Monday, March 17, 2008

Paper Mage, by Leah Cutter

No question about it, when we think of generic "fantasy," there's a certain type we all have in mind. The setting is medieval European, the hero is a white guy, and there's a significant amount of violence. There has been a significant backlash against that stereotype, whether it's being mocked in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, or bent into steampunk, or subverted with female heroines. Paper Mage is part of this backlash, with an Asian setting, young female heroine, and an emphasis on introspection instead of exterior violent conflict. The remarkable thing about the book is that while it fulfills a number of rather politically correct agendas, these are all beneath the surface. The subtext never dominates the story itself. Right up front it is a lovely read, well written and enjoyable.

Our heroine is Xiao Yen, and she lives in an Asian country, presumably China, in a roughly medieval time. Buddhism and paganism seem to comfortably coexist. Her story is told in alternating chapters, with one set following her from her childhood as she learns to be a paper mage, the other starting with her getting her first assignment after finishing school. In both time periods things are more difficult for her as the only female mage around. Her peers in school often make her feel outcast, and the only paying assignment she can get is to provide defense for a small party of foreign traders who presumably don't know any better.

The exterior plot involves her escorting the traders, then encountering a goddess. Xiao Yen is given a mission to defeat a supernatural warlord, and to do so she must also defeat a dragon in its lair. All this would be the stuff of a normal fantasy. The hero would charge forth, swing his sword around a bunch, and end up rightfully taking the conquered warlord's power. However here all the action is underplayed, and this important quest is basically wrapped up halfway through the novel. There is a beautiful scene where Xiao Yen uses a hairpin, in mockery of a sword, to defeat the all powerful warlord. Truly a commentary on women's ways of wielding power!

More important than these quests is Xiao Yen's internal struggle. She is pulled in many different directions: her aunt, the matriarch of her family (most of the men were killed) also has a quest for her. Her aunt is the one who pushes her to become a mage. She believes that if Xiao Yen is good enough, she will be granted a special boon and pass it back to her aunt, as would be required by family duty. Another pull is that her mother and sisters believe she should stop this magic silliness and get married, again as per duty. None of them can explicitly overrule the aunt, but they make clear what is expected of Xiao Yen. Having gone through all her training, and become exceptionally good at wielding magic through origami, Xiao Yen feels a duty to her craft and her master, but worries that being a magician, especially a female magician, will leave her terribly isolated from other things she enjoys in life. Finally she is pulled by the lure of romance, with one of the foreigners presenting himself as a possible partner. He's different enough, perhaps he has a chance of accepting her for who she is.

The resolution to all these threads is quite satisfying. It does not seek to impose a solution that might be favored by independently minded Westerners on a fully socialized Asian woman. Instead Xiao Yen seeks and achieves a balance of sorts between the different forces in her life. Her priorities are very different from a Western hero's. She generally eschews great wealth and power, but instead values her own internal and emotional balance. This is a beautiful tale, with a lot to say about different ways that fantasy can be written. It isn't perfect of course; the structural choice of alternating chapters sometimes doesn't synch up particularly well, and one wonders if the tale couldn't have been as well told chronologically. Specifically, the climaxes don't seem to enhance each other the way one would hope. Still, this is a worth read for fantasy fans, especially ones looking for a different perspective on a well-worn genre.


M. said...

It's great to see your new blog! I think this format will allow you to share your thoughts on a broader range of topics, when you're so inclined. Thanks for the recommendations!

Karen Burnham said...

Thanks! I think I'll like it too - I've already decided to start reviewing more short fiction here.

How are you feeling? I'm already looking forward to Denver.