New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently revealed that he has written the first part of a trilogy of fantasy novels. Addressed Falcon’s children, it wasn’t a hit on the “reasonable list of respectable labels” to whom Douthat sent it. In an end-of-the-year mood, dammit, the author has posted a prologue and first chapter to his otherwise dormant Substack. “Why,” Choire Sicha of New York magazine asked on Twitter, “aren’t publishers desperate for Ross Douthat’s fantasy novel? History tells us that this is the only thing you actually want a tortured moralizing Christian to write!” In keeping with Douthat’s request for good faith feedback, here’s a good review that might help answer Sicha’s question.
The point about tortured moralizing Christians and epic fantasy is well taken, since the high fantasy genre was founded by just such a person, JRR Tolkien. Like Douthat, Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, which put him at odds with the prevailing Anglicanism around him at Oxford, just as Douthat’s Catholicism stood out in the largely secular Times. While the church does not oblige its members to adhere to a Tolkien-esque essentialist understanding of good and evil (Tolkien’s elves are essentially good, while his orcs are essentially evil), it certainly encourages such a view. Clear moral conflicts are one of the pleasures traditional fantasy offers its readers.
However, judging by the pages we’ve seen so far, Hawk‘s Children it doesn’t look much like Tolkien’s works. It opens with a dreamy archetypal prologue in which the queen, Ylaena (Douthat’s invented names don’t go beyond the genre’s routine creepiness), seeks supernatural help to have a child. This is a classic fairy tale premise, and Douthat pulls it off beautifully. Ylaena rides into the forest, a landscape that becomes increasingly hallucinatory, jabbing her finger into a thorn to squeeze out drops of blood and revealing an otherwise invisible path through the brambles. Douthat knows that the genre appeals to our nostalgia for the natural world, and the forest is described specifically but not in excessive detail. These forests have birches, oaks, ash and alders, not just “trees”. They are muddy and rooted and wild.
In the heart of the forest, Ylaena summons a being of an unnamed species, but given his aversion to iron and how carefully he negotiates with it, trading one of his eyes for a healthy child, it’s almost certainly a fairy – they’re known for their shrewd bargaining. Then, on her way back, Ylaena disobeys the fairy’s instructions to stay on the path and encounters an even stranger and more powerful entity, returning to her castle impregnated with two babies instead of one.
To be honest, I have no major comments about this prologue. It’s pretty good, reminiscent of Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke, well-grounded in physical details as a counterpoint to moments of creepiness: a hallway that’s also a grove, a boatman visible only out of the corner of the eye. This prologue may not be particularly original, but it’s better written than a lot of fantasy fiction that strives for the same effect.
However, like Ylaena herself, Douthat’s book veers off the promising path laid out before it. What kind of twins did Ylaena give birth to? How do they behave as they grow up? Is the terrifying entity that spawned them returning? Instead of capitalizing on his success in getting his readers curious about the story he started, Douthat switches to a far less interesting new one.
First real chapter of Hawk‘s Children it refers to a young princess named Alsbet whose family is involved in the affairs of the medieval Narsil Empire, whose map graces Douthat’s post on Substack. (Did Douthat deliberately name this realm after the broken sword forged for Aragorn in Lord of the Rings not clear.) The tone here is not Tolkien but George RR Martin A Song of Ice and Firehistorical fiction about an imaginary place, showering the reader with a blizzard of names for more people and places than anyone could hope or care to keep clear.
“From Naesen’yr to Braoghein’s mine, the eastern fringes of Capaelya were to the empire now.”
– Ross Douthat, Falcon’s children
Introducing the reader to a vast imaginary world by exploring it through the eyes of a naïve central character is one of the most reliable devices of epic fantasy. Tolkien used his provincial hobbits for this, and Martin had Stark children. That’s probably what Douthat intended to do with Alsbet. But instead of her learning about her world gradually, as a result of conflict and adventure, he has grown-up characters lecture her about it – or resort to summarizing backstory. This first chapter consists of 30 pages of almost pure reams of information, along the lines of “The Belt of the Defeated Realm, along the eastern edge of the mountains that the Narsils called the Northwest Range and the Brethons called Yrghaem, will pass into the hands of the empire. From Naesen’yr to the Braoghein Mines, the eastern edges of Capaelya now belonged to the empire.”
There are no scenes in the chapter where anything happens other than bits of dialogue where the characters explain things to each other. It’s all council meetings and history lessons and battle reports. This is a common mistake of nonfiction writers in writing fiction—treating fiction as a mechanism for delivering information rather than conjuring an experience in the reader’s imagination. Fans might walk away from a fantasy epic raging about the author’s extensive world-building, but you can’t lead with these things. No one cares about the east marches of Capaelya unless you make them important to a character they have invested their interest in.
Martin, who has written for television for years, understands that genre fiction is a dramatic form. Characters are revealed to readers through their actions and desires that motivate them. Game of Thrones it begins not with a teacher teaching the Stark children about the relationship between Winterfell and the Wall, but with Ned Stark bringing his sons to witness him personally execute a deserter from the Night’s Watch. The scene clearly shows what kind of threat Oštrozimlje sees on the other side of the Wall. Martin does not describe Ned to his readers; he allows Bran Stark’s desire to understand his father to shape the image of him and the sober, rather restrained masculinity that Ned wishes to instill in his sons. To be the remedy for that: Douthat forgot to show, not tell.
Douthat admits this in his post on Substack Hawk‘s Children is “rather fat, too ambitious, probably undercooked” and that he doesn’t really have time for “long experiments”. Fair enough. If the rest of the novel is like Chapter 1, it needs to be rewritten from top to bottom, a daunting task for someone with a day job, even one as seemingly easy-going as a New York Times columnist. Moreover, Falcon’s children promises. Yes, I was annoyed throughout Chapter 1 that Douthat didn’t continue the story of Ylaena and her bubble twins, but the most important thing a genre novelist can do is make the reader want to know what happens next. Ross, you can do it! You just have to remember to do it for hundreds of pages. It will mean long years of struggle and torment, but for the tortured Christian moralist, isn’t it a plus?