I first found Godstalk back when I was still in high school. It took me a long time to get around to reading it, however. I am an extremely finicky reader, so it took me a while to decide to read it. It also took me a while to fall in love with it. Godstalk is a strange and quirky novel in which the writer does some fun things with various Sword and Sorcery and High Fantasy tropes. Godstalk has a war of Ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil, but the forces of good have had a thirty thousand year losing streak, and they kind of have it in for the God that gave them the job of fighting the Ultimate Evil. (They are mostly still fighting only because of extreme stubbornness.) And the forces of evil aren’t so much Evil as they are alien and inimical to the realities they’re invading.
Our Heroine has mysterious, barely in control powers, has huge chunks bit out of her memory, and her reaction to finding herself in a city lousy with gods is to immediately experiment on them to find out how they work. Jame is a very special kind of heroine, and by special, I mean she is a disaster walking. She is the kind of character who will always be found in the center of the destruction looking mildly puzzled or slightly embarrassed. The best part is that she doesn’t even do it on purpose. She is a tornado of WTF and never actually intends the outcome, and part of her character arc is learning how not to do that. (That is, she has to learn to intend the outcome.)
Book I: Tatters of Dust Chapter One: Out of the Haunted Lands
We open with Our Heroine, who is running from haunts, which are basically zombies. She’s already been bitten, and we all know how that one ends. Fortunately, she sees that there’s a city up ahead; Tai-tastigon. The haunts fall back and we get some information. She had returned home, to find home in ruins and filled with zombies. We get our first clue that there is something very odd about Our Heroine; she has retractable claws. We also know that there is something “wrong” about having claws, but we don’t know what that is yet.
We also get some world-building details that are sewn into Jame’s recent back story. Jame has an infected wound, and it is possible for a Kencyr to heal herself of just about any serious injury if she can enter a state referred to as “dwar sleep.” Jame has not had much time to do this, because when she returned home after a long absence (after having been cast out by her father when she was a kid) to find her home in ruins. The only body not among the dead was her brother Tori. She was able to recover her father’s signet ring and an heirloom sword and her plans are to return these items to her brother, wherever he may be. (She has decided that her father hand no right to cast her out when she was a child, and the only person who should have this right is her twin brother.) We get some ominous warnings, including the mention of a Barrier, and the hint that something besides the haunts might be pursuing Our Heroine.
She enters the city, which is strangely quiet, dark and…not deserted in a very eerie way. Jame encounters a number of strange beings and even stranger warnings. She learns from some notes scattered about that these strange beings are “gods.” (Specifically, they are “dead” gods.) This is quite a shock to our reluctantly monotheistic Heroine! It’s bad enough that her God has been an absentee landlord for thirty thousand years, but being a liar as well is something that simply cannot be borne! Jame, seeing the temple of her God in the distance, immediately gives it a defiant and challenging salute, swearing to get to the bottom of this tomfoolery!
She also encounters an elderly gentleman named Penari who has been beset by footpads. She immediately rescues him and he offers her a job opportunity in thanks! Before she continues on her way, she spies a youngster who had apparently been watching the fight and who flees shortly afterward. After some more wandering around, and a few more terrifying encounters with what are possibly more dead gods, her undead father, or hallucinations of all of the above. The chapter ends with her staggering off along the city street.
Here’s one thing we learn about Jame. She has so, so many issues. She has a lifetime subscription to the Daddy Issues Journal. Another thing we learn is that they are extremely justified. Her father cast her out of his home when she was still a child, and one of his accusations was that she was a “Child of Darkness.” (Which we will find is particularly significant later.) What I think struck me during the first and subsequent readings of Godstalk is that Jame is clearly traumatized by what happened, but there is a significant lack of drama and almost no self-pity about it. It’s just presented to us by the author, and we have to draw our own conclusions about it.
Let’s compare this with two other writers I can think of who have written abusive backstories for their characters: Mercedes Lackey and Elizabeth Moon.
When Mercedes Lackey writes about abuse there is a slightly “unreal” quality to it because the description feels telegraphed and hammy, text book descriptions that ring false, even if the specific case is reminiscent of what you might find on the news or in case studies on abuse. Another issue with Lackey’s abuse back stories that usually pops up in the high fantasy/sword and sorcery stories. Where we find stereotypes about people from impoverished backgrounds being emotionally tougher and more resistant to abuse, and where we also find unusually anachronistic methodologies for dealing with abuse victims side by side with techniques that would make a therapist facepalm forever. On the other hand, someone, a kid, going through a lot of trouble at home can draw a lot of strength and vindication as their favorite protagonist overcomes whatever part of their life that’s making them miserable.
Elizabeth Moon I think, does a much better job of depicting abuse without being melodramatic or anachronistic. In her medieval-type settings, no one really understands how to deal with abuse or the aftermath and it shows. (Especially in The Deed of Paksenarrion where the Elf Queen pretty much drops the ball where her grandchild is concerned and Paks has to figure out what the heck is going on.) The problem (and it’s a serious one for me) with Moon’s depiction of abuse is that there is a slight tendency toward victim blaming, which is more or less emotionally accurate, because people tend to do this even when they don’t realize it, but is also cringe-inducing because it’s common in both her science fiction and in her fantasy. That is to say, there seems to be a narrative-level as well as character-level value judgment being placed on people who are “successfully” able to “overcome” histories of abuse, and those who are unsuccessful at “overcoming” abuse and “remaining victims” and those who themselves become abusers. (This can also be emotionally valuable in some ways, but the victim blaming is still cringe-inducing.)
Hodgell’s method is the most interesting and possibly also the most difficult to take in. There is no blame or virtue assigned within the narrative. There are only the facts and the protagonist’s reaction to trauma. The reader has to do most of the work of assigning blame, of becoming aware that Jame’s childhood was extremely horrific, mostly because Jame doesn’t really remember and has nothing to compare her experiences to. The reader has to recognize Jame’s past history as abuse, because Hodgell only describes while Jame slowly begins to understand and confront the past over the course of the series.