Animals, Airships and Unexpected Heroes

Since my personal reading list has taken me out of the realm of fantasy for the past few years, I’ve made a significant effort to adjust and add in examples of fantasy and steampunk as part of my research for my next project, NightWind.

So far, I’ve read The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher, Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff and Prudence by Gail Carriger (not discussed in this post though). Each is an interesting take on the concept of steampunk and the world within which the stories are set. Butcher has been great for learning about aerial battles while Kristoff has been an excellent resource regarding hand-to-hand combat, and beautiful (and also horrifying) descriptions of the desecrated landscape. Kristoff has also been useful for reading about a Japanese woman as a main character in a fantasy story. Carriger has a fantastic wit and gives beautiful descriptions of clothing and the airship.

But, one of the things I’m most intrigued by in Butcher and Kristoff’s books is their use of animals as main characters. I remember reading in fantasy books written a long time ago by the likes of Mercedes Lackey where griffins and dragons could communicate with humans. I don’t remember these figures having huge personalities, but they could communicate with people kinetically. I stopped focusing as much on Fantasy for about a decade, but this wasn’t a practice that was utilized too frequently.

I suppose, the next iteration of this is the way that Butcher and Kristoff have enhanced these figures. In Butcher’s novel, there are cats and one human, a young woman named Bridget, can speak “cat.” Cheesy? It sounds like it. But dang he does it so well that it’s anything but cheesy! Rowl has a huge personality and Butcher weaves some cat stereotypes together in a really excellent and comical way. It makes the story incredibly entertaining.

In Stormdancer, Kristoff has characters who can connect on a mental level with animals, a strange gift called kinning. Buruu is a an arashitora, a thunder tiger, who has a huge personality as well. Over the course of the story Yukiko and Buruu’s personalities and natural instincts meld together and they each sort of take on the other. When they fight together, they fight as one. It’s fantastic.

Each author writes the characters’ words in italics and they don’t speak in full sentences, which makes sense. They pay very close attention to the natural ways of each animal I love Kristoff’s choice of writing Buruu’s words in all caps. He’s such a fearsome creature, connected to the voice of thunder, that it just enhances his personality. He too speaks in short, staccato sentences and exudes emotions and feelings in single words.

Personally, I try to stay away from writing animal characters, along with small children. Being able to write animals and children well is a huge feat and a practice I’m not comfortable with yet. But, the fact that these two authors have added this element to steampunk means it’s a device that is worth looking at and considering.

As with any subgenre, you have the initial shock of newness of it. But after that wears off in the marketplace, you have to come up with a way to one up it and both Butcher and Kristoff have done this using a similar device, but interpreting it in very different ways. Yukiko and Bridget are both characters who are underestimated by others, allies and enemies alike. Their ability to communicate with animals is the thing that sets them apart and gives them an advantage when neither is the strongest or most skilled person in the room. One communicates verbally, while the other has kinetic strength and they each ultimately contribute to the success of their individual missions.

For both Kristoff and Butcher, the ability to communicate with animals is a huge piece that drives their stories forward. In my own work, I’m not sure that some sort of animal character makes sense or that any of my characters should have the ability to communicate with them. My main character, a young woman named Rion is a potter’s apprentice turned warrior, called to an elite force of Airmen (as the only woman in this group, she’s called an Aviatrix) by her leader.

The lesson, therefore, I take away from reading Butcher and Kristtoff is to be open to alternative methods of storytelling and if you’re going to go that route, then you have to wholly and completely own it. The animal characters in each of their stories truly make the story, adding elements of humor and clever banter. It also reveals a lot about the characters who can communicate with the animals in juxtaposition to those in the story who cannot. Lastly, it sets up unexpected heroes in a way without giving them unbelievable strength or physical advantages that can be a real turnoff for readers.