Fantasy can be a problem, whether you're trying to review it from an informed standpoint, thinking about nominating it for an annual award, or simply keeping up with the field. It's not just that the individual books tend towards the lengthy; they do, it's true, but some of us welcome that, and consider detractors who sneer at our "doorstops" to lack stamina. It's that fantasies generally come with a weight of tightly—or, in some cases, not so tightly—plotted backstory, stretching over multiple volumes or even multiple series, and vast reserves of world-building detail besides. Jumping in part way through one of these tales is ill-advised.
All of the five novels shortlisted for the inaugural David Gemmell Legend Award are part of series; one is the first in a trilogy, two are the final parts of trilogies, one is a standalone follow-up to a trilogy in the same setting, and one starts a five-book saga but grows out of several short story collections. (I offer this in partial explanation for my producing a roundup of a 2009 shortlist in, well, 2010; and even then I only managed to read the rest of one trilogy.)
The question that presents itself, obviously, is: how easily can any of these books be judged on their own merits? This, certainly, is what the DGLA administrators are aiming for, as noted on their website: “[P]lease remember the Award is for the Best Fantasy Novel of 2008—that one book that has been Nominated (whether or not it forms part of a series) and not the body of an author's work as a whole.”
What do they mean by “in the spirit of David Gemmell”? According to the same web page, what they are looking for is something that grabs the reader immediately, with pace (“you know, books that you're STILL reading at three in the morning!”), characters to root for, and convincing world-building. Stories, in other words, that take hold and won't let go until the final page—the reason we all started reading fantasy in the first place.
Quality of prose goes unmentioned, but I'm afraid it won't in this review; writing that makes me want to stab my own eyes out tends to interfere with my desire to still be reading at three in the morning. I'm fussy like that.
Hero of Ages, by the astonishingly prolific Brandon Sanderson—he's currently publishing at a rate of three books a year, including his contribution to the Wheel of Time—is a concluding volume whose predecessors I didn't seek out. On balance, and with respect to its admirers, I'm glad that I didn't. In this case, I didn't feel that I'd missed much: Sanderson thoughtfully provides extensive synopses of the first two volumes at the back of this one, together with an outline of how his (fascinating) metal-based magic system works. The inclusion of the appendices didn't, unfortunately, prevent Sanderson from loading his narrative with levels of exposition off-putting even to someone coming fresh to the novel, and surely tedious to seasoned readers.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the interruption of battles to explain magical mechanics. There is something rather appealing about Sanderson's action sequences. We still get the clashes of large armies that no fantasy epic willingly does without, but they are only the backdrop for an altogether more engaging form of combat, centred around the properties of various (real and invented) metals, which allomancers ingest in minute quantities and "burn" at will: magic-empowered people fling coins like deadly missiles, attract or repel opponents' metal weapons, and generally ping off the scenery with a gleeful abandon that would make an anime character dizzy. It's all quite entertaining, even if the excess of capital letters that accompanies their acrobatics can be unintentionally funny: “She Pushed herself to the side, Pulling the sword of a dying koloss. She caught this weapon, cut down a third beast, then threw the sword, Pushing it like a giant arrow into the chest of a fourth monster. That same Push threw her backward out of the way of an attack” (p. 25).
But then the exposition clunks into place, derailing the scene's momentum. A page after all that Pushing and Pulling, with the battle still raging, we get the following description of combining two strains of "allomantic" magic, a technique clearly familiar to the main characters:
Vin smiled, then burned duralumin. Immediately the pewter already burning inside of her exploded to give her a massive, instantaneous burst of strength. Duralumin, when used with another metal, amplified that second metal and made it burn out in a single burst, giving up all of its power at once. (p. 26)
It would perhaps be less annoying were it not bogging down an otherwise quite fun skirmish; unfortunately, over the course of the novel it becomes a pattern. Time and again, Sanderson tells rather than shows. Indeed, for a book with so many pages (over 700 in paperback), surprisingly little of the interesting stuff plays out in the narrative instead of being discussed, whether it is the everyday politicking that hampers rookie Emperor Elend Venture's efforts to unify his dying world, the characters' relationships to one another, or the machinations of the villain. A lot of the more interesting little bits of world-building, meanwhile, are relegated to the short pieces of retrospective narration that precede each chapter—like the fact that the world has remained practically unchanged for centuries not simply because that's the way fantasy novels work, but because the Lord Ruler (Elend's near-immortal predecessor on the imperial throne) “suppressed technological advancement completely” in his quest to build a more stable polity (p. 242). These short passages reflect the narrative strategies of Hero of Ages in ways whose cleverness is not apparent until the end (about which more below); until then, however, they're just yet more clunky methods of conveying information. That they also occasionally reveal details that the protagonists don't know yet adds to the frustration; no plot-driven book can afford to give away its twists so lightly without seriously undermining the reader's incentive to keep turning the pages.
Particularly irritating is Sanderson's habit of describing character development rather than demonstrating it through their speech and action. Sometimes he does this within the point-of-view narration (a phrase I use only loosely, because in truth there is little to distinguish one character's perspective from another's):
Somehow, she had grown into a woman in between the fall of kings and collapse of worlds. Once she had been terrified of change. Then she had been terrified of losing Elend. Now her fears were more nebulous—worries of what would happen to the people of the empire if she failed to divine the secrets she sought. (p. 224)
Sometimes he has the character explain their own arc:
“They nearly did,” Vin said. “Elend, I had to realise that I could be both people—the Mistborn of the streets and the woman of the court. I had to acknowledge that the new person I'm becoming is a valid extension of who I am. But for you, it's opposite! You have to realise that who you were is still a valid part of you.” (p. 293)
When they aren't improbably parroting self-help books (in all seriousness, who talks like that outside a therapy session?), characters devote most of the rest of their reflections and dialogue to the plot: what has happened, what is to come, what might be done, what it all means. Rather too many of the characters—quirky types like louche, sardonic Breeze aside—are essentially indistinguishable in such exchanges, sublimated to the demands of plot and heavily-signposted theme (power corrupts, etc.). It is not, unfortunately, a recipe for characters I “root for and care about”.
All of these things—the tediously exhaustive exposition, the limp characterisation, the stagy discussions, the plot twists blown—undercut the pacing of the story at every turn. It is a long book, undoubtedly, but its main problem is that it moves in fits and starts. Aside from a secondary story about a revolutionary movement descending into dictatorship in the city of Urteau—which centres on an interesting character and plays much more elegantly with the book's themes than the main narrative does—there is little spark elsewhere to maintain the reader's interest when the plot isn't going forward. The ending is audacious, and impressive: while all-powerful superbeings not infrequently meddle in fantasy plotlines, it is rare to find one in which, unbeknownst to the characters, virtually everything since the start of book one has been directed by two warring gods. The problem (my problem) is twofold: I find deterministic conspiracies in which no-one has any responsibility for their actions somewhat lacking in drama; and by the time I got there, my capacity for proper awe at such a revelation had been rather numbed by the previously mentioned exposition, lack of pace, etc.
It is a shame, because the ever-tightening noose of the world's ending is well drawn and compelling; between killer mists and a continual rain of ash, this is a land that will not support life for much longer:
Everything was black—the hills, the road, the entire countryside. Trees drooped with the weight of ash on their leaves and branches. Most of the ground foliage was likely dead—bringing even two horses with them on the trip to Lekal City had been difficult, for there was nothing for them to graze on. The soldiers had been forced to carry feed. (pp. 85-6)
I was looking forward to reading Sanderson, to get a sense of what he will do with the last three Wheel of Time books. For better or for worse, he should be right at home in such an intricately plotted series, but on the evidence of Hero of Ages whether he can give the behemoth some much-needed forward momentum is doubtful.
Juliet Marillier's Heir to Sevenwaters is not, at first glance, an obvious example of a book in the spirit of David Gemmell. Its narrator is a quick-witted, spirited, but essentially dutiful young woman, Clodagh, whose life is encompassed by the domestic sphere and who has no burning desire to abandon her responsibilities in favour of adventure. She is the eldest unmarried daughter of a chieftain, and her job is to run the household while her mother is pregnant. For the first hundred pages or so, the novel reads like a reworking of Pride and Prejudice in early medieval Ireland, complete with an infuriatingly rude (but secretly misunderstood and emo) male stranger to the neighbourhood, Cathal, who looks unlikely to resist our heroine's sharp-tongued charms for long—for all her exasperation with him:
Cathal was leaning against the wall not far away, regarding the singers with his customary expression of boredom. Wretched man! It was obvious he cared nothing at all about the peril he'd put Ellis and Coll in earlier. (p. 42)
This colours the dialogue, too, which keeps forgetting it isn't in nineteenth-century England:
“Please ignore my friend,” he added, turning toward me. “I keep trying to train him in the social niceties but thus far he's failed to grasp them.”
“We're warriors, not courtiers.” Cathal spoke with studied weariness. “One doesn't need social niceties on the battlefield.”
“You're not on the battlefield, you're a guest in the home of a respected chieftain,” I snapped, unable to control my annoyance. (p. 7)
A great many medieval Irish warriors spoke just like that, I'm sure. (The first speaker here is the Wickham-esque false-start love interest, who seems lovely—and, indeed, is—but hides an unappealing secret.)
In the early stages there are some clumsy infodumps (“a bonfire had been lit at a safe distance from the house. We were wary of fire at Sevenwaters, for it was only four years since the hideous accident that had scarred Maeve for life. But we had learned to deal with this, since fire formed an essential part of major celebrations such as weddings and seasonal rituals” [p. 26]), but for the most part Marillier is secure in her world, and in letting readers be drawn into it through her characters' experiences and assumptions rather than through what they outright tell us about it. We have time to become acquainted with the communal lifestyle of a chieftain's holdings, particularly from the women's point of view: unending domestic labour, long-term hospitality, little privacy, the pall of worry cast over the whole household by the mother's late-in-life pregnancy, and the conflicted loyalties and more or less permanent separation from their birth family experienced by women when they marry.
Despite all this, Marillier's fantasy Ireland is fluffy and brimming with anachronistic attitudes. Her characters live the relatively prosperous lives of the social and political elite, even outcast Cathal; the central family is happy and harmonious; and all the humans are basically good-natured, tolerant, and well-meaning. When Clodagh ventures into the wildwood, it is not a realm of Robert Holdstock-style brutal earthiness; instead, everything is described through comfortingly human similes. Cathal can be dismissive of Clodagh's agency—at one stage, he declares of their potential relationship, “I can't allow it to happen,” “[y]ou'll be grateful to me, believe it,” and concludes with this splendidly patronising comment:
I tried very hard to conceal how close I was to tears. “Pass me that salve, I'll tend to my cuts myself.”
“I'll do it,” Cathal said. “It'll be an exercise in self-restraint.” (p. 246)
Yet it is never in doubt that this is both a reflection of Cathal's Terrible Pain—he is afraid of replicating his own, Fae father's callous abandonment of his mother, and thus decides to sacrifice any chance of his own happiness because he's just that noble (and, as previously mentioned, emo)—and something he will learn to work through before the end of the novel. Inequality is not a fact of cultural life, here, and social power is never abused, even unwittingly, by anyone who isn't obviously evil.
Too nice it may be, but Heir to Sevenwaters works on its own uncomplicated terms and is much easier to become absorbed in than a book like Sanderson's, which may be rich in intricate alien details but at times feels more like mastering a D&D manual than reading a story. Instead, the problem, at least for this reader, is its author's priorities: Heir to Sevenwaters is, first and foremost, a romance. I have no problem with romance as an ingredient in a story—as my recent review of Kristin Cashore's Fire on this site will attest—but when it is the entire shaping force of a novel my interest quickly wanes, and thus the notes I took while reading contain the word "vomit" more than once. Clodagh's comment that “I ordered myself not to look back, lest those melting brown eyes make me act against my better judgement” (p. 54) made my own eyes roll, as did observations like this:
As my gaze fell on Cathal my heart missed a beat. Stark and plain on that narrow, guarded face I saw the wretched aloneness of the wolf boy. I saw his recognition that he would always be outside, other, never quite a part of the community on whose fringes he dwelt. I saw that it hurt beyond any pain. (p. 85)
Luckily for a cynical reader like me, while the romance is both form and goal of the book, the trials and tribulations that Marillier puts her star-crossed lovers through before the inevitable happily-ever-after involve travelling to the realm of the Fair Folk, rather than simply mooning over each other at home. They go there to rescue Clodagh's newborn brother, who has been kidnapped and replaced with a changeling, which only she and Cathal (of course) can see:
The sound began once more, a plaintive, scratchy crying like a mockery of a baby's voice. And the sticks and stones were . . . They were . . . My gorge rose. I made myself go on looking, and saw mossy lids open over pebble eyes, a little mouth shaped from twigs stretching to reveal brown, barky gums, a pair of hands with skinny sticks for fingers reaching up toward me as if begging for the comfort of my embrace. The thing was crying; it was hungry. (p. 115)
It's a wonderful piece of writing, both for the evocative, creepy description of the hungry creature, and for the way its utterly unexpected appearance punctures the cosiness of the story up to that point. Since this isn't, at heart, a creepy story, the changeling is soon humanised by Clodagh's growing affection for it (she names him Becan and works out how to feed him), and the book never reaches such a frisson-filled height again.
As in Marillier's most recent novel, Heart's Blood (2009), which I reviewed elsewhere, the plot outstays its welcome by a good seventy pages, mostly because the characters' selective stupidity enables things to be strung out. (“They could have helped a lot more,” Clodagh thinks of some of her fae allies, “if they had given me better information from the start” [p. 300], blithely ignoring the fact that she might have got said information had she asked the obvious questions.) Also like Heart's Blood, the ending is a triumph of understated characterisation, with an emotional payoff judged perfectly to the people and their story (and I don't mean the romance). For all my impatience with the book, I found myself moved, and exhilarated, by Clodagh's vow “to prove that a human woman could be a hero. Never mind that I was neither druid nor mage nor warrior” (pp. 286-7), in order to save Cathal from his powerful father. Now there's the spirit of David Gemmell: the heroism of ordinary people, willingly facing overwhelming odds.
If Heir to Sevenwaters is, for want of a better word, stereotypically "girly," Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows could not be more of an adolescent boy's fantasy: gore-soaked, faintly titillating, full of preposterously flashy stunts, and in its own way as incurably sentimental as Marillier's offering. It resembles nothing so much as a Dickens tale run through the mill of Michael Bay.
It starts well, in fact, with a faintly claustrophobic description of our young protagonist, street urchin Azoth, carefully making his way to a suitable spot for pickpocketing:
He slithered to the unfinished pine beam he had gotten stuck under last time and shovelled mud away until water filled the depression. The gap was still so narrow that he had to turn his head sideways to squeeze underneath it. Holding his breath and pushing his face into the slimy water, he began the slow crawl. (p. 2)
But very quickly, Azoth's hardships go from the simply harsh (merchants who beat the thieves they catch: “The trick was picking the ones who'd smack you so you didn't try their booth next time; there were others who'd beat you so badly you never had a next time” [p. 3]), to cartoonish grimness. Azoth's Fagin is Rat, a ghoulish young man who not only uses the violence of his thugs to extort money from his underlings, but also sexually abuses Azoth's friends in an effort to crush Azoth's spirit, chuckling evilly all the while. Another, later, villain is given to declarations like, “Take him to the Maw and give him to the sodomites” (p. 519); “[h]ere was a man,” we're told of him, “who hated all that was lovely” (p. 599). And here is a novel so overblown that it's terribly difficult to take seriously.
Azoth seizes upon a chance encounter with a "wetboy"—an elite assassin named Durzo Blint—to find a way out of life on the street. He badgers Blint until the latter agrees to take him on as an apprentice murderer. The break with the past goes further; for (plot) reasons of his own, Blint also teaches Azoth how to pass himself off as an impoverished nobleman under the new name of Kylar. It's a hard life, but better than the alternative (for Azoth, if not for his victims, or “deaders”):
Azoth's training was brutally hard, but it wasn't brutal. In the guilds, a Fist might beat you to make a point and make a mistake that left you permanently maimed. Master Blint never made mistakes. Azoth hurt exactly as much as Blint wanted him to. Usually, that was a lot.
But so what? Azoth had two meals a day. He could eat as much as he wanted, and Blint worked the soreness out of his muscles every day when they trained. (p. 116)
There are questions lurking, in this section and throughout the book, about means and ends, abused turning abuser, and lives with no good choices in them; about losing sight of which is the lesser of two evils. Some of these are raised in an exchange between Kylar and his childhood friend Jarl (who graduated from being abused as a guild rat to being a prostitute, and—a tired and pernicious trope raises its head—is now gay), which concludes with these terse lines:
“How do you kill people and keep your soul intact, Kylar?” He gave the name a little twist.
“How do you keep your soul intact and whore?”
“Me neither,” Kylar said. (p. 264)
But for the most part they get lost under a constant stream of breathless brawls, tough talk, and larger-than-life, cooler-than-thou set pieces:
It wasn't until Kylar was flying through the air that he realized just exactly how far down it was to the river. He had no excuse, really. He'd been dangling out of this very window, looking at this view, not five minutes ago. (p. 548)
There is no doubt that Azoth/Kylar and Blint are both vivid characters. Weeks is rather better at conjuring distinctive personalities through action than, say, Sanderson is, although Weeks hits some false notes in the point-of-view narration: is the younger Azoth really someone who would know much about architecture, still less reflect on it after a confrontation with Rat? Would he, even grown up into Kylar, observe that a good meal was “completely bypassing higher cognitive functions” (p. 171)?
But on the whole the reader is allowed to develop a pleasingly clear idea of who these people—and much of the supporting cast—are, if not necessarily, of course, what their motives are at any given point in the plot. It helps that they're types we've seen many times before. Kylar is skilled, self-centred (on which more below), and none too bright, but a part of him remains scared, loyal, and brave young Azoth, and naturally the inchoate morality of one causes conflict with the ambition of the other. Blint wins fights through the sheer force of his awesomeness and attracts lines like “The night held no terrors for him. The shadows welcomed his eyes” (p. 22); yet he is also weary, jaded, and harbouring secret Terrible Pain (there it is again) about a woman in his past. Character development tends to get summarised rather than shown, to make room for yet more plot, but at least it's there.
The character types are rather more distasteful—and limited—when it comes to the women. The fact that Weeks’s book contains female characters, plural, may seem something to celebrate—Sanderson's only has one—but the abundance is deceptive. Weeks’s ladies fall into two groups. On the one hand, there are the ageing harridans. These tend to be plastered with makeup—the removal of which is a signal of self-loathing breaking free, as when Kylar finds influential Momma K with half her face “free of cosmetics for the first time [he] had ever seen,” all her mirrors smashed, and when she speaks she calls herself a “sideshow freak” [p. 302]—and given to making advances towards younger men. Said younger men, inevitably, may be initially receptive to the offered sex, but are eventually appalled that the harridans' decrepit bodies continue to have appetites. One young man, as he plans how to jettison his older lover, feels only contempt for her sexuality (“With what she must have imagined was a seductive look, she shrugged her shoulders and the front of her dress fell open” [p. 340]); and when she stabs him out of the blue for plot reasons, he dies being angry that “this fat-assed old woman with saggy, uneven breasts was killing him” (p. 341). These women are evil, or at any rate plotting against the good guys because they're easily manipulated and/or angry at not being hot enough to attract the men anymore.
On the other hand, there are the beautiful, delicate, angelic girls (with one exception, they're all young), who reside on pedestals as targets for the admiration, motivation, or angsty regret of the male characters, and as symbols for their enemies to threaten with rape at regular intervals. As a rule, members of this group are also silent, lost and/or dead, so they can't do something inconvenient like have a life of their own.
Chief among this group is Azoth/Kylar's love interest, Elene, or—as she's known for the first part of the novel, on account of being pretty and never saying anything—Doll Girl. (Oh, I wish I were joking.) Doll Girl is a street kid whom Azoth looks after, until she becomes a target for his angry guild-head, who mutilates her face in order to make a point to Azoth. Azoth then spends his years of wetboy training pining for memory of her damaged innocence, only to find one day—in a gushing outpouring of sentimentality and objectification that would make a Mills & Boon reader blush—that she is alive, and even prettier:
She was a beautiful woman, maybe seventeen, with an hourglass figure that even through a servant's woollens obviously would have been the envy of any of Momma K's rent girls. (p. 308)
Not only is Elene stunning (yes, more so than any prostitute!), she's a saint; when Azoth first sees her, she is handing out food to beggars, and is “adored” (p. 309) by all who know her. She also forgives Azoth—now Kylar—at every opportunity, or at least until the plot requires her not to, for maximum hero angst. To give Weeks some credit, when Kylar speaks to her, Elene makes a (gentle) effort to puncture his conviction that what happened to her was All About Him: “Every scar on your face is my fault,” he whines. “Gods, look at you! You would have been the most beautiful woman in the city!” (p. 313). She points out that being forced into prostitution might not have been much fun either, adding, “If this is the worst ugliness in my life, Azoth, I think I'm pretty lucky” (pp. 313-4). The plot, though, soon undermines any suggestion that she is a person, rather than an idealised talisman for the hero.
The other star in this dubious firmament is the princess Jenine, who gets to spend most of the book being giggly and curvaceous in the background, seen but barely heard, before coming centre stage for a whirlwind couple of chapters in which she gets married, confesses to having brains (“Do you know what it's like to have to use small words and pretend not to understand things so you don't get a bad reputation?” [p. 490]), then has her throat cut by bad guys who burst into the bridal suite and freeze her in place with magic just when she's got her nightdress hiked up around her waist. She doesn't actually die; one of said bad guys spirits her away because he recognises that a still virginal princess is a useful tool with which to torment the heroes in future volumes, i.e., the perfect addition to the uber bad guy's harem (“Fiery, intelligent, and best of all a widowed, virgin bride [ . . . ] Jenine Gyre was a prize indeed” [p. 594]). But she gets a magnificently sexualised almost-death scene all the same, complete with references to her “nubile body” (p. 515). Better yet, when Kylar shows up in the next chapter, his sole reaction to her death is to speculate about all the nasty things that are being done to her (and, of course, feel sorry for himself because it's All His Fault):
A torn nightgown lay on the floor. The princess, young and beautiful as she was, was probably in a room somewhere being raped until she died of it.
[ . . . ]
Sinking to the floor, Kylar wept. “Logan, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. It's all my fault.” (pp. 521-2)
He only stops thinking about Jenine being raped (four mentions in three pages, fact fans) when Blint distracts him into a manly argument.
It goes on: a parade of bad tropes done badly. Still, the plot is reasonably entertaining tosh—luckily, since there's so much of it—and when I wasn't snorting with laughter at Kylar's “palpable aura of danger and [ . . . ] primal masculinity” (p. 274), the pages raced by. Plus, whenever things seem to be slowing down, you can be safe in the knowledge that a couple of mysterious magical types will be along in a moment to deus ex machina a hero out of danger, or the very least mutter portentous plot hints. All in all, it entirely misses what continues to make David Gemmell so readable: spectacle always comes second to humanity.
[Read the second part of this review here]
Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, U.K., where she lectures on medieval Islamic history, and continues her project to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She also reviews for SFX and Vector, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.