Long ago, in class, we discussed the role of the antagonist, aka the Bad Guy or Girl. We learned that a strong, smart, all-powerful opponent makes for great genre fiction, because their actions will push the heroine to her limits, forcing her to make difficult choices and in the process to grow and change before she eventually triumphs.
We also learned that Nature (a desert, a mountain, a storm) does not make a good antagonist, because it isn’t sentient. Even if it tests and challenges the heroine, it doesn’t respond to her actions. It doesn’t push back, so the story lacks zing.
That made sense to me at the time, but lately not so much. Because in a fantasy world a piece of land, or a house, can be sentient. If it can react, it can be a character, and lately I’ve read a few interesting books and series that use this trope. It’s an idea that holds so much potential. Part of any story’s power is what the reader brings to it, and almost all of us have deep ties to and strong feelings about places we’ve lived. Imagine if that place also had strong feelings about us, and the power to express those feelings? It’s not that much of a stretch if you’ve ever visited somewhere and felt stifled and claustrophobic, or instantly at home.
Ilona Andrews’ self-published Innkeeper series is set in a magical B&B in Texas that provides accommodation to visitors from other planets. Inns are grown from seed, but only thrive and grow powerful under the care of an Innkeeper and with guests to care for. The relationship between the heroine, Dina, and her Inn, is symbiotic and deeply emotional. The Inn responds not just to Dina’s instructions but to her thoughts and wishes. If she’s hurt, it feels terrible pain. In this world Dina is the leader, the inn is her trusty and beloved sidekick, and they stand or fall together.
KF Breene’s Magical Mid-Life Madness has a forty-year-old, recently divorced heroine who’s trying to create a new normal for herself and takes a job as caretaker of a house belonging to a family friend. She visited the house as a child and felt a strong connection with it, and when she returns as an adult she discovers that the house is a magical mansion that chooses its owner. By accepting a bond with the house, Jacinta (Jessy) gains her own power, reinvigorates a hilarious ensemble cast of ageing magical types, strikes sparks off the over-protective alpha of the town, and draws the attention of covetous, powerful, dark forces. I’ve only read the first book in what seems to be a long-running series, but so far the house strikes me as a picturesque, desirable repository of power. It has agency in that it welcomes or repels visitors and changes its configuration depending on what it wants them to see, but so far it feels to me more like a McGuffin than a character. I’m curious to see if that changes in later books.
Kate Stradling’s Kingdom of Ruses has a heroine whose family has spent generations maintaining the illusion of the Eternal Prince, a mysterious and powerful protector figure who watches over their small but magical kingdom. There are two special relationships in the book—one that develops between Viola and a mystery man who may or may not be the Eternal Prince, the other that has existed for generations between Viola, the Moreland family, and the kingdom of Lenore. I’d say Lenore as a character falls somewhere between the Innkeeper books and the KF Breene ones. The land is magical and that makes it desirable to outside forces. It responds only to special characters. The thing I like best is that it blooms as Viola learns that she can’t just draw on her relationship with it, she needs to tend it, too. I’m totally on board with that sentiment.
AJ Lancaster’s Stariel may be my favorite. The Lord of Stariel is about a magical estate that chooses its own ruler from among the land-sensitive Valstar family. The heroine, Hetta Valstar, doesn’t live on the estate anymore. When her father dies and she returns to Stariel to participate in the mystical Choosing ceremony, she expects either her prickly older brother or her land-hungry cousin to become the next lord. Obviously things don’t work out that way. All the Valstars feel a connection with Stariel, but the bond between the lord and the estate is off the charts. The lord can feel the estate—every person, animal, blade of grass—but what I love most of all is that Stariel is a quirky personality in its own right. It’s powerful and stubborn, and it knows what it wants. It can’t talk, but actions speak much louder than words, and Stariel can misbehave quite spectacularly if it doesn’t like the way things are going. Stariel’s not an antagonist, but it is a wild card. Its quirks and tantrums add an extra dimension to a very fun, feelgood read. I’ve read all three Stariel books (The Lord of Stariel, The Prince of Secrets, and The Court of Mortals) and I’m waiting impatiently for the final book (The King of Faerie), due in early August.
Have you read any good books that use this trope? What kind of character does the house or land play?
Do you like the idea, or does the thought of a sentient house knowing your every move and expressing an opinion on your behavior send you screaming?