One of my first published stories was in a small anthology of speculative fiction - a catch-all term for a genre that includes fantasy, science fiction, futuristic, dystopian, and supernatural fiction. I was thrilled they chose my story of course, but somehow, I knew it was a one-off. When I read it now, I don’t even know what the heck it’s supposed to mean.
Fantastic literature is as old as literature itself and has been used in translating the world into intelligible signs. It can be argued that Dante’s Inferno, H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, and Kafka’s Metamorphosis all fit under this broad umbrella. Parables, fairy tales, and children’s poems made no distinction and were all read in the same spirit of trying to make sense of the universe and our place in it. Fact and fiction were two sides of the same coin.
Fantasy, speculative fiction or whatever you choose to call it demands a giant leap of faith. I tend towards realism. Perhaps it’s my natural cynicism or maybe I just lack imagination. Whatever the reason, the world of magic, wizards, dragons or other mystical elements leaves me feeling lacking. I tried and failed to like Harry Potter - that tells you something.
But in keeping with my pledge to read outside my comfort zone, I was determined to try again, choosing ALBAN’S CHOICE by local author, Monica Zwikstra.
Briefly, two sisters must take on the roles of heir and wizard after the unexpected death of their brothers. As part of their rise to command of the kingdom, they must first marry. When their husbands are poisoned on their wedding night, the sisters are dispatched to save them, their family and their kingdom - one in battle and one by using her new-found magic.
It’s a classic tale of good vs evil, predictable but reassuring. Numerous and extraordinary obstacles are put in their way as they rush toward a cure for the husbands from one sister and overcoming the enemy in battle by the other. But even as we see them struggle and doubt their abilities, there is an inevitable foreknowledge of success. We may doubt the outcome of the secondary characters but our heroines’ fortunes seem assured. There’s comfort in that.
The hero myth is turned on its head with female characters tasked with the ultimate responsibility to save their world. No white knights here. It was amusing to see traditional gender roles changed when the sisters asked the men to marry them, men planning wedding details, men walking down the aisle by their fathers, and attention spent on what the men would wear. It felt a little silly but I loved the switch.
It’s a fast-paced adventure with a wonderful sense of place and time. I could picture the busy market place, hear the merchants calling out their wares and smell the herbs used by the healers. It may be a world of myth and mysts, demons and wizards, but it was an ancient time of swords, royal courtyards and archery. The smell of leather harnesses, meat pies, and horse dung in the streets was wonderfully descriptive, capturing a bustling sense of medieval culture.
The story also included an interesting political statement regarding racism. The ‘wilders’ are a people different and unknown, shunned and disrespected because of their differences. The wilder men must be kept covered and their faces can’t be seen in public, an overt reference to the hijab. Again, gender roles were reversed with one of the young husband’s face to be kept hidden until proper wedding vows were exchanged.
The politics were an unexpected addition that made the book more interesting to me. Or I could be reading more into it than intended. It could just be a good story with wizards and magic and love.
If you’re a lover of fantasy and looking to get lost in a battle against evil where all that’s good and right is clearly set before you, then Alban’s Choice is skillfully told.
Stepping outside my usual box into fantasy was an interesting exercise, but I’m not entirely sold yet on such a world. I like all the grey shades inherent within us. People are never quite that simple and our shared humanity is in our flaws so I think I’ll stick to realism. Or as a friend of mine says, it ain’t real unless you can poke it with a stick.
If you’re a fan of speculative fiction/fantasy, I’d love to hear your take on it and why you read it. Post your thoughts in the comments section and let me know what I’m missing and the books you love.
In Monica Zwikstra’s debut novel, Alban, youngest of four children in the princedom of Blowan, is adjusting to her growing empathic abilities when her two older brothers are killed, forcing her and her sister, Rayhan, to assume responsibilities they are not prepared for. Rayhan becomes heir to the throne and Alban will be trained as a wizard, a vital role in a world where magic is the only defense against an encroaching myst. Still dealing with the grief of their brothers’ deaths, the girls must adjust to their new positions in society – and find husbands – and produce children – soon – to ensure succession in the next generation. Then war is declared.
Throughout the story, Monica Zwikstra skillfully weaves the geography, the culture and the politics of the world Alban and her sister are trying to save; a world inhabited by fascinating characters, none of them perfect, some of them evil, many of them funny and endearing.
The characters Alban meets on her quest are not just inserted into the novel to help find one more vital ingredient for the cure that will return her husband to her. They have their own stories and their own problems and, when Alban continues her journey, I was left wondering what would happen to the people I had come to care about.
Zwikstra is deft at drawing the reader into every scene – describing the sights and sounds and smells of a royal banquet, a country fair, an army preparing for battle, and the battle itself. She writes the blood, guts and gore of war with a poet’s touch, not shying away from its horror, fear and loss – met with courage by Alban and her sister.
A captivating read.
Merilyn Ruth Liddell – author of Tomorrow