, even if it isn't so fresh (for those who read no further, this is part of Frey's game - she knows none of this particularly fresh. This was all just preamble).

Then there was the quest itself: instead of just going the way of Voltaire’s Candide (or even Tolkien’s hobbits) stumbling into situations, Pip makes a plan based upon standard fantasy narratives (I would explain this further, but there are both spoilers and a great joke in the name of this plan which are best experienced first-hand). Imagine fantasy roleplaying characters who not only how to achieve their quest with the least amount of violence and suspense, but WANT to achieve their quest in that safe and sensible fashion, because it leaves more time for sex.

Lots of sex. And with that salacious teaser, I want to make clear who should and should not read this book.

First, who should not read this book:

People who don't like sex. If you don’t like explicit sex scenes, you will not like this book. You might say, “Well I’ll just skip those bits,” but the absence of those torrid moments of passion will weaken the emotional impact of the book’s big reveal. Unlike so many other works of fantasy, this book needs its sex scenes.

People who don’t mind sex. You’re still going to think, “Son of a bitch, that’s a lot of sex.”

People who don’t like swearing. If you were just offended when I said “Son of a bitch, that’s a lot of sex,” then there’s a good chance you’re going to think, “Son of a bitch, that’s a lot of swearing.” 

Double up your offended sensibilities if you think women shouldn’t cuss.

People who think that modern Sword and Sorcery should still read like Robert E. Howard's "Vale of Lost Women," (to be clear, I love Howard - but "Vale" is sexist and racist and is, by consensus, one of the man's worst stories). Not only will you hate this book, but you’re the reason this book was written. And for the record, if the Sad Puppies are right, there’s a conspiracy going on right now to see this book win the Hugo, because if it does, Vox Day is going to transform into that Dagon monster at the end of Conan the Destroyer and he’s going to go on a rampage. So if that’s something you want to see happen, then you’re probably someone who should read this book.

People who think that rape is a smart motivation for a female character. Or torture. Or unbridled desire for the male lead as governing purpose. If degradation of women seems like a traditional fantasy trope to you, and you think that’s the way it should be, you’re going to hate this book. Which is sad, because if you could just see your way to reading it, you might change the way you think. 
People who want their fantasy to have a lot of action and creatures and violence. If you’re looking for a dungeon crawl to read, go somewhere else. You will not enjoy the easy pace Frey takes in the first half. This is a book where the heroes ponder, not pound their way out of a crisis.

People who are homophobic. Not only is there a lot of sex, there are many positive references to progressive sexuality. Westboro Baptist will picket this book the second it gets famous.

I’d really like it if all the types of people who I just mentioned would read this book, because it’s worth the journey, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. In fact, all the more if it makes you uncomfortable.

People who should read The Untold Tale

People who like sex. Now, you might say, “isn’t it enough that I can endure or just appreciate the sex scenes?” Yeah, it’s enough. But if you’re like me, and they get you a little hot, then the moment when Frey pulls the rug out from under you will have way more impact. I haven’t felt that manipulated since my Salsa dance teacher trotted me around the room to give me a sense of the steps. And in a way, that’s what Frey is doing also.

People who want to see smarter writing about women, people of colour, and LGBTQ characters: who are tired of writers mistaking the nostalgic impulse of fantasy for reifying outdated ways of treating the Other, whomever the Other may be.

People who read for more than “what happens next.” People who enjoy a turn of phrase as much as turning a page.

By now, you should know whether or not you want to read this book, and I can move on to spoilers. Go away and read it, then come back and read my analysis of the back half of the book.


Halfway through the book, after that passionate sex scene, after Pip and Forsyth are apparently deeply in love, we discover that she’s been under the control of the villain since page one. A sharp reader might see this coming, but even if they did, they might miss the full implications of that plot device. You see, it means more than just “the villain can see through Pip’s eyes.” It means that Pip might not really love Forsyth. And it means, horror of horrors, that every sex scene you’ve enjoyed thus far was effectively a moment of rape. Obviously, Forsyth had no idea what he was doing, but the evil mastermind behind Pip’s eyes did. And here’s where the really serious metacommentary engages. Everything to this point is, to a degree, prelude. And so The Untold Tale not only requires brave readers, but patient ones as well. I do not think this is a failing of the book. Too long we’ve been told by publishers (and elementary school librarians) that a good way of assessing if we want to read a book is to read the first three pages. I’d have never read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Out of the Silent Planet, or Lord of the Rings by that standard. J.M. Frey is an amazing writer, and most people won’t ever find this out because they haven’t been trained to be patient (or brave) with their reading.

Now think about Pip’s rape from a meta-perspective. A force controlling her has made her appear to love and want to unreservedly fuck Forsyth. And while I saw that there was a force controlling her, it didn’t occur to me that this extended to the sex scenes. When I did, it was like being slapped. I’ve enjoyed Conan since I was a kid. And I’ll readily admit, I enjoyed it (and still do) for those moments when the female lead throws herself at Conan’s feet. It’s a male power fantasy. Now, if that was but one of many sexual fantasies finding space in fantasy novels, it wouldn’t be an issue. But it’s the primary one. It’s the one that gets the most play and results in the greatest successes. Look at the marketing for most fantasy games online – some buxom elf or warrior woman. Frey is responding to this overused, terribly tired trope, and body slamming it.

Like many critics who appear to have never finished the book, I was emotionally charged enough to want to stop reading. I was angry. Angry at Frey for making me face that male power fantasy and interrogate it. Angry at Frey for taking what I took for love between Pip and Forsyth (a character I identified with very closely) and telling me it hadn’t happened. Angry on Pip’s behalf, because what was done to her was wrong. And that’s when I realized this was the most important work of fantasy in 2015. Suddenly, I didn’t just want Pip not to be raped. I wanted a lot of fictional women who had been thrown at the hero’s feet by their controlling mastermind to be vindicated.

It’s the same thing John Scalzi did with the lazy writing of Trek-style episodic narratives in Red Shirts. He wasn’t saying, “Trek sucks.” He was saying, “Trek could be so much better. And here’s how.” It was a call for better writing.

The Untold Tale does for fantasy what Redshirts did for SF. It addresses a particular area that needs to see change. And before you say that writers like Frey are just placing feminist shackles on everything, make sure you read the rest of The Untold Tale. Because Frey doesn’t just slap the guys with the male power fantasy. She slaps the self-righteous voices that ignore a partner’s “right to desire.” In the case of The Untold Tale, that partner is male, because it is Forsyth who calls Pip out on this. And this is appropriate, because it’s likely mostly men who will feel the full brunt of Frey’s chastisement.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I read those words, because I’d been arguing that very thing in my head for chapter after chapter. The metacommentary had felt very one-sided to that point. And Frey doesn’t stop with that. She takes a few more turns (all puns intended) with her meta-conversation before the end of the book, concluding in a fashion which is exceedingly satisfying.

In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien talks about the eucatastrophe, which is effectively the consolation that emerges from the darkness near the end of good fantasy. Something terrible must happen before the hero can win out, or the stakes aren’t high enough: if the stakes are high enough, the happy ending, as Tolkien put it, “ pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” But this cannot come without Frodo at the edge of the Cracks of Doom, overcome by the Ring. We as the reader must despair, or the victory will not feel worth having. Frey takes her reader on a very dark journey – one that is primarily internal and emotional in terms of darkness. Forsyth and Pip perch at the edge of a volcano, but it is a relational one, not physical. And the book took its darkest turn for me when Forsyth gave his love as a sacrifice so they could complete their quest. It’s my favourite moment of the book, though when I read it, it was just painful. The idea of giving the love you feel for someone because that love causes you pain was incredible.

And this is the best reason to consider reading The Untold Tale, and why it's one of the most important works of fantasy from 2015. Because it isn’t just smart metacommentary--a book with nothing but a social agenda usually makes for crap reading, because it isn't a story, it's a sermon. Beyond what it has to say about the genre of fantasy, The Untold Tale is a wonderful fantasy story set in a beautiful secondary world: one I look forward to journeying through again.