Analysis of racist stereotypes in An Empire rises by Michael J. Sullivan. How can a contemporary fantasy go wrong so much?

That the fantasy genre as we know it today was basically born from the imitation and inspiration of the works of JRR Tolkien is a fact that is now fairly well established, although the contributions of contemporaries of the Professor, such as CS Lewis and Robert E. Howard, should not be forgotten either .

Following in the footsteps of Tolkien, who with The Lord of the Rings tried to create an all-English mythology, Western fantasy often tends to have a strong Eurocentrism, presenting worlds more or less based on the European Middle Ages, sometimes at war with enemies of other colors (we think only of the Nadir de The legend of the Drenai by David Gemmell) and in other cases surrounded by distant and "exotic" populations (as happens in the books of Michael J. Sullivan, in fact).

In case anyone really wants to be in Europe, here's the fantasy map, designed by Callum Odgen
In case anyone really wants to be in Europe, here's the fantasy map, designed by Callum Odgen

History is often an opinion

Now, obviously the use of our Middle Ages as a source of inspiration for one's fantasy world is not a problem. Indeed many authors are able to make the most of its features. However, others tend to rely not so much on the historical reality of medieval Europe as on popular perception of the "dark ages". In fact, that feudal society was totally static and without the possibility of social redemption is more of a myth than a reality. Just as it is not historically accurate to point to the Middle Ages as an era devoid of scientific discoveries, or the dark centuries of the witch hunt, or a period when people did not travel, only white people lived in Europe and there were no women in power.

In short, relying on any real historical period often requires much more research than you think. This de facto marks a very clear boundary line between those fantasy authors who take care of documenting themselves and those who bring together people in tunics and tights, knights in armor and some castle and are satisfied with this medieval sprinkling.

Writing about non-European populations

Then sometimes you have to broaden your horizons in addition to the garden of your own home, going to explore civilizations inspired by other historical periods and other realities of our world. Here, a certain part of fantasy authors, usually even the least trained in the management of the European Middle Ages, tends to approach these populations roughly and, unfortunately, also quite problematic. Which should not be surprising, given that the teaching of history itself in our schools (and in the United States) tends to be very Eurocentric.

This difficulty and the historical centrality that our Middle Ages has always had on the fantasy genre are probably the reason why many authors tend to write mainly about white people in a magical Europe, as seen very well in Terry Brooks' first three Shannara sagas.

In short, you don't have to imitate Sig: The Manual of the Primes
In short, you don't have to imitate Sig: The Manual of the Primes

Multicultural worldbuilding: not mandatory, but richer

Now, we specify that it is absolutely not necessary or mandatory to write about multicultural fantasy worlds. In fact, although it is proven by authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, George RR Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Robin Hobb, Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch, just to name a few of the most famous, that cultural and ethnic diversity enriches worldbuilding, no one should feel compelled to talk about cultures they don't know closely.

However, if you also wanted to focus on the heterogeneity of your ethnic groups in addition to the usual fantasy races, it would obviously be better talk about black humans with a minimum of knowledge, avoiding falling into negative stereotypes, historically used in a racist way to paint these populations as comic or sub-human.

And if authors like Robert E. Howard can also be read through the lenses of history, it is much more difficult to excuse contemporary writers, who should at least ask themselves the problem of racist stereotypes thanks to the struggles of the last half century. Now, it would be too long and complex to deal with the problems of each individual fantasy author, so let me bring you Michael J. Sullivan as an example of everything that shouldn't be written about black people.

Michael J. Sullivan at ConFusion
Michael J. Sullivan at ConFusion

Michael J. Sullivan: who is he?

For those unfamiliar with it, Sullivan is an American writer, author of The Riyria Chronicles and many other fantasy tales. He became famous at home for being able to sell many copies of his books without the mediation of a publishing house, relying only on the self publishing. Today, the first two volumes of the series dedicated to the thieves Harald and Royce have been released in Italy, Sword thieves e A empire, edited by Armenia.

It is a story of a classic epic fantasy mold, in which, however, the protagonists are men of ill repute, who find themselves being the heroes on duty due to their respective hidden legacies and bad luck. In general, a series of works without too much infamy and without too much praise, which read quickly and add nothing to the fantasy genre.

In short, forgettable stuff that in its first volume is set in the typical magical medieval-like Europe, with almost only white people. And okay. If it were only the second book, An empire rises, leads us to explore the world even outside Avryn, bringing protagonists and writer to unknown lands.

The map of Elan, the world of Sullivan's The Riyria Chronicles
The map of Elan, the world of The Riyria Chronicles by Sullivan

Calis: the cauldron of "exotic" cultures

Now, Calis, a tropical area full of city-states and fierce warlords, is in itself a mashup of Arab and Indian culture, in its port cities - full of Hindu-like temples, calls of the imam that resound in the streets and sexy slaves with their faces covered. Then when you move among the tribes hidden in the jungle, you immediately notice how they are now based on Native Americans, now on the Amazonian populations.

This miscellaneous, a real one Culture Chop Suey ™is not developed in depth and the reader experiences it only through Hadrian's eyes. Moreover, despite having spent many years in Calis, he does not mediate with the public in any way. Consequently, everything is presented as exotic, mysterious, terrible and disturbing, with the local populations exhibited as merchandise, without being explained or investigated. 

There are no great interactions with local populations, in fact, since Sullivan prefers the more static (and simpler) one-way comparison, in which the show and the spectators never exchange roles and tend to keep their distance, without ever looking for something more. .

The only ones to receive some kind of insight into their uses and customs are the inhabitants of an isolated tribe in the thick of the jungle, who are moreover described as the only indigenous civilians (but not civilized) and friendly with the protagonists. With them, Sullivan is evidently inspired by Native Americans, describing them as long-limbed, almond-eyed people, with high cheekbones and adorned with feathers.

I'm not saying we're at Solomon Kane's level, though ...
I'm not saying we're on the level of Solomon Kane, but ...

Not characters, but Stereotypes

If apparently this tribe receives respectful treatment, by reading in more detail those pages, it is easy to see how a very precise stereotype is projected on it: that of the Noble Savage ™, the exponent of a primitive culture that demonstrates great wisdom, which maintains an aura of mystery and which exists to give advice to white protagonists. These, in fact, are also the most salient features of the psychological characterization of the members of this tribe, who will then be forgotten as soon as they have played their role.

And these, as we said, are i Wild Coupons ™, those who are reasonable and willing to collaborate with the white protagonists, to whom therefore the Savage Bads ™ who meet later. Again, we are faced with a pair of racist stereotypes created precisely to target Native Americans, dividing the different cultures between the "good" and collaborative ones towards the invaders, and the "bad" and hostile ones.

The only middle way between these two extremes are the Local Guides ™, pay to accompany the protagonists in the jungle. These are fairly anonymous characters, mainly characterized by a strong servility towards their employers and from a certain cowardice towards danger. It is no coincidence, in fact, that at the end of the adventure it is precisely the guides who are panicked and killed by the warriors of a warlord, while the protagonists, with their cold blood, hide in anticipation of a best opportunity. And that's how these natives are too merely ancillary to the protagonists: they are used to bring the protagonists to their destination, they are relatively nice because they are ready to help, but we don't care if they end up with cannon fodder.

The violent savages against European-like civilized

In all this, we must not overlook another series of stereotypes, which portray Native Americans as violent and fierce tribes: it is no coincidence that, in a world where violence is everywhere, it is Calis himself who is constantly described as land of cruel people, warmongers and dominated by bloodthirsty warlords. Calis therefore contrasts greatly with the more civilized Avryn which, although dominated by cruel feudal lords, is never described as a the only cauldron of decadence, abuse and violence, in which all the peoples who live there (except one) are painted in negative colors.

It is depressing to see how the novelties of Calis are reduced to trite and retracted tropes, which leave the reader with a stale taste in the mouth. There would have been many new and interesting characters to add to the cast, but it's obvious how each of them is thought of more as an archetype of "foreigner" rather than as a person. Quite different from Brandon Sanderson's sensitivity and almost manic study, which was discussed in this article. But don't worry: the situation can not only get worse!

Obviously Hadrian and Royce, the protagonists of Sullivan, are handsome, imagined by Sarctic
Obviously Hadrian and Royce, the protagonists of Sullivan, are nice, imagined by Sarctic

Bad bad and good good

Just to not miss anything, we must also note that Sullivan's Savage Bads ™ differ from their neighbors not only in their aggressive attitude towards the protagonists, but also in their physical aspect. The Selvaggi Cattivi ™ are squat, ugly and covered by barbaric paintings, whereas the Selvaggi Buoni ™ are long-limbed, beautiful and dressed in precious fabrics.

We have returned, therefore, to the ancient troop fantasy in which it is easy to recognize the good from the bad thanks to the physical aspect. Indeed, the good guys are beautiful why good e the bad guys are ugly why villains, in a modern version of the Greek hero, which must be kalòs kai agathòs, nice and good.

Sullivan's problem, in this case, is that this old and stale gimmick isn't just applied to fantasy breeds - with the poor innocent elves painted as bellini and pucciosi, where the goblins are ugly and eaters of men, but also to the same human ethnic groups.

The only ethnic group of black people: bloody and tribal pirates

Indeed, too the bloodthirsty black pirates of Dhaka are described as ugly savages, squat, sweaty, hairy and painted in tribal colors (which are obviously found in bad taste by the author). On the contrary, the sailors of the Emerald Storm (mostly made up of criminals) do not even reach such levels of ugliness. And since we don't have enough, these pirates are depicted as bloodthirsty brutes attacking ships, killing all sailors and totally devoid of personality. They are hard and pure hostes humani generis, enemies of mankind, without the complexity of true historical pirates.

A black and white representation interesting enough to read in a book that has gods thieves as protagonists, and where every single Avryn criminal organization is made up of unscrupulous but at least relatively reasonable and characterized people.

Gwen DeLancy from Sullivan's novels, imagined by Sarctic
Gwen DeLancy from Sullivan's novels, imagined by Sarctic

Everything and everyone is "exotic"

Furthermore, as if we did not have enough, we always notice an unequal treatment in the description of men and Calis women. If the former demonstrate, despite their stereotypes, a certain variety of physiognomy, the latter are always described as exotic e beautiful. From the slaves with the covered face of Dagastan, to the sexy oracles of the villages in the interior, to the naked and adorned concubines of the warlords.

In this sense, particular attention should also be paid to the use of the adjective "exotic". Indeed, in An Empire rises this term is used only in relation to the non-white people of Calis and Dhaka. The cities of Avryn, very different from each other, are never exotic for the protagonists, even if they had never visited them and found them strange. On the contrary, everything in Calis is exotic, despite being told and described from the perspective of Hadrian, who had spent many years in those jungles.

Furthermore, "exotic" is an adjective that often accompanies the descriptions of Calis women: if their attractive Avryn counterparts are beautiful, elegant and refined, Calis native women are so beautiful, but also exotic, of an apparently alien beauty for the protagonists. Despite one of them, Royce, being engaged to a Calis woman, Gwen DeLancy, who emigrated to Avryn - who was also the only black person in all Swordsmen. However, it is interesting to note that "exotic" is only approached to people of color (including the pirate ships of Dhaka), where foreign, but white, people from Trent and Delgos never have such an alien charge.

Language unique to civilization and many dialects to the savages

I wish I could conclude here, but my soul as a linguist has triggered very badly even for one last slide in worldbuilding: languages.

Because even from a linguistic point of view, in reality, Sullivan shows that he has gods prejudices. The only human civilization that does not have a single common language, but which speaks a series of dialects, is precisely that of the people of Calis. Now, in reality, these isolated populations in the jungle, therefore in the same situations as the Amazonian communities or Papua New Guinea, should speak real different languages, and not dialects of the same language. After all, the Empire fell 900 years earlier and in a millennium languages ​​are born and die.

So there is nothing wrong with the great linguistic diversity of Calis, except that the people of Avryn, Trent and Delgos should also speak different languages. After all, we are still in a medieval environment, with very isolated villages in the hinterland and commercial exchanges that interest a small circle of nobles, merchants and sailors. But no! The whites of the world are more civilized and have a common language, while the non-whites of the world are wild and speak many dialects - not even languages, just dialects, to be more derogatory.

Italian cover of Sorge un Impero by Michael J. Sullivan
Italian cover of An Empire rises by Michael J. Sullivan

Conclusions on the worldbuilding of Michael J. Sullivan

In short, Michael J. Sullivan is an example of a contemporary fantasy writer left behind troop narratives of the thirties, made of botched mashups, exotic and wild colored people and white protagonists who go to save the situation. Which is slightly humiliating in an era like ours, in which fantasy writers and writers have not only been able to move from the imitation of real peoples to the creation of completely new civilizations, but they have also known put into perspective what could be considered exotic in a world where dragons and magic exist.

Similar worldbuilding is not only tacky and unpleasant for people of color (and not only) to read, but they are also laziness index and little commitment in the study and design of the world. All of this could have been easily avoided by using a little more imagination and documenting the racist stereotypes in the narrative, on which dozens and dozens of freely accessible articles were written.

Sullivan could have done better and criticisms like this serve to spur the authors to improve. I'm not here to give anyone a racist, but to emphasize how An Empire rises is an example of botched and full of worldbuilding troop racist. Personally, I doubt Sullivan realized how problematic this book is, but this does not mean that this author cannot (and should) improve.

Why yes: avoiding falling into racist stereotypes is an improvement, as you make your books accessible to a wider audience and new ways of creating can be explored sense of wonder without commodifying entire cultures.

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