Revenge fantasies, fantasies of surviving in the face of imminent death, not power fantasies, appeal to me.
I’ve tried to read I Shall Seal the Heavens (ISSTH) by Er Gen (here’s the English translation of the novel), and I think I got more than a hundred chapters into it, but…for me, it was a chore to read. Yet it’s a really popular novel, which means it engages a lot of people other than myself.
I was reminded of this when I recently read (the beginning of) A Thousand Li: The First Step by Tao Wong. The first few chapters drew me in, I thought the protagonist’s situation was really unfair, being injured by the bully-young-rich-dude and almost dying because of the injury, and all of that. But once the protagonist joined the cultivation sect and studying, my interest flagged, and I did not read the book (following my new practice of Not Finishing Books). I noticed, at the end, that Tao Wong said that ISSTH was one of his main influences.
These aren’t the only novels I’ve tried reading in what I will dub the ‘ISSTH/A Thousand Li’ vein, I’m just using them as my examples because a) ISSTH is the best known of this type and b) A Thousand Li: The First Step is the one I most recently tried to read. What puts novels in this vein, at least to me, is if they are primarily about the protagonist cultivating/developing magical powers/whatever the heck awesome skills mainly so they can excel in that, not because of strong external pressure.
I’ve never finished any novels of this type, so for all I know, they end with fiery rocks falling from the sky destroying everything, and the handful of people who survive all transform into arctic ground squirrels with pink fur.
I try to imagine what is it about these novels which addicts people, and my best guess (obviously, I’m not a mind reader) is that they have a fantasy about building these cultivation/magical/whatever powers themselves. This is a fantasy that does not appeal to me. If I were an outer sect member of the Verdant Green Water Sect in A Thousand Li, I’d do what I needed to do to remain in the sect but would not be in a hurry to rise through the ranks or become powerful (in this regard, I’m like Tou He) (or at least, I assume I am, like I said I stopped reading A Thousand Li so maybe Tou He is secretly a super-ambitious character).
Now, I enjoyed Coiling Dragon by I Eat Tomatoes a lot. Heck, I read the whole novel. But isn’t it the same thing? Isn’t it also about a guy (these stories usually have male protagonists) who builds up awesome powers? Yes, but Linley develops his powers because his once-powerful family has fallen from grace, they’ve lost most of their wealth, the main character’s mother was sacrificed/kidnapped, and he wants to restore his family’s position, rescue/avenge his parents, go to hell to meet his legendary ancestors, and so forth. Yes, Linley also wants to become the best for the sake of being the best, but he’s also forced to become the most powerful person in the universe because his ancestor, who was one of the most powerful gods in the universe, was murdered by THE most powerful god within the universe, who also turned Linley’s mother into a mind-slave. If you are going against the most powerful god in the universe, becoming ultra-powerful is necessary. Not all of this explained at the beginning of the novel, but enough of it is explained to make it clear that there is a point to Linley trying to become more and more powerful.
I consider all of the wuxia novels I’ve read, and that revenge is a persistent theme in wuxia, and I have to conclude that revenge fantasies compel me to keep reading. As a reader, I can’t be bothered with pure ambition, but if somebody did something wrong, I want to read about their punishment. This probably says something about my personality, and it’s not flattering.
The revenge fantasies which I find most compelling are the ones where the avengers have to pay the price too, not pure revenge. (Actually no, looking back at my reading history, I realize I am totally onboard with pure revenge, as long as the punishment is somewhat less than the original outrage, I don’t want the revenge to be so extreme that I stop sympathizing with the avenger). Hamlet is a famous example of a story where the protagonist gets his revenge and has to pay dearly for it. Yet my favorite Shakespeare tragedy is Coriolanus, in which the protagonist abandons revenge and chooses forgiveness at the last moment, and then has to pay the price for his about-face. To me, Coriolanus is both more tragic and more poignant than Hamlet. Hamlet doesn’t care about preventing a revenge-fueled bloodbath; Caius Martius does care. He even chooses to abandon his quest for revenge to prevent a bloodbath. That is why I find Caius Martius’ death much sadder than Hamlet’s death.
What I want from revenge fantasies is a safe way to vicariously pursue vengeance, followed by a reminder of why it’s better not to behave like that in real life.
And then there is Way of Choices by Mao Ni which is still my favorite xuanhuan novel. The protagonist, Chen Changsheng, has little interest in power or becoming a great cultivator for the sake of becoming a great cultivator. The reason he strives to become a great cultivator is that, if he does not, he’ll die by the age of twenty (in chapter 1, he is fourteen). He contrasts against many other characters who do, in fact, want power for power’s sake. Those characters are baffled when he does not try to maximize his power, either cultivation power or political power. They don’t realize that, to Chen Changsheng, cultivation and politics are a means to keeping himself and his loved ones alive, not an end. Revenge is only a minor theme in Way of Choices, but the constant threats of death, some of which Chen Changsheng would have to face even if he weren’t a cultivator and devoted his life to minding his own business, are enough to string me along. I doubt I have ever read any other novel with as many chapters ending in an ‘oh no, the protagonist is about to die now’ cliffhanger as Way of Choices.
I am also a fan of the “I almost died but I survived” genre of memoir (an example is Minus 148 Degrees by Art Davidson, in which he and his buddies survive a six-day blizzard near the peak of Denali in winter).
In other words, I am a sucker for vicariously surviving near-death situations, just as I am a sucker for vicariously getting revenge.
If you’re a reader who enjoyed/completed ISSTH or A Thousand Li or another novel of that type, please tell me what compelled you to keep reading. I’m curious if my guess is right.