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Tough Travels: Non-Human Heroes

Tough Travels on Fantasy-Faction

At the start of every month, Fantasy-Faction will lead you (yes, YOU!) on a tour of the fantasy genre. From high to low, from classics to new releases, from epic to urban; each month, we will guide you in search of a different trope, theme or cliché. Lest we become lost, we’ll be referring to The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones.

However, since these tropes can appear in many guises (they are sneaky, precious, yes indeed) we’ve enlisted the help of our friends and travelling companions across the blogosphere (including Nathan, who started it all) to help us on our way. You’ll find links to their own lists at the bottom of this post – along with the chance to submit your own!

With no more ado, this week’s topic is NON-HUMAN HEROES.

The Tough Guide assures us that HEROES are ‘mythical beings, often selected at birth, who perform amazing deeds of courage, strength and magical mayhem, usually against all odds.’ Furthermore, ‘if you get to meet a so-called Hero, she/he always turns out to be just another human, with human failings, who has happened to be in the right place at the right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time, more likely)’.

HOWEVER. For good or for evil, some of fantasy’s most memorable Heroes are not human at all. Some look human, but aren’t. Others may look monstrous, but be ‘human’ on the inside. Others still never pretend to be anything other than what they are – and why should they? In nearly all cases, we are likely to Learn Something from them – usually that appearances can be deceiving, or that the concepts of both ‘Human’ and ‘Hero’ are entirely subjective.

Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky

ENTH
(Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky)

There are LOTS of things we might learn from non-human characters.  Perhaps that not everyone on the ‘bad side’ is bad; that people can change, or that there’s simply no changing some creatures’ natural instincts. Even, perhaps, that humans are the bad guys. Enth teaches us all those things, and more. ‘Who – or what – is Enth?’ I hear you ask. The clue is in the title, guys . . .

Paternus (cover)EVERYONE
(Paternus by Dyrk Ashton)

Legends are alive, and myths are no longer myths in #SPFBO finalist Dyrk Ashton’s novel. PoV characters include Bodvar the bear, Tanuki the fuzzy dog, Kabir the kind-of werewolf, Arges the rhino and Asterion the minotaur. But some of the antagonists are just as physically monstrous as the good guys, only without the whole ‘appearances can be deceiving’ thing . . .

Homeland by R.A. SalvatoreDRIZZT DO’URDEN
(Homeland by R. A. Salvatore)

Speaking of monsters, the matriarchal inhabitants of Menzoberranzan are just as brutal as the beasts that stalk its outskirts. Home to the drow (dark elves), this subterranean society thrives on backstabbing, manipulation, and sacrificing their own kids to Llolth the Spider Goddess. But some drow – like lil’ Drizzt – are not entirely convinced that this is healthy, and do everything they can to leave their lifestyle behind. #NotAllDrow

Cold Counsel by Chris SharpSLUD
(Cold Counsel by Chris Sharp)

Slud is a mountain troll who gives ZERO fucks about most things. Cold Counsel features a motley bunch of protagonists – some of whom are Slud’s allies; the rest are his doormats – not one of whom is human. Seeing a centuries-long feud between ‘monsters’ (who, let’s face it, your average well-meaning adventurer would simply hack ‘n’ slash their way through without batting an eye) through the eyes of a troll, a night-hag, a wolf and four goblins is an enlightening (and insanely fun) experience indeed.

Grey Bastards (cover)JACKAL (& co.)
(The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French)

Speaking of insanely fun stories, last year’s #SPFBO winner is another novel that features entirely non-human protagonists. Jackal, Oats and Fetching are bezzie mates within the Grey Bastards (a company of half-orcs who proudly embrace their ‘mongrel’ half-breed status), and their story is, quite honestly, one of the best I’ve ever read.

The Heart of Stone (cover)TASK
(Heart of Stone by Ben Galley)

Jackal, Slud, Enth, Tanuki – in every example so far I’ve struggled not to refer to our protagonists as ‘human’ in that each of them (to some extent) possess features that we’d recognise as belonging to a ‘human’ moral compass. And since they do share some biological traits, it’s safe to assume that at least some of their experiences are relatable. But how can one be human without a body? How does one feel without a nervous system? How can a huge hunk of stone feel guilt, or anger, or sympathy? I dunno the ins and outs of it, but Task certainly can.

Ancillary Justice (cover)BREQ
(Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie)

On the opposite side of things, Ann Leckie gives us Breq: an AI whose personality is as compelling as it is utterly alien. Breq is a ship, as well as an entire host of human simulacrums. When one of these ‘human’ bodies is detached from the rest of her, she has to figure out how to function using only her current knowledge and human attributes. Brilliant stuff.

The Last Wish (cover)GERALT
(The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski)

Geralt of Rivia is unique among those on this list in that he was human, once, but has since transformed into something other. Witchers – monster hunters, for those unfamiliar with the franchise – are essentially mutants; human beings, biologically twisted using magic and poisons, altered to develop genetically superior qualities. But does that make them more than human . . . or less?

Los Nefilim (cover)DIAGO ALVAREZ
(Los Nefilim by T. Frohock)

Diago is a troubled but immensely likeable Nephilim of mixed angelic and daimonic descent (a half-breed, if you will). Diago and his partner, Miquel, have been devoted to one another for centuries, but both their loyalty and livelihood are threatened when an escalating supernatural war invades their personal lives. Much of the conflict in Frohock’s Nefilim universe is centred around Diago and his dual nature, and the mistrust with which he’s viewed by those on both sides. Did I mention that he’s an absolute sweetie?

Larcout (cover)VADRIGYN
(Larcout by K. A. Krantz)

Vadrigyn is another half-breed. Unlike Diago, she’s anything but angelic in nature! She is Morsam, and she has some fantastically lethal abilities. The Dorgof – deadly, venomous parasites fused to the bones and muscles within Vadrigyn’s forearms – burst forth from her palms whenever she feels threatened, and make it impossible for any other living creature to make physical contact with her hands.

The Unicorn-Eater by Philip Overby (Splatter Elf #1)EVERYONE
(The Splatter Elf series by Philip Overby)

Katzia the half-elf and Grinner the goblin are the two stars of these incredibly fun and hilarious stories, which also feature protagonists called Bathbrady and Maggotglove, and baddies called Pissbeard, Tundertum, Warty, and of course the Queen of Shit. Katzia is my personal favourite: smart-mouthed, tough-skinned, soft-hearted and obsessed with collecting swords, she’s one of the most straight-talking and sardonic narrators I’ve ever encountered.

Are there any distinguished Non-human Heroes we’ve forgotten about? Who’s your personal favourite? Are there any individuals that – shock, horror! – ignore the Guide completely? Let us know in the comments!

Bloggers – why not join us?

Next month’s topic will be books featuring ADEPTS.

The Tough Guide defines an Adept as ‘one who has taken what amounts to a Post-graduate course in Magic. If a Magic User is given this title, you can be sure he/she is fairly hot stuff. However, the title is neutral and does not imply that the Adept is either Good or Evil.’

Why not join us? Today, tomorrow, next month – there’s always room in the adventuring party for one more! Add a link to your own list, or check out the others below:

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8 Comments

  1. Once again I thought I was creative and would sneak Breq in on everyone while they were distracted by unicorns and elves and what not. No such luck..

  2. ScarletBea says:

    Aidan and Morgiana, from Judith Tarr’s “Alamut” series. They just look human…

    And I know I’m going to be told that he’s very much human, but I would count the Fool in this category too, hehe
    Just because. I know…

  3. Lynn says:

    What a lovely list. I wonder who else had the Jackal – I also had Task. With I’d thought of Frohock too.
    Lynn 😀

  4. I’m afraid I have never read any of these books, but sounds like they have some great non-human heroes. Sadly non of my favourite non-human heroes are here: hobbits! My post is ready and scheduled for Saturday 🙂

  5. Love the Breq and Diago picks!

  6. Mervi says:

    The only one I’m familiar with from your list in Drizzt. TBR grows!

  7. […] Travels is a monthly meme hosted by Fantasy Faction, which, inspired by The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones, spotlights each month a […]

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