I’m a difficult man to please. I keep trying to work out what exactly it is in stories that calls to me, and what I want to write myself, but partly thanks to yesterday’s review of Gate of Ivrel, and that are narratives in which people fix holes in themselves. Tales of healing. Prolonged tales of how they got that way? Not so much. Ursula Le Guin’s quote about the “banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain” is one of my favourite quotes for a reason. The rage with which we lash out at which hurt us, righteous or otherwise? Sometimes. More often not.
This isn’t just an issue of temperament. I like conflicted characters, and the narrative arcs they offer in their mutually incompatible desires. Characters in pain just want it to stop. Characters in rage just want the cause to go away. Those are the default settings. Authors can and do add more to them, of course, but it’s easy for it to get lost in the dominant emotions. But people hurt in the soul who are seeking, moving towards healing but still unable to move, they are routinely stuck in that place of conflict. They are trying to move forward but there are internal obstacles.
Another twist of narrative here that falls naturally to tales of healing is that they usually involve close character dynamics. Pain is often about loneliness. Rage doesn’t have to be, but sometimes is. Stories are about actions though, actions that build resonance and emotions and expectation in people’s minds, and one of the easiest ways to do that is through repeated interactions between characters. Healing narratives tend to have that baked in.
In short, I don’t just like the theme in and of itself, I think it’s a really powerful way to tell stories, both as a main arc and subplot. I prefer it as a co-existent arc to a more action or intrigue heavy plot – that’s one of my sweet spots if done right – and to celebrate that, here’s a number of recs (mine and others) of books that fulfill that really well.
A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin
As good a starting point as any as Le Guin gave us one of the first great examples of fantasy’s ability to show journeys of healing of the spirit and self-forgiveness. It is a mark of the whole series but this book, the tale of the wizard Sparrowhawk and his journey back to health after an act of magical hubris, showcases it as well as any. Full of magic, beautifully clear writing, and a fascinating world, A Wizard of Earthsea deserves its reputation by any measuring stick but when it comes to this sort of narrative, even more so.
King of Assassins – RJ Barker
Dealing with and recovering from trauma is a series wide theme in Barker’s The Wounded Kingdoms (the clue is in the name), but it reaches its peak in the final book. There, an aged and confused Girton Clubfoot, assassin and bodyguard, is forced to come to terms with his loneliness and decaying friendships, and in doing so finds overlooked gifts. Packed with brooding, gothic atmosphere and wit, King of Assassins is a great example of a fantasy mystery book and a healing journey alike.
Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold
I’ve already said a lot about this book – see the full review here – but let me go over this perfect example of its type again. Heavily focused around its narrator, Lupe y Cazaril, it covers his tutorship of a royal princess as he recovers from a traumatic spell in captivity as a galley slave. The book is a delight in just about every way but watching find his strength and purpose again, all through service to others and a greater cause, is what put it over the top.
Kushiel’s Scion – Jacqueline Carey
Set after the original trilogy featuring Phedre, Kushiel’s Scion follows Imriel de la Courcel; born to traitors, captured by slavers, raised by heroes. It’s a very complex brew that results in Imriel growing to manhood just a leetle imbalanced and sad. A mix of intrigue, action, and romance, Kushiel’s Scion sees young Imriel strive to find his own path away from that legacy and, in doing so, exorcise an element of his sadness.
Midnight Falcon – David Gemmell
For some reason my full review of this isn’t on this blog but growth and healing was always a favoured theme of David Gemmell’s (after stoving in the skull of anyone encroaching on your turf). Midnight Falcon is probably his finest in that vein for me, both for its depiction of the self-destructive anger of the outcast Bane, and the constant affection and great-hearted gestures that allow him to place the world in perspective. I also enjoy the long and complicated process of forgiveness (or not, in some cases) that follows it; just because Bane is well in his heart, doesn’t mean he has to like those who wounded him.
Transformation – Carol Berg
Now for a bunch of recs courtesy of some of my friends! This one comes from Para, who recommended it, saying it was very close to Curse of Chalion in concept. It certainly sounds like it from the blurb; Seyonne has been a slave for half his life after being captured by his enemies and has reached an uneasy inner peace before he is picked out to be a secretary by an arrogant prince. An arrogant prince with an enemies. It sounds like it’s heavier on the pain before the healing than CoC, but I’m still very interested. Para also said the cover is very misleading and that it is not in fact the bonkbuster is looks like. Behold:
Heart’s Blood – Juliet Marillier
This recommendation came from Sharade at The Fantasy Inn. She said it can be tough sledding as the MC, Kaitrin, went through some abuse. Going by the blurb, Kaitrin is a scribe fleeing her demons when she finds her way to Whispering Tor, the mysterious and crumbling hill-fort home of Anluan and his family. Mysterious, crumbling, and cursed. The blurb reminds me a little of Leth in Gate of Ivrel, or The Wounded Kingdoms. Anyway, I’m in for taking a look based on that, particularly as the Marillier I’ve read to date has been very atmospheric.
The Last Sun – KD Edwards
Another one from Sharade, and I’m tempted to be skeptical as she finds a reason to shill The Last Sun every few weeks or so. Probably more. But it does fit. Rune Saint John is a man who’s been through a lot of abuse and tough times, that leads him to doing all sorts of silly and dangerous things for money. That is a situation that of course requires a lot of trust – and a lot of growth on Rune Saint John’s part. This is a book that’s been on TBR for a while after reading the sample, so maybe it’s time I read it.
The Deed of Paksenarrion – Elizabeth Moon
This recommendation came from Bibliostatic and I’ll be honest, not all of us I talked to about this were on board with this. This imagining of what it would really be like in the life of a D&D Paladin features plenty of hurt, but is there healing? Does Paks go on a journey to inner peace, or does she ever have too much equilibrium and inner grace for that to be the case? I’d lean towards no, but I thought I’d put it up there and see what people thought of it in the comments, because I can see where Bibliostatic is coming from.
City of Strife – Claudie Arsenault
My final recommendation came from the author Lynn E. O’Connacht who suggested this series. The blurb looks right on for what I’m looking for. Arathiel is an elf (I think?) returned to his home city after over a century of exile and starts making a new life for himself in the lower city until a friend is accused of an assassination. And from there is all goes sideways. It’s certainly enough for me to take a sample and stick it on the list.
Magic’s Promise – Mercedes Lackey
Two more now, both from authors I should have thought of earlier as they did it a lot. I thought of a lot of Lackey books to rec here, particularly Arrows of the Queen and Owlflight, but I think The Last Herald-Mage plays closest to this narrative. Vanyel is healed and hurt over and over, but each time he’s a little more healed, and each time the hurt is of a different kind. In the first book, Magic’s Promise, Vanyel is recovering from a childhood as a sensitive queer child in a very rough and tumble macho household; I do not know how well it fulfils showing that queer experience, but it is a beautiful story of healing.
Tigana – Guy Gavriel Kay
I considered Children of Earth and Sky, particularly for Danica’s arc. I considered The Fionavar Tapestry, particularly for Dave’s arc (and kinda Paul’s, although it kinda goes fast). But I went for Tigana, because it is about a small group of people recovering from the trauma of being conquered, some living through it and some born after, discovering the holes in themselves and finding ways to sew it together. In many ways, Tigana is the most committed to this arc of all the books here, because it’s the arc for every single main character. And it’s a beautiful, dramatic tale of intrigue and daring to boot.
Maybe I saved the best for last. Or maybe I didn’t – tell me all about it in the comments, and let me know your favourite tales of healing too.