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Literature / Tales of the Fox

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Tales of the Fox is a Heroic Fantasy series by Harry Turtledove.

Gerin the Fox, scholar turned reluctant baron, must deal with barbarians, monsters and petulant gods on his own after The Empire cuts off all access to the Northlands. Based in an original fantasy world, but with strong aspects of Roman history. Also Arthurian, in a sense: a leader in a province abandoned by the Empire fights to preserve civilization against barbarian invaders. Gerin's relationship with Fand and Van in much of the second book could, if distorted by future retellings in that world, come to be portrayed as similar to the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle.

In its current form, the series consists of:

  1. Werenight (1994)
  2. Prince of the North (1994)
  3. King of the North (1996)
  4. Fox and Empire (1998)

It has also been published in omnibus form, with the first half as Wisdom of the Fox and the second half as Tale of the Fox.

The 1994 edition of Werenight is a combined and substantially revised version of two novels, Were Blood and Were Night, that Turtledove wrote in the 1970s, at the beginning of his career. (They were published under the name "Eric Iverson", at the insistence of the editor, who felt that "Harry Turtledove" didn't have the right ring to it for a Heroic Fantasy author.)

This series provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Rihwin. Bad things happen when he's allowed to access wine.
  • Alien Geometries: This tends to happen when a god is made manifest in the mortal world. Every time Gerin does it in a shed at Fox Keep, the inside is described as being impossibly spacious. The gods themselves seem to change size and form, too.
  • Alien Sky: The series is set in a world with four moons, leading to were complications when all four go full at the same time.
  • All-Powerful Bystander: The gods are more than capable of showing up of their own volition and fixing the problem right then and there, and sometimes do. They usually don't seem to notice or care what's going on, and have to be baited by humans to actually do anything.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Does Duren or Dagref become Gerin's heir? Does Gerin go to war with Aragis? Does Gerin or either of his sons eventually become the sole king of the north? Does the Empire re-invade in the future? Did Baivers and the monster's powers win in the Gradihome, or just hold Voldar and her pantheon off? What exactly became of the Trokme north of the Niffet?
  • Anticlimax: Instead of an epic magical duel, Balamung is instantly killed by a spell.
    • Mavrix and Biton effortlessly remove the monsters overrunning the north in order to win a divine argument.
    • We never do see what exactly happened in the Gradihome.
  • Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: Mavrix is pretty easy to distract when need be.
  • Bad Moon Rising: Werenight has a disastrous event occur during a rare time when all the moons are in the sky and full at once—it triggers massive Involuntary Shapeshifting in a chunk of the population, crippling an empire and leaving the heroes' land cut off from them.
  • Big Boo's Haunt: The night is the time when ghosts come out, and only fire and fresh blood can keep them from driving you mad. In some parts of that world they're vampire ghosts.
  • The Big Guy: Van of the Strong-Arm is big even by the standards of northern men, who are tall themselves. He stands a full head over Gerin.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Suffice to say, the gods don't really see moral issues the same way mortals do. Or even the same way other pantheons do.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Gerin's companion Van is a loud, lusty giant of a man who loves a good fight and sings joyful war songs in battle, has endless tall tales of his traveling days (some of them true, maybe), wears gilded armor that often gets him mistaken for a visiting war god, and of course he's also a player.
  • Bow and Sword in Accord: Gerin uses both.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Gerin is seen by this by other rulers in the north. He eschews most conventional wisdom of rule - ruling by respect rather than fear, making friends instead of holding grudges, working with enemies, retreating and fighting warfare indirectly, and so on. This leads to his not always being taken seriously, though by later books his neighbors have learned his ways are effective, if odd.
  • Chekhov's Boomerang: The herb that grants unnatural senses in the first book.
    • The enchanted woods at Ikos help more than once, too.
  • Chick Magnet: Girls practically throw themselves at Van.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Every god, some more than others. Mavrix is probably the worst.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Gerin, very much so. In an era where warlords fight duels of honor and stick to the old ways, he uses horseback-mounted archers to harass relatively-slow chariots. When he sees an enemy warlord in the field, he just tries to shoot them from afar with a bow. When an enemy is too strong to fight, he tries to get the gods to fight for him. He's perfectly happy to pit foes against one another. He at one point targets crops and agricultural towns, figuring it's easier to starve an army than fight it.
  • Complaining About Rescues They Don't Like: In Prince of the North, Gerin the Fox rescues the oracle Selatre from monsters. Trouble is, she was unconscious so he had to carry her—and she has an extreme form of Virgin Power: merely being touched by a man is enough to strip her of her prophetic ability. When she wakes up, she's as horrified as if he'd literally raped her. In her defense, what distresses her isn't losing the power to prophesy, but losing the constant psychic connection to her god.
  • Dangerous Forbidden Technique: Gerin uses one to defeat Balamung.
    • Summoning the gods in general is a good way to get yourself, rather than your foe, destroyed.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Gerin the Fox.
    • Van picks it up from Gerin.
    • Rihwin the Fox goes full-on Snark-to-Snark Combat after moving to Fox Keep at the invitation of his "fellow Fox."
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Mavrix attempts to do this to Voldar. He fails.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Culturally, the world is roughly akin to the late bronze age, and it shows.
    • Gerin has no problem enslaving captured foes.
    • When Duren is kidnapped, Aragis beheads the kidnapper and delivers both Duren and the kidnapper's head to Gerin. Nobody even considers such things as trial or imprisonment.
    • War is routinely fought by young teenagers modern society would consider children. Fourteen is only slightly young to take up a sword and march.
    • Duren inherits Ricolf's keep and rules as its baron before turning fifteen.
  • Deus ex Machina: Gerin, when things are sufficiently screwed up, will try and convince the Gods to solve the problem. Results vary. Also, divine spite is extremely helpful in motivating the deities.
  • Dirty Business: Gerin does not like war and does not understand those who do.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Gerin is stunned to learn Balamung's Start of Darkness and the reason he launched a massive invasion of the north is because Gerin once made him sleep in the stables when his keep was full of nobles.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Dreams foretell the invasion by the monsters in the second book. No explanation is given even though nearly every major character shares them.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Werenight was written fifteen years before the other three books, and it shows, with a significantly more cliched and straightforward fantasy plotline and lacking some of Turtledove's later-developed writing style. It also discusses some setting details that are later refined or just never brought up again.
  • Enchanted Forest: The forest around Ikos, where strange things live, has a mind (or minds) of its own, and doesn't necessarily care for people, and roads only exist at the forest's sufferance. It can also make unwanted travelers vanish in unexplained but silently ominous ways. It's implied that the forest exists to protect the Oracle of Ikos, placed by the all-seeing god Biton.
  • Enemy Mine: Anyone who reads the title of Fox and Empire likely figures out where the plot is going when Aragis the Archer picks a fight with Gerin and then curiously fails to actually show up to fight.
    • In general, Gerin specializes in this; every book sees him working with some enemy against some greater enemy - up to and including gods.
  • Establishing Character Moment: When we first meet Rihwin the Fox, he's the favorite among those in Ricolf's keep to wed Elise, but he blows his chance by drunkenly dancing on the table and exposing himself to everyone in the room on the night Ricolf had decided to declare Elise's hand for him.
    • Elise runs away with Gerin to avoid a marriage. Guess what Elise does to Gerin after they marry?
  • Everyone Can See It: Gerin is pretty much the last person to realize he and Selatre have a mutual attraction.
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold: Voldar, and the Gradihome in general.
  • Evil Is Petty: Balamung launches a major invasion of the north and decides to conquer the world because Gerin didn't give him a room in his crowded keep once, years earlier.
    • He also spends a good amount of the book personally taunting and tormenting Gerin the Fox for no real reason other than that slight years earlier.
  • Exact Words: Biton's prophecies are always perfectly accurate. They're not usually very direct or clear, though.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The Empire of Elabon (Rome), Trokmoi (Celtic) Barbarian Tribe, Sithonia (Greece) and... well, everyone in the series, really.
  • Fertile Feet: Mavrix does this in the Gradihome.
  • Flaming Sword: Deconstructed in one of the books, wherein Gerin comes up with a charm that claims to be able to light a sword on fire. It works, but after holding it for perhaps five seconds his hands start to blister. (Fortunately, he had a bucket of water on hand.)
  • Foreshadowing: Any of the trips to the Sybil of Biton, for starters.
  • For the Evulz: The monsters, despite being sapient and intelligence, attack humans because they can.
    • The Gradi gods.
  • Generation Xerox: Dagref is rather eerily similar to his father. By Fox and Empire both have noticed it. They even tend to get the same ideas at around the same time.
  • Genius Loci: The woods west of Ikos may, or may not be, this. It seems to respond intelligently when Selatre addresses the woods directly.
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: Gerin wanted to be one, but inheriting a barony derailed his plans. He still acts like one, though. Rihwin fits the bill when he's sober.
  • Going Native: An odd case - two non-human but sapient monsters are raised in Fox Keep and come to see themselves as, culturally, human.
    • Van complains this happens to him when he decides to stay at Fox Keep and give up on traveling.
  • Good Is Not Dumb: Gerin is probably the smartest noble north of the Kirs, and also probably the nicest. He has a reputation for cleverness, but his enemies constantly assume he's not a savvy ruler because he doesn't rule by fear.
  • Good Is Not Soft: In most lands, peasants flee at the sight of a lord's army. Many of Gerin's peers comment on how strange it is his subjects do not fear him. He explains that his subjects don't fear him, but they do fear crossing him.
    • When Gerin finds a village headman cheating his taxes, he threatens to crucify him.
  • Guile Hero: Gerin the Fox. Rihwin the Fox too, for a looser definition of "hero."
  • Have You Seen My God?: Baivers hints that Dyaus is lost even to other gods, as if he just wandered off one day.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Rihwin chooses to live with Gerin and both routinely refer to the other as "my fellow Fox" owing to their identical ekename.
  • Horny Vikings: The Gradi.
  • Hypocrite: Fand routinely picks fights over things she herself is guilty of.
    • The Elabonian Empire as a whole. In a large-scale version of the obligation between a vassal and his overlord, the Empire insists on taxing the baronies of the north in exchange for the Empire's protection and the like. Yet when the north gets invaded, the Empire simply cuts the north off for a generation instead of helping. Gerin is not slow to throw this in their face.
  • Ice Queen: Voldar.
  • If Only You Knew: Van expresses a preference to Gerin that Maeva take notice of Gerin's son Dagref, when Gerin already knows the two are sleeping together. Later, Fand does the exact same thing.
    • Dagref cashes in a sworn debt by asking Gerin to speak to Van about endorsing their relationship, not knowing Van already approved of it. Gerin takes it as a matter of honor and refuses to call that an end to his own debt.
  • In-Series Nickname: Gerin's is "the Fox," an ekename he coincidentally shares with Rihwin. Everyone in the north earns one sooner or later. They may be due to a physical traitnote , a characteristic behaviornote , or achievement in battlenote , or personal achievement in lifenote . Gerin in particular seems to go by his nickname, with many characters simply calling him "Fox" as if it's his given name. People do not choose their own ekenames, and those who haven't yet been given one typically go by a patronymic (e.g. "Duren, son of Gerin, grandson of Ricolf").
  • Insufferable Genius: Every mage in Elabon, apparently. Balamung, too.
  • Intelligence Equals Isolation: It's hard being one of the only educated men in an entire geographical region.
  • Immortal Immaturity: The gods are Spoiled Brats because, being nearly all-powerful, no one can discipline them. The only exception is the All-Seeing Biton, and even he can be manipulated by his pride.
  • Inept Mage: Gerin the Fox had less than a year of wizard's training before being called home, yet desperation sometimes drives him to attempt magic anyway. But only when he's really desperate, as he knows full well just how dangerous an unskilled mage can be.
  • Jerkass Gods: It'd be faster to list the exceptions, really. Mavrix is insane and so are his followers. Biton delivers accurate prophecies in riddle for no real reason. Dyaus utterly ignores the mortal realm and everything in it. Even Baivers, the most down-to-earth god, has to be goaded into being helpful.
    • And that's before you get into the gods of the Gradi. Even her own faithful acknowledge she doesn't love them back.
  • Jerk Justifications: Most of them try it at some point. Excuses range from "You slighted me once years ago" (Balamung) to "I'm a Trokme, it's what I do" (Adiatunnus), to "You're as powerful as I am and smarter than I am" (Aragis).
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Gerin constantly broods and looks for ways things can go wrong, which other characters routinely call him out over.
  • The Lancer: Van, both in the sense of being Gerin's opposite-minded right hand man, and also for being a literal lancer.
  • Literal Metaphor: Biton's first prophecy turns out to be this.
  • Mad God: Most of them, but Mavrix by far takes the cake. His followers tend to be just as insane as he is.
  • Mistaken for Badass: By Fox and Empire, everyone in the North believes Gerin is a world-class sorcerer. He's below average at best and his only real talent is convincing the gods to do his dirty work for him, invariably by tricking them or playing them against one another.
  • Never My Fault: When Elise shows in the final novel, she blames Gerin for every misfortune she's suffered over the years, despite having left of her own free will.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: The battle in the Gradihome.
  • Oh, Crap!: When Gerin first hears the demigod Ferdulf has been born, he heads into the village to see the newborn baby. The baby, not hours after being delivered from the womb, turns and speaks to the Fox in an adult voice.
  • Our Gods Are Different: Oddly enough, all gods exist, even competing gods from different regions. They all have their spheres of influence and tend to follow their followers - so if a mass-migration happens, their gods generally follow along. Some pantheons are more involved in the mortal world than others. All of them are ''seriously'' weird, though.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Ghosts appear every night, everywhere in the world. They attempt to communicate things to the living, but come off as incomprehensible winds and howls. They can be placated with offerings of blood, and they avoid fire. They also seem to avoid indoor areas and towns. If a man is caught alone in the wilderness and doesn't offer blood and build a fire, he's likely to go mad by morning.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: Shows up mostly in Werenight. Lots of different varieties of werebeast, including at least one who's hideously impaired by his transformation, and one enormous Trokem.
    • At one point a bear becomes a were-human! Gerin solves the problem of this bear waking up in his cellar by getting the bear drunk.
  • Papa Wolf: Dagref's suggestion of what he'll do when Van learns he's sleeping with Van's daughter? "Run."
  • Personality Powers: All of the gods are like this.
  • Plant Person: One of Baiver's forms appears to be literally made out of barley.
  • Pragmatic Hero: Gerin wins most of his struggles through sheer pragmatism.
    • When he finds a small village's headman hiding grain from taxes, he promotes the man to his personal steward because if he has the presence of mind to do that, he's talented enough at math to be wasted in such a small role.
  • Prophetic Fallacy: One story has a prophecy about "bronze and wood" that fools even the clever and well-educated Fox into thinking it just refers to chariots, but that's okay; it wasn't meant for him anyway, but for his son and his demigod houseguest, who puzzle out the true meaning just in time to save the Fox's army.
    • In general, Biton's prophecies are always technically accurate, but predictably unhelpful in wording.
  • Prophecy Twist: In the first book, Gerin gets a rather dismaying prophecy from farseeing Biton's oracle. In typical fashion, it comes true in a much better way than expected.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Pick a Trokme. Any Trokme.
    • The Gradi. When they lose in battle, they commit mass suicide because it's less shameful than being captured in battle.
  • Putting on the Reich: A minor example, but Balamung invades the north with a tribe of Germanic invaders and uses a swastika as his personal sigil. He claims to intend to conquer the world and build an empire which will last a thousand years.
  • Reality Warper: The gods. Gradi gods, for instance, threaten to turn the whole world into a northern arctic climate just by their presence.
  • Really Gets Around: Rihwin has dozens of bastard children in the lands of Gerin's suzerainty after living there for a decade and a half.
  • Reluctant Hero: Gerin didn't intend to become a baron, as he had an older brother who was first in line. He intended to be a scholar.
    • Invariably, every subsequent book starts with Gerin doing his thing at Fox Keep and only reluctantly starting the plot so he can get back to doing his thing at Fox Keep.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Where is Van from? Why does nobody he encounters, in four books, recognize his native language or physical features? Exactly how much of his traveling yarns are true?
  • Royal Brat: Most of the Gods are this way, since no one is powerful enough to discipline them. Ferdulf, the demimortal son of an extremely impulsive wine god, grows up with nearly-godlike power among ordinary mortals and is even brattier than his father.
    • The Emperor of Elabon is one as well. Until he's deposed by someone much more competent. And dangerous.
  • Running Gag: Every time Rihwin drinks wine, Hilarity Ensues.
    • Van's yarns about his travels include increasingly... improbable elements.
    • Gerin's despair at the barbarism and ignorance of the north, and peoples' inability or unwillingness to learn.
  • Sacred Hospitality: You do not harm a person you've invited into your keep, even if they will immediately turn around and fight you in war the next day.
  • Scorpion People: A demon that's a scorpion/human hybrid is conjured by the Big Bad in the first fight in Werenight. It doesn't have a scorpion body, but it does have scorpion claws instead of arms, scorpion legs instead of human legs, and scorpion mandibles.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Rihwin the Fox.
  • Shapeshifter Baggage: Werecreatures remain the same mass when they transform. This is illustrated in Werenight by a couple of werehawks too heavy to fly—and a barbarian chief who turns into quite a large sabre tooth because he's an immensely large man.
  • Southpaw Advantage: Fox is left-handed, and he remarks that it makes it easier to get around enemy shields for a couple of reasons.
  • The Smart Guy: Two of them, Gerin the Fox and Rihwin the Fox.
  • The Snark Knight: Gerin. It's practically his biggest defining trait.
  • The Sociopath: Balamung kills thousands of people, even his own people, at total whim.
  • Spoiler Title: All four of them, weirdly enough.
    • From the instant Gerin describes the cycles of the moons and suggests were-blood is common in the North, a reader can guess exactly what's going to happen in Werenight.
    • And guess what Gerin's title is at the end of Prince of the North.
    • And guess what Gerin's title is at the end of King of the North.
    • And finally, a reader can guess what superpower shows up in Fox and Empire.
  • Stepford Smiler: Elise.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Gerin frequently bemoans the lack of thinking men in the north. He and the people he teaches seem to be the only people in the region who think more than one step ahead at a time.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Van's daughter becomes a Sweet Polly Oliver—Van is horrified at her "unwomanly" desire to fight, while the normally tricky Fox is dismayed at how easily he was fooled by a false beard and deepened voice.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Adiatunnus isn't entirely happy to ally with Gerin in King of the North, though he lightens up considerably later.
    • Aragis and Gerin in Fox and Empire. Gerin had actually assembled his army to go to war with Aragis, only coincidentally blundering into an Imperial invasion.
  • Tsundere: Fand.
  • Unreliable Narrator: In-universe. Van tells lurid tales of faraway lands, mostly to men who've never traveled ten miles from their birthplace. His only defense if asked if they're all true is that no man present can prove they're not.
  • Virgin Power: The oracle Selatre has an extreme version, where merely being touched by a man, even for entirely unsexy reasons, is enough to strip her of her power.
  • Weak, but Skilled: Gerin isn't exactly weak, but he is weaker than all of the foes he fights.
  • Weapon Specialization: Dagref earns his ekename, Dagref the Whip, from using a whip in combat - which makes sense, as he first sees combat driving a chariot for Gerin and Van and naturally would be holding a whip rather than a sword, spear, or bow. He uses it to great effect to scare the horses of enemy chariots or whipping the eyes of enemy charioteers.
  • Wham Line: Biton's prophecy in the first book.
  • Wouldn't Hurt a Child: Aragis and Adiatunnus may have their differences with Gerin, but both react with disgust when they learn Duren has been kidnapped. When Aragis finds the kidnapper in his lands, he promptly returns the boy unharmed along with the kidnapper's head.
  • You Cannot Grasp the True Form: The gods may project themselves to mortals, but their true forms are incomprehensible, existing across physically-impossible expanses, embodying multiple forms simultaneously, and other such things.

Alternative Title(s): Werenight, Prince Of The North, King Of The North, Fox And Empire