Anne Leonard has been writing fantasy and other fiction since she was fourteen and finally, after a career with as many detours as Odysseus, published her first novel, Moth and Spark, in February. She has a lot of letters after her name that are useful when trying to impress someone. She has worked in libraries, academia, and the legal field, and before becoming a full-time writer was a practicing attorney. She lives in Northern California with her husband, teenage son, and two black cats.
by Anne Leonard
Most of the sci-fi and fantasy books that I read over and over as a teenager have long since vanished from my bookshelves. One set which has not, however, is a trilogy collectively called The Chronicles of Tornor, by Elizabeth A. Lynn. The first two books, Watchtower and The Dancers of Arun were published in 1979; the third, The Northern Girl, was published in 1980. All three of the paperbacks that I have are blurbed with a quotation from Joanna Russ, “An adventure story for humanists and feminists.”
The whole trilogy is one of those vastly underappreciated, unknown works of fantasy. The prose is clean and clear, which is always a pleasure; the characters are well-drawn; and the worldbuilding is good. However, what really makes these books stand out, and is why I still have the books on my limited shelf space, is how Lynn represents marginalized people. Her characters include people of color, gays and lesbians, servants, and people who are marginalized by the societies and cultures created in her books.
The second book, The Dancers of Arun, is the story of a young man, Kerris, who is marginalized not by race or social class or gender but by disability: “For all that he was of Tornor’s ruling line, he was a scribe, a fit-taker, and a cripple” (2). The fits are snatches of vision in which he seems to share the body of his brother Kel, whom he has not seen since he was a child. These mark him as strange, abnormal, sick. What makes him a “cripple” is the injury done to him at the age of three, when his right-arms was cut off just below the shoulder in an attack that also killed his mother. Disability trumps nobility.
Lynn makes the arm disability and its consequences clear from the outset, instead of being coy about it:
Some weeks afterward he overheard her laughing about it with another girl, equating his lost limb and his sexual ability. (5)
“The Yard is not for you. It would waste the Yardmaster’s time to try to teach you fighting skills, . . . a home you will always have here . . . But more” – looking at Kerris’s right shoulder, at the empty sleeve – “is out of your reach.” (14)
Kerris’s stump ached. He touched the end of it, where the skin was thick and scarred. Paula had told him how they had had to sear it with the flat of a heated blade to stop the bleeding. (16)
While his arm injury disqualifies him from fighting or from being a man in a warrior culture, his fits further make him an outcast:
Paula stood in front of him, bristling like a mother cat protecting a kitten. The scullions were all watching. The chief cook was sputtering at the old woman. ‘I’ll have no fits taken in my kitchen!’ (3).
Despite this being outcast, however, Kerris has come to welcome the fits:
To himself he said, They wouldn’t trouble me if I knew what they were. But he did not want to be without them. In those brief moments of rapport he knew what it felt like to live in a body that had never been maimed. (14)
The fits do not compensate for the physical disability; they make it more endurable.
The story starts moving when the long-absent brother, Kel, comes to Tornor Keep. Kel is a dancer, a cheari, famous for his skill in the dance. He is a man whose body is fitness and grace, whose living comes from his ability to move beautifully. It is no wonder that Kerris enjoyed the moments of being in his brother’s body; it is a body that lots of able-bodied people would want to inhabit. The two brothers are opposite to each other in a profound physical way.
Kel has come to take Kerris away from Tornor to the witch-village of Elath – the “fits” are actually the witch-gift of inspeech, inherited by Kerris from his mother. In Elath, Kerris is taught to use the gift but struggles; whenever he tries to build a “wall” which should shield him from the thoughts of other people, he is unable to do so and has intense pain and fear. So although his inspeech is no longer something strange or misunderstood, he is still disabled by it, unable to use it as he should.
What eventually allows him to make the wall and have access to his abilities is the understanding that he injured his mind trying to keep his mother’s mind out during the attack which took his arm. Earlier in his life, inspeech had been an escape from his “maimed body”; now, to have the full benefit of his gift of inspeech, he has to go back to the moment of maiming and relive it in order to do what he could not do as a child. I think this is a particularly brilliant bit of writing, both because of the structural connection of present life to past life and because it shows how mind and body are connected without getting either preachy or psychoanalytical. It’s a plot point, not a lesson.
Much of the book is about Kerris becoming comfortable with his own body, including his sexuality: swimming, lovemaking, being naked in front of other people, learning to use a knife. I don’t want to go into more examples here (spoilers!), but the story is the story of a disabled man beginning to understand that he does not need to define himself by his disability.
The novel doesn’t end with some sort of fatuous “Disability is all in the mind” message; there are limitations that Kerris as a one-armed man will not be able to overcome. What the novel does show is that people are more than their disabilities. Kerris’s identity is not his empty sleeve. It’s very easy to use disability (and other differences, of course) as labels: the guy in the wheelchair, the blind woman, the amputee. Lynn makes the reader go beyond the label to seeing all the other aspects of a person.
Including disabled characters isn’t something that spec fic can do exclusively or necessarily better than any other genre of literature can. But I think spec fic can make it easier for an able-bodied person to imagine being disabled because the reader is already willingly submitting to an alternate reality. If I can imagine having swordfights or floating in zero-g or being able to breathe underwater, surely I can imagine what it would be like to have a less-functional body.
However, a likely challenge for spec fic writers is in keeping disability on a human scale so that there can be an empathetic response. The grotesque has an honorable and significant role in the world-building of spec fic, and writers who want to respectfully use disabled characters in their fiction will need to be careful not to substitute a grotesquerie for a realistic person. It would be easy of a writer to take a character like Kerris, a one-armed man with unexplained visions, and make him a freak, to turn him into someone whose purpose in the narrative is to make the other characters (and the reader) think of how terrible a life-like that would be. It might also be used as a world-building stand-in: “People like this exist in this book, so we know we’re in an epic fantasy and not real life!!”
Lynn avoids this by having Kerris be the point of view character, rather than a minor character, by showing the disability’s effects on Kerris’s daily life (eating, interacting with people, doing his work as a scribe), and by having the thrust of the narrative be about him coming to a new acceptance of his body. He is neither sensationalized nor trivialized. Lynn simultaneously normalizes the disability (in that it is understandable and something that is a fact of life for the character) and makes us look at the world differently by being in the head of a disabled person. This is what the best manifestations of diversity in literature do: allow us to see how the world appears to someone not like us. Even thirty-five years after The Dancers of Arun was published, it remains a great model for writers wanting to include any sort of diversity in their fiction.