The Use of Language in Fantasy Novels

I sat down last night and picked up ‘The Blood Knight’, the third in Greg Keyes’ The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series. I finished the second book, ‘The Charnel Prince’ maybe a month or two ago and promptly found myself without the third (and fourth) to continue on with. The order from a certain online store had yet to arrive and was already about three months late.

Months passed, other books were read, a few weeks went by without me reading any fantasy at all (though I did start in on Dewey: The Small Town Cat Who Touched The World, which I’m loving as I pick it up every now and again).

Finally the third and fourth books in Keyes’ series arrived and went onto the shelf next to book one and two. I was looking forward to it, but I had a few other books that had arrived as well, including three books by Joe Abercrombie and Trudi Canavan’s next book. So I didn’t really know when I was going to get to read Keyes, as I suspected the others – new books from publishers rather than purchased and old – would get preferential treatment.

I was wrong, and I’m probably about halfway through The Blood Knight.

And I’m loving it!

I really love Greg Keyes work. From a simple story point of view, it’s great. The general concept is unlike anything I’ve ever read, as it isn’t just a “usurper stole the crown” story or a “there are monsters in the land” story. In fact there are about five different “stories” in here that all intertwine and rely upon one another. The characters are fully realized and fleshed out, tangible and very ‘able: which is to say either likeable or hateable.

I’ll say more about the story in reviews, that’s for certain, but I wanted to touch on something that Keyes does, I think, remarkably well.

Many fantasy authors – myself included – spend a lot of time working out different languages and sources for their languages. You don’t want a book that all of a sudden has a Julius walking into the scene or someone entering a Coliseum; it’s too close to home, too close to reality. Fantasy books are supposed to be just that, fantasy, and that means that they need to take you away from the reality you’re in. One of the methods used to do this is to use different words for commonplace things and peoples names.

Some people succeed, others fail. I’ll get into who else does either at some later date.

For now, let’s just look at how well Keyes does it.

And he does do it well. Very well I think.

Within the novel Keyes’ characters travel through and encounter a variety of different cultures. Some live right next door to each other, and some are across seas. Some are related to one another and others are not. But in every instance, with every new culture introduced, there is a modification or variation on the language. Some of them bear striking resemblance to the “common” tongue (ie, the written word on paper for our reading eyes) while others are substantially removed. Oftentimes the older the reference made the farther removed from the “common” tongue it is, though there are several instances where the native tongue of someone our protagonists come across is indecipherable, saved only by context and/or explanation.

I have just finished reading a scene tonight where Anne Dare meets a native of a particular area whose language is similar, but just a little off from hers. Words like “welcome” are closely written but maybe off by a letter or two, and the way in which the sentences are structured are clumsy by common standards.

But this only makes it more impressive because behind the clumsiness is a certain grace that you can see exists within the natives language but that is lost in translation. Keyes somehow manages to imprint the lilting music of another language without us even hearing it, let alone understanding it.

More than the simple usage of different words (that are either italicized or not) to separate different cultures from our protagonists cultures, but the lead characters have different phrases for commonalities in our world. For example a nightmare is known as a Black Mary, and is frequently used as such with no hesitation. It is not a once off thing but just the way that the people speak. ‘They wake up from a bad dream and they want to cast off the lingering touch of the Black Mary,’ or something like that.

And these changes – both language wise and phrase wise – are beautifully interwoven into a story that is as much dependant on these changes as the changes are dependant on the story.

The differences between the common tongue and other tongues and historical tongues are integral to unravelling what is going to happen, revealing mysteries to the reader at the right time and creating moments of “ah ha” for the characters. One character is important almost solely for his ability to understand multiple languages both past and present. That takes a lot of guts to create a character like that, who is essentially a scholar without any of the Indiana Jones-esque abilities.

So I’d suggest that if you are at all interested in languages (or well written fantasy) than these books are for you.

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