Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Athan and the Priestess: A Quick Take

(Check out Jon's summary and review here.)

From the deathbed of the seer Thune, the gods of Death and Change require a service from Athan, lord of the steppe warriors.
Thune lurched forward, heaving black bile onto the matted furs of the hut’s floor. His first wife wiped the mess from his face as he continued in a choking voice, extending a bony finger toward Athan.
“The wall above the river, the barrier that separates us from the Ullin, you must breach it. You must find the high priestess and become one with her. The scion of your union will sunder both lands and bring light and dark together again so that mankind is whole!
“The kiss of the sea witch will permit you to breathe under the deepest water. See her and beg her favor. Then cross under the barrier, through the river, and seek the priestess in the land of the Ullin. Forget your pathetic songs of pathetic raids! Begin the dynasty that will make the world anew and lay waste to the arrogant Ullin!”
It's hard not to cheer for Athan, especially once he breaches the barrier.  The earthly paradise of the Ullin is superficial, full of rotten iron and grime stereotypical of the more slanderous tales of steppe people instead of pinnacles of civilization.  The sexes are segregated, with reproduction stripped of its personal nature - and personages altogether.  Life among the Ullin is one of monotonous ease, and, like all decadent cultures, in need of the vigor of a conqueror - and the Ullin themselves realize it as well.  Yet it is Athan's task to sire that conqueror, not to himself afflict the mighty and topple the proud.  His fate at the end serves as a reminder, almost as if, like Moses, he cannot see the future he brought about because he was disobedient along the way.

Once again, a story in Thune's Vision contrasts with the favored storytelling techniques of the day.  In the endless attempts to shore up the saggy middle of the middle act, writers have taken to using series of try-fail cycles, where complications and setbacks move the protagonist towards the finale.  Instead of try-fail cycles, Athan is given trials, or obstacles that must be overcome by strength and cunning in order to achieve his goal.  To achieve the one night stand the gods have decreed for him, Athan must earn the kiss of the sea witch, escape the frenzy of her pets, impress the drowned shades of his ancestors, breach the barrier into Ullin, duel a guardian, and finally sneak his way into the priestess's quarters.  Unlike many modern stories, Athan does not go around these roadblocks, but through.

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