Pyr Sends Me Back to Epic Fantasy

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.

Some Thoughts About “Red Seas”

First of all, I loved it.  This is not to say that it was flawless, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable yarn that I am thrilled I saved for my vacation book.  To me, having a great book while on vacation really adds to the vacation experience and this one was stellar. I, of course, love the characters – Locke and Jean are a fantastic duo, clearly characterized, wonderfully flawed and limited, witty, clever, and fun.  This novel solidified their relationship and established them as some of my favorite fantasy characters today.  The story was also really good, but there were a few points about it that irked me a little, and I mean only a little.

First, I felt there was way too much time setting up the Sinspire heist when that didn’t actually develop into the plot at all.  It was almost like he was writing that as the plot, then thought, “Hey, wait.  This is just Oceans Eleven set in a fantasy world,” and completely changed tacks.  The pirate story it developed into was a ripping good story, but the jolt between it and the Sinspire plotline was a bit rough.  Also, the end had a little bit of a deus ex machina feel to it with the sudden introduction of the Priori Council character who managed to smooth all the rough edges of the story’s conclusion.  In hindsight, time spent at the beginning fleshing out the Priori character (see? I can’t even remember his name.) instead of doing the Sinspire stuff would have served this plot better.  The Sinspire plot was a lot of fun though and probably deserved its own book, or at least better integration into the whole.

The writing continues to be among the best I’ve read in contemporary fantasy.  Lynch is very lyrical and I appreciate his attention to details like alliteration and rhythm.  I also like how his stories use the same characters but are stand alone stories.  Obviously, for character development purposes, it helps to read them in the published order, but they’re not so connected that you could not.  It makes reading them a joy.  I am truly looking forward to the third installment.  Speaking of, one thing that I’ve really liked about these first two books are the references to Locke’s love interest in the past, a woman named Sabetha.  To Locke, it is anathema to bring her up and there are obviously some very deep feelings there.  But I love how Lynch has developed this character and never once showed her to us.  I am a little disappointed that the third book will include her as a principle character as I enjoyed the mystery and wish it would have lasted through a few more books.

Lynch has also mentioned, apparently, that he hopes to write more stories about the female pirate duo Ezri and Zamira and I would really enjoy that as well.  They were quite the pair!  For obvious reasons (Ezri’s death in Red Seas) they would have to take place in the past, but that’s fine.  Her death and funeral scene, by the way, moved me to tears.  Books don’t typically do that to me.  I wept for her and I wept with Jean.  It was wonderful writing.

February 2011 is way too far away for the next book, Republic of Thieves, for my liking.

So bad

When I’m 396 pages into a 600 page book and I have no idea what is happening, how the characters got to where they are, how they can do the things they are doing (a helpless 16 year old orphan suddenly gets a knife and a pair of pistols and he can take down  ten or twelve trained killers without breaking a sweat?!), or really anything about the characters, then I begin to get a bit tired, a bit weary, and I want to put down the book.

But I also have this fundamental problem stopping a book in the middle.  I’ve written about these struggles before, but I am getting better at doing it.  There is just too much good writing out there to waste time reading the bad.   And, Stephen Hunt, I’m sorry to say, but The Court of the Air is so bad. 

Before I decided to put it down I went to my friends over at sffworld see if maybe I was being unfair or hasty.  I wanted to see what other readers had written, as I knew that this book was the Book of the Month for June.  Well, only fourteen of the multitude at sffworld even replied to the June thread, all uniformly panning the book, but offering hope for Hunt’s future endeavors.  I’ll reserve judgment, but most likely Hunt has lost me as a reader.  And so, with disappointed resolve, I’ll remove my bookmark from The Court of the Air and turn to my to-be-read shelf just in time for vacation.  I am excited!  There have been a couple of books I’ve been reserving for my vacation time coming up because I know they will be good.  The only question is, which shall I read first??

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by: Jesse Bullington

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Under the Dome by Stephen King

Uncle Silas by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

I don’t know what I’m going to pick…

Lyricism

So, in reading Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I am devouring and loving by the way, I’ve noticed he has a real knack for lyricism.  Example. There are these wonderful dinner scenes among the Gentlemen Bastards where they go through a sort of liturgy at the start of the meal.  They pour a glass of wine for their god and then they pour a glass of wine for someone who isn’t there.  May be that they’ve died or maybe they’re simply gone.  But when they do, they all raise their glasses up and say,

A glass poured to air for an absent friend.”

I thought that was beautiful.  It rolls right off the tongue and has a rythm and meter (may even be iambic pentameter – A glass/poured to/air for/an ab-/-sent friend?) to it that makes it authentic, believable, and memorable. Well done, Mr. Lynch.  I appreciate these kinds of details.

Fantasy Revival

I grew up on Fantasy novels.  When I was in the third grade, my Dad gave my a hardback, illustrated version of The Hobbit, without much preamble.  I read it and liked it, but felt I didn’t really understand it.  I read it again the next year and fell in love.  The following year, the 5th grade, he gave me his hardback Lord of the Rings and asked simply if I wanted to know the rest of the story.  I replied increduously, “There’s more?!”  And I ate it up, even setting my alarm clock to an hour earlier than normal in order to get more reading time.  For a while there, I read it every year.

Then I turned to the DragonLance novels and enjoyed most of those, but there was no denying the qualitative difference.  Over the years I’ve read a lot of the big names in fantasy – Jordan, Goodkind, Martin, etc. – and a few of the smaller ones, too.  But I’d say most of the fantasy books I’ve read in the past decade have been piss poor.  I pretty much gave up.  I never finished the Wheel of Time.  I agonized over the fact that Martin’s books weren’t finished yet.  I devoured Harry Potter just because it was well written sorcery, but I wanted, I don’t know, more adult depth of character.  I wanted shit to go wrong, because it does.  I wanted to see a character make a poor choice and then have to live with the consequences not get out of it with a deus ex machina.  I wanted…more. And no one was giving it to me.

Then I picked up The Blade Itself on a total whim, because I liked the cover and I’d never heard of Abercrombie or his publisher, Pyr.  Abercrombie, in a word, delivered.  Delivered everything I’d wanted out of my fantasy.  He reinstated my love of the genre and my belief that great fantasy could still be written.  I think people had to throw off Tolkien, I don’t know.  People, for ever in a day, couldn’t write fantasy without thinking of or being compared to Tolkien and I honestly think (as much as I love Tolkien) that kinda killed the genre for a while.  No matter what press praised a book on the cover as being “as good as Tolkien,” or, “the next J.R.R.!” the fact of the matter was that it simply wasn’t.  Couldn’t be.  And didn’t need to be.  Thank you Joe Abercrombie!

I’ve read all four of his published novels now and loved them.  The First Law trilogy better than Best Served Cold but we’re talking matters of degrees of greatness here, not leaps and bounds.  I’ve visited his website and gotten his list of recommendeds.  I bought a few this weekend.  I stopped reading a piece of shit Eberron novel because I got to the middle of the trilogy and realized I didn’t care.  And now, I’m excited and am not looking back.  Goodbye, shit fantasy.

Hello to:

Scott Lynch, James Barclay, Patrick Rothfuss, Steve Erickson, Richard Morgan, Alex Bell, R. Scott Bakker, Tom Lloyd and whoever else is putting out great stuff.  Basically, if Joe Abercrombie has said on his blog it’s good, I’m going with that.  Because right now, he’s the platinum standard.

I’ve started with

and so far, I can’t wait to read more.  There’s so much awesome fantasy out there right now.  Put down the shit you’re reading and go get some.