For the last several years, I have been on a Quest.
Something like twenty summers ago, my precocious, scrawny little-kid self would go to the bookmobile library at every opportunity and come home with a stack of books practically as tall as I was (which wasn’t that tall then, but still). The picture books, early readers, and chapter books barely lasted me a day, no matter how tall the stacks were. So I turned to the thick science-fiction and fantasy books stacked like bricks in the back of the bookmobile. Many of their covers were a little sus. Their pages were all slightly yellowed and smelled like must. But just one of those could occupy me for a whole day, sometimes two. I was in love.
One of my most distinct memories from that time is of being curled up on my bunk bed, a dragon in my hoard of borrowed books, and reading about a magical desert world while listening to Destiny’s Child and TLC from Radio Disney playing on my clock radio. It was hot inside, but it seemed like even the pages radiated the heat from the story. I could almost smell the sand (it was probably just the must). I remembered a specific scene in which the main character was running along with this desert caravan and someone else in the caravan offering her water.
“I thought we were out of water,” I remember the main character saying.
“Never drink the last of your water until you’re within sight of the next oasis,” came the reply.
It’s advice I’ve carried with me for twenty years, only with a water bottle instead of a water skin, and drinking fountains instead of oases.
Besides the desert setting, that exchange, a rough memory of the cover, and the fact that I thought it was really good, I forgot the other details as time went on, but a few years ago the missing pieces bothered me enough I decided to try to track that novel down.
I sent myself on a Quest.
I have read through countless Goodreads lists of Best SciFi/Fantasy, narrowed down by decade (80s, 90s), and/or setting (“…that take place in a desert”) but had no luck. I tried asking people at comic conventions and at bookstores and libraries. Nothing. I remembered there was a thing at the top of the cover similar to the Forgotten Realms books, but all I found out was that Forgotten Realms books were basically Wizards of the Coast-sponsored fanfic of Dungeons & Dragons.
And then, in November, I mentioned my Quest and how frustrated I was with it. I don’t know how he didn’t know about it before, because he was with me while I was harassing people at cons and bookstores, but it was news to him. “You know there’s a desert world in D&D, right?” said my dungeonmaster husband, and pulled out his stack of manuals and showed me. Desert Sun. We did a Google. Google told us there was a pentad of books set in the Desert Sun world, and on the cover of the third book was the character I remembered. The Amber Enchantress, in the flesh (er, the page?). I found a copy on eBay and bid on that sucker. Quest fulfilled!
It came quickly, yellow pages and musty smell and all. I dove into it, and it was…not good. Maybe it was the fact that it was the third of five books, or it could have been the fact that it had a whole lot of stuff going on and a whole lot of hand-waving to resolve it. There was a massive plot hole that can’t be attributed to me missing out on the first two and last two books of the pentad. But more than anything, the main character, Sadira of Tyr, was just flat. And the characters around her were flat. And their goals and problems were flat.
I’ve long bristled at the snobbery that tends to appear when genre fiction comes up in literary or academic circles. I’ve always thought those criticisms were unfair judgment of a fun genre. I still think that, but I kind of get it now. Throughout adulthood, I think I’ve taken for granted how good the genre fiction I’ve been reading has been. N.K. Jemisin, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. LeGuin, Brandon Sanderson, Nnedi Okorafor, Naomi Novik, John Scalzi, Seanan McGuire and all her aliases, James S. A. Corey, Martha Wells–it’s a list that could go on and on, and all of the work that belongs to the people on it is good. It’s exciting. It’s got fantastical lands and desperate situations and magic or technology so finely crafted as to be indistinguishable from magic.
But at the center of that work there tends to also be a sense of heart, a solidness that The Amber Enchantress lacked. Although the stakes were plenty high throughout The Amber Enchantress and tragedy struck close to Sadira again and again, none of it seemed to weigh on Sadira. Her reactions seemed nearly arbitrary to what was happening around her. This is not to say that I expect all characters to behave in rational ways, because humans as a species certainly do not, and I love a good antihero. But Sadira seemed woven of selfishness and hypocrisy without noticing either, quick to judge others all while being presented quite clearly as the hero of the story.
Which, again, might have been in part because I hadn’t read the series from the beginning. But given the plot holes and how the events within that volume skimmed across Sadira’s surface, I think it’s more likely that this was a book written for a specific audience that the author or publisher, or both, did not think of as being particularly picky. I would like to think we’ve gotten more picky as the genre has matured—not to suggest that older examples of genre fiction were weak in character, because some of the best examples I can think of in terms of character growth belong to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien—or at least gotten so much of it to choose from within the literary world that there’s really no room for much anymore but the cream of the crop.
(This may be a topic that springs easily into a look at the Sad/Rabid Puppies movements from a few years ago, especially since I’ve already invoked Jemisin‘s name, but I’ve gone on long enough already.)
Now the Quest is over and I have my prize, but it turned out that it was only fool’s gold all along. As I finished the book, I couldn’t help but wonder how, after so many years trying to rediscover it, being disappointed by it might have affected me negatively as a reader. But I think I can still read for the pure pleasure of it, without needing inspiring character growth or the kind of sharp social commentary you frequently find in modern (and enduring) genre fiction. Last week, I tore through Gideon the Ninth in about a day and a half of reading at every opportunity—including on the bus, in line at the store, and, yeah, okay, in the bathroom—and immediately got my hands on the sequel, Harrow the Ninth, because I couldn’t get enough of the story. Gideon is a thoroughly entertaining narrator, but Gideon doesn’t go through any particularly dramatic character growth, nor does she represent a broader societal issue. She does, however, wear the events of the story with appropriate weight, and it was just well written (and free of plot holes).
Maybe that was the difference all along, that The Amber Enchantress wasn’t especially well written, and I was too young at the time to recognize that.
I waited a couple of weeks to write this because I wanted to get my thoughts in order, but I’m still not sure they’re orderly enough. I know this is too much thought to put into a cheap bit of genre fiction, although to me, it was not just some book. Somehow, it burrowed its way into my consciousness and has influenced me as a reader and a writer in ways I guess I haven’t fully recognized yet.
It wasn’t all disappointment, though. I did find that bit about not finishing the water until the next oasis is in sight. I barely misremembered it at all.
Grissi took the flattened waterskin off her shoulder, then unfastened the mouth and handed it to the half-elf. “Drink,” she said. “Your throat is closing up.”
Sadira shot her companion an angry scowl, then accepted the skin and closed her lips around the mouth. Taking care to keep her chin down so her eyes could watch the ground, she tipped the skin up. The sorceress continued to breathe through her nose as a trickle of hot, stale water ran down her throat. Without breaking her pace, she kept the skin raised high while she drained the last few drops of precious liquid.
Once the skin was empty, she thrust it back at Grissi. “You told me an hour ago we were out of water.”
“Never drink your last swallow of water until you’re within sight of the next one,” said the elf, slinging the empty skin over her shoulder.
Sadira peered at the dark lines on the horizon. This time, it seemed she could make out the billowing crowns of hundreds of trees. “Thank the winds,” she gasped. “An oasis.”
It’s still good advice, if you’re a thirst person whose water bottle never seems to be big enough. That, at least, was not a disappointment.