“It’s not cheating to know your enemy.”: The Untold Read-Along Part 4
Welcome to The Untold Tale read-along! The Untold Tale by J.M. Frey is the first book in the Accidental Turn series, the second book of which, The Forgotten Tale, will be released on December 6th. To prep for book two, we’re sharing a ten-part series that will be part recap, part review, and part discussion of the book that has been called the “most important work of fantasy written in 2015.”
If you want to read along with us and avoid the SPOILERS that will follow, you can pick up your copy of The Untold Tale from major online retailers.
About the book
Forsyth Turn is not a hero. Lordling of Turn Hall and Lysse Chipping, yes. Spymaster for the king, certainly. But hero? That’s his older brother’s job, and Kintyre Turn is nothing if not legendary. However, when a raid on the kingdom’s worst criminal results in the rescue of a bafflingly blunt woman, oddly named and even more oddly mannered, Forsyth finds his quaint, sedentary life is turned on its head.
Dragged reluctantly into a quest he never expected, and fighting villains that even his brother has never managed to best, Forsyth is forced to confront his own self-shame and the demons that come with always being second-best. And, more than that, when he finally realizes where Lucy came from and why she’s here, he’ll be forced to question not only his place in the world, but the very meaning of his own existence.
Smartly crafted, The Untold Tale gives agency to the unlikeliest of heroes: the silenced, the marginalized, and the overlooked. It asks what it really means to be a fan when the worlds you love don’t resemble the world you live in, celebrates the power of the written word, challenges tropes, and shows us what happens when someone stands up and refuses to remain a secondary character in their own life.
Part One: “I assume the body is a corpse.” Chapters 1 and 2
Part Two: “Information, at last!” Chapters 3, 4, and 5
Part Three: “Your brother is a slimeball.” Chapters 6 and 7
Part 4: Chapters 8, 9, and 10
In this section, abandoned by Kintyre, Forsyth and Pip set to plan the quest themselves with the wealth of knowledge at their disposal. They turn adventure into an academic challenge, using Elgar Reed’s own predictability against him to chart the requirements and dangers of the quest into a mystical Excel spreadsheet.
They sneak off in the dead of night and make their way to the first stop: the capital of the kingdom, where they need to procure one of the several magical items necessary for the spell to get Pip home. This item, the Quill that Never Dulls, is a noble family’s heirloom, and Forsyth–as the Shadow Hand–is going to steal it.
Or at least, that’s the plan. But plans go awry! When theft and blackmail fail, the Shadow Hand is forced the duel for the Quill. Despite Forsyth’s lack of confidence in his swordsmanship, he makes quick work of his opponent–and with help from Pip, procures the Quill.
Since this section includes the first time we get to see Forsyth as the Shadow Hand, we’re figuratively sitting down with author J.M. Frey to talk about the role of spymaster in fantasy stories, and heroic ethics.
Cal: Was the role of Shadow Hand influenced or inspired by any particular author or character?
J.M.: I’m sure there’s some sort of prototype lurking through my subconscious, but off the top of my head, no, I didn’t base “The Shadow Hand” on any other character or author’s story in particular. I don’t think. I mean, I deliberately referenced The Hand of the King from Game of Thrones, because I wanted it to be clear that Forsyth runs Hain just as much as King Carvel Tarvers does. But for…
Totally, right? The cloak, the mask, skulking in the shadows and only jumping into the fray when the Sailor Scouts/Senshi are getting their arses whooped? Yeah. I totally based him on Tuxedo Kamen.
(Actually, it was Mycroft Holmes, as portrayed by Mark Gatiss, really. The Shadow Hand is Mycroft. Forsyth is not.)
Cal: In The Untold Tale, the magical mask of the Shadow Hand will only accept a “good” person as its owner. Spies and spymasters tend to be villains or, at best, anti-heroes. Can you talk about combining a virtuous character with a historically unethical position?
J.M.: I think, historically, the Shadow Hand of Hain was more of an advisor to the King. But because he keeps tabs on everyone – is the medieval-esque fantasy version of Big Brother – the people who had something to hide started calling the Shadow Hand a spy. Good folk who live upright lives have nothing to fear from the Shadow Hand, and probably have unknowingly been helped by his silent intervention.
It’s only the baddies, the frivolous, the ones with loose lips and narcissistic ploys who need fear the Shadow Hand. The plotters at court, the evil magicians, the assassins and brigands.
So he’s a spy, yes, because he collects information on people without them knowing it, and acts on it. But he does it for all the right reasons. He’s a good guy spy.
Cal: I love the idea of a spymaster emphasizing analysis over force, and buried in paperwork (I refer to Forsyth as the Chief Executive Spymaster in my head). But Forsyth’s swordsmanship plays a big role in his success in this section, which makes a sharp contrast between his heroism and Kintyre’s a little harder to draw. What do you see as a key difference between a spymaster type and a warrior type?
J.M.: Well, I first need to make it clear that Forsyth is the first Shadow Hand in a very long run of Shadow Hands to “despise the legwork”. His predecessor, Lewko Pointe the Elder, was more of an action-hero type. He skulked and fought and adventured. It’s all chronicled in book four of The Tales of Kintyre Turn.
It was Forsyth’s choice to withdraw from the field and manage everything via paperwork. Not that Lewko or any of the other Shadow Hands before him didn’t have paperwork to do – one has to keep account of one’s payoffs and expense one’s potions – but I imagine a lot of them let it fall by the wayside in favour of using swords over the mighty pen.
(I also imagine that Forsyth is doing about a hundred year’s worth of back paperwork as well as his own. He couldn’t stand having things messy and ill-organized and neglected, even if the expense claims he’s submitting are for something that happened a decade ago.)
Forsyth is trained to be a courtly fighter – an Italianesque Rapier style of fighting that flitters and flits and has many fussy rules. This is dueling. It’s useless on a battlefield, especially when everyone is in heavy armor, so none of the knights or real fighters learn it. It’s a rich man’s game. It’s a sport. It’s a waste of time, according to the real warriors and heroes.
Forsyth learned this because his father, Algar Turn, had full intentions of marrying him off to some noble house with more wealth and status than the Turns to benefit Kintyre Turn’s standing as Lord. Algar didn’t teach Forsyth because he wanted the lad to know how to fight – he taught him because knowing the courtly form of fencing would make Forsyth better livestock at the marriage market.
Luckily Lewko Pointe the Elder saw potential in Forsyth – and a good, if bruised heart – and furthered his studies, helped him turn his frippery and nonsense into something unpredictable and deadly. Because this has made Forsyth swifter and more lethal than the common fighter using a broadsword, he only ever draws Smoke when there’s no other recourse.
Kintyre, by contrast, never had any interest in courtly fighting and as the elder son, would have been trained in the knightly forms of combat just in case the King ever called the nobility to war. His style is thick and swinging. And to be fair, Kintyre’s a bit of a lazy fighter. Foesmiter is magic – it does half the work for him.
I wanted this contrast in their styles on purpose. I wanted it to highlight the different upbringings the Turn boys had, but also really underscore where and why they fight, and what they’re fighting for. Their ideologies are wrapped up in their styles.
Kintyre fights like Aragorn – cutting, brutal, to the point. He saves the world and there is no subtlety in his morality or his mannerisms. But Forsyth fights like Arya – in roundabout ways, from the shadows, and always in a way to ensure that his opponents underestimate him.
I think that’s the key difference. They’re both aiming for the same thing – a safe Hain – but they walk different paths in order to do so.
Cal: It sometimes seems that golden heroes–the ones for whom the ends never justify immoral means, the Aragorns versus the Boromirs, if you will–are few and far between these days, in favor of more “grey” protagonists. Would you agree with that assessment? If so, would you say that a spymaster type is in fact a more perfect hero (or at least, more perfect for our current societal climate)? If you don’t agree, what do you see as the most appealing trait of a golden hero?
J.M.: There’s lots been said about why the mid-to-late 20th and early 21st century have given rise to such a plethora of antiheroes and grey protagonists, so I won’t rehash that all here. But I agree, writers do tend to like to write the more interesting version of a character, and usually that means making people fallible, imperfect, and sometimes morally grey.
I think this has a lot to do with writers trying to portray people more realistically than the heroes of the great epics of the past, in some way. I mean, to use your example, Aragorn is a shining golden hero, but don’t you think he would have been a little less, well… predictable if he had had just a few more moments of doubt when it came to the One Ring? Or at least if he fully intended to destroy the ring, but doubted the Hobbits ought to come along? Or…?
I think this also has a lot to do with the fact that we are really seeing, now more than ever, that our heroes aren’t perfect. That nobody is. Our politicians phrase things wrong, a scientists fibs in a paper and suddenly the world is filled with misinformed anti-vaxxers, and our police force is murdering innocent people (and yes, I mean my Canadian police force, not just the American one). I mean, for years my government has turned a willful blind eye on the abduction, rape, and horrific murders of hundreds of aboriginal women. The world – while statistically becoming safer and more peaceful – is filled with stories of loss, and grief, and misery, and willful ignorance.
So how can anyone write a Golden Hero any more, how can anyone believe in them, when anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together can see all the ways our world is tarnished? And could be polished again, if people could just stop being douchecanoes to each other.
I’ve said before that I do love me a good villain, and I love writing from the villain’s perspective. But villains never think they’re villains, which makes writing them even more interesting. Because how can I justify something like Forsyth’s spying on folks if he’s supposed to be the good guy?
I think Forsyth is very much an “ends justify the means” type of hero. And I think, sometimes, as long as the ends don’t cause further harm, sometimes they can be justified. Just look at Snowden.
Forsyth is a Boromir (though Forsyth has a stronger moral compass – he would never have been tempted by the One Ring. He’s like Samwise Gamgee that way. What on Earth would Forsyth want to rule it all for? He has enough sodding paperwork as it is, thank you very much.) Kintyre, bless, is more of a Faramir, really, except their father loved and loathed them the other way around.
I do love a Golden Hero – I mean, I adore Sailor Moon and Captain America. But I love a well-written Grey Hero too, like Jesse Custer or Inu Yasha or Kamui. And damn but if we don’t all love Loki Laufeyson.
It’s less about the Status of the Hero and more about the quality of the characterization, the portrayal, and the way we can connect to their motivations… the way they’re written.
Next Tuesday, 11/1, things get hot and heavy as Pip and Forsyth’s adventure throws them into closer quarters and higher stakes than ever before. Marketing intern and romance writer Voule Walker will guide us through part 5, chapters 11 and 12, over at the REUTS blog.