The Start Of All New Things
With the New Year not long gone in our rear-view mirrors, it’s a perfect time to ponder “fresh starts” in fantasy. Usually, they signal a momentous turning point in the plot or in the development of our beloved characters. And those starts can come in many forms.
Power switches or coups are popular in fantasy. Think of Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, or any number of other series, where crowns and authority change hands multiple times. Whether it happens within a classic medieval setting or a far-flung universe, the dawn of a new reign brings repercussions and change. It’s a chance to introduce new players – friends, advisors or enemies the previous regime didn’t have – and a chance to flip status quo on its head, to upend the current ruling philosophy of that world. For better or worse.
The new reign can come about from something as simple as the death of an old ruler and succession of his or her heir, or it can involve bloody revolutions and battles for power. Why does the second always seem more fun? Either way, the genesis of a new reign and the ending of a previous always changes the flow of a story. It’s one of those great SFF moments where anything can happen next.
On a smaller scale, but no less fun, is the “fresh start through occupation change.” Get a new job; get a new outlook on life. Think of Luke Skywalker’s transition from farmer to Jedi, or Harry Dresden’s not-so-welcome addition of Winter Knight to his Wizard-for-Hire duties. An occupation change, especially one that’s forced on a character, leads to action and growth…and usually makes for great reading!
Fresh starts also come in the form of name changes. Fantasy books LOVE to play with characters’ names as an indication of a new phase or major change in their lives. Often, characters carry many names, like Kvothe in Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, or Rand al’Thor in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, or even Aragorn in Lord of the Rings.
Some of those names, the characters give to themselves, either to stay hidden or for protection. Others are given to them for their actions or inactions. I love this type of battlefield name change. I’m always curious about the backstory behind it, which we sometimes see and sometimes don’t as readers.
Name changes also can indicate a shedding of the old for the new, or the adoption of the new to hide the old. A great example of the first comes from Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows, when the young street boy Azoth becomes the higher class, trained assassin Kylar. For an example of the latter, look at Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart where a – ahem – certain character is actually an Epic of a different name.
In some fantasy worlds, name changes are associated with new lives or being reborn. There are so many ways to spin this version of a fresh start.
A classic use of seasonal change is as a mirror to the book’s plot or theme. Got love, laughter and lighter topics? Spring and summer are perfect settings. Cue autumn leaves and winds when dramatic turning points emerge, and get ready for events to turn bleak and desperate for the characters once “Winter is coming.” (I couldn’t resist.)
Hand-in-hand with the thematic expression of seasons is a more practical side. What does the change in weather mean for the reality of a book’s action? Heavy snows or hard summer rains can delay battles or close roads, while autumn often means harvest time and festivals. Whatever the change of season, I really enjoy books that use it to push characters into action. What options don’t they have in this new season that they did before? What new options emerge?
Just like cold and weary troops have to fight differently in the winter, characters have to think differently about how they’ll travel and what they can access at the start of each new season. Do falling leaves obscure a much-needed path? Does a frozen pass or swollen river mean troops can’t cross for days or weeks?
These “fresh starts” can be supernaturally enhanced for an extra layer of reading awesomeness. Jim Butcher likes to do this via the Faerie Courts in the Dresden Files, and via the great furies in the Codex Alera series. And one of my favorite examples is from Robert Jordan’s A Memory of Light when Rand calls forth trees from the dying land. It’s a stirring moment, and a wonderful of example of the power of fresh starts in fantasy.
Wishing you a 2015 full of happy fresh starts and incredible new reads!
What are some of your favorite starts or turning points in fantasy?