The Elvenbane by Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey. ISBN: 9780312851064.
My journey into the world of the Elvenbane started, where else, at the library. I was holding a copy of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, when my fiancée went, "Here, read this," and stuck this other book into my hand. Needless to say, I was just a little resentful (I started a list of books to read while working at the college bookstore back in the early '00's, I'm just now getting around to them, and I was really looking forward to reading Left Hand), but I gave it a shot. I almost put it down after the first two chapters -- in fact, I would have, if I didn't feel the need to at least humor her -- but I'm glad I didn't. Four chapters of dense introduction later, I found myself engaged by the deep characters and gritty, realistic relationships between them. I'm currently on chapter two of the second book in the series, if that's any indicator.
Elvenbane got me thinking about the role of fantasy in my life. I'm a huge geek. I've done my time as a LARPer and in the pits of tabletop gaming. I used to obsess over dragons when I was in high school. "Sci-fi and fantasy" is my response when I'm asked what my favorite genres of fiction are. I've lately fallen out of the fantasy geek lifestyle, setting aside my nights of gaming until 3 AM for schooling and handheld video games. So in many ways, Elvenbane was a reintroduction to "real", or, as I put it, "serious" fantasy once more.
See, the fantasy series I'm currently reading (waiting for the next book, as a matter of fact) is Jim Butcher's fantastic Dresden Files series. But that's urban fantasy, and the main characters are cynical modern era snarkfests. Before that, I was heavily mixed up in the Xanth and Redwall series, the former using puns and comedy as driving forces for the plot, and the latter a much lighter fare aimed at young adults. (Coincidentally, I fell out of reading both those series for more or less the same reason: I realized they were falling into formulaic collages of repeating tropes. Brian Jacques has been writing the same novel for at least the last decade, while Piers Anthony is a perverted old bigot who lets his fans dictate far too much of his writing.)
So this leaves me at the Dragonriders of Pern, my first real love as fantasy series go. I received a three-volume set of the first three books for Christmas when I was sixteen or so and spent the next two years engrossed in the stories. The books taught me to love and respect dragons as amazing mythical creatures of grace, power, and beauty... And therein lay some of the problem. See, Pern is what I would consider the epitome of "serious fantasy": the novels are written with an eye towards romance and escapism, and any suggestion that there might be something inherently overblown about the whole thing will usually be met with derision, if not by the author then certainly by her leagues of rabid fans. As a side note, I haven't read a Pern book in at least eight years. I'm terrified of returning to the series and realizing that my childhood love wasn't as well written as I thought it was, or of making some other earth-shattering discovery.
Back to Elvenbane. While the initial setup reminded me of this sort of highbrow, self-infatuated sort of fantasy writing, the novel really works to break the romanticism down. You've got the high courts of the elven lords, and the magical realms of the dragons, but both of these worlds are presented as stagnant and hidebound. The Elvenbane is the chaotic element, challenging traditions, breaking down barriers, and making those set in their ways more than a little uncomfortable. Even better, I'm fairly certain that one scene in particular is a direct jab at Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders. (She and Mercedes Lackey have written together, so it may very well be in good fun.) Valyn, the young elven lord, is riding on the back of a dragon, trying to get help for their band, and, having an awful time of it with all the bouncing and heights and whatnot, reflects on the romantic stories he'd been told in his youth of people riding dragons, and just what hogwash it all was.
I could probably turn this into a lengthy literary analysis, but I think the conclusions should be obvious at this point. I'm thankful to my fiancée for introducing me to this book, because if nothing else, it's reminded me what fantasy is meant for: helping us to think about the world in novel ways.
Dan Walker (pseudonym) is a writer from Northeast Ohio, who would be teaching ESL if he wasn't unemployed. He received a BA in Creative Writing from Wright State University in 2004 and a Masters in Teaching English as a Second Language from Kent State University in 2009. He will make some lucky librarian a wonderful husband someday.
*This post was originally written April 25, 2010 and saved as an emergency post to give the regular author a freakin' break. Also, this isn't quite in-line for my project, but it's close enough I'm willing to let it through. Nepotism is awesome.