I've been reading Seven Princes (the title of this post is a sorry attempt at humor about it, I apologize), and in the process discovering something about myself that I don't like to admit: I'm biased in ways I scarcely know about. And the only way I can find out about that kind of bias, it seems, is to blunder across it and break my toes on it.
I originally planned to write a regular review of Seven Princes, in which I shrugged and described it as yet another fantasy cloned from the same cuttings of Tolkien that everyone has been cultivating since the Seventies. What's odd is how in many respects it reminded me of another set of books that I find far more appealing: Guin Saga. What was it about the latter, despite being written in almost the same manner as Seven Princes, that made it far more interesting to me?
For me to talk of something and say I just like it or I just don't like it is a cop-out. I don't mean by this that if someone else presents me with such a statement I assume they are an uncultured dolt. I'm just not comfortable with simply pushing a book aside without understanding why it bothers me, or embracing it without having the same understanding. Every time I have confronted those feelings, I have walked away with something new; every time I have ignored them, I have had my own ignorance splashed in my face.
What bothered me most was the possibility that me liking Guin over Seven Princes wasn't a matter of the quality of either book. It was a case of Underdog Syndrome, something I've seen in pretty much ever fan of Firefly/Serenity since that first aired and then vanished. By the time I finally sat down to watch the blasted thing — after years of everyone around me giving it to me in the ear about it — I hard a hard time seeing what the screaming was about. It felt like a missed opportunity more than anything else. I couldn't in good faith stump for a show that, whatever the tragic circumstance surrounding its creation and demise, just didn't seem to me to be worth that much praise.
(Digression. Please please please don't scroll down and start wearing the silkscreening off your keys pounding out a diatribe about how great and unappreciated Firefly is. I have already had this argument more times than I care to repeat, and I'm not about to waste either of our time trying to defend my position since it's more a matter of taste than anything else. I'll be the first one to cop to that and save you the trouble.)
See, I know I've been loathe to recognize Underdog Syndrome within myself, even while freely ascribing it to others. Guin was good not because of what it was, but because of where it had come from (Japan) and the fact that we were not likely to see any more than five volumes of it in English because of poor sales. Seven Princes was readily available and therefore nowhere nearly as good. It's the rare pearl that we covet, not the diamonds scattered across the floor. That was, to my mind, what made Firefly fans defend their territory so fervently; that was also what made me defend mine with the same fire.
What I'm learning to do, however incrementally, is swap that for a more measured view. I believe Guin is good, yes, but not in the sense that something else has to be bad at its expense. Or in the sense that I will be able to prepare a defense of Guin that will remove all need for the work to be defended. No critic can do that, although you can occasionally get a splendid simulation of it if the circumstances are right. But then you wait a few years, and what seemed like an airtight elevation of someone's pet cultural artifact into the stratosphere of Canon with a Cap C now just seems like the mere buoyancy of hot air.
On the other hand, don't take this as a defense of the idea that all critical standards are subjective so why bother. I might well come back and write a proper review of Princes in which I lay out point-for-point how Guin Saga does all the same things and better. Part of me still leans in that direction, all talk of Underdog Syndrome to the contrary. But before I could write one word of that review, I knew I had to write a few words about this.