The Worthless World

Stories that are at their core cynical about the world present two different visions. The first is a vision of a world without heroes. The second is a vision of a world that doesn’t deserve heroes. These visions may easily be combined and sometimes are, but each can and does go alone, too. Together or alone, they weave an inescapable cynicism into the fabric of their stories.

I thought of that last weekend, prompted by the new season of A Series of Unfortunate Events. (Flash review: The good news is that they remedy some of the flaws of the first season; the bad news is that they replace them with new flaws.) Once doomed to unfortunate events by the malignancy and incompetence of individuals, the Baudelaires are now doomed to unfortunate events by the malignancy and incompetence of institutions. Every pillar of society crumbles when the children try to lean on it: the school, the law, the government, the free press.

It’s not that the institutions are broken. It’s that people are so stupid and savage, and nothing is worse than a crowd of them. A whole town melts into a ruthless mob; an entire hospital’s staff can evidently believe that decapitation is a legitimate medical operation (and be enthusiastic to see it); a circus show that advertises freaks being devoured by lions draws a crowd. In the middle of all this, we’re told that the heroes want to put out fires and the villains want to start them, but in the middle of all this, you have to think: The villains have a point. Lots of places end up burning down in this series, and it’s usually an improvement. Even for a show devoted to satire and absurdity, A Series of Unfortunate Events went too far, made too many people too stupid, too many people wicked, too many institutions worthless.

This is a mistake I’ve seen before. It looms particularly large in fantasy. This is partially because fantasy is by nature inclined to stories about saving the world, and such stories magnify the consequences of the error. When the hero saves the world, our sense of victory will be somewhat reduced if we privately feel that his efforts were perhaps wasted. We will still assent to the moral principle that villains ought not to burn down worlds, even if it’s an aesthetic improvement. But the purpose of stories is less to assent to truths and more to feel them.

Another reason the trope of the worthless world especially afflicts fantasy is that the most common inspiration for fantasy worlds is the Middle Ages. Many people evidently believe that the Middle Ages occurred before the invention of bright colors and were essentially the Black Plague interspersed with crusades. Such inspiration can curiously combine a lack of physical beauty (all the gray! brown! black! dirt and decay!) with a lack of moral beauty (oppression! corruption! superstition! ignorance! violence! everywhere!). When stories take us into such worlds, the stay is unpleasant. I think authors forget what a demoralizing effect the bleakness of their worlds has over their stories. Even genuine heroes can’t always counterbalance it.

Curiously enough, the cynicism of the worthless-world stories doesn’t always seem intended. In these stories, the heroes are truly heroic and a sense of morality prevails. But it’s not enough to have heroes who save the world. We need a world worth saving, too.

Blitz: Beyond a Darkened Shore


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Release Blitz for
Beyond a Darkened Shore
By Jessica Leake

Beyond a Darkened Shore
by Jessica Leake
Young Adult Historical Fantasy
Hardcover & ebook, 384 pages
April 10th 2018 by HarperTeen

The ancient land of Éirinn is mired in war. Ciara, princess of Mide, has never known a time when Éirinn’s kingdoms were not battling for power, or Northmen were not plundering their shores.

The people of Mide have always been safe because of Ciara’s unearthly ability to control her enemies’ minds and actions. But lately a mysterious crow has been appearing to Ciara, whispering warnings of an even darker threat. Although her clansmen dismiss her visions as pagan nonsense, Ciara fears this coming evil will destroy not just Éirinn but the entire world.

Then the crow leads Ciara to Leif, a young Northman leader. Leif should be Ciara’s enemy, but when Ciara discovers that he, too, shares her prophetic visions, she knows he’s something more. Leif is mounting an impressive army, and with Ciara’s strength in battle, the two might have a chance to save their world.

With evil rising around them, they’ll do what it takes to defend the land they love…even if it means making the greatest sacrifice of all.

Praise for the Book

Beyond a Darkened Shore is thrilling and romantic. This is a must-read for lovers of fantasy, mythology, and folklore.” – Kody Keplinger, New York Times bestselling author of The DUFF and Run

“With undead armies, flesh-eating spirit horses, and a powerful heroine, fantasy, romance, and historical-fiction readers will have a great time.” – Booklist

“While Morrigan and Odin are terrifying, raven-haired Ciara is the star. Beautiful, strong, and independent, she is the perfect warrior princess. Epic historical fantasy filled with deadly creatures, simmering romance, and nonstop action.” – Kirkus Reviews

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Excerpt

The waves viciously beat against the worn rock, sending sprays of white water into the air. It should have been deterrent enough, but the Northmen were relentless. Their longship had already landed. Men poured from its side like a wave of death. As I took in the square sail—white with a crimson skeletal dragon—my heart beat a furious rhythm in my chest. I’d fought countless Northmen in battles throughout our kingdom, but the sight of that sail still made every muscle in my body clench in warring fear and anger—and memory.

My clansmen’s blood staining the earth red—

—my sister’s hand in mine as we tried to escape—

—her eyes wide as the blood trailed down her throat, and me, screaming, screaming—

I shook my head, banishing the memories before they could weaken my mind further. Sleipnir snorted and pawed the ground in response. Like other horses, he could sense my emotions. But unlike other horses, my apprehension only made him bolder.

Fergus wheeled his horse over to me and spat on the ground. “Let us pray the blood of the raiders will flow this day.”

I glanced at the men assembled beside me and frowned. A Northman longship of the size of the one on our shore could hold at least sixty men, far more than our own crew. “The battle can go no farther than this cliff—not this time.”

“I will cover you as best I can,” Fergus said. “You search for their leader.”

I tightened my grip on the hilt of my sword. My arm muscles tensed, and my heart pounded. Anticipation of the battle was always the hardest: the prickling adrenaline, the torrent of memories, the cold dread. I endured it all because my sisters and mother were huddled in fear in their room. We were the only things preventing them from being killed.

I snapped my attention back to the battle. The Northmen had begun the treacherous climb to our stronghold. With any luck, we would pick them off as they emerged at the top of the cliff. The Northman raiding strategy was always to ambush. Instead of recognizing such actions as dishonorable, they seemed happy to live to fight again. They wouldn’t expect us to be waiting for them, and if we could defeat their leader quickly enough, they might retreat. There was no dishonor in retreat in their eyes either, not when their strategy to ambush meant they were usually slinking into a castle and catching its warriors unawares.

Holding the high ground was our advantage. We had to make it count.

With a shout, the first man made it to the top. He showed a momentary flash of surprise that we were lying in wait for him, but he recovered quickly. Battle-axe raised and shield in front of his chest, he charged. More of the enemy followed, their armor and long beards making them indistinguishable from one another. My clansmen made rivers of their blood.

About the Author

Jessica Leake is the author of the adult novels Arcana and The Order of the Eternal Sun, both with Skyhorse. She worked for years as a psychotherapist, but even though she loved her clients, she couldn’t stop writing. She lives in South Carolina with her husband, four young children, lots of chickens, and two dogs who keep everyone in line. Beyond a Darkened Shore is her YA debut. Visit her at www.jessicaleake.com.

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