The summoner / Gail Z. Martin
The summoner is the first installment of the Chronicles of the necromancer series. It follows the story of Prince Martris Drake who can talk to ghosts. It’s particularly interesting for the way it plays with some of the “classic” fantasy tropes. It’s not dissimilar from the way this works in Mistborn – it’s a fairly straightforward fantasy but some of the normal tropes are reversed. In this case the most obvious inversion is that the titular necromancer is the hero of the story.
Brief plot summary
Prince Martris Drake is the heir to the throne of the kingdom of Margolan. Unfortunately, his vicious brother has other plans. Narrowly escaping the coup, Tris and his companions attempt to gather allies so they can retake the throne of Margolan and prevent his brother’s vampiric advisor from freeing the Obsidian King from his prison.
So how is it?
I like it. I’ve increasingly moved away from the “classic” epic fantasy subgenre as I’ve gotten older, but this series is one that I still enjoy. It strikes the right balance of depth of worldbuilding while still leaving room for an interesting story. The plot is less elaborate than the Malazan series but there are enough twists to keep things interesting.
The summoner has most of the elements from what is the retroactive ur-text of epic fantasy, the Belgariad.* The diverse group of colorful characters from all walks of life, the hidden princess, a world featuring neighboring countries that exhibit a high degree of cultural distinctiveness, etc. What’s special here is that Martin (Gail Z., not George R.R.) combines these elements in an entertaining way. The chronicles of the necromancer is something of a goth Belgariad. The tropes of epic fantasy are distilled and concentrated to their barest essence, scrubbed of artifice. That the vampires are divinely ordained protectors of humanity and that the necromancer is seen as a hero because he acts as a means of ensuring the proper relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds is interesting but reflects a shift in value judgments rather than a departure from or elaboration of the ur-text.
*This is a topic I find fascinating and will probably do a separate post on soon.
The summoner is undoubtedly darker than the Belgariad but it’s not gratuitous. Martin takes the “acceptance of death” theme from Return of the king and makes it the centerpiece of the series. Jared is obviously evil and his crimes are numerous and unpleasant. Its examination of darker themes is similar to how Bujold handles them in the Vorkosigan books. There’s evil there, but it’s not explicitly demonstrated. These themes eventually include things like overcoming childhood sexual abuse in an environment that doesn’t see what happened as a problem and a society that blames the victim in a way that seems an explicit rebuttal to the way the Wheel of time series treated the rape of one male character as a hilarious joke.* Because, you know, that character is charming and seductive and so they were just asking for it and what’s horrifying is that everyone knows this and has no problem with it.
*Seriously that part killed a lot of my enthusiasm for the series. After reading the first volume finished by Sanderson where all of the characters magically changed personalities to match characters from Mistborn I decided it wasn’t worth finishing.
So it’s good but not groundbreaking.
I wholeheartedly recommend The summoner to pretty much any epic fantasy readers that come along. It has another advantage in that despite the books themselves being long in the Robert Jordan/Geroge R.R. Martin/Steven Erikson/Terry Goodkind/Anyone else I’m forgetting mold the main plot is dealt with in only two books, so it’s also great for people who don’t want to make a massive commitment. The series continues after that point but the second book is a natural stopping point that should leave the reader satisfied if they don’t want more.