Fantasy Round 45: The Time of the Dark
I recently read The Time of the Dark — one of Barbara Hambly‘s books.
It’s one of her earlier books, so the plot is a little bit less complex (although the characters are still excellent).
I wouldn’t be writing about it here, except that for one interesting question that came to me while I was reading it: why are people transported into fantasy realms so often instant experts?
In this particular novel, two characters get drawn from our world into a conflict in a parallel reality. One of them is a graduate student, and the other is an artist. Each of them picks up a big skill shortly after they arrive in the new world of magic.
I wonder if this is a writer’s version of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Rather than an unskilled person underestimating their own ability, the author underestimates the difficulty for their character to perform a given task. Or, as is the case in this novel, the difficulty of learning to perform a task.
Of the two lead characters, one discovers that he has magical abilities. This actually seems pretty reasonable — he can’t hold a candle to the expert wizard who has agreed to train him, and the magic he performs in the story (lighting a fire, providing a small light, sensing other magic) is generally quite minor. This seems pretty realistic — with the obvious caveat about magic.
In some stories (such as The Court of the Air, which I’ll talk about next time) sudden skill acquisition is explained by the provision of a magical artifact that comes with the knowledge of how to fight, use magic, and so forth. In more technological cases, it’s from getting hooked up to an AI or alien artifact or super speed-training device. In other words, the author recognizes that a level-up in the character’s skill has to come from somewhere, and provides some excuse for how it can happen so fast.
This doesn’t happen for the second lead. She picks up sword-fighting and related martial skills with astonishing speed. There’s no magic involved. In fact, other characters native to the world are surprised that she comes back from her first skirmish with the monsters. She’s a graduate student in history, but despite the utility of her knowledge of medieval societies, it doesn’t sound like she had any particular training in our world before going over. So, what gives?
In this case, it turns out that Barbara Hambly herself was once a graduate student in history… who studied martial arts in her spare time. That’s a fascinating coincidence. It may be that she’s imposing her own skills on a character who looks, in many ways, like a self-insert sort of character.
This isn’t necessarily bad — the story is quite entertaining. But, really. It takes more than a few days or weeks to become an expert with a sword, even if you do have malevolent monsters of pure darkness to help motivate you.