Beyond the Border" is one of the original
Conan stories written by
Robert E. Howard. The action, however, does not feature Conan himself.
Howard chose to skew his literary camera off to one side and look at
the world around his protagonist from a different angle.
my first memory of being exposed to this particular technique. It
creates a very interesting effect, although -- ultimately -- I think
the story is a failure. In the years since then, I've seen the
technique used in a variety of series, and the result is more often
failure than not.
Which is why, when I realized that Athyra
was going to be using this particular approach, I subconsciously
bunkered down for a long and painful slog...
... only to be more-than-pleasantly
surprised to discover that my fears were unfounded.
fact, it didn't take me very long to realize that Vlad Taltos lends
himself particularly well to this particular approach. Part of it can
simply be boiled down to the fact that the Taltos stories have been
told from the POV of Taltos himself. So this is literally our first
opportunity to see what he looks like to other people. (Whereas with
Conan, for example, the stories are told from a third-person POV, so
there's already some distance from the character.)
susceptibility to this kind of technique also has a lot to do with the
nature of the character himself: Taltos likes to play his cards close
to his vest. He plots and he plans, but he usually keeps those plans --
and even the information those plans are based on -- a closely kept
secret. When you're inside his head, though, he can't keep any secrets
from you. It's like watching a poker tournament on TV: You can see all
the other hand, we suddenly find ourselves on the outside looking in:
The cards are hidden from us. And that, in itself, is interesting.
But what really makes it fun is that, at
this point, we've gotten to know Vlad pretty pretty well.
So we still have a pretty deep insight into the types of games he plays
and the way he plays them. So, on the one hand, we can suddenly
sympathize with the new protagonist who finds himself baffled by Vlad's
hidden strategies (a POV that suddenly gives us a fresh insight into
the perspective of many supporting characters from the previous books),
but on the other hand we can also appreciate the deeper structure of
what Vlad is doing.
I think the other thing that makes Athyra
work is the type of story Brust has chosen to tell: The main character
is Savn, a young Dragaeran lad on the cusp of reaching adulthood. The
novel, in short, falls into the familiar genre of "young boy/girl finds
unique bond with exotic mentor while coming of age". (My personal
favorite in this category is probably Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis,
although you'll find examples of the genre cropping up everywhere.)
type of story weds itself well to the enjoyment gleaned from knowing
Vlad better than the main character does. In fact, the entire genre is
largely driven by the fact that we -- either as adults or as the
genre-aware -- can appreciate the "exotic mysteries" of the mentor
figure. Part of the genre's effectiveness is that it saddles both sides
of the chasm which is "coming of age". On the one hand, we remember the
(relative) innocence of our youth. On the other, we know the wider
world which is being revealed. In the interstice between the two, we
remember what that coming of age was like... and thus become intimately
sympathetic with the main character as they follow the same journey.
I was a kid, on the other hand, these stories operated on a very
different level: The fictional mentor became my mentor as well, and I
became intimately sympathetic with the main character because their
The other thing about this type of story is
that, although it is not told from his POV, the mentor is
a main character. When done properly, the story is as much the mentor's
as the student's. So even though we're pushed out of Vlad's head, Vlad
in some sense remains a main character (which I think helps make the
OF IMMORTAL AGE
In my reaction to Yendi
I discussed the genre-alteration of familiar tropes. Brust has a talent
for taking existing archetypes, running them through the unique
characteristics of his fantasy world, and creating something
refreshingly unique and entertaining.
In the case of Athyra, Brust is
telling a coming of age story for Savn... but Savn is 80+ years old.
is a near-immortal Dragaeran with a lifespan of several hundred
(possibly thousand) years. He is also a farmboy still serving in his
apprenticeship to a physick. So in terms of social position (and even
maturity), Savn is basically a teenager. A very old teenager.
appears to be consciously attempting to explore what it would mean to
be a near-immortal living in a society of other near-immortals. It's a
bold challenge. And, in the narrow case of Savn and the story
But, to a large extent, he only succeeds by
"cheating" -- and so, in a broader sense, he also fails.
"cheating", I mean that he has placed Savn in a rural community which
is socially backwards and largely populated with ignorance. This allows
Brust to get away with having Savn be relatively naive and culturally
under-developed. In other words, it allows him to largely draw a line
of equivalence between "human 16-year old" and "Dragaeran 80-year old".
as I say, works just fine for the story... but still disappoints on
some level because it misses out on what could have been a much bolder
and more dynamic challenge.
Let's try to break this down. If you
actually took human lifespans and started lengthening them, what would
happen to the concepts of "childhood" and "adulthood"?
some extent we don't have to imagine it: It's been happening all around
us for the past hundred years or so. The concept of "teenager", for
example, is a recent one. (The term itself wasn't even coined until the
20th century.) It represents a rather radical departure from ages past,
when people we now consider "kids" would have actually been seen as
fully functional adults. And over the past decade or so, I have noted
increasing trends to infantilize college students, with a growing
expectation that colleges and universities should be acting as some
sort of surrogate parents for their students.
And this social
trend appears to be expanding even as recent physical trend lines
indicate that the onset of puberty is happening at earlier ages.
Speaking in general terms, I see three
reasons for this expansion of pre-adulthood:
First, the increase in average lifespan
lessens the sense of urgency in reaching adulthood and pursuing adult
the amount of "basic knowledge" expected for someone to function as an
adult in society has drastically increased. We've gone from the
completion of high school being exceptionally rare to a college
education being seen as a fairly standard expectation. The acquisition
of more knowledge requires more time, and this naturally expands the
amount of time it takes to become an adult in the eyes of society.
the amount of leisure time and the economic structure of our society
has fundamentally shifted. When it's an economic necessity for your
kids to help you in the field, you'll get them out there as soon as
they're physically capable of helping you. But the vast majority of
modern careers don't have that kind of structure. This, again, reduces
the sense of urgency in reaching the transition from childhood to
But there's an important proviso here: The
of today is not the functional equivalent of the 10-year old of
yesteryear. And this is the mistake that Brust makes when he draws the
line of equivalence between a modern 16-year old and a Dragaeran
80-year old. The expansion of childhood isn't like taking the same
chunk of butter and spreading it over a larger slice of bread.
Because, fundamentally, the 80-year old
Dragaeran will still have 80
years of experience,
even if they're not functionally an adult in the eyes of their society.
And you can kinda duck around that, as Brust does, by putting the
character into a situation where they can easily hit a ceiling of
knowledge and an endless cycle of dreary life.
I think you're ducking out of the really interesting question: Whether
it's a matter of physical maturation or social construct (or both),
what does it really mean to be 80 years old and still be a child?
doesn't try to answer that question. If it did, it might have been a
great novel. As it is, it's merely a fun one.