Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Confounding Expectations Romantic Styles

Today is my wedding anniversary, or rather the first day of it (we were legally married one day, actually married the next). I do not, as a rule, gush much about my wife online; there's something about the situation that brings out my inner Rosa Diaz. Nevertheless, I am writing, and this is the day it is, so I will say my days are better for being with her.

In any case, I am thinking about love, romance, relationships and the rest of it. I am also thinking of Confounding Expectations, which sadly in the fantasy genre goes hand in hand well enough. The genre's take on romantic love is often little more than an adornment on the crown or a predictable stock addition. Even when given depth and warmth, or great plot importance, it struggles to confound expectations. I love Imriel & Sidonie, F'lar & Lessa, Mat & Tuon... but was confounded by? No no.

Therefore, I've decided to list my favourite fantasy relationships where something about the way they went down gave me a little 'huh' moment, or glow of satisfaction it didn't go the same way as everything else I was reading. Sometimes it went good, sometimes it went bad, but it went a little against my expec

WARNING: Massive Spoilers Abound. Most of them tell you huge amounts how about the story ends. If you don't want spoilers about The Truth, Carpe Jugulum, A Brightness Long Ago, The Deverry Cycle, The Empire Trilogy, or The Warlord Trilogy, look away now.

I really mean it about the Deverry one. It's at the bottom and all to make it easier to avoid if desired.

1. William & Sacharissa The Truth, Pratchett

He's the estranged son of aristocracy stumbling on a way of making a living about telling people things. She's the daughter of a wood engraver who doubts that working is that respectable but knows that a dollar is a dollar. Together, they invent Ankh-Morpork's first newspaper and introduce the practice of investigative journalism. We know William finds her attractive from the narration, we see a growing chemistry built on their shared experience, but it seems a scant basis for happily ever after, yet Sir Pterry seems to be going there right at the end. 

Thankfully it's something of a fakeout in that there's a moment where it seems the relationship might be about go from the broadsheets to the bedsheets, but the Disc moves and something newsworthy happens in front of them. Just like that the moment dies as they chase the story instead. It's refreshing to see a potential couple not fall in love at the first opportunity and fun to see Pratchett thumb his nose at the idea of women being just a trophy.

2. Mara & Hokanu The Empire Trilogy, Feist & Wurts

She's the ruling lady of one of the Empire's greatest families, a political genius who's earned huge respect and prestige while also undergoing two tumultuous relationships. He's the heir to another of the great Families, a nice young man with a long interest in her which hasn't come to fruition due to politics. Very lethal politics. Together they suddenly find a moment where the stars align and they marry. More or less just like that. 

The pedant in me does grumble how few such marriages we see given the many pseudo-medieval worlds we see, particularly for MCs. I get why people would rather read about searing love stories but variety is the spice of life. Here, I was given this variety and it was refreshing, particularly given the heavily political slant of the trilogy. It wasn't some embittered sacrifice, it wasn't true love against all odds, it was respect, affection - and yes, love - in a slightly confused tangle, unsure and all the better for it.

3. Derfel & Lunette The Warlord Trilogy, Cornwell

He's a young orphan who's just become a warrior in a great champion's warband, thinking he might be in love with another woman. She's also a young orphan from the same place, a place that's just burned down. Together they shack up in a nice little cottage as man and woman, barely more than children but soon about to have a child themselves.

The greatness of their relationship is the thin nature of it. They both want other things and go on to them, but they're young and the other is there and together, they're happy for a little. That's it. It's an incredibly common story in the real world, but in fantasy literature? The land of one true loves, or the militantly promiscuous redeemed by a good man/woman/nothing at all? Derfel and Lunette aren't some fantastic story but they're real in a way most of trad/epic fantasy can't be bothered with.

4. Danio & Adria A Brightness Long Ago, Kay

He's an up and coming renaissance man, in service as a tutor and sometime agent to a dangerous mercenary captain. She's the headstrong aristocratic niece and sometime agent to another dangerous mercenary captain, deadly rival to the first. Together they are rivals, wary friends, then eventually lovers - but no more.

It is the no more that confounded my expectations. It's a sweet, tantalising story, and one where the expectation is they will triumph despite the odds, or maybe have some great tragedy together. But they don't. There's just one shining bright moment they can be together and then their lives gently, inexorably, move away from each other. Danio still loves her, and Adria is intrigued by him, but this love story doesn't go the distance and is all the more poignant for it.

5. Agnes & Vlad Carpe Jugulum, Pratchett

She's a young witch, in two minds about everything but not terribly impressed by her lot in either of them. He's a young Vampyre (well, for a Vampyre) with cool waistcoats, stylish hair, and a modern sophisticated outlook on unlife. Together they flirt awkwardly and fight one-sidedly as the Vampyres take over the poor rural kingdom of Lancre and start making it a nice orderly place to drink blood in.

This being Discworld, it is not a surprise that Agnes doesn't fall for him. Nor that the one-sided nature of the fight swings decisively to the witches by the end. But what was nice, and if not exactly a confounding of expectations then a fun cocking of the snook at certain others, Vlad doesn't become a nice responsible boy who renounces his wicked ways. He's a dick, and he stays a dick, and Agnes doesn't get caught up in the brief fantasy she can stop him being a dick. There is a very valuable life lesson here for us all.

6. Rhodry & Jill Deverry Cycle, Kerr

She's the wild-hearted daughter of the kingdom's greatest swordsman, a disgraced mercenary with whom she travels the roads in, sworn she'll never marry anyone who's not as good with the sword as her da. He's the hot-headed younger son of great noble lord with nothing to do until a rebellion seeks to disinherit him. And very good with a sword. Together, they are the reincarnations of a couple who've loved each other again and again since a strange intertwining of fate four hundred years ago that disrupted their natural destinies, and then they're drawn together as young attractive horny teenagers. Then they become wildly in love in disgraced exile themselves. And then... then...

Jill leaves him.

There's a very short list of endings where I honestly didn't see it coming and while I can't argue against the author's choice, I wish it was different. This is one of them. After everything they'd been through, they deserved a happy ending. But Jill's destiny had arisen in not just a huge magical talent, but the burning desire to learn and use it. And she can't do that as Rhodry's wife, for she'll simply be too busy as an administrator and host. So she breaks his, hers, and our hearts by embracing her destiny. And much as I wanted a happy ending, there's no denying this was the better choice to give meaning to their journey. It's an unusual, powerful statement and completely confounded me.


  1. Ooh great post! I haven't read any of these, but it's so true that we need more and more varied depictions of romantic relationships in fantasy. Happily-ever-afters are always nice, but sometimes HEA doesn't include romance, even when you're in love, and that's fine too. I love it when characters have to contemplate what they might have to give up to be with the person they love, and actually look at their lives and decide what they want more. I think we have a tendency to dislike characters who choose something else over romance, but it takes real nerve to break your own heart for the greater good - whether it's your greater good or the world's.

    1. Thanks Jess! Definitely agree there's something great about characters who see more than love, even if it takes me a moment to appreciate it.