The Reveal in Fantasy

April 16, 2013

A lot of good fiction involves mysteries and surprises. Sometimes this works, but the nature of fantasy fiction changes what is allowed in the resolution of a puzzle. This can open up new creative possibilities, but it also introduces new potential difficulties.

I just finished reading The Curse of Chalion, which my brother recommended as one of the best recent contributions to the fantasy genre. The plot is more about politics and intrigue than magic, although, in a way, this actually one of the story’s greatest strengths. It is a major theme that the gods’ magic can only enter the material world through living souls, so the eponymous curse manifests itself through madness, internecine violence, and political instability. The mystery of the curse is revealed only slowly, but eventually the protagonist receives news of a key prophecy—which sounds, initially, like something the hero could actually fulfill, albeit with great difficulty.

I think the reader is supposed to be mystified as to how the hero, Lupe dy Cazaril, is going to pull it off (by giving his life three times), right up until he actually succeeds; dy Cazaril himself certainly is. Unfortunately, when the last clue to the puzzle was revealed (coming utterly out of left field), I could immediately see how things were going to shake out. The only question left unresolved was whether the hero would manage to survive the whole ordeal or not. This made the ending fall a bit flat, although it was still a very enjoyable read; the mystery was just too easy.

Another example, where the reveal is carried off a bit better, occurred at the climax of The Return of the King. There was not exactly a mystery, in that I hadn’t been wondering how Frodo and Samwise would manage to destroy the One Ring, once they reached the Chambers of Fire. However, there was still a sudden surprise in that climactic encounter, which had been hinted at before, even if I had been too obtuse to notice them. (I regret that I am not actually talking about my experiences while reading the book; I first encountered the ending of Tolkien’s story in subsidiary media. I imagine that the effect would be similar for first-time reader, but I would be interested to hear if other people had different experiences.) Beside the Cracks of Doom, Frodo reveals that no Ring-bearer (or at least none that have carried the artifact for as long as he) could willingly destroy the Ring. What makes this effective is that it’s logical yet unanticipated. There’s an understandable human drama underlying what happens to Frodo and Gollum, who are both overcome by their lust for the Ring. The effect is certainly enhanced by the magic

Sometimes mysteries are resolved in a way that may be logical within the confines of the world’s cosmology, yet it relies on details of the magic system that are not familiar to the reader in the same way that they are to residents of the fantasy world. This can work, provided the rules of magic are spelled out early enough in the story for the reader to get a feeling of familiarity for them. In A. E. van Vogt’s The World of Ā (which is nominally science fiction but in many respects might as well be fantasy), there is discovered to be a strange new law of physics, which means that whenever two things are similar to twenty decimals places (whatever that means, exactly), energy will start flowing from one to the other. This applies to human beings and their minds as much as to anything else, which the hero learns after his consciousness is made to start hopping from one cloned body to another. In the end, it’s revealed that many of the key characters are also clones of the same original mastermind, which is quite surprising; yet it makes sense in terms of the rules of the new “magic” the author has introduced. (I should say that there are two more sequels, but I never managed to get through them, so I don’t know whether van Vogt managed to keep the story interesting for an entire trilogy. Although the fact that I gave up reading the second book suggests that he probably didn’t.)

However, if the reader doesn’t have enough time to get used to the rules of an alternate universe, a reveal that relies on these rules can be a huge letdown. It’s pretty disappointing if a wizard just walks in and explains, “Of course the demon died when he came into contact with monkey saliva. Monkey saliva is the key to the inner-outer void of life and brilliance.” That’s pretty much what happens in many older pulp fantasy (and science fiction) stories, which is too bad.

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15 Responses to “The Reveal in Fantasy”


  1. I wonder whether fantasy is really well suited to frame a real “mystery” in the sense that you like it, given that its society and even basic physics are specifically so foreign. Perhaps it’s more about the journey and the experience than about the mystery?


    • I do think fantasy ‘mysteries’ tend to be more about the journey, but I think they can also follow a more traditional format if, as Doom notes, they follow principles and facts laid out early on (but which are problematic because they tend to draw attention to themselves in a way real life detail don’t as much). In any case, I hope there’s a way to solve this, because Diapadion and I are doing a short fantasy mystery, with possibly more and larger to come.

      I think the key is consistency–sticking to the story and to points established in previous books. Not retconning (except additive retcon, which is complementary with past material) is probably more important, seems to me.

      As for the Cazaril plot, I don’t want or need spoilers or a detailed explanation, but I’m confused at what bits of the mystery Doom felt were obvious and overdetermined, or how they detract from the story. I view the book’s principle weakness as its pulling back from the characters, and the reward of seeing them back in a relatively intimate setting, at the end of the novel. It’s like ‘Mansfield Park,’ that way, where Austen seemed unable to give us a real happy ending, but instead pulled the camera back to extreme wide shots and related the denoument very quickly and second-hand–all of which can be emotionally disappointing when engaging in characters who are pretty well developed, emotionally.

      • Buzz Says:

        From the moment it was revealed that somebody had to sacrifice themself three times to break the curse, I could see how it was going to work out. That it would be Cazaril was obvious; even the characters in the story recognized that he was in a unique position. With some reflection, I could see that he had already made such sacrifices twice, although the first one did not seem to qualify. This was modestly puzzling until Bergon’s identity was revealed. At that point, I could see everything. Cazaril’s plan for the marriage had been an obviously bad idea, but now it’s utility in fulfilling the prophecy was visible. Moreover, I could pretty much guess how the third and final sacrifice was going to take place.

        After Cazaril’s third death, I thought the ending was a little too pat. I didn’t see it as “pulling back” in the manner of Mansfield Park (where the ending basically consists of Austen informing the reader that everything worked out completely smoothly, and through unrevealed means, Fanny lands the man of her dreams). At least, with the The Curse of Chalion, the hero had a perfectly dreamy life logically lined up for himself, if he survived. That made sense logically, but it also left me feeling that in a proper dramatic ending, he should have died. He could solve the kingdom’s problems and come so close to happiness himself, but in the end, it would slip through his fingers. Yet in the book he does survive, and in order to maintain a bit of drama after that point, he becomes rather unaccountably obtuse, which was disappointing to see in a character of such remarkable cleverness.


        • I’m using all my (very minimal, at this point) restraint to shout SPOILER ALERT ABOVE without further improprieties.

          You understand neither the endings of Mansfield Park nor ‘The Curse of Chalion’ very well, it seems to me. I am going to bed.

          • Buzz Says:

            I just reread the ending of Mansfield Park, and it did not differ in any substantive way from what I remembered. Certainly, it pulls back from the previously intimate view of the characters, but that’s not what’s wrong with it; ’tis merely a symptom of the deeper problem.

            Basically, Mansfield Park is a bad book. Discussions of it will often call it Austen’s “most controversial,” but this is really just critical euphemism. Our culture for some reason frowns on the open admission that great artists sometimes produce bad work. It’s somehow “bad form” to acknowledge that Aristophanes, Austen, Bach, or Gauguin produced artistic failures, but that’s what Mansfield Park is.

            The book has serious failures of logic, and its moral stance is profoundly hypocritical. A villainous character is ridiculed for her inability to understand the operational and financial realities of an estate, yet the financial calculations that drive so much of Austen’s plot do not add up. (It is probably easy to miss this, since the modern reader likely pays little attention to the details of Austen’s financial disclosure statements about her characters.) Simony is considered a perfectly acceptable practice, inadvisable only insofar as it may allow the wrong kind of people to get into positions of financial and moral authority. And apparently, being a foodie makes you very much of the wrong kind—and heaven forfend if the author describes you using term in French. The last chapter seems to be structured the way it is because Austen had no satisfactory narrative way of marrying Fanny off to Edmund (who had completely “friendzoned” her). She couldn’t come up with an appropriate romantic climax (like Lizzie Bennet’s telling off of Catherine de Bourgh and her subsequent outing with Darcy), so she gave up and told the reader (who is invited to fill in the timeline as they think most appropriate) that everything worked out fine.


            • ” Our culture for some reason frowns on the open admission that great artists sometimes produce bad work.”

              I….don’t think that’s true, Doom. Maybe. In any case…you REREAD the ending to Mansfield Park for the purpose of this comment….? When you evidently don’t even like the book? I…am tired.

              ‘Mansfield Park’ is indeed controversial. It’s the favourite of many critics, who often have different interests than your standard reader. Others have a different opinion, noting, say, that it’s the least successful and most creepy of Austen’s three versions of the Cinderella story (‘Persuasion’ evolves ‘Cinderella’ for the better; MP devolves it for the worse, to include incest). …It might be my least favorite of Austen’s adult books, but that doesn’t make it ‘bad,’ exactly, and the things you’re criticizing it on aren’t the important bits (no, I hadn’t noticed that Tom’s financial disclosure forms didn’t match up, and, yes, excessive ‘foodie’-ism is legitimately vulnerable to the implicit charge of gluttony, especially in a churchman. And, no, Austen was not incapable of writing a Romantic ending between Edmund and Fanny. The story of why and where and how he started noticing her is right there, waiting to be told.

              I have no idea what you’re talking about when you refer to ‘…Chalion,’ one of the more original adult fantasy novels out there, as having become ‘pat’ in any way, at the end. Nor can I figure out what in the name of the Daughter you mean by Caz’s becoming ‘unaccountably obtuse,’ nor am I suspicious that the comment is accurate to any reasonable degree or has a connection to the other bit that doesn’t make sense in your description (about the ‘invented drama’ or whatever). Your desire to see Caz die and stay dead is bizarre.

              I didn’t figure out all of the mysteries of that book’s conclusion while reading it, nor did the one reader I’ve discussed it in detail with, but we were just reading it as a novel, not as a mystery to be gamed out–with magic and theology the reader had extremely incomplete knowledge of for most of the book as critical elements–so we missed the part where everything about the last plot element was obvious.

              You should probably put a spoiler alert up or a lj cut or something.


    • Ocelot, your supposition about it being ‘more about the journey’ does remind me of the (rather fantastical) Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes, films–they failed utterly as mysteries–there was no way one could have figured stuff out from clues given, and not a lot of effort was put into that portion of the show. Instead, in this c.1890 super-sciencey world, the show was about the adventure, the journey Holmes and Watson went through, meeting characters who seemed to be possess, catch on fire, or be credentialed with the Canadian Wrestling Association. So…Ritchie certainly thought something similar to you, using a crude mystery as a vehicle for a whimsical, fast-paced journey that many thought was fun. It wasn’t so bad, but, yeah, the mystery part sort of fell flat.

      • Buzz Says:

        It’s funny that, in discussions of mysteries, we tacitly assume that a proper mystery must involve “fair play.” That is, the crucial clues that let the detective solve the case are there for the reader/viewer as well, and the reader is invited to try to solve the case on his own. The original Sherlock Holmes stories were not always (or even usually) like that; often Holmes bases his deductions on things that the reader never hears about until the detective’s summing up. In contrast, by 1931, the standard of the fair play mystery was so well established—and it was sufficiently expected that the reader would be “playing along,” trying to solve the case themself—that in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Five Red Herrings, part of the explanation is specifically elided from its first natural appearance in the story. That leaves the reader to puzzle out what the key clue was, giving them until Lord Peter Wimsey’s final summation to figure it out.

    • Buzz Says:

      I agree that the fantasy genre is not as well suited to (fair play) mystery plots as fiction that takes place in (approximately) the real world. Your comment reminded me that I have one Dungeons & Dragons adventure (from an old issue of Dragon magazine) that is done as a traditional murder mystery. (Of course, many adventures involve the player characters trying to figure out what’s going on, but there is rarely the convoluted web of red herrings and multiple suspects seen in the mystery genre. If the characters can reach and locate the clues, that’s usually enough to answer all their questions.) The authentic murder mystery adventure (which I’ve never played) struck me for several reasons. First, the setting was very different from a conventional medieval fantasy; it was much more reminiscent of 18th- or 19-century Europe, with some technologies that would be relatively familiar to the players, yet would not be found in most Dungeons & Dragons fantasy settings. The added familiarity of the setting and the types of clues available probably made the mystery easier to solve than it might have been. However, the second thing that I noticed was that it would still probably take a very, very experienced group of players, who knew a lot about the ways Dungeons & Dragons magic could be used, to locate the murderer before he kills again and escapes.

      A lot of good fantasy can have things that may be mysterious to the characters, but not so much the reader. If the journey and experience are novel and entertaining, this doesn’t bother me—so long as the author doesn’t keep harping on how mysterious something is. Another example where this is done quite badly is in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The golem-construct Vain has a secret purpose. I figured it out in the middle of the first book (and I know other readers who did as well), but the author spends another twelve hundred pages talking about how mysterious (and potentially sinister) his purpose is. There are further clues, which were presumably supposed to be cryptic, but they aren’t. The whole thing combines to make for very tiresome reading at times.

  2. Diapadion Says:

    I’ve thought about the issue of “how to write a compelling fantasy mystery” quite a bit, and while I’m welcome to more suggestions, the rule I’ve settled on is “the mystery itself should rely on as few fantasy elements as possible.” Which in essence means creating a mystery set in a fantasy world, rather than a fantasy mystery, if you want to nitpick.

    cough cough SPOILERS cough cough

    A good example of a story which violates this rule and does well is “Gun, with occasional music” (which is more sci-fi). In that story, the key element is one which has been discussed throughout the novel in various capacities. It is an integral part of the world, and the particular way it is used to create the mystery makes perfect sense in that world.

    As for Chalion, well, I am mostly with Buzz on this. I do think the ending fell flat; I don’t think it was fair to let the ending turn out so nicely, everything did feel too pat. I think the best thing to do would have been let Caz survive, thus defying expectation, and have Betriz die (possibly in a non-magical way) in the final conflict. For me Chalion also didn’t reach a sufficient level of immersion for mystery/reveal to convincingly rely on the supernatural framework the author sets up. It was close, but it wasn’t fleshed out and integrated enough for me to react with “oh, of course, that makes perfect sense”, which every good mystery should.


    • Don’t really disagree that the ending fell a bit flat–that’s been my explicit criticism since the 2nd time through, and emotionally since the first time–though I do disagree with any suggestion of ‘pat’-ness about the concluding section, or otherwise lack of innovation. As a reader, I didn’t predict the conclusion, nor the way (SPOILER)

      …another aspect of theology and the nature of the gods and the universe opened its eye briefly to cast meaning on the story (and recenter it, somewhat surprisingly, on a different character of that theology than might have been expected). I find it good writing, good fantasy, good storytelling, and the idea that Caz or Betriz ought to die just for…narrative propriety’s sake seems to me an RR Martin-style mistake of death for depth. Frankly, I’ve had enough of that. The relatively smooth final ending is well-earned amid a realistic world (and parallels actual events in Iberia–though they happened perhaps a century or two later in the real world equivalent of Chalion. Still, what difference?


    • It occurs to me that you’re both judging ‘Chalion’ as a myster, and not as a fantasy novel, noting that the clues and magical immersion don’t lay the groundwork carefully beforehand, then come together perfectly at the climax (on the one hand), and that the direction the mystery would take is is obvious, on the other (not that I’ve observed that to be true…).

      I think you’re wrong in judging it this way, rather than as a fantasy novel that *contains* a mystery. The final reveal does indeed reveal a good bit, but not about the plot at hand. Rather it’s a suddenly wider eye into the world of the metaphysical that the book has all along been developing, and in that sense it does precisely what it ought.

      No one claims the novel’s ending SPOILERS (post-de Jironal incident) is perfect, but if you won’t be satisfied unless Caz or Betriz dies, I think you need to check yourself and ask why you demand such a thing of a denoument in this novel.

      • Buzz Says:

        I think you’re reading too much into what I (and probably Diapadion) have said. It’s not that the ending isn’t satisfactory; it is fact quite satisfying as example of the hero managing to “earn” his happy ending. I just felt that a lot of the dramatic tension was lost well before the ending, because I could see too far in advance what was going to happen. The metaphysical revelations in the denouement weren’t sufficient substitutes for an engaging mystery to resolve. The metaphysics didn’t really speak to me, dramatically; I could see what the author was aiming for, but the material didn’t do a great job holding my attention.


        • If the material itself didn’t do a great job of holding your attention, then I don’t know how much else there is to talk about, but still think you’re misguided in demanding some substitute to fill in the dramatic tension for the lack of expected traditional ‘mystery’ plotting…

          The only thing I can say that approximates your criticism is that this book, being somewhat unique, doesn’t have a traditional dramatic shape to it, with some of the plot points and developments peaking a little early–but it’s a small charge to level at a story that otherwise would’ve likely been less innovative and distinctive, and its architectural problems are much smaller than, say, ‘Lord of Light,’ with its bizarre set of climaxes and reclimaxes, divided into, what, seven parts and with a certain amount of digression?

          For a remarkable shaped book in a genre notorious for redundancy among plots and characters (when considered against other works), it’s an awful lot to complain that once Caz (SPOILERS)

          ….

          …meets the Fox of Ibra, things seem to be going well, notwithstanding an unexpected set of surprise attacks that succeed in adding tension (Bujold’s grasp of political power in medieval times, too, is remarkable: its investiture in one person, and the way Guy outperforms expectations and makes a good (if very nasty) last to gain power making a power play with existing forces to reestablish himself as the one in practical control of personage and power, with a narrative to justify it–and, yes, there were incidents like this in, say, Castille and Aragon, or England, where traitors, women, or mad kings like Henry VI or Joanna the Mad were successfully locked up despite being, theoretically, sovereign rulers). I just don’t see what’s to complain of there, reasonably speaking. It isn’t possible for most stories to be perfect–this one is quite successful with its potential, and probably better structured than I–or, I suspect, you–could have made it.


  3. But I would further note that the story follows all the rules it establishes them, and works well, hand in hand, as it develops them toward something bigger. The same is true of both sequels (the third book is a bit sloppier, if its grimmer tone and more haunting history and atmosphere linger in the memory more…and still, there’s at least one more book explicitly set up with the introduction of a new set of characters and society–the foreign prince and his gift of the polar bear and knowledge of the -weirding- voice–to be developed in future works. Unfortunately, Bujold has a great deal of other work to finish.


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