On Saturday I had the privilege of hosting a conversation with British fantasy author Joe Abercrombie at the 2015 Perth Writers Festival. It was an enjoyable experience – Joe’s trademark wit certainly extends beyond his novels, and he had a lot of pertinent points to make about the genre of fantasy. His new series, The Shattered Sea, is aimed at a Young Adult audience. The first book, Half a King, was released in 2014. Its sequel, Half the World, was released just a few weeks ago, with the final book to follow later this year. We spoke about a range of subjects, including the experience of writing for a younger audience, writing to deadlines, the role of female characters in fantasy novels, and the general evolution of the genre. Joe finished the session by giving some valuable advice on writing to the audience.
One of the topics we discussed was coming-of-age rituals in Young Adult Fantasy books. And it’s a topic that has consumed my thoughts for the rest of the weekend.
Something that I have long thought was missing in modern Western culture is a secular coming-of-age ritual for young men. The line between boyhood and manhood is becoming increasingly blurred. There is no definitive moment or test that signals the end of childhood. Some say it’s the onset of puberty, but these biological changes are no longer reflected by a society that continues to treat the individual like a child until they are in their late teens. Others say adulthood begins upon graduation from high school. Or university. Or upon receiving a pay check. Or being old enough to vote. Or pay bills. Or have sex. Or fight in a war. There are many different answers. And then there’s the phenomenon of the “man-child”, the grown man who is still mentally or emotionally immature. (Writing that last sentence, I am suddenly very conscious of the sheer amount of Avengers posters adorning my office wall.) Some religious cultures still practice coming of age rituals for young men, such as the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, but the individual is often still regarded as a child under the laws of his country. It all points to a very blurry demarcation. In my own experience, there was no definitive moment when I realized that had crossed the threshold into adulthood – there was just a vague sense of transition that could only be recognized in hindsight. In any case, our culture lacks a definitive secular ritual that separates the boys from the men. Whether this is a positive or negative absence is something that I’ll leave to the developmental psychologists.
Joe Abercrombie and I spent some time discussing Young Adult fantasy worlds where the line between childhood and adulthood is not as blurry. Young Adult novels traditionally feature protagonists who have come to the end of childhood, making the first decisions and choices that creates their identities as adults. But they are often outsiders, treated differently to others. It’s a theme that resonates with younger readers who are still trying to forge an identity. In those tales which are closely allied with the fantasy genre, the protagonists often live in societies which have definitive rituals or tests to mark the boundary between childhood and adulthood. Whether it is a hunt, a dance, a test, or a feat of physical prowess, these rites of passage signify acceptance into adult society.
The societies that Joe describes in his Shattered Sea books are strikingly similar to a Viking culture. They celebrate strength and prowess in battle. Young men are deemed adults when they pass a test and are able to stand in the shield wall alongside their fellow warriors.
Joe explained that he wanted to write about characters who didn’t quite fit into their worlds. Yarvi, the protagonist of Half a King, is born with a crippled hand, which means he is unable to wield a shield and unable to stand in the shield wall. He pursues the post of Minister instead, a kind of healer/advisor that is traditionally a woman’s job. This is also denied to him due to scheming family members. Similarly, the protagonist in the sequel, Thorn, is a competent warrior, but is not recognized for her talents because of her gender. She refuses to take on a traditional feminine role, instead seeking the glory of battle. Both characters are outsiders, and both are unable to complete the coming of age rituals that they desire.
It was only after my discussion with Joe that I realized a major part of the reason that I enjoyed his novels is because he writes about characters who are denied a coming of age. Like those of us in the real world, they have to forge their own identity and discover their own definition of adulthood. It’s not as simple as passing a test. It is a blurry, uncertain line, one that is wracked with doubt and anxiety. It makes for a more interesting story, one that rejects the hackneyed fantasy coming-of-age tropes. Real life is never simple; why should it be this way in our fiction?
More info on Joe Abercrombie and his writing can be found here.