A while ago I was talking to another teacher about short fiction. The story I had just taught to my class was “Carnal Knowledge” by TC Boyle, an old favourite of mine, and it turned out he just had another story in the New Yorker a few weeks prior. Say what you want about The New Yorker–this coworker certainly did: “Lately I read their stories and I’m like, what was that supposed to illuminate?”
Although I didn’t have much of a response at the time, the comment stuck with me. What are stories supposed to illuminate? As I thumbed through Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames, I found myself wondering what, if any value, a simple adventure story like this that plays with all the tropes might illuminate.
Bloody Rose is a bloody good time.
The main character, Tam, is a newly recruited bard for a band of warrior mercenaries who fight monsters for the amusement of vast, coliseum-like crowds. As they progress toward their actual goal of fulfilling a contract to slay a dragon eater called the Simurg, it becomes clear that Tam is a pretty gifted warrior (she takes after her dad) and the contract they are obliged to fulfill is more than what it seems. Along the way, all the Tolkien and Martin homages pop up, following well-worn tracks that include a Winter Queen to Treants. But it’s superbly executed, fun, and the familiarity of it is like a warm blanket. Does it illuminate anything particularly important regarding the human condition?
Well, maybe. Eames’ work develops multiple themes deftly. There’s a line about not getting to be the hero of one story without becoming the villain of another, but that’s pretty standard fare. Until the characters begin discussing the conflict driving the story–all these mercs killing monsters for sport comes at a cost. Most mercenaries only want to fight scrawny, starved monsters or those heavily sedated by drugs. The faraway threat, a horde of thousands of monsters threatening a city, can be viewed as villainous until you realize, the small creatures, the monsters that inhabit Eame’s world, view the mercenaries as the true monsters. One of the characters, a monster who travels in disguise says, “I was taught to believe we were enemies–just as you were raised to believe I was yours. I thought that killing monsters made the world a better place. I was wrong.”
So it must seem to any native of a country inhabited by a superpower.
And yet what Eame’s illuminates goes far deeper, exploring why people risk their lives for one another in battle and the double standard that exists for women and mothers. Rose, the mercenary for whom the novel is named, says, “I was raised on my father’s stories, spoon-fed glory until I hungered for it—until I thought I’d starve without it” Eames really is commenting on a whole bunch of stuff, from patriotism to the band of brotherhood-like bond that holds people together in combat. Rose is also a mother who left her child in the care of grandparents to go slay monsters. This would be nothing for a man, but for her, a woman, it requires constant justification.
Eames writes, “Evil thrives on division. It stokes the embers of pride and prejudice until they become an inferno that might one day devour us all.”
Division has long allowed literary types to keep their work distinctly apart from genre fiction, but if anything, Eames fast-paced beach read illuminated more about the human condition than some of the canonical texts I’ve been forced to teach over the years. Maybe that’s because I was paying special attention, or maybe I just asked the right questions, but I like to think it’s because genre fiction, by its very nature, needs to hit every note–plot, characterization, pacing and theme–with economy. By that measure, Bloody Rose is a symphony.
I finally have a response for my coworker: If you ask the right question, EVERY text illuminates something.
Categories: Book Reviews