Reading post-mortem: introducing the antagonist

"Alathea" - by Maddie Bolek

In this particular trilogy, antagonists are people who are good at having very lofty visions, but not at questioning the need for their methods. Not once they get started. They are powered by absolute belief in the necessity of what they do. Whatever needs to be destroyed along the way, whoever needs to die, all justified by the ends pursued. If they stopped to question whether what they’re doing is actually a valid means to the end, that hesitation might ruin everything. That lapse in faith might curse them.

Protagonists have an uphill battle, to put it one way. They arrive super aware of the problematic aspects of their privilege, but they see that they could potentially wield this privilege to change things for the better. Everything that an antagonist might dismiss as a “bump in the road” is a big deal and deserves scrutiny and thought. Protagonists must have the courage to doubt, think twice, reconsider, but ultimately act in the best way they can given the limitations of their resources and knowledge at that instant. They have that valiant struggle against people of absolute faith, who don’t face the same intellectual/moral hindrance to their actions and are therefore unpredictably dangerous. But there are negative consequences to never questioning, and it can also be bad practice for those inconvenient times where physical reality/actual happenings don’t unfold the way you had absolute faith they would, and where thinking on the fly can mean everything.

That creates a three-book plot arc where the primary antagonist starts off with the largest armies, the newest invented weapons and the expertise to use them, and absolute faith that she represents both the demolition of the old world and the construction of a better one; she is so sure that her actions are going to save the world from conditions of injustice, by any means necessary, that she doesn’t do a lot to question the means, and dismisses the advice of her closest associate because it represents doubt and faithlessness to her. And the protagonists still have hope in the face of that, because they second guess, make contingency plans, understand at all times and with deep gravity the human cost of whatever they intend to do versus the human cost of not acting; they have the courage to doubt, and at the best of times, the strength to make sure doubting doesn’t stop them but forces them to behave considerately/thoughtfully.

The reading I did at Albert Campbell Library was an illustration of this. Alathea is going to take full credit for something it took an expert captain, crew, navigator, and thundery contingent to accomplish, and utterly no practical skill from Alathea, but does she speak or behave as if she values their lives particularly much? I feel in the end it’s a bit heavy (and also gory) for a public reading, where given the type of audience, levity is key. I feel a bit like the audience needed the balance of levity and seriousness you get from the better Marvel movies, while I gave them a super serious super grim Batman vs Superman type experience.

The full text of the reading is behind the cut. It is from Chapter Two of The Crown Princess’ Voyage, which is available for preview on Wattpad.

Alathea was already half-way up the stairs when the bells sounded. The commotion audible from the deck would have warned her just as quickly. She hurried to the deck.

“Goddess!” The captain called. “It found us before we saw any sign of it. We avoided it by a wave and a gust of wind, nothing more. It could have capsized us. If we keep circling it’s sure to take us head-on.”

“Then turn sharper!” she snarled back, “Get us sidelong to it by the time it returns. Command the thundery, get them ready.”

She would have insisted he notify the fishing crew, but they were quite aware of what was happening and what their role would be. The only people not scrambling about the deck in a near-panic were toiling in the thundery below, and Rheb was cowering in the cabin.

The captain hurried over to the helmsman, shaking his head. When his orders were questioned, the captain shoved the helmsman off the wheel and prepared to make the dangerous manoeuvre; the helmsman could steer well enough to get them through the Fringe, but the captain had made that same run in his youth, and he was familiar with the nuances of the wheel.

By this time, the Longneck had ducked below water and begun racing after its large wooden quarry. The monster’s second approach was nigh.

Alathea thought of something as this started. “Someone go down there and make sure no hatch is opened before the ship straightens out! Once it does, they can immediately open up and take aim.”

Asking the crew to have common sense was sometimes a tall order.

A guard raced to the thundery-hatch to deliver her message. Shortly afterward, the captain’s manoeuvre commenced; the guard was lucky to be climbing the secured ladder by then, for the ship nearly capsized from the sharp turn, and a couple of men dropped overboard from the rigging.

She stood in a wide stance, clutching the railing almost tight enough to leave fingernail marks in the wood; she saw a shadow approach underwater before the beast reared its neck out of the ocean. It barely missed striking the mast with its head and sent some weak waves over the deck.

Her heart nearly stopped at the sight; this was what lived in the unfathomable depths, below the same kind of constant beautiful waves that lulled her to sleep each night. She briefly forgot all about the weapons of the ship, feeling a fear that she just barely suppressed, and watched the creature pluck a figure from up the rigging as if the crewman were fruit on a high branch.

Barely any of him must have been sliced by its enormous teeth before it faced its jaw toward the sky and appeared to swallow him whole.

Loud blasts startled her further, but these she had no reason to fear. These were the thunders blasting metal spheres through the open hatches in the side of the ship. The weapons were too new for her to have become used to their roar.

One shot missed altogether. The other three converged on the creature’s neck, not blowing through-and-through but tearing its spine such that a long neck with a monstrous head broke from the rest of the body and fell to the deck.

She stood there for a moment as the snake-like column of scales flopped and thrashed for a moment. She saw the look in its eyes as it surrendered to death. Its blood drenched her furs and much of the deck; some blood ran into the eye-holes of her mask, down the mask, to her lips, presenting her with the taste for which she once wished.

There was a moment of respite. Some of the crew were knocked over or dove out of the way of the severed neck and head, the open and bloody side of which stuck out over the right side of the ship. The head was partly over the left side, threatening to drag the rest of the neck down that way with its weight. The sails and mast had been facing at just the right angle to avoid being struck by the falling column of flesh, and it was a small miracle none of the rigging had tangled.

Alathea blinked and regained her senses. “I demand the fishing crew tie that head down before it slips away! And I want to know the status of the thundery. Captain?”

His head peeked over the bulk of the neck. “Safely intact.”

“Turn us back home. I care not for the rest of the monster’s body.” She swaggered back toward the cabin.

She was alive with the charge of blood and struggle and death, and most importantly of nature’s most terrifying foe having been slain at her command.

“My Goddess, what of the men overboard?” The captain asked hurriedly.

She turned and glared back at him through her bloody mask.

“Don’t let them delay us. If we’re not on course for home when I once more set foot on this deck, you can join them.”

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