What’s in a name? “Formula Fiction” would seem antithetical to the “Novel” – the opposition is right there in the names. A formula has become so through extensive application, while a novel implies something new. If we find critics like John G Cawelti and Stephen Knight convincing, we surmise that formula fiction survives because it mimics the function of a parable. This is a little like a literary bait-and-switch, where you ostensibly pick up the book for the genteel murder, but the message you really get is a reinforcement of social conservatism. Of the major “formulae” operating in the world, few have such a strangle-hold on their host genre as the quest does on fantasy. Tempting as it is to blame Tolkien’s trudging, we can equally blame the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail, for the endless sequence of Hero A going to Place B to rescue/slay woman/dragon C.
Susan Harper summarised the appeal of formula fiction as deriving from the author’s control and implementation of the fine details; in part, this means concealing that there’s a formula driving the action, so that the actions seem completely natural given the premise. There are some pretty spectacular variations in play these days, but even in recent excellent sequences like The First Law, Crossroads, or A Song of Ice and Fire, there’s at least a token quest. Even a number of novels whose locations are relatively static, like Stephen Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need, have a quest-like activity cycle for their protagonists. That’s all well and good, but the reliance on that one formulaic construction has just about played itself out in my mind – just as I probably never really need to read another Country Manor Mystery again, except to indulge my nostalgia. The first fantasy novel I read that used a different story template was probably Rise of a Merchant Prince by Raymond E. Feist.
In some ways, the problem is a technological one. Modern society, and hence the stories of modern society, are based on a certain basic level of both stability and technology. We can think briefly about some other genre templates. The genre stories of the spy story rely on a fairly static situation in which small increments of knowledge are important – and the spy stories that don’t require that are often essentially Quest stories anyway, such as the Bourne trilogy, or most Bond stories. The romance genre is appealing – but if your sole interest is in melodrama, then the fantasy component isn’t necessarily compelling or value-adding. Certain kinds of Westerns should translate well – but when we think about the great Western stories, many have a substantial Quest component, so that once translated into fantasy terms, they’re not hugely distinguished. Science fiction translates conveniently into fantasy via Clarke’s law. Murder mysteries do occur, but the addition of magic to the world makes the construction of a true “fair play” narrative very tricky, and what remains to the various derivatives is primarily attitude and location.
What’s left? Well, variations on everything above are actually possible; but recently one other genre seems to be gaining traction – the Crime Caper. In the taxonomy of genres, the Crime Caper is a complex derivative because it borrows a little from spies, a little from mysteries, a little from adventure stories, and other places as needed. You could potentially invert all of those attributions too, to say that if the essence of spying is about relationships and trust, that the genre imports elements of the Crime Caper in order to add some action. Genre distinctions are notoriously fuzzy and so not to be relied upon too much. The Crime Caper evades the need for a detailed understanding of the political world as such – the great Caper films, Ocean’s Eleven, The Great Muppet Caper, Inception, and so on, rely only on the audience understanding the mark, the artist, and the prize. Nor are technological marvels needed; as long as everyone’s on a level playing field, the story can play out just fine.
Scott Lynch’s The Gentleman Bastards sequence was the first attempt I encountered to seriously translate the Crime Caper into fantasy terms. My problems with the novel were not related to its basic formula, but with some details of execution (or lack thereof). The Final Empire attempts to use the same formula to power its narrative, and almost immediately I thought it ran into some conceptual problems. The tagline for the book is “What if the Dark Lord won?” and the idea of a millennium old dark empire being overthrown puts a rather different emphasis on the fantasy genre from the usual situation where the evil one is starting off very much on the back foot and the heroes more-or-less just need to retain the status quo. The main template that comes to mind for this perspective is Willow, a charming film that is a pure quest formulation, dealing only slightly and tangentially with the mechanics of an evil empire. The action in The Final Empire is immediately framed as a long-con whose goal is the destruction of that world-spanning Empire, the long-con is about tricking a mark into putting up as a stake more than they can afford to lose on the promise of greater reward.
The problem is that in a successful totalitarian state, the ultimate target of any organisation-affecting con must be the man at the top, and in this case there is literally nothing within in the frame of the world as explained that can be offered as an inducement. What do you get the man who has literally everything? In the early stages of the novel, Sanderson is really careful to explain around that big-picture high-level incongruity, but my instincts continually rebelled against taking seriously the basic premise of the protagonists actions.
At around the point where this incongruity was becoming unsustainable, Sanderson relents, and reveals that the real long con was the idea that overthrowing the empire was a con. The leader understands better that he is sparking a revolution, and all the concomitant problems. Unfortunately, the reveal was a little late, and a little thinly spread over the last quarter of the novel, rather than the crisp reveal we expect of what is essentially a magic trick. It’s like an old man telling a joke and having to circle round to the punch line for a third time before landing it, by which time it’s too late to laugh.
I’m still prepared to cut the book a lot of slack for not being a quest narrative, but this feels like a nearly-successful experiment in changing genre form, far less polished than the tight control of Scott Lynch. Yet, I have a sinking sensation that the next book will be retracing the steps of the eventual Evil Overlord – fragments of his quest narrative are interpolated throughout the novel. If this is a prelude to a conventional narrative, then I fear I will retrospectively find the flaws in this caper narrative more glaring. The caper plot here is a placebo, just a different way of framing the central thematic interests of the narrative. It is not really the structural spine that it is in Lynch. To an extent, that means that these structural problems are a distraction from the real substance of the novel.
Fantasy novels are intended to invoke a “sense of wonder” – a notoriously difficult and slippery term, but crucial nonetheless. Fantasy invokes events beyond the human scale, and skirting the edge of human understanding. In fantasy, the world is, and remains, a little mysterious, and resistant to a scientific-style understanding. It is a staple of other literary approaches to Totalitarianism that a sense of wonder is forbidden – hope and imagination are incompatible with complete subjugation. Sanderson fore-grounds only one area of mystery and amazement – the power of The Lord Ruler and his Inquisitors. The rulers’ powers defy the quite scientific approach of the protagonists to their brand of magic. Ultimately, The Lord Ruler’s powers are partially revealed as a combination of two different scientific schools of powers, though the origin of the combination is not explained. This means that, in effect, the greatest source of wonder is destroyed at the novel’s climax – a rejection of the basic operation of most fantasy stories.
The Final Empire is an ambitious novel, and I always respect that. I feel that there are flaws in some aspects of its narrative, such as the boilerplate love story of the main protagonist, and the caper aspect, but that overall it was well worth my time to read.