As I write this blog post, I’m a third of the way through my current read. It’s a middle-grade epic fantasy set in a medieval-like desert-scape narrated from three points of view. Currently, one of the narrators, the Princess Soraya, is being hidden away due to some odd agreement made at court. The other two narrators, her half-brother Jiaan and the peddler Kavi, are in her father’s service, armed with the respective tasks of keeping her safe and him informed.
Now that you’re up to speed, I have two things I want to share about this book that have struck me so far.
One, I am thoroughly impressed with one minor detail the author has enforced from page one. The country from which all three narrators originate is a feudal one, set in a medieval time, which means there is an elaborate class structure involved. All of the people born to the upper classes, called deghans, have straight black hair. All of the people born to the lower classes have curly black hair. Yes, there is a varying scale along the straight to curly spectrum.
Most people know a bit about genetics. Two people with straight hair will likely have children with straight hair–if they both have a family history of people with straight hair. Same goes for those with individuals with curly hair. People with wavy hair more than likely have a mix in their family tree.
Hair, in this fictional world, equates to blood. Purity of blood in a feudal world is significant. Especially if you’re a member of the upper echelons. And, in a medieval land that lacks our modern equipment designed to straighten ones hair, it’s pretty difficult to hide your lineage (though not impossible).
Character hair seems like such a minor detail, but it speaks volumes in this book. No one can hide or fake their hair. With one look, the other characters know exactly where to cast each other in their society. They can decide in an instant if another matters to them.
I can’t find a better example that showcases the importance of seemingly minor details in a story. Each characters’ hair shows so much without the author having to tell me a thing.
Two, despite the fact that medieval times were realistically patriarchal, I can’t forgive a writer’s sexism. Even if the writer is a woman. Let me outline the part in the story I was grossly unimpressed with.
Soraya and her father, Merahb, are hiding in a shed as he explains to her why she must be hidden away. There are other deghans at court trying to usurp his power, which places her in danger. He also believes war from a neighbouring group is close at hand. This discussion segues to one about a wall built by this neighbouring group, one with battle defences. Soraya brings these defences up as a counter argument as she doesn’t understand why her father and his men can’t use the wall to their advantage.
He laughs at her and says, “Sometimes I forget you’re a girl,” then explains that the defences are on the enemy’s side. I looked up from the pages I was reading and asked myself, what the hell does being a girl have to do with it? Really?
I suppose if we’re going to rely on traditional gender roles here, girls know nothing about war or battle defences. They’re too busy getting married and pushing out babies–something Soraya is a little too focused on in this novel for my liking. But I’m still in the early stages of the book.
The fact that her land has never seen war in her father’s lifetime could probably explain why she’s ignorant and inexperienced, why does it have to be tied to her gender? After all, he taught her how to fight, defend herself, and to mount a horse on her own (which other women in the book don’t do). That kind of laziness on the part of an author really irritates me. Don’t take the easy way out. Flip expectations on their heads, don’t fall for them.
See how valuable reading is to writing? I can absolutely apply both of these aspects to my own work. Focus on the significant details and stay away from sexist clichés.