Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

The traitor spy trilogy

The traitor spy trilogy / Trudi Canavan

The traitor spy trilogy is an exemplar of what is (to me, at least) a relatively new sub genre of fantasy. It takes many of the normal high fantasy trapping but redressed them in a more intimate, focused story. Instead of saving the world from the evil sorcerer, they’re saving the town, stuff like that. I enjoy it because it gives more room for the story to focus on character development and plot without having to devote as many pages to exposition describing all of the places the heroes travel. Karen Miller and Irene Radford’s books arguably fit that mold as well. I’d put the Imager series there too but Moddessitt doesn’t rely as heavily on the Tolkien via D&D fantasy tropes so the feel is very different.

It’s also a time when I’ll actively encourage to read things out of order. The traitor spy trilogy is the direct sequel to an earlier series by the same author. I enjoyed both, but I highly recommend reading this series before the other one for reasons I’ll go into below.

Brief plot summary

A healer finds herself in an uneasy alliance with her former bully. Her son discovers signs of what his late father might have been doing during the period he mysteriously disappeared. An underworld leader seeks to protect his family from a mysterious foe. A man must decide if his relationship is worth saving. A country struggles to maintain peace with an old enemy.

So how is it?

I was really pleasantly surprised. It’s a solid series with a diverse cast that is very much driven by its characters.

The biggest praise I can give it is how “mature” the older characters behave. (I was going to say “adult” but that has too many other connotations when it comes to fantasy.) Characters have relationship struggles that aren’t entirely predicated on the Hilarious Misunderstanding (or its cousin, Refusing to Listen and Automatically Jumping to the Worst Conclusion). People face their assumptions and sometimes change. Old grudges get reconsidered and adolescent squabbles don’t necessarily become adult feuds. Difference of opinion is not a sign of evil intent. It’s wonderfully refreshing and there wouldn’t be space for it in a more epic story without a massive increase in the page count.

Another thing to love about the characterization is age related. All too often in fantasy teenagers are indistinguishable from adults, and adults rarely act their age. This is endemic to fictional media as a whole. It frequently feels like 99% of interpersonal conflict in any given show or movie stems from a supposedly adult character throwing a tantrum. Considering the mailings I get from my Republican State House representative it seems like there are plenty of adults who do act that way, but it doesn’t reflect what is normally considered mature behavior nor my lived experience.* Even if it is atypical adult behavior, it’s nice to see patterns of interaction that more closely resemble my lived experience. This goes both ways: Canavan’s adults feel like real grownups but her younger characters also behave more like “real” young people.

*I’m willing to accept that my experience may be atypical. Other expats banned me from answering questions about American culture while I was in Japan because my perception of U.S. culture is apparently nonstandard.

I really can’t stop heaping praise on Canavan’s characterization, and I feel like a big part of my enjoyment was due to reading this trilogy first. It’s not that the earlier books are bad, but Canavan’s writing is vastly improved in the Traitor spy trilogy and because all of the events of the first trilogy are long past there’s a sense that these people existed before the book started and had a full complement of life experiences. It also helps to make the parental characters more well rounded. 

I continue to praise the characters. I like that many of the characters have adult children but the portrayal is balanced so that neither parent nor child feels like an afterthought or a plot device to motivate the other. I like that there are LGBT characters and that they do face discrimination but that’s not all they’re there for. I like that characters in relationships make mistakes and the principals involve actually listen to each other when these things come up. I like that not everybody has the same ethnic or cultural background and that these differences are not just superficial (“these people wear red, but these other people are so different they wear blue!”) but at the same time there’s not a sense of ethnic and/or cultural determinism. (“Abcders love shoes and think that all V should N but Zyxers love sandals and think that only E should N”)

So it’s a good series and very readable.

Recommendation

It’s good for fans of the high fantasy series (Robert Jordan, Rothfuss, etc.) but its appeal outside of that is probably limited. It’s not exactly an action packed series so readers looking for something like Brent Weeks or David Dalgish will probably be disappointed. It’s also good train for people looking for fantasy novels that aren’t “young straight white man saves the world”. There are major characters who fit that mold, but the series does a good job of giving other characters equal time in the spotlight. There are characters who aren’t white, who aren’t young, who aren’t straight, and who aren’t men. Some characters aren’t two or more of the same thing, even! I realize that “not every heroic character is a SAWCASM” is a pretty low bar, but so few books seem to manage that that it’s worth mentioning the books that do.

Advertisements

The lies of Locke Lamora

The lies of Locke Lamora / Scott Lynch

It’s not uncommon to label something “genre fiction” as a way of dismissing it. When somebody who does this then comes across a “genre” book they enjoy, they are faced with a choice: do rhetorical somersaults to justify why it’s not really a science fiction novel or rethink their assumptions about conflating descriptive labels and value judgments.

Even folks like Nancy Pearl (who as a librarian should know better) are guilty of this. Pearl did it with The sparrow. It seems to be a universal phenomenon with The handmaid’s tale. People frequently treat Octavia Butler that way as well (although her works are also at risk of being exiled to an “African American interest” section featuring a jumble of books whose only link is the color of their author’s skin).

People seem to think that if it deals with serious issues then it can’t be sff. Considering the genre’s roots in Shelley* (also a victim of “it’s important therefore not sf”) it’s an attitude I don’t really understand.

*yes, sad/rabid puppies, science fiction is literally the child of feminism. Chew on that.

It’s more common with science fiction than with fantasy, as it’s easier to dismiss fantasy as “fairy stories” (although with the popularity of Game of thrones it’s starting to happen with Martin). It also helps that many of the stories that get this “not sf” label are dystopian.

So what does this have to do with The lies of Locke Lamora? If you haven’t guessed by now, this is one of those books. I’m not sure why, as it’s very clearly a fantasy novel. Secondary world, wizards, impossible alchemy … It’s not even a book that addresses serious issues in any great depth. Still, the library were I worked when I read it kept it in the regular “fiction” section, and the blurbs in the mass market copy I own now claim that it is more than just genre fiction.

I assume that people read it who “don’t like fantasy” and then had to justify their enjoyment somehow.

A propos of nothing, I didn’t read this book for quite a while because I kept misreading the title as “The lays of Loch Lomond” and thinking it was historical fiction. It wast until I saw the cover art for the third book in the series and realized that this was something I would enjoy. 

Yes, I judge books by their covers all the time.

Plot summary

Locke Lamora is an orphan taken in by the priest Chains and trained to be one of his “Gentleman Bastards”, robbing from the rich in the name of their god and consistently flouting the underworld’s “secret peace”, an unspoken agreement between the city’s criminals and its government that allows criminal syndicates to operate more or less openly as long as they refrain from targeting the wealthy or law enforcement.

So how is it?

I really liked it. It’s fast paced, fun, and never loses sight of the fact that as lovable as the Gentleman Bastards are they are still ruthless criminals.

The Gentleman Bastards series draws equally from Ocean’s 11 and Rififi in a fantasy setting more than a little bit reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. The best film comparison is probably French cult classic Man bites dog – it’s humorous but still quite dark. It’s not quite as intense as Game of thrones and its sequels or the Sword of truth series, but it’s not far.

One thing that helps temper the brutality is that there are consequences. Committing atrocities is a great way to turn allies into enemies and that goes for heroes and villains. (See also: Rififi)

This book isn’t written in a noir style, but thematically it’s noir through an through. The questionable means used by the protagonists, the emphasis on revenge, etc., etc.

One of the blurbs compares it to Dickens. I’m really not seeing it, unless all it takes to be Dickens is a group of orphans being taken in and trained to be thieves.

It’s a good book that’s only mildly disturbing while managing to maintain a sense of humor while telling a surprisingly dark story.

Recommendation

This is a great crossover novel, especially for fans of Game of Thrones. It keeps the emphasis on the characters and off the magic and tells a recognizably human story rather than a cosmic one.

It’s also good reading for fans of heist films and books about loveable rogues in general.

Throne of the crescent moon

Throne of the crescent moon / Saladin Ahmed

Every so often I pick up a book off the new shelf at the library and end up discovering something super fun. This was not one of those times.

Just kidding, it totally was.

Plot summary

Adoulla is a middle aged scholar with a  taste for sweets. He is also the last of the ghoul hunters. His assistant Raseed is a devout member of a martial religious order. Together they must discover the cause of a series of mysterious killings.

So how is it?

Great! This is “low fantasy” at its finest. Think Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser without all the misogyny. (Seriously, reread Swords and deviltry sometime and marvel at some of the worst portrayals of women in fantasy fiction.)

Throne of the crescent moon is emphatically not epic fantasy. This isn’t a book that stops to dwell on deep philosophical issues. It’s more of a Star Wars approach, where good natured adventure takes precedence over making some kind of statement.

I want to make it clear that I’m not criticizing Throne of the crescent moon for not being serious enough. I’m also not saying that all fantasy should be like this. What I am saying is that this book should be judged based on what it is, not what it isn’t.

It’s possible that one could argue that the setting and characters are themselves making a statement. After all, it’s a fantasy novel that draws from The folklore of the Middle East (and North Africa, to some extent) instead of Europe, and the religious environment is quite clearly Muslim. 

I don’t think Ahmed is trying to make any statement here, read some of his interviews and articles and he’s very clear about when he’s trying to make statement and when he’s not. Fantasy fiction is a big tent and sometimes people write the stories they want because that’s what they want to write. It’s not necessarily about “shoving diversity down people’s throats” (seriously people actually say this) or trying to change the genre or force every story to be a certain way. Sometimes people want to write fun adventure stories that draw on their cultural heritage for added richness. People like Tolkien, to name a completely random example that is in no way designed to make a point.

I really don’t intend for this to turn into a lengthy tangent about multiculturalism or how incredibly Eurocentric English language fantasy fiction tends to be. It just … came up. (How’s that for deflecting responsibility for things I write on my own blog?)

Back to the book. Throne of the crescent moon is a book about revolutionaries, mysterious back-alley murders, exploring haunted crypts, and farts.

Recommendation

It’s a must read for fans of Lieber and Robert E. Howard. It’s also a good bet for fans of the Dragonlance series (or any other TSR/WOTC franchise). It’s worth checking out for anyone who enjoys fantasy, especially those who are tired of the generic excessively pastoral Western European setting that has become standard for the genre.