Hey, folks. Did you miss me?
I’m going to stop apologizing for long dry spells between posts. I want to shorten them, but sometimes I just don’t have much interesting to say, and why bore you?
Today, I want to talk about a series of books that I just re-read. Specifically, I want to talk about how the experience of reading them was very different this time around, thanks to a comment made by an acquaintance of mine.
The books are Sherri S. Tepper’s True Game books, a trilogy of trilogies. Here’s how it breaks down:
The Chronicles of Mavin Manyshaped
- The Song of Mavin Manyshaped
- The Flight of Mavin Manyshaped
- The Search for Mavin Manyshaped
Â The True Game
- King’s Blood Four
- Necromancer Nine
- Wizard’s Eleven
The End of the Game
- Jinian Footseer
- Dervish Daughter
- Jinian Stareye
From what I can tell, only the middle trilogy is currently in print, and it’s in a collected volume called The True Game. It was actually the first trilogy written, and the first one I read, but The Chronicles of Mavin Manyshaped comes first chronologically in the story. You don’t have to read all three trilogies to get a good story; each book stands alone, and each trilogy stands alone, but they do build on each other to tell a deeper, broader story together.
The books tell of a world where people have various (for want of a better word) superpowers, that they call Talents. These Talents are rigidly classified and chronicled, with eleven pure Talents, and thousands of combinations between the eleven. The society is a sort of mediaeval feudal culture, with Talented people, called Gamesmen, ruling over unTalented folk, called Pawns. All the actions we think of as wars, plots, schemes, covert action, etc. are rolled up into the idea of the True Game, where the Talented Gamesmen vie against each other to impose their will on their surroundings.
So, you get Kings and Queens (with the Talent of Beguilement), with their ranks of Armigers (Flight), Tragamors (Telekinesis), and Sentinels (Pyrokinesis) running around, getting into battles (Games) and hatching plots (Games… starting to see?), and generally running roughshod over anyone who gets in their way.
That’s the background.
Enter into this a trio of characters over two generations who want things to change. First is Mavin Manyshaped, a Shifter (Shapechanging) who wants to escape her rather abusive family. She does so, and travels the world, getting pulled into situations where she winds up righting wrongs and saving underdogs. Next comes her son, Peter, also a Shifter, but raised not knowing that, or who his parents are. Peter isn’t really as meddlesome as Mavin, but he’s inherited her enemies, and picks up a couple of teachers along the way who are obsessed with an ancient word – “justice.” The last trilogy features Jinian, who becomes Peter’s lover. She has less Talent (well, maybe… you have to read the book to judge), but more of a drive for justice, and she winds up even more in the middle of things, dragging Peter and Mavin along with her.
Throughout the trilogies, you find out some very interesting things about the world, the people, the mysteries they live with, and the origins of the Talents. And, in the end, it comes down to a group of well-meaning, conscientious people making important decisions to try and make the world a better place.
They’re good reads.
Now, when I first read them, I thought they were great adventure stories. There is danger, and action, and quick thinking, and desperate plotting, and wild hope masquerading as a plan. The villains are interesting, and the heroes are likable, the plot twists enough to keep things interesting, and the endings are very satisfying. Good, standard fantasy escapism.
I mentioned them to an acquaintance some years ago, and he said something that has stuck with me. He said, “Sherri Tepper writes stories about people in appalling situations who are so used to them that they don’t even realize how appalling the situations are.”
Now, I sort of dismissed this at the time, because I had a very rosy memory of the books – how much fun they were, how light and entertaining. But it’s stuck in my head for all these years, and it really coloured my re-reading of the series.
Because he’s right.
When I went back and re-read the series, I started to see just how horrific the circumstances around the characters were. Never mind the abuse in Mavin’s family home; that was pointed out as a bad thing, and she got out of it. No, it was the little things that didn’t really get commented on, or only slightly in passing. The fact that people sent their children away to schools if they could at all afford it, simply because it kept them out of the way of Games which tended to kill them. The fact that people readily accepted the power of Kings and Queens, knowing it was a psychic imposition of will. The casual acceptance of having your mind read by any passing Demon who cared to.
And the frank admittance that all the Rules of the Game were noted most in their breaking, rather than in their following.
The Gamesmen are portrayed as having a casual sense of entitlement to anything they have the Talent to take, and Pawns are only considered if they are useful, or a hindrance. If they’re a hindrance, they’re dead. Talents feed on ambient heat to power them, so there are a couple of incidents of passing by battlefields where Pawns have frozen to death in the middle of summer because of all the heat being taken by the Gamesmen.
And slowly, slowly, over the course of the books, a handful of people look around, see that things are not right, and say, “Enough.”
I found it very interesting to read this series again, after so many years, through a completely different filter. It makes me think about the other filters I use as I read books: what expectations, assumptions, and beliefs colour my interpretation of the text. And I notice things.
I have, for example, a genre filter: I compare a book I’m currently reading to other books in the same genre. I have an author filter: I expect certain things from certain authors. I have nostalgia filters when I re-read some things (interestingly, not all things – some get trashed on re-reading, and I can’t imagine what I ever saw in them).
And there are certain archetypes of story that I filter for. For example, I like heroes who are clever and outmatched and succeed primarily by outthinking their enemies (Mavin Manyshaped, I’m looking at you). I also like heroes that struggle to do what’s right instead of what they want (FitzChivalry Farseer, for one). And when you combine the two, the results are especially pleasing to me (Miles Vorkosigan, for instance). When I read, I filter for these things, too.
In one interview I read with Guy Gavriel Kay, he talked about how, when he wrote Tigana (a great book, by the way), he tacked a sign up above his desk that said, “I want them to stay up crying with me.” That’s an interesting way to focus a book, and it lends a certain something to the finished product. Tigana is, in many ways, an anguished book, full of characters making difficult choices in impossible situations. And, though it is very satisfying, the ending isn’t one of unalloyed happiness.
I have a friend who loves Charles de Lint books (and rightly so, says I), but he only reads them during the fall. Somehow, they just don’t work for him at other times. Another interesting filter.
This summer at GenCon, I picked up Ken Hite‘s Tour de Lovecraft, a short critical review of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories. I’m starting to re-read some of the stories now, and am interested to see how they change based on what Ken has said about them.
So. I’m rambling. To sum up:
- Sherri S. Tepper’s True Game books rock.
- Despite the fact that this sounds suspiciously postmodernist, the mental filters you bring to a book can greatly change your experience of it.
- Everyone has different filters, and they can be interesting to think about.
- Understanding your own filters is an intriguing exercise.
- Guy Kay, Robin Hobb, and Lois McMaster Bujold rock.
- So does Charles de Lint.
- Ken Hite and Cthulhu go together like chocolate and peanut butter served up by something formless and cthonic.
- I want to try and post more.
And there you have it.