Tag Archives: epic fantasy

The Belgariad

Pawn of prophecy / David [and Leigh]* Eddings

Pawn of prophecy is the first of the Belgariad, a quintet of fantasy novels that are remarkable in their minimalism.

Like the Dresden files, the Belgariad was written to prove a point. While the Dresden files were written to be an intentionally bad mish-mash of genres, the Belgariad was written to demonstrate that a series can have the most clichéd, cookie-cutter plot possible but still be entertaining as long as the characters are interesting.

It’s mostly successful, to the point where it serves as a useful point of reference for other works of epic fantasy. It’s also personally significant for me which may color this review somewhat.

*Context: Leigh was a coauthor on the books but M. del Rey insisted her name be left off because he thought it would have a negative impact on sales. Books first published after his death properly credit both authors.

Brief plot summary

There’s a mysterious magical artifact that was stolen! A farm boy with a mysterious past finds himself drawn into the quest to retrieve it, accompanied by a grey-bearded sorcerer. Accompanied by several colorful comrades they must travel through many countries, each one with a population mostly defined by a few highly distinctive cultural traits.

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The summoner

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.

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Mistborn

Mistborn / Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn was a series that I started out really enjoying but my enthusiasm tanked towards the end and I haven’t managed to force myself through the third book.

Full disclosure: part of the issue is I am not a fan of Sanderson’s “rules” about fantasy novels. Part of it is also a culture clash issue coupled with probably at least a little bit of my own prejudice. There were some implied judgments about interpersonal relationships that I found really distasteful; I’m willing to say that this wasn’t Sanderson attempting to push an agenda but rather his cultural background influencing the way the plot developed.

As a result, this is going to be a somewhat weird review as I’m finding it really hard to separate my personal distaste for my admiration at what is a well-done series.

Plot summary

Mistborn opens 1,000 years after the stereotypical fantasy hero completed his quest. Whether or not he was successful is not immediately clear, but the result was a world constantly bathed in volcanic ash where basic agriculture has become nearly impossible and mysterious, terrifying mists appear every night. The hero is now the Lord Ruler, a terrifying, nigh-omnipotent dictator.

Vin is a street urchin who possesses the instinctive, possibly supernatural ability to influence others. When she encounters the rebel Kelsier, she discovers that she is one of the mistborn, a group of people who can “burn” metals they consume in exchange for supernatural powers. Joining Kelsier’s band, Vin sets out to defeat the Lord Ruler.

So how is it?

The first book is pretty good. I really like the plot and there are some really well done, satisfying twists to be found. The series also asks some interesting moral questions about the basic assumptions that are generally standard for the epic fantasy genre. The magic system is interesting and presented consistently.

But.

I really don’t like Sanderson’s laws. I’ve mentioned them before and I may or may not do a whole post about them, but I’ll just sum it up here: Sanderson is of the opinion that to make books interesting and effective magic needs to have clearly spelled out rules that are presented to the reader and that the reader understands. The problem with this is that the more you try and create a perfectly logically consistent system of magic the more readily visible the seams become. I ended up getting distracted with questions about how the magic worked that weren’t adequately addressed in the text. I normally wouldn’t find this so distracting, but when there’s a highly visible attempt to make the system internally consistent the inconsistencies become more glaring.

Another issue is that Sanderson attempts to describe a diverse world, with one character whose entire mission in life is to memorize everything about every religion he can as a sort of Farenheit 451-esque living book, but this attempt comes across drawing attention to how there’s no real diversity. It’s superficial cartoon diversity, where people have different rituals but there’s no real cultural distinctiveness. I think that this is mostly due to my next (and biggest) issue.

The series becomes increasingly dominated by Sanderson’s religious views as it goes on. This isn’t so visible in the first volume, but the second volume presents a view of marriage that in no way resembles my marriage or anyone I actually know, and the third volume features a plot point where scripture engraved on metal plates is the only non-corrupted scripture. I don’t know if this was intentional or not – I’d like to think that it’s just Sanderson writing what he knows, but given the tendency towards proselytization I think that might be too charitable. It would also be really easy to read the way the plot develops as an endorsement of totalitarianism and fascist apologia.

It’s really disappointing. The setup for the world in the first volume is really interesting and intriguing, and there are good ideas throughout. I especially liked how the morality of killing the evil overlord’s guards was brought into question.

The incident that really soured me on the series takes place in the second volume. Minor spoilers follow. Vin encounters another mistborn, Zane, who has overcome similar struggles and whom she easily identifies with. Vin starts to have second thoughts about her relationship with her love interest from the first book, Elend, because she has a wealth of shared experience with this new person. In the end, Vin stays with her previous love interest and the jilted mistborn subsequently tries to murder her. At the same time, Elend from the first novel is struggling with balancing the war and competing domestic political factions and is hoisted on his own petard when his emphasis on the rule of law causes him to be deposed.

Considering that the book opens with the revelation that maybe the Lord Ruler wasn’t actually a bad guy and was just doing his best to save the world, the political events of the second book strongly imply that seeking an egalitarian society is foolish and self-destructive.

Vin and Zane’s relationship is treated as a distraction from the “true” Vin and Elend relationship, as Zane ends up being too “broken” and despite the fact that Vin’s actions have horrified and traumatized Elend who doesn’t understand, they still end up together for no apparent reason. The nature of Vin and Elend’s relationship becomes increasingly uncomfortable to me, and there’s an abrupt “abstinence before marriage” message that appears for no clear reason.

Sazed’s discovery of the “true religion” and the nature of the overarching conflict are uncomfortably close to the story of the foundation of Mormonism. It’s upsetting to me that a series that started out by asking interesting questions ends up answering them in such a trite way. End spoilers

So, to summarize my perspective: Mistborn is a well written series with a good premise and actively confronts many of the tropes of the fantasy genre, but it is too obsessed with explaining its magic to the extent that is inconsistent with the way things happen in the latter part of the trilogy, there are some Unfortunate Implications regarding some plot points, and the plot becomes an increasingly tattered cover for Sanderson’s religious views (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that).

Recommendation

I realize the above makes it seems like I hate this series, but I have and will recommend it. It’s just that I find the subtext extremely uncomfortable.

It’s a must-recommend to LDS leaders who will love the resolution if they can survive the early portions. It’s a slightly more hesitant recommend to fantasy readers in general but I wouldn’t rule it out.

As I mentioned above, some of this is probably due to my own prejudices, but if I was to recommend a religion-inflected fantasy novel I’d go with Throne of the crescent moon or Alif the unseen before I’d go for Sanderson, even if the latter also has some (to me) objectionable content in the gender-relations department.*

 

*I’ve read some of Wilsons other stuff and I’m thinking I might not be remembering Alif properly as I haven’t seen anything like the issues I had with it. As a result I’m going to commit to rereading it before I review it here.

The kingdom of the gods

The kingdom of gods / N.K. Jemisin

The kingdom of the gods is the final book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. It shakes things up a bit by transferring the point of view to one of the gods, and as a result has a notably more “cosmic” tone than the previous two.

This post will be fairly short since I’ve already written about the first and second books in the series.

Brief plot summary

Sieh is the first child of the three original gods. Although this makes him the oldest godling, as the child-god he remains an eternal child, as acting against his nature will destroy him. His friendship with two humans will have permanent consequences for all of the gods and their children.

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The broken kingdoms

The broken kingdoms / N.K. Jemisin

The broken kingdoms is the second installment in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. Moving away the high-level political intrigue of the first novel, the middle book adds more depth and an increasingly nuanced portrayal of the varioud gods.

Brief plot summary

Oree Shoth is a blind artist living in the shadow of the World Tree. When a mysterious, possibly shiny, man shows up Shoth decides to take him in and nurse him back to health. What she doesn’t know is how this simple act of kindness will get her entangled with the search for a serial killer who is targeting godlings.

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The hundred thousand kingdoms (Inheritance trilogy)

The hundred thousand kingdoms / N.K. Jemisin

The hundred thousand kingdoms is the first book in the Inheritance trilogy. The books in the trilogy are fairly loosely connected though, and feature completely different POV characters, so I’m going to treat them separately here.

Jemisin is now notable for the racist, gendered harassment she received after giving a speech in Australia where she had the audacity to speak up about sexism and racism in the SFWA. It’s unfortunate that this is what she’s known for, as she’s well worth reading.

This is one of those books that I first encountered when emptying the book drop at the public library where I used to work. It seemed interesting and it was by an author that I had never heard of before, so i decided to check it out. It’s not the fastest read in the world but I certainly enjoyed what I found.

Brief plot summary

Yeine is a barbarian from the frozen land of Darr. Summoned to the city of Sky (named for the giant castle in the sky), she is named heir to the throne. Thrust into a competition with the reigning king’s niece and nephew that she doesn’t understand and stalked by the gods kept as slaves by the royal family, Yeine struggles to avoid becoming a human sacrifice and protect her homeland at the same time.

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Tigana

Tigana / Guy Gavriel Kay. First published 1990.

Tigana is an epic but low-magic fantasy novel by Guy Gavriel Kay. Set on a hand-shaped peninsula that is currently occupied by two competing occupying forces, each led by a powerful sorcerer. It’s a literary fantasy novel in that it’s more influenced by Italian history than Dungeons & Dragons, but it’s readily accessible by others and has a fairly wide appeal.

Brief plot summary

As I mentioned above, the Peninsula of the Palm has been partially conquered, from opposite ends, by two competing sorcerers. Tigana is the name of one of the provinces who initially resisted the invasion, but one of the sorcerers has used magic to remove even the idea of Tigana from people’s minds. Only those born in the province before the invasion remember of its existence.

The main plot follows a group of travelling musicians/revolutionaries and their attempts to overthrow both invaders and restore the memory of Tigana to its former glory.

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The Malazan book of the fallen

Gardens of the moon / Steven Erikson. Originally published 1999.

This is going to be another long one

The Malazan book of the fallen is an epic fantasy series comprising ten main volumes, a related trilogy, another lengthy series by Ian Esslemont, and a series of highly entertaining novellas. (If I’ve missed anything, let me know). In a manner not totally dissimilar from the Dragonlance series, the Malazan books are heavily influenced by the authors’s tabletop role-playing game experience. Unlike the Dragonlance series, the Malazan books have one of the more unique settings in the epic fantasy genre.

Erikson, like O’Brian, refuses to patronize, assuming that his readers will be able to piece together the “rules” of the world and its surprisingly intricate history without lengthy explanations from the author. As a result, the series can be a bit daunting as the reader has to rely heavily on context to figure out what is actually going on. Erikson is an anthropologist by training, and that expertise heavily informs the series, making the world full of vibrant, diverse cultures that can’t be easily reduced to comparisons with real-world groups (à la Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Brent Weeks, or virtually any major epic fantasy author). Erikson is not above using his fictional cultures to make subtle jabs at popular anthropological theories, which provides extra fun for readers who enjoy that kind of poking.

Full admission: I haven’t finished the series yet. I got distracted most of the way through and set it aside for too long. I’ve started re-reading it but considering the length it’ll be a while. I’ve read the first 8 books of the main series and most of the Bauchelain & Korbal Broach novellas (to be reviewed separately). I feel like I’ve got a good enough handle on the series to review it collectively, especially since it’d be nearly impossible to examine the plot of Gardens of the moon without giving away way too many details.

Brief plot summary

Gardens of the moon opens with the aftermath of the apparent assassination of the emperor of the Malazan empire and his second-in-command by the head of their secret police, Surly. Seven years later, Surly is now the empress Laseen and the rapid expansion of the Malazan empire has caused the military to be overextended. The situation is further complicated by Laseen’s apparent attempts to purge the government and military of those loyal to the old emperor, as well as interference by the quasi-divine Ascendants, all of whom have their own agendas.

The series has three major plotlines that eventually converge and approximately 100,000 major characters. The first plotline takes place on the continent of Genabackis, where the Malazan military is attempting to conquer a group of massively wealthy city-states. The second major plotline focuses on a religion-fueled rebellion on a subcontinent that was (mostly) already under Malazan control. The third plotline, which connects to the first two significantly later in the series, involves the conflict between a capitalist empire and a tribal society.

If it sounds complicated, well, it is. But it’s also great and it’s not that hard to keep track of what’s going on. There are enough characters common to most of the books that it’s relatively easy to find an anchor.

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