It’s been over a year since I read any “epic fantasy” – you know, the stuff that comes in lengths no shorter than trilogies, has sweeping geographical locations (and always includes a map!), far reaching consequences to seemingly inconsequencial actions, grand characters with grandiose plans and a diabolical enemy with connections, likely connections, to dark magic? Well, I could go on, but you get the idea. The last series of epic fantasy I read was Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law Trilogy” and not only was it epic but it was fantastic as well. Brilliant stuff. His blog turned me on to Scott Lynch, and I devoured those books. I copied down several more names and this past week, while convalescing from some surgery, I started a new one by an author he recommended, published by Pyr (they are putting out amazing stuff, folks, check them out!), and was immediately confronted with mixed thoughts.
Right off the bat, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue, but bear with me as I did with this book, because despite the following gripes, I’m loving it right now.
Gripe #1: On the first page of the first chapter we meet a character known only as “The Unknown Warrior.” Groan! It’s sooooo cheesy. But at least he’s the biggest, baddest warrior of the group because otherwise I would think any other character would beat his ass until he gave up his name or laugh him out of the room. Caveat: After a while, I kinda got into the mystery behind the Unknown, but it still had elements of cheese.
Gripe #2: Why elves? One of the main characters is an elf. Why? No one knows why this world has elves (at least I don’t yet). He appears to be absolutely no different than his human counterparts. I always thought a cardinal rule when writing speculative type fiction was if you can pull something off with out introducing the speculative element, you should, otherwise it leaves readers asking, Why? If you’re going to have an elven race, at least describe them, make them markedly different from humans, and give the reader a plausible reason for why they are there. i.e. Tolkien – Elves were the first race created by the deities and the most beloved.
Gripe #3: The map. Ok, one of my favorite parts of epic fantasy world building is the geography and the map that accompanies it. You have a blank sheet of paper and free reign! Go to work! Draw a creative world. Splitting your world vertically right down the middle with a mountain range and calling everything on the West side evil, desolate, and degenerate, and everything on the East side good, civilized, and educated is a cop out and a disappointment. Why not just draw a rectangle:
Gripe #4: Magic. Again, another amazing opportunity for some creative world building and neat ideas to develop in epic fantasy. Smushing capitalized, pedestrian words together does not a creative spell system make. Examples: CloakedWalk. HellFire. WarmHeal. Come on! Do something neat with your magic system! Please…. Or at least do what Abercrombie did and make it so ridiculously chaotic and powerful that when the magic user sneezed, walls blew up.
Gripe #4: Pedestrian words. Nothing spectacular about Barclay’s writing; nothing extraordinarily bad about it either. It’s just average. But I am disappointed that he relies solely upon the groundwork of others for some of his fantasy words. Magic users are called “mages.” Thank you D&D. Their source of energy is called “mana.” Thank you every other fantasy book and video game ever. One of the characters is called a Barbarian, yet there is no mention of what that means, what kind of “uncivilized” society he comes from, why others think of him as a barbarian and if they do, why they accept him in polite company. Again, please see how Abercrombie did it. The Bloody Nine was a barbarian-like character but I don’t think the word barbarian was ever used, or if it was, not so often that I remember it. Show don’t tell.
Now, like I said, gripes aside (and I’m sure there are more), I am really enjoying this book. The plot is engrossing, the characters I’m starting to care about, the political world is fun and creative and I really, really like how Barclay sets up his opposing magic schools and the history behind it that lurks beneath every seething glance one mage gives to another of a different school. This is Barclay’s first book ever. I’m betting he gets better at writing with experience and critical feedback. Even if he doesn’t this is a fun read and a good tale. It’s not spectacular like Lynch or Abercrombie, but you can’t get that all the time.
I titled this post “Pyr sends me back to epic fantasy” because I just ordered a bunch of books (half.com of course) in the epic fantasy genre all published by Pyr. I’m excited by what they’re doing and if you like fantasy, you should be too.