Monday, June 1, 2015

Down the Stacks #3: Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms

This week on “Down the Stacks” I’m looking at one of my all-time favorite authors, Mercedes Lackey.  Lackey is a prolific fantasy writer who has a knack for retelling old fairy tales and folklore in a variety of settings, combining said stories into single tales, and also works well with other authors in creating epic fantasy worlds.  There are a lot of books that bear Mercedes Lackey’s name, divided among enough separate series to fill a couple months of weekly reviews, but this week I’ll be looking at the newest of Lackey’s three major projects: Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms.

The Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms is more of an anthology than a continuing series, with each book taking place in an entirely different location with new characters and little outside of common tropes, the rules of the setting, and a few recurring characters to link everything together.  The Five Hundred Kingdoms are a world of fairy tales retold, twisted, and mashed together, a world that runs on the clash between destiny and free will, and where no matter what your problem is, your greatest ally is a fairy godmother.
In outward appearance, the Five Hundred Kingdoms are essentially Europe and Asia locked in a late-medieval/early Renaissance time period, where kings and landed gentry coexist with influential guilds in the more prosperous areas and feudalism still reigns in isolated pockets.  Magic is known to exist in the world, but the degree to which it is acknowledged and embraced varies from Kingdom to Kingdom.  Underneath the seeming normality of life, however, runs a powerful force of fate called the Tradition.  The Tradition is made up of all the stories ever told, from simple things like seventh sons being special and that unicorns are attracted to virgins, to classics like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, and even epics like the Ring Cycle.  The Tradition finds people whose life circumstances fit the start of a story and attempts to bend reality to make that story happen.  Sometimes it works out as planned, but sometimes the conditions aren’t quite ideal.  For instance, the Cinderella’s stepmother may not be all that bad, or her fated prince is too young or old for her, or already married.  The Tradition is mindless, so if a story isn’t progressing it just pushes harder on the central players, often the poor girl that the whole tale revolves around, creating a backlog of “pressure” that causes anxiety in the individual and will eventually burst into some great tragedy or another, which can include being kidnapped by an evil sorcerer or witch to serve as a source of magic energy.
This is where the Fairy Godmothers come in.  Godmothers are, for the most part, women who are unable to fulfill their Traditional destiny and get recruited to act guides and protectors over several Kingdoms in Traditional affairs.  Their blocked fates give them a lot of Tradition pressure that they can channel into magic, and they study the stories intensively in order to spot stories trying to start and either guide the players along the path or take steps to divert the story into a path that’s less likely to end in blood and tears.  Godmothers are assisted by various magical creatures that live near them, most commonly Brownies or regionally appropriate household spirits, and sometimes by orders of knight-champions who fill the Traditional Knight in Shining Armor trope when needed. Godmothers do operate openly as such when the story demands - such as getting Cinderellas to the ball or giving magic gifts to princesses fated to be Sleeping Beauty - but in most cases they work in the background giving advice to those caught up in stories or doing research to untangle stories that get wrapped around one another or identify new story variations that emerge.
The Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms are linked together by one Godmother in particular: Elena.  The first book of the series focuses on her as she is lifted out of her own blocked Cinderella story and trained up as a Godmother, and she either appears or is mentioned in every other book at least once, either dispensing advice or providing the last bit of magic needed to wrap the plot up nicely.  Elena’s mentor impressed on her an aversion to stories like Rapunzel which require misery for the girl and crippling pain or death for the hero, so when Elena gets involved she always fights hard for the best possible outcome for all parties, no matter how much the Tradition needs to be twisted.
Mercedes Lackey’s writing style tends toward female protagonists and romance, which works well in a setting based on folklore and fairy tales, which have a high probability of involving marriage no matter what culture you’re in.  The young women of the books do vary in personality, knowledge, and lifestyles, but they’re all active, practical, smart, and accept that eventually falling in love is an occupational hazard in a world permeated by the Tradition.  The female protagonists range from the caring and determined Elena to the forcefully opinionated Bella Beauchamps (whose adventure starts out as Red Riding Hood but turns into Beauty and the Beast) to the crafty daughter (and chief spy) of the Sea King, and beyond.  The heroic male characters usually fall into one of three molds: dorky but sincere, brave and heroic, or in need of some humility, with some variation, and with a couple of exceptions they are either side characters or follow the female protagonist’s lead.  The world of the Five Hundred Kingdoms is technically still a male-dominated place, but with the number of women running around who are willing and able to prove themselves the equal to their male companions I suppose it’s only the force of Tradition that keeps societal reform from happening.
The Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms has so far focused mainly on the well-known stories of western Europe, but Lackey frequently pushes beyond those boundaries into Slavic, Arabian, and Nordic tales.  She seems particularly fond of the Russian tale of Ivan and the castle of the Katschei, because the form of that tale has been employed twice in the Tales - once fairly straight in The Fairy Godmother and again with a Djinni caught under Traditional pressure to enact the story despite his own nature and goals in Fortune’s Fool.  Fortune’s Fool also includes a short adventure on an island land full of East-Asian spirits, including a fox-woman.  Lackey seems to have done her research on the tales she tells and references, since there’s no watering down of blood and death and she tries to model each Kingdom after the real-world countries and time periods their stories were originally set in.
The Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms are good reads in of themselves, but I feel they have even greater value for using and referencing folkloric tales that aren’t seen as frequently in modern, Disney-fied media.  The books talk about the elements of traditional tales, how stories form and spread, and takes a reasonable middle-ground in a debate between free-will and fate.  One of the biggest themes I’ve found across the books is that fate is inherently neutral - neither kind nor cruel - and that it’s not a bad thing to follow destiny’s course so long as you choose to do so.  Learning is essential to making the best choices, and sometimes you just need to ask for help.
I’ll write about more of Mercedes Lackey’s books in the future, but next week I think I’ll take on a different author.

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