Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Review - Watchtower

by Elizabeth A. Lynn
1979 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

A few weeks ago when I began this new list of novels I mentioned that I don't read a lot of fantasy. Watchtower is a perfect example of why I don't. It is a catalog of everything I hate in popular fantasy novels. Someone who is willing to accept genre conventions might be able to overlook the problems that I had with the book though even in that case I suspect the book might fall a bit too far on the derivative side.

The story opens with the titular watchtower falling to an invading army, it's prince captured, and its last surviving commander pressed into service to guarantee the prince's safety. Together they make an escape from their former home and run to a legendary Buddhist commune established ten years before (don't ask me; initially the book made it out like Shangra-La and then it turned out to be something recent) where the commander must overcome his prejudices in order to find assistance.

Hey, that plot sounds familiar for some reason. Probably because other than the hidden kingdom possessing a special power that the main character learns in order to overcome the invaders that he lost to at the beginning of the novel being a Buddhist communist (as opposed to a hidden village of elves or something like that) the plot seems to have been ordered ala carte from a menu of generic fantasy cliches. Sometimes this happens because the novel in question was the one that popularized the concepts but Watchtower doesn't have that excuse.

My biggest problem with the novel (and with so many others) is simple: 1300 AD is not the same as 1980 AD. This isn't a simple matter of substituting a few words; society was radically different. Even the educated people thought and acted in a manner that would be thought of as terrible today. Some authors can't pull themselves out of the modern mindset and have all of the "sympathetic" characters think and act as though they were living today. See the Buddhist commune for a perfect example of that (the book never calls them "Buddhist" but that's effectively what they are); they're presented as the ideal lifestyle compared to those people living like they were in a medieval setting.

Then there's the hypocrisy of the major characters. Just sticking with events early in the novel there are a pair of characters who are members of an organization trusted because they're neutral parties to all conflicts. It's a stretch but I can accept that. The problem is that they're willing to violate that neutrality without even thinking about it for the sake of the "right" side. It's the kind of action that should have far reaching consequences but because

Lynn does make a pretense toward having a more complicated morality (which, I suspect, is the reason that she won the World Fantasy Award) through humanizing the enemies and making the stakes in the conflict a "kingdom" that is barely bigger than a postage stamp. Unfortunately she undercuts this by repeatedly drumming the idea that because someone's ancestors centuries ago conquered a piece of land it makes it okay for someone else from that same country to repeat the action. That argument is repeatedly given by the ruler of captured kingdom.

So the plot was thin, the setting annoyed me, and the characterization finished off the final lingering thread of suspension of disbelief. I will say that Lynn is not bad with her prose. It didn't impress me but I've read much worse in published novels with effectively identical plots, characters, and settings.

If you like your fantasy novels to feature characters that might as well be modern people transplanted to something vaguely but not really resembling medieval Europe who proceed to go through derrivitive plots with no tension then thanks a lot for changing the fantasy and science fiction section of book stores into something that is a complete waste of time for me... oh, and Watchtower is a book you might enjoy. For those who want something more from their books you'll need to look elsewhere.