Special Needs in Strange Worlds | Aidan Moher

A Dribble of Ink.

Anyone who is anyone in speculative fiction will turn their head when you say those words. Why? Because A Dribble of Ink, and the editor of that site, Aidan Moher, sets trends, attracts attention and provokes insightful discussions. Aidan is a true genre powerhouse and beyond that, he’s incredibly approachable and friendly despite his popularity.

In all honesty, I was incredibly afraid to ask Aidan to write something for this event, because I admire what he does so much, his name intimidates me a bit. When he agreed to write something, I was overjoyed. The truth of the matter is, A Dribble of Ink was one of the first blogs I started following when I realized that there was a book blogging internet world. That means that Aidan is largely responsible for why my blog even exists. A Dribble of Ink has inspired me quite a bit, and Aidan’s approachability and friendly manner has only helped me along.

Aidan is one of those people that I actively watch. It seems like everything he says causes ripples. His posts are always informative and the topics he discusses are never anything but fascinating and he always seems to have the breaking genre news. I said it before, and I’ll say it again. Aidan is trendsetter and a genre powerhouse. You’d be wise to keep him in your radar.

About the author

Aidan Moher is the editor of A Dribble of Ink, a humble little blog that exists in some dusty corner of the web. He hasn’t won any awards, or published any novels. But he’s, uhh… working on that.

Onto his wonderful post

When Sarah first approached me about participating in Special Needs in Strange Worlds, I knew immediately that I would be writing about Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series, which recently concluded with the fourth volume, Shadowheart.

When it was first published in 2004, Shadowmarch marked Williams’ return to Epic Fantasy, the genre that launched him to stardom with Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (which, incidentally, was a major inspiration for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a series that also features multiple point-of-view characters struggling with physical disabilities), after a foray into both Science Fiction (Otherland) and Urban Fantasy (The War of the Flowers). The series, though not without its faults, showed something of a maturation in Williams’ writing as he caught up with a genre that had significantly opened up since his first trilogy.

One of my favourite characters in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn was Prince Josua, a rebellious prince who was the fulcrum of a rebellion that forms the core for much of the trilogy. It happens that Josua was missing a hand. This was a defining feature for Josua, in a visual sense, but had little-to-no effect on his being able to achieve his goals. It’s hard to believe that George R.R. Martin wasn’t influenced by Josua when one of his own characters loses a hand, though Martin takes the concept further, exploring how the loss of his character’s sword-hand affects not only his ability to compete physically against other characters, but how the loss of skill and ability can alter and manipulate a person’s outlook on life. Losing that hand is a major catalyst in allowing Martin’s character to evolve into one of A Song of Ice and Fire’s most conflicted and compelling characters.

One of the major criticisms of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is that Williams riddled his story with too many infallible characters, who too cleanly overcome the challenges set in their way. With his return to Epic Fanasy, Williams appeared determined to confront these issues directly by populating the Shadowmarch series with many characters who have some form of disability that challenges their ability to reach their goals. There’s the blind king of the Qar, the diminuitive Chert Blue-Quartz, the sociopathic autarch, Sulepis Bishakh am-Xis III, and his heir, Prusus, an important political figure living with a severe form of what appears to be cerebral palsy. At the center of these characters is Barrick Eddon, a troubled royal prince and his twin, Briony.

Though they share the same genetic code, these twins could not be more different. Briony is bright and capable, a natural leader (if naive) and fit. Physically crippled as a young boy, Barrick is a bitter young man, followed always by the dark cloud of depression, self-regret and anger. This depression, both hereditary and spawned by Barrick’s inability to accept his physical disability, causes the youth to retreat from society, finding solace not in his family, friends and teachers, but within the dark storm brewing in his head and heart. Removing himself from society this way more easily allows Barrick to leave humanity behind, literally crossing the shadowline and pursuing an exhibition, nearly a pilgrimage, into the land of the Qar, where no humans are known to survive. There he makes friends with a talking raven, a voiceless warrior and a comatose fey princess, and through their help they are able to achieve more than he ever could on his own, regardless of the physical limitations placed on them individually. For the first time, Barrick begins to understand the strength that can be found in the empathy of others.

Ultimately, both Barrick and Briony reach their true potential by embracing the confidence necessary to throw off the shackles of youth and embrace the responsibility of their regency as three armies converge on their homeland. Williams keenly explores the ways we must sacrifice and compromise as adulthood looms. Barrick never loses his anger or his inept sociability, and Briony never loses her dependance on others, but separately they learn to accept these faults and instead use them as strengths. They reach end the novel still flawed, but recognizably stronger versions of the youths we first met in Shadowmarch. Nobody is more ardently aware of the changes than Briony and Barrick themselves.

Throughout the course of the latter two volumes in the series, as a result of both his bloodline and being exposed to the magic of the alien Qar, Barrick begins to overcome his physical disabilities. At first it seems like a cop-out by the author, a deus ex machina that allows Barrick to become ‘whole,’ but Williams is too smart for that and Barrick soon realizes that his physical disabilities are, in many ways, a smaller prison compared to the crippling social disabilities he created within himself as a guard against the sympathies of the other people in his life, including his sister, though he loves her dearly. The prince can never crawl out from under the shadow of his disabilities; though his body is healthy, his mind continues to be plagued by the demons of his own devices. Barrick’s lifelong struggle with his disabilities is a defining aspect of his character, and an intelligent foil to the struggles of his sister—where Barrick inwardly deals with the physical and mental shackles placed on his by his disabilities, Briony, physically healthy, must battle equally confining restrictions placed on her by society for being a female fighting for her place in society. To overcome his disabilities, Barrick must first convince himself that it’s possible, for Briony, she must convinces the others that surround her. It’s tough to say who has the more difficult road.

The Shadowmarch series is filled with characters who deal with varying degrees of physical disability, but it never stops a single one of them from having an important and positive impact on their imperiled world. Though a character like Ferras Vansen is physically strong and suffers only from a melancholy heart, his struggles are as difficult and important to him as those faced the physically-challenged Prusus. Different, yes, but equally demanding.

Outwardly, disabilities are often defined by how they affect us physically. How we throw a baseball, how we run, or how we turn the page of a book. More often, though, the most crippling aspect of a physical disability are the mental aspects, the clouds of self-doubt and frustration that work endlessly to instill the idea that what is achievable for the average person is out of reach because of the differences in physical ability. Barrick struggles with this for four volumes, and even by the end he has not found an answer; but, if there’s anything Fantasy excels at, it’s embracing the philosophy that the only boundaries that exist are the ones we place for ourselves, that anything is achievable for those with the imagination and will to believe so.

What makes Barrick such a strong character, and Williams such an intelligent storyteller, however, is that Barrick’s problems aren’t magically solved at the end of the novel. He has grown, matured and began to tackle the emotional and social repression that his former physical disability created in him, but, just like “real life,” these are not issues that disappear overnight. Instead, they’re a constant, lifelong struggle and Williams leaves Barrick at a point where the reader realizes that his story and his conflict has reached an ending, but not the ending. Through Barrick, the reader understands that conquering a disability, whether physical or mental, is a battle of will and confidence, a fight against self-doubt and frustration. With conflict solved the world’s magic in flux, Barrick sees the first hints of his physical disability returning at the end of the novel; but has been given a second chance to learn how to understand, but not be defined by, the boundaries placed on him by his physical infirmities. As readers, we are left to wonder whether Barrick’s true struggle, not with the Qar or the invading army, but with himself, isn’t more difficult than any magical threat he has faced (and overcome) before.

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Aidan runs the wonderful blog A Dribble of Ink. If you haven’t checked it out yet, I really recommend you come out from your cave and give it a glance. He always seems to have the latest news, insights and reviews. Really, A Dribble of Ink is one of the most influential genre blogs on the internet. You can also find him on Twitter.

2 Responses

  • Thanks, Aidan.

    I’ve been curious about Shadowmatch, since I am a big fan of the OTHERLAND series but had a much milder reaction to the Memory, Sorrow, Thorn set.

    Reply
  1. On Shadowmarch and “Special Needs in Strange Worlds” — A Dribble of Ink  May 9, 2012

    […] an excerpt from my article, which considers Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series (beware of spoilers for the entire series): […]

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