This week, Tor's science fiction and fantasy blog listed "Five Books About Deeply-Flawed, Despicable People," protagonists who are "nasty, rotten, mean, horrid, and downright fascinating." This inspired me to draw up my own list.
These eight characters are too dark to be excused as merely "complicated" but too complicated to be dismissed as mere villains. Three are in space operas, five in fantasy novels. I didn't want to wander too far down memory lane, so most are from still-continuing or recently concluded series.
1) Jorg Ancrath, The Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence (first in series, The Prince of Thorns)
At age nine, Prince Jorg sees his brother and mother murdered by his uncle's minions. Fleeing from his creepy father, he sets out dreaming of revenge and conquest. When we meet him a few years later, his reckless genius has already won him a band of unsavory "brothers." Together (despite Jorg occasionally killing one on a whim), they sack and slaughter. They cut a swath across what seems to be a twisted nightmare of medieval Europe but is actually a twisted nightmare of post-apocalyptic Europe. Moving on to capture a throne at fourteen and launch a full-scale war at eighteen, Jorg is always on a hair trigger. He's a hard-edged and often abhorrent first-person narrator, but there's wisdom in his bloodletting: "You can only win the game when you understand that it is a game. Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castles. Let him love his queen. Watch him lose them all.” He may be the most quotable character in fantasy fiction, and that makes him well worth the occasional horrified gasp.
2) Geder Palliako, The Dagger and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham (first in series, The Dragon's Path)
Geder is one of my favorite fictional characters. At the start of this excellent series (by one of the writers of the also excellent Expanse books), we see a timid man with esoteric interests, a born scholar who should never have been forced into the military. Within the ranks, he's bullied and mocked. But because he's high-born, circumstances conspire to put him in command. He's in far over his head, and he makes a horrendously cruel snap decision. He bars the gates of an enemy village that's on fire, trapping the residents--screaming babes and all--inside to burn alive. When the "victory" leads to his becoming Regent, his kindness and sensitivity toward the grieving young monarch-to-be is truly touching. Most of the time, Geder is sweet in his insecurities and impetuosity. But when he feels cornered or betrayed, he goes suddenly psychopathic. Warm to him one moment, and in the next he's having a beloved protagonist beheaded. I can't think of a more mixed and complicated character than Geder, not even in this series with its many complex humanoid races. (I fell in love with a member of one, a "Tragul" named Yardem Hane. It would be a fine thing, in my opinion, if men had soft furry ears that perked and canted like a dog's) It also features some terrifying religious villains, and as a bonus, explains how early banks were established.
3) The Shrike, The Hyperion Cantos series by Dan Simmons (first in series, Hyperion)
The Shrike is roughly ten feet tall, with a metal carapace and four arms with scalpels as fingers. His body is covered in blades and thorns. He travels through time and space in ways that allow him to simply appear from one instant to the next, either to slaughter a surprised victim or bear him off to impale him on the thorns of a metal tree. At first, he seems a soulless monster, but as the series progresses and his backstory and alliances are revealed, it's obvious there's much more to him. Every character in this outer space version of The Canterbury Tales has a riveting story to tell. But the Shrike manages to be unforgettable without ever sharing. He is my very favorite monster of all time, in any genre.
4) Prince Regal, The Farseer Chronicles by Robin Hobb (first in series, Assassin's Apprentice)
Schooled in paranoia by his venal mother, steeped in her rage that his older half-brothers will precede him to the throne, Prince Regal Farseer convinces himself that his is the superior claim. To that end, he murders family members, despoils the land, and allies himself with a marauding enemy. It's impossible not to detest him for the horrors he inflicts on the series' hero, with whom I am totally in love. But it's clear Regal is the product not just of his conniving mother, whom we despise, but of his doting father, whom we respect. The King spoils his youngest, rejecting all evidence of his perfidy and manipulation. And in these books, no one escapes the harsh consequences of his own foolishness. It's my favorite fantasy series in part because nothing about any character or any situation is simple.
5) Angus Thermopyle and 6) Nick Succorso, The Gap Cycle by Stephen R. Donaldson (first in series, The Gap: Into Conflict)
Inspired by Wagner's Ring Cycle, this series is operatic and hair-on-fire intense. The characters seethe with passions born of dire situations, and that's particularly true of Angus Thermopyle. He's an ugly tormented man, living under the radar as a space bandit, consistently turning to brutality to salve his roiling emotions. But there's more to him than initially meets the eye. We watch him transform from a violent robber and rapist to a hero of sorts, saving the woman he'd previously savaged and helping her fight the bad guys. Nick Succorso, on the other hand, at first seems to be a handsome rogue, an Indiana Jones kind of hero, captain of a sleek craft he uses in thefts, cons, and the occasional government job. But when his back is to the wall, he doesn't think twice about selling out his friends and aiding his enemies. Both men are fascinating blends of dark and light, with different facets in focus at different times. It adds unpredictability to a story that's already full of stunners. I don't know how many times I cried, "On, no!" out loud while I read these books. They aren't for people who require trigger warnings, but they are masterfully done.
7) Tuon, Empress of the Seanchan, The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson (first in series, The Eye of the World)
In line to became Empress of a warlike nation of slavers, Tuon "trains" women captured and subjugated for their magical ability. She keeps stables of them, breaking them as she would hounds or horses, to use in raids and skirmishes. She shrugs off their misery as necessary, a precaution to keep magic from being turned against the Empire. Though she is not what I'd call likable, her personality is forceful and oddly alluring. In fact, one of the three male protagonists falls in love with her... even though she refuses to call him anything but "Toy." There are fourteen novels in this series, and their quality sags at times. But the plot is always engrossing and the world-building is meticulous. The final three novels, written by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan died, are almost constantly thrilling--a three-book climax to a long and exciting story.
8) Amaram, The Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson (first in series, The Way of Kings)
Kaladin, the hero of this superb tale, becomes a soldier for Brightlord Amaram, one of the few upperclass "lighteyes" he respects. In the course of saving Amaram's life, he wrests a rare and powerful weapon from his opponent, one that should have made him unbeatable. Amaram's greed for this "Shardblade" prompts him to kill all witnesses to the fight so he can claim to have won it himself. He is not fully evil—he's a good general with correct loyalties--and he knows he owes his life to Kaladin. So he leaves him alive… but he sells him into slavery. Kaladin's prowess and determination eventually better his situation, putting him into the service of a liege he admires. But that ruler's friendship with Amaram causes more complications. The world Sanderson builds is breathtaking in its scope and originality. The magic system is unlike any I've seen in any other book. No one writes better fight and battle scenes. And it's impossible not to love the protagonists. It's no mystery why the latest in the series debuted at #1 on the NYT bestseller list.
Often, I pick up a new book because I've seen the title on several lists. I hope my mentions here will add to someone's tally. I loved these series and recommend them without reservation.
In the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays a man stranded alone on an island. When a Wilson volleyball washes ashore, he draws a face on it. For the lonely years that follow, "Wilson" is his only comrade and confidant. His reaction when he loses the volleyball says a great deal about the nature of need and attachment. It is, in my opinion, one of the most perfect metaphors ever to elevate a work of fiction.
Most people, at some time or other, experience a subjective version of that solitude. It doesn't matter if they're surrounded by family, friends, acquaintances, coworkers. Nor is it limited to depressed people or those whose friendships or romances fail (or fail to satisfy). I think everyone feels a little marooned now and then, for reasons they can't explain. At those times, ordinary things--drink or potato chips or skateboarding or work or Arcade Fire turned up to eleven—can become companions as much as habits. My shorthand for those choices is "finding a Wilson."
That's why I say that for me this winter, Robin Hobb's FitzChivalry Farseer audiobooks were my Wilson.
I am addicted to audio. It recalls to me the magic of being read to, the thrill of sitting in the dark around a campfire, transported by grand tales. So I've burned through dozens of fantasy and science fiction downloads lately. I've put many on the must-listen-again-someday list, stand-alones like Neil Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and Andy Weir's The Martian, series like Daniel Abraham's The Coin and The Dagger, James S.A. Corey's Expanse books, Stephen R. Donaldson's Gap Cycle, Peter F. Hamilton's Void trilogy.
But with Hobb's FitzChivalry audiobooks, it wasn't a matter of returning to them again someday. When I finished the seventh and last of them (for now--number two in the third trilogy will be available in August), I immediately started in on the series again. And I keep doing that. Every time I tell myself, Okay this re-listen is it, I have to move on… I don't. That's why I've come to think that right now, for whatever reason—there's really nothing I can point to—I've made these my Wilson. I listen to them as I walk, exercise, clean house, run errands, web surf, drift off to sleep. When I finish the last, I start over with the first. I don't tire of them. With each rerun, I remain rapt. I find more in them. Whatever else motivates me to stay in this groove, the truth is, the story is so detailed and complex that it keeps offering new rewards.
The first trilogy begins with Assassin's Apprentice, the story of Fitz, the bastard son of the King-in-Waiting of the Six Duchies. I was hooked from the opening scene, told from the perspective of a 5 year old unceremoniously dumped at the military compound of the father he's never met (and never will meet). Hobb creates immediate immersion in a richly rendered world of fascinating characters, human and animal, and their complicated relationships. Through a child's eyes, we see the tragedy of a Prince withdrawing in disgrace from the Court and the royal succession. As Fitz grows into adolescence, we watch that abdication mire him and the new King-in-Waiting in a grinding struggle to defend a war-ravaged coast and a castle rotten with intrigue. We follow Fitz as he secretly trains to become an assassin for the Crown: Royal bastards, he knows, don't live long unless they are both indispensable and unnoticed. But it's battering and frustrating work that, as often as not, leaves him bloodied and shamed. This deadly diplomacy is fascinating, expanding the books' world both literally and figuratively. But what made the series compelling for me was the relationships.
These are complicated by Fitz's magics. In the first novel, Assassin's Apprentice, he's shown to have two kinds. One, the ability to reach other minds with his own, is inherited from his father. It nearly costs him his life when jealous royals try to burn it out of him. Another, possibly from the mother he can't remember, allows him to communicate with and, more rarely, bond to animals. This "beast magic" is despised across the realm, and if his secret becomes known, he'll be gruesomely executed. Both magics create great hardship for Fitz even as they bring him obvious advantages. They also add depth to already well-drawn connections, including a very moving bond between Fitz and a wolf. (Animal lovers should not miss this series. The human-animal partnerships are as central as the best love interests in other books.)
The second book in the opening trilogy, Royal Assassin, showcases another unusual pairing as Fitz becomes more-than-friends with a not-quite-human court jester, the Fool. The twists and tragedies of their closeness are extraordinarily involving. I've never rooted so hard for a platonic couple. I felt the same way about Fitz's kinship with the men who raised him, the step-mother who didn't, and his uncle's bride. In fact, I cared about these with an intensity that far outshone my investment in the series' actual romance.
I liked the second trilogy in the series even better. In it, the alliance between Fitz and the Fool becomes so tender and tangled, by turns gratifying and agonizing, that I consider it the most captivating story I've encountered about love between men. Though the Fool might long for more than Fitz's orientation permits, that's not the basis of their tie. Exquisite characterization magnifies the nuances of their rapport and misunderstandings. Add to that the complications of children Fitz can't claim and love triangles that can't be put right, and Fool's Errand, Fool's Quest, and Fool's Fate create an emotional odyssey worthy of a story magnificent with mystery and magic and dragons. And The Fool's Assassin, the first book in Hobb's new trilogy about these characters, adds yet another painfully affecting relationship.
Even so, I ask myself why I haven't moved on from this fine series when I've managed it so easily with others. Maybe the cost to Fitz of the secrets he keeps, the isolation he experiences because of them, resonates with the crime novelist in me. Maybe as a single person past her prime, I appreciate the showcasing of love and bonds that don't involve or require romance. Maybe it's the beauty of Robin Hobb's prose, the joy I feel as a writer listening to descriptions and language that never misfire. Maybe I just love Fitz for surviving his own mistakes. Certainly the spellbinding narration by Paul Boehmer and James Langton plays a part. But some combination of story and theme and style makes me think, each time I finish the series, well, I'll just give these audios one more listen.
That's why I've come to see them as my Wilson. I have no idea why I need one, but no one (including myself) is asking me that question. So for now, I'm just grateful that FitzChivalry Farseer is here for me.