New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat recently revealed that he has written the first volume in a trilogy of fantasy novels. Titled The Falcon’s Children, it has not been a hit with the “reasonable list of reputable publishing houses” Douthat says he’s submitted it to. In an end-of-year what-the-hell mood, the author posted the prologue and first chapter to his otherwise dormant Substack. “Why,” New York magazine’s Choire Sicha asked on Twitter, “are publishers not desperate for Ross Douthat’s fantasy novel? History tells us this the one thing you actually do want a tortured moralizing Christian to write!” In keeping with Douthat’s good-faith request for feedback, here’s a good-faith critique 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, J.R.R. Tolkien. Like Douthat, Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, which put him at odds with the predominant Anglicanism around him at Oxford, much as Douthat’s Catholicism stands out at the largely secular Times. While the church doesn’t oblige its members to subscribe to Tolkien-style essentialist understandings of good and evil (Tolkien’s elves are essentially good while his orcs are essentially evil), it certainly encourages that outlook. Clear-cut moral conflicts are one of the pleasures traditional fantasy offers its readers.
However, to judge by the pages we’ve seen so far, The Falcon’s Children doesn’t much resemble Tolkien’s work. It begins with a dreamy archetypal prologue in which a queen, Ylaena (Douthat’s invented names do not transcend the routine cringe of the genre), seeks supernatural aid to have a child. This is a classic fairy-tale premise, and Douthat executes it beautifully. Ylaena rides off into the forest, a landscape that becomes increasingly hallucinatory, pricking her finger on a thorn to squeeze out drops of blood and reveal 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 in specific but not excessive detail. These woods have birches, oak, ash, and alder, not just “trees.” They are muddy and rooty and wild.
At the heart of the forest, Ylaena summons a being of unnamed kind, but given its aversion to iron and how carefully she negotiates with it, trading one of her eyes for a healthy child, it is almost certainly a fairy—they are notorious for their shrewd bargaining. Then, as she returns, Ylaena disobeys the fairy’s instructions to stay on the path and encounters an even stranger and more powerful entity, coming back to her castle impregnated with two babies instead of one.
Honestly, I have no substantive notes on this prologue. It’s quite good, reminiscent of Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke, well-grounded in physical detail as a counterpoint to the moments of uncanniness: a hallway that is also a grove, a boatman only visible from the corner of the eye. This prologue may not be particularly original, but it’s better written than a lot of fantasy fiction reaching for the same effect.
However, like Ylaena herself, Douthat’s book strays from the promising path laid out before it. What sort of twins did Ylaena bear? How do they behave as they grow up? Does the terrifying entity that fathered them return? Instead of capitalizing on his success in stirring his readers’ curiosity about the story he’s begun, Douthat switches to a far less interesting new one.
The first proper chapter of The Falcon’s Children concerns a young princess named Alsbet whose family is enmeshed in the affairs of the medieval-ish Narsil Empire, a map of which decorates Douthat’s Substack post. (Whether Douthat has deliberately named this empire after the broken sword reforged for Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings is not clear.) The tone here resembles not Tolkien but George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, historical fiction about an imaginary place, pelting the reader with a blizzard of names for more people and places than anyone could hope or desire to keep clear.
Introducing the reader to a vast imaginary world by exploring it through the eyes of a naïve central character is one of epic fantasy’s most reliable devices. Tolkien used his provincial hobbits to do this, and Martin had the Stark children. Presumably that’s what Douthat intended to do with Alsbet. But instead of having her learn about her world gradually, as the result of conflicts and adventures, he has adult characters lecture her about it—or resorts to summarizing the backstory himself. This first chapter is 30 pages of almost pure info dump, along the lines of “A strip of the vanquished kingdom, up against the eastern edge of the mountains that the Narsils called the Northwest Chain and the Brethon called the Yrghaem, would pass into the empire’s hands. From Naesen’yr to the mines of Braoghein, the eastern marches of Capaelya were the empire’s now.”
The chapter features no scenes in which anything happens beyond stretches of dialog in which characters explain things to each other. It’s all council meetings and history lessons and battle reports. This is a common nonfiction writer’s fiction-writing mistake—treating fiction as a delivery mechanism for information rather than the conjuring of an experience in the imagination of the reader. Fans may come away from a fantasy epic raving about the author’s extensive world-building, but you can’t lead with that stuff. Nobody cares about the eastern marches of Capaelya unless you make them important to a character in whom they’ve invested their interest.
Martin, who spent years writing for television, understands that genre fiction is a dramatic form. Characters reveal themselves to readers through their actions and the desires that motivate them. A Game of Thrones opens not with a teacher lecturing the Stark children about the relationship of Winterfell to the Wall, but with Ned Stark bringing his sons to witness him personally executing a deserter from the Night’s Watch. The scene makes clear what kind of threat Winterfell sees on the other side of the Wall. Martin doesn’t describe Ned to his readers; he lets Bran Stark’s longing to understand his father form a picture of him and the sober, rather stiff-necked manhood Ned wants to instill in his sons. To be remedial about it: Douthat has forgotten to show rather than tell.
Douthat admits in his Substack post that The Falcon’s Children is “rather fat, overly ambitious, probably-undercooked,” and that he doesn’t really have the 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, and that’s a daunting task for someone with a day job, even one as seemingly cushy as New York Times columnist. Nevertheless, The Falcon’s Children has promise. Yes, I was annoyed all through Chapter 1 that Douthat wasn’t continuing the story of Ylaena and her changeling twins, but then the single most important thing a genre novelist can do is make the reader want to know what happens next. Ross, you can do that! You just have to remember to keep doing it for hundreds of pages. It will mean long years of struggle and toil, but for a tortured Christian moralist, isn’t that a plus?