Wednesday, 4 September 2019

War For The Oaks by Emma Bull

You know, posing review questions is a great outlet for us subconscious voices. So - War for the Oaks - give it the sell!

Eddi McCandry is a talented but down-on-her-luck rock n'roll musician until the Seelie Fey kinda kidnap her and tell her they need her help in a war with the Unseelie for Minneapolis. It's say Yes or the Unseelie start with her. Eddi's left with the infuriating and shape-shifting Phouka, a long list of questions, a serious case of nerves - and a new band to form.

That sounds like...

A lot of things? Yes. War for the Oaks was one of the founding stones of the Urban Fantasy genre and now, thirty plus years down the line, is made to look just a little cliche by its legion of spiritual offspring. Gotta say, I wonder if Emma Bull ever feels a tad peeved about that, or just proud of her work's influence. As someone with an appreciation for the genre's history, I was excited to read this. But even as someone who doesn't read all that much Urban Fantasy and doesn't get that annoyed by cliche and trope, this did evoke some deja vu at times. It doesn't help that my introduction to Urban Fantasy as a kid was Mercedes Lackey's Bedlam's Bard series, which fishes in very similar waters.

Got it. Urban Fantasy like Urban Fantasy's mama made it. What's it actually like though?

It's fun. Bull's two greatest strengths as an author here are witty banter and evocative descriptions (particularly of the uncanny) and you can build most of a fun story on those alone. My mind's eye saw and heard what Bull wanted it to see and hear and I smiled at the right times. Not that its non-stop wisecracking all the way; there's plenty of fear and nerves in the characters reaction when there should be. It's a story about a small group of people having a crazy adventure, half-laughing at it and half-WTFing at it, and the plot rattles along intriguingly enough. War For The Oaks is in the just straight up entertainment category.

Just how entertaining is it really?

I'd put it down as good but not great. Nothing about it had that "Holy Shit" impact for me - no damp eyed moments, no crowning moments of glory, no really good insults - nothing I'd rave about to my friends. For the most part that's an after the fact thought but occasionally the desire to see some real fireworks occurred while reading. Its hard to give too many details on that without a mahossive spoiler, so I'll simply say that when one early plot point is reintroduced right at the very end, I'm very underwhelmed at what's meant to be a big climax.

And part of that's because that plot point went unmentioned for most of the book. On a similar level, I can't think of a time when Eddi did this really clever thing, or made a really hard choice, or even just a choice that built a high level of dramatic resonance for later choices. Indeed, most of that comes from her bodyguard/sidekick, Phouka, who is unsurprisingly the most interesting and memorable character. But even his motivations feel a little underfleshed, and underfleshed is basically the best way I can think of to describe War For The Oaks' drama. It's still an enjoyable book, just not quite fulfilling its potential for me.

Did you turn to the back at any point?

Three-quarters through when it was too late to finish in one sitting, but too near the end for me to go to sleep without knowing.

Any Other Points of Interest?

Not really. If you love 80s rock, you'll love all the references. I guess from the point of view for anyone looking at representation, there's one black guy and Phouka is described as dark skinned (and also described with a N-bomb by one charming fellow). There's a fair amount of romance. Lots of female characters - although that's kinda the Urban Fantasy standard, isn't it? That's the thing with War For The Oaks. Its a very ronseal book these days (does exactly what it says on the tin). I wish I'd read this back when it was published but, well, I was struggling with not shitting myself and walking then, nevermind reading.

This is at least a straight forwards book to recommend. Interested in Urban Fantasy, Light-Hearted Adventures, and the Fantasy Genre's History? Step this way. Not? Probably not. War For The Oaks probably won't transcend genre lines for anyone. Not anymore. And I feel a sadness now that I've typed that for that's the cruel march of time in a nutshell. But so be it. This is still a good example of its genre.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

For the Actual Greater Good - Five Surrenders of Power

Outside my window, the sun shines and the world I've always known continues to disintegrate. The balance of power that helps protect our liberty is under is under assault and ordinary people stare at it and shrug. Hell, the fact I'm not out there shouting about it right now feels like a shrug. 

To me, power is one of the great themes of fantasy. But in most fantasies, it's about the price of having it. Very few books seem to talk about the necessity of sometimes surrendering it; of knowing that sometimes it is better to let the boat float the wrong way than stop it floating altogether. So while the manaics seek to put holes in the boat, I thought of five moments in fantasy books where people weren't like that.

Needless to say, this article is spoiler-tastic

1) Galadriel turns down the ring in Fellowship of the Ring

It sometimes feels like Galadriel's role in LotR takes on an importance out of proportion with how much time she gets. Part of that is from people who've read the Silmarillion and know how great an epic solely about her would be. Part of it is because she's one of the very few women there. But part of it is because her brief appearance was, well, incredibly important. One of the themes that beats through LotR is all about sacrifice, denial, wisdom, and knowing that some things aren't worth their price. 

And when Frodo offers the ring to her, it is one of the most important statements of that moment. Galadriel has laid out the bleak choices facing the elves should Sauron conquer; to destroy the land they've loved and works they've made, something they will sorrow over forever as they dwindle away, or see them in the hands of their corrupting enemy. The One Ring will allow Galadriel to avoid that fate. She doesn't hide that she does indeed want the ring for that purpose, and to be the Dark Queen instead of the Dark Lord. But she knows that would be wrong, that the power in her hands would stop her being her.

Better to stay Galadriel and diminish. Better to say no.

4) The Dragonriders of Pern end Thread in All the Weyrs of Pern

The Dragon Riders of Pern have the sweetest deal on the planet in Anne McCaffrey's Sci-Fantasy series. They're the only true protection society has against the menace of Thread and as such, their pre-eminence is as secure as any feudal lord as long as people believe in the menace (it only appears every two to four hundred years after all). Then they discover a way to end Thread altogether. In doing so, they will destroy their own position.

Yet they do it. It is their duty after all. And once they have done it, they do not seek to hold onto positions of authority they no longer merit, but instead find a new purpose and use for the telepathic time travelling giant fire breathing dragons they have. One that isn't "Goodness, what an attractive daughter you have working in that field of wheat. Isn't it a shame that they're out here where they might accidentally get set on fire rather than nice and safe in my Weyr?"

Because they're not bellends.

3) Elspeth renounces her claim to the throne in Winds of Fury

The Princess Elspeth has a long history in Mercedes Lackey's books before we get to the Mage Winds trilogy in which she takes centre stage. We see her parents' tumultous relationship and her father's treachery in Exile's Honour. The Arrows of the Queen series shows us an entitled little brat who needs a good friend. By the Mage Winds trilogy, most (but not all) of the entitlement has been knocked out of her and the series takes care of most of what's left (but again, not all).

As such, when she removes herself from the succession, its not entirely surprising. Nor is it entirely unselfish either. But it is built around a willingness to relinquish something she spent all her life wanting and a sincere conviction that, as someone tainted by treachery and as the country's only mage (i.e. best living weapon), she would serve her country better if she's never Queen. So that's what she does - putting her country first.

2) The Clan Chiefs surrender their staffs to the Emperor in Servant of the Empire

The Empire trilogy has always been one of my favourite political fantasies for sheer enjoyment factor. Part of that's getting to cheer on our heroine Mara as she takes on the weight of an often cruel and uncaring society. Gotta love a good underdog. Yet here, while Mara is the architect, she is not the one surrendering her power. It is the most powerful men in the Empire of Tsurani.

And in doing so, they are giving their power to a previously ceremonial role and giving up centuries of tradition - but all to prevent a war and to prevent a maniac. I guess the gloomy thing is that in the book, it doesn't work because the enemy is still a maniac and still has an army. You'll have to read the book to find out how they survive that (spoiler: may be underwhelming now). But that's what you toss aside tradition for. To protect people. Not to punish them.

1) Sam Vimes arrests Lord Vetinari in Jingo

If you are anything like me, you'll have expected this moment to be mentioned just from reading the first paragraph. The whole book would qualify. I sometimes feel like its the single most relevant fantasy book in the world at the moment and I'm shocked that I don't appear to have done a full review of it as I could have sworn I have. But. Well. After an epic adventure full of misadvised patriotism, casual bigotry, and cunning manipulation of the aforesaid, Sam Vimes gets an order from people he doesn't like to do the unthinkable: arrest Lord Vetinari. And much as he argues against it, his ears catch up with what he's saying and realise he has to. There can't be a "but not him". And Vetinari insists on being arrested.

Of course, Vetinari being Vetinari, it works out for him. Vetinari against Lord Rust is only a fair battle of wits if he had a headbutting contest with a truck beforehand. But both men realise that the law has to come before their own power (something even Rust just about manages). It's easy to uphold it against people you don't like. It's harder to do it on behalf of people you detest. But you have to do it, or we might as well all pack our bags up and head back to the politics of the warlord.

Which is of course what so many seem to want. But that is a mistake. As in art, so in life - sometimes the only sane thing is to accept that your power can only run so far. But the world's rather short of sanity right now.

What Writers Are

Bits and parts of this post have been bubbling up for a while, driven by by this twitter comment and that article, some of them talking about what writers should be and some questioning what writers do. A few of those comments are exasperating, a lot have me sympathising with people, and one has been straight up nonsense of a rather dangerous sort. I don't want to give any more publicity to that particular tweet than has already been given, but I do want to vent about this all.

As far as I'm concerned, a writer is simply someone who sees things that they want to write about, then goes and does it. That's all. No education, no particular background needed. Just being interested and following through.

Now, very few people want to be just a writer. Most of us want to be good writers. We want to be known, enjoyed and admired. That's what all of the advice is about. This might be pedantic, but we know how to be writers. Its being good writers we worry about. That's why we worry about where we come from, what we know, what people want, how much we have to work, and so on and on. Now, I may not be a good writer myself yet, but I feel like I do know a bit about what makes one.

The answer to that is that what makes each writer good (personally and all that) starts with the whole see things and write about them idea. It's basically seeing things well and writing about them well. Now, yes, that is a somewhat glib answer, but I think its sensible to start with the actual answer, no matter how simple it may be or how many other questions it might demand.

In this case it does prompt a "Well, how do you those things well?". And that's part natural gift and a huge amount more parts practice. And also maybe a "What things? Where do they come from?" And the answer to that is unique to each writer.

Tolkien was a professor who leaned heavily on his academic learning and interests. David Gemmell was expelled from school and leaned on his formative upbringing in a rough area. Their approaches there are opposite ends of the spectrum and both are among the titans of the fantasy genre. Nor did their different backgrounds stop them from having influences in common, such as their faith and interest in the Anglo-Saxons. And a look around the pantheon's greats reveals no end of different backgrounds, professions, philosophies and influences. Those differences grow ever greater - I can point you to fantasies inspired by everything from Dragon Age to modern corporate structure - yet are all linked together by a set of common reference points.

As for how we write, when we write - there's the same variety. Some swear by writing every day. Some don't. Some carve out a time for a writing state of mind even when in situations most find intensely stressful; some can't and let it rest and have a fallow period; I think a few authors seem to actively thrive on that. None of those things are superior to one another as long as we end up happy and proud of our work. 

Now, yes, some things do seem to be advantageous. I imagine a survey of every fantasy author ever would find that a disproportionate number of them have professional careers that involve some form of writing. I'd also imagine that most of writers can, if not possessed in some formal education in writing, point to people and books that helped provide that education and knowing good people is a big advantage. And that's without touching on the huge and depressing topic of how race, gender, and socio-economic circumstances will affect the opportunities and advice people are given. I would be insulting people's intelligence and experience if I claimed otherwise.

Also, yes, a writer's work ethic will be pretty central to their success. It guarantees little but without it, writers don't even usually get a lottery ticket. Rejecting the mentally macho advice promoting self-immolation in the name of writing is only sane; nobody should go too far the other direction. Not that I've seen anyone do so.

But these are not "things I must be" or "things I must do". They're routes. Imagine a TV show where they took a bunch of novice climbers and started training them for Everest, one mountain at a time, assigning routes up each mountain at random - would you judge which climbers would actually make Everest based on how easy or hard their first random route is? I hope not. When it comes to being a good writer, degrees and life circumstances are only the first mountain, if that.

I really hope that anyone reading this far is going "Well, duh". Or didn't even bother. That this article is me venting about a few odd comments and is pointless. That would mean life is as it should be. But I rather suspect it isn't for too many. And while I doubt they'll see this article and get the boost I hope they would, it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

Writing a full book is difficult enough without building up the demons of doubt and prescription. And writing itself is simple (if not always easy), and writing well is about doing a simple thing well.

And anybody trying to do tell you otherwise is probably wrong.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

Hmm. Let me guess. The draw to this book is that there's a golem and a djinni, right?

That's a part of why I picked it up. Chava is a golem who's left without a master in 19th century New York; Ahmad's a djinni released by accident from his lamp. I did really like the idea of getting to see those pieces of folklore get some quality page time.

Did?

I did enjoy that. But it wasn't the best part of the book. The best part of The Golem and the Djinni was the detailed, wondrous depiction of historic New York; the fascinating cast of side characters, all vibrant and alive; and the relationship between two very different people who just happen to be supernatural creatures. In short, it was just the way Helen Wecker writes. She filled this book with little details of the best sort and in doing so made reading it an absolute joy.

That I place the fantasy elements second isn't much of a criticism at all, although I must admit there's a hint of one. The fantasy covered this story like sugar on a donut, but I found myself wishing there'd been some filling as well. Ultimately, I found Chava and Ahmad a little too de-mythologised (I hope that's actually a word of some time). The sense of the fantastic found in some of the other characters, the humans who brush up against them are and permanently marked, was exactly what I wanted but there wasn't enough of it. That's a matter of purely subjective taste though. Wecker being a fine writer and a meticulous observer is far less so.

And did you turn to the back at any point?

Yes. Exactly halfway through. The middle of the book is very heavy on the contemplation and slow step-by-step showing of connection made between Chava and Ahmad. There was a point where I wondered whether the resolution would be worth it, or whether I should simply say "Awesome scene writer, read until I got bored, enjoyed everything up until that".

I'm very glad I did stick with it though. The ending is grandiose, tense, creepy and contains all the fantasy I'd been desiring. It also seemed to do a very neat job of bringing together some of the themes about freedom and power dynamics together. Speaking of the theme

Can I stop you? This is almost a concise review, you know.

Speaking of the theme, the whole thing about freedom is a very, very obvious one given the folklore behind golems and djinnis. Wecker doesn't just tell it through Chava and Ahmad though, but also through her supporting cast, particularly Anna. And she does so quietly but clearly, in ways that always feel like natural choices for the characters. The Golem and the Djinni would make a good book for teenagers to study in that respect.

Summary time please

This is not a perfect book. Some of my complaints are made of the purest type of picky; but when it comes to things like the pacing I know I'm not alone. It is a very good example of its type though. It is lucid, gently funny, warm, yet poignant and sharp when needful. It will delight people who love detailed depictions of historic cultures and close character study, and probably persuade a few that they love that sort of thing when they didn't know it. 

There is a scene where Ahmad produces a piece of art that takes people a while to figure out, but stuns them when they realise what and how detailed and alive it is. What Ahmad did with his art, Helene Wecker has done with this book. I look forwards to many more.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

The Futures Women Spin: Interviews with the Distaff Authors part 3

The Distaff anthology had its formal launch last night, so now seems like a good time to post up the last set of interviews. Thanks again to the authors - I've enjoyed reading their answers almost as much as reading their stories.

First up is Rosie Oliver, author of many a short story and editor/publisher of SFerics 2017anthology - and one of Distaff's editors too

1) This anthology came about from you all being members of the SFFChronicles forums. What brought you to the community and what does being part of it mean to you?

RO: Its welcoming friendliness for all things science fictional! I can let my geeky hair down without having to apologise and do truly experimental science fiction without being ridiculed for being outlandish (who else would write stories from a robo-cat’s point of view?).

2) Of course, Distaff isn't just about Chrons, its about celebrating the many female writers who are part of it. When people talking about "Women in SFF", what do you think of?

RO: Sadly, the lack of female science fiction writers. At the sciency end of science fiction, it seems publishers get about one in five submissions from ladies. At the fantasy end, it is more like one in three. The reasons for this are complex and interwoven, and extend to other science-based areas of life.

This is why I was so happy to see Distaff grow out of a few comments posted on SFFChronicles – it goes a little way to help redress the balance.

3) Onto the stories! Where did the idea for your particular contribution come from?

RO: Which idea are we talking about there? I have quite a few in my contribution.

I suppose it’s fair to say my story grew out of my fascination of the Ice Hotel in the Swedish village of JukkasjÀrvi. What could I do with the ice? Could I make a few tweaks out of it to solve problems? What are the incidental consequences? By the time I started typing, I was in avalanche of ideas from which to pick out a suitable story line.

4) Finally a question just for funsies - if you could be any female character in SFF, befriend any female character in SFF, and get to bring righteous retribution of your choice for any female character in SFF, which three would you pick?

RO: Being a science fiction author I have the wonderful luxury of writing about lady characters I would like to be! Of my published ladies, Nikita, a female robo-cat with taser whiskers! My favourite, as yet unpublished, lady is Paola Osmanski, a Service space pilot with some unusual attributes that I haven’t read about anywhere else in the genre. If I have to go for a lady written by another author, I would pick Rowan by Anne McCaffrey. She has some real backbone in her character!

Female characters I would like to be friends with? Private Investigator Alma in Adam Roberts’ duology, Real Town Murders and By the Pricking of her Thumb. I wouldn’t want her hellish lifestyle, but would certainly enjoy joining her on her bizarre investigations – fits in with my warped sense of humour.

As to which women I would like to act as their Nemesis? Any woman who is in the story just to give a male protagonist some kudos! Such wimps! They annoy me intensely. Real women are not like that at all!

Rosie's not one for fence sitting! And hurrah for more Anne McCaffrey love. If you want to find out more about Rosie's writing, or ways to contact her and convince her to turn her story into a series, visit here website here

Now for EJ Tett, author of Otherworld, Shuttered, and more books than I can conveniently mention right now

1) This anthology came about from you all being members of the SFFChronicles forums. What brought you to the community and what does being part of it mean to you?

ET: Well, I joined the forum in 2006 and I can't remember that far back to know what brought me there! I love being part of the community though, the members are great - really knowledgeable and helpful. I've met several members in person, and made really good, close friends with people who I've never met at all (although we plan on meeting up at some point).

2) Of course, Distaff isn't just about Chrons, its about celebrating the many female writers who are part of it. When people talking about "Women in SFF", what do you think of?


ET: To be honest, there's so few 'women in SFF' that I struggle to think of anything. I guess I think there needs to be more women in SFF!

3) Onto the stories! Where did the idea for your particular contribution come from?
ET: I had a short story published in Mischief Corner Books online magazine. That story was called 'Athanasia' and was about a spaceship janitor called Silver who discovered that the spaceship she cleaned toilets on was actually alive and in love with her. 'Holo-Sweet' is a really a follow-on story to that, though it stands on its own.

4) Finally a question just for funsies - if you could be any female character in SFF, befriend any female character in SFF, and get to bring righteous retribution of your choice for any female character in SFF, which three would you pick?

ET: If I can be any character it would be Aeryn Sun from Farscape because she's complex and badass. She's one of my all time favourite characters in anything ever, let alone a favourite female character, or favourite sff character. If I could befriend anyone it would be Anya from Buffy the Vampire Slayer because she's hilarious and honest and an ex-demon. As for bringing righteous retribution, I don't think there's a female character I dislike enough!

Might have to try that Athanasia and see where Silver's story started. To find out more about EJ Tett's writing, visit her website here

And to close it all out, Jo Zebedee, author of the Abendau trilogy, Inish Carraig, and a few other bits and bobs


1) This anthology came about from you all being members of the SFFChronicles forums. What brought you to the community and what does being part of it mean to you?

JZ: I came here for the critiques! It was my first ever forum experience and I thought I’d stay for 30 posts, get told I was a writing genius, and go home. Eight years and nearly 17000 posts later I’m still here.

I like that I know most people here and that many of them are now friends. I also like that it’s less cliquey than many of the sff forums I drop in and out of and much much less of a bearpit.

2) Of course, Distaff isn't just about Chrons, its about celebrating the many female writers who are part of it. When people talking about "Women in SFF", what do you think of?

JZ: I think I shouldn’t be thinking anything - that it should be perfectly normal to have women in the genre. It’s a big genre - there’s room for all of us. In terms of writers I think of, people like Pat Cadigan are heroes to me, as well as Lois McMaster Bujold.

3) Onto the stories! Where did the idea for your particular contribution come from?

JZ: Well I normally don’t do well working to a brief but this time I actually managed a pure sci fi story as directed! I have two points of view in mine and it was the AIs view that came first and was almost mythological in its feel. Which led to be want to explore the myth behind it and to de-mythologise it. I’m convinced most of the myths we know involve people who were as boring as paint drying. Once I knitted both strands together it then changed the AIs story too, which is always fun when that happens.

4) Finally a question just for funsies - if you could be any female character in SFF, befriend any female character in SFF, and get to bring righteous retribution of your choice for any female character in SFF, which three would you pick?

JZ: Oooh, 1 and 3 might be the same answer! But no, let’s see...

I would be Servalan in Blake’s Seven (tempting to say Barbarella, actually). Maximum power! Who could resist?

I would befriend Cordelia Vorkosigan cos she is smart, funny and insightful. Although Max from the St Mary Chronicles also appeals. The chaos she causes would be huge fun to watch.

Retribution - for me it’s on one of my own characters: the Empress in Abendau. She hurt a lot of characters who I love. She ruined more than one. Yep. She’s the one.

I think technically Jo does kinda get retribution on the Empress. To find out more about Jo's work, visit her site here 

Friday, 23 August 2019

Five Friday Fantasy Thoughts

1) My twitter was pretty much non-stop Worldcon over the last week or so, which has introduced me to new and wonderful heights of FOMO. It also meant I saw a decent amount about Jeannette Ng's acceptance speech (and congratulations to her!). Now you can agree with it. You can disagree with it. But the one thing that I think any logical being should accept is that in any award named after a person with outspoken political views, having your own political views is fair game. And the amusing thing is that I - and probably a few others - wouldn't have seen about Campbell's political views if it wasn't for the pushback against Ng's speech. I wouldn't be utterly surprised if within a few years, the exposure they just got leads to a push to get the award renamed. Some things get stronger for being attacked; I think Ng's argument is one of them. If that helps lead the community further towards being a place where people can just do their thing and be themselves without censure, then that'd be a fine thing indeed.

2) Speaking of congratulations, congratulations to Edward Cox on the release of The Song of the Sycamore. I reviewed The Relic Guild here a little ago and really liked the world he created and admired the ideas he came up with. Having just read the blurb (yes, I know, behind), it looks like that was just him getting warmed up because the idea of a possessed corpse turned into a reluctant assassin is super intriguing. Incidentally, apropos of nothing, I now know why so many of my fellow fans complain of huge TBR piles.

3) While I'm busy admiring authors - the first bits and pieces about "How To Lose The Time War" seem to be dribbling out there. I remember being excited when I first heard about it, because it sounded mind-bending and Max Gladstone is probably in my top three for "living authors I trust most to nail whatever they do". Ventureadlaxre's review made me more excited. Then I found Amal El-Mohtar had decided to write a pastiche of Hamilton's Satisfied to fit one of the characters and well, uhm, it's like Ben Franklin with a key and a kite (you see it right?). 

And now I'm less excited and more considering just writing a five star review for it sight unseen. Pretty sure that'd kill my credibility as a reviewer but hey, can't lose what you never had.

4) Continuing with the music theme - I've spent the day pretty much non-stop listening to James' Getting Away With It (All Messed Up). I think the only time I wasn't listening to it was me and my wife's in bed Hamilton sing along actually. It's driving and melancholic and the double meaning of the lyrics in terms of that celebrating that mad chaotic lifestyle and giving thanks for the fact that we can find succour from it is just what my mind needs right now. I was looking up trivia about the song and realised there was a third meaning as well - it's a simple story about a guy who saves a girl and in doing so saves himself. For some reason, the double meaning of "Daniel's saving grace" never occurred to me. Yes, I know, I am a simpleton. But I love this sort of repetition and wordplay. Obviously it's a lot harder to get it into a long novel than it is a short song, but you can do something like it. I think the best example is Joe Hill's Horns, with its numerous references to cherry in all its various meanings and connotations. I'm sure if I thought harder I could think of other such uses of word repetition to build not just recognising characters, but a sense of theme.

5) Last but not least - I literally just saw that Breaking The Glass Slipper had posted up a list of 100 underrated SFF books by authors using female pronouns. I opened it up, confident I'd be around 10 or so... I had one. One. And that, The Poppy War, is arguably pretty darn highly rated right now. It'd be higher if there'd been stuff by Kerr and Kurtz and so on as I was expecting, but the fact there's not is pretty awesome as that means so many more books for me to look at. So if anyone's looking for something to read this weekend, and they haven't been tempted by all the other things mentioned - there's got to be something there you'll like.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Forgotten Classic Review: The Serpentwar Saga by Raymond E Feist

When most people talk about Feist, they talk about Magician. A BBC survey had it as one of people's 100 favourite books a few years back. People are still picking it up and trying it nearly forty years later because of its reputation. A lot of people bounce off its old fashioned approach - it's not in close third or first, it's got an idealistic tone, it's slow to get to the action. It also has a few first time author flaws to it too. But for those who don't get put off by those things, Magician is a monumentally epic and ambitious story with a heart the size of the Pacific. No wonder people still love it.

After Magician, a lot of the talk is about how Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon lacked the same oomph. I like both books a lot but I totally understand why people say it. Magician is a mad as hell gonzo trip that was virtually unique at its time and even now. The other two could be any fantasy book.

And I think that's why people don't really talk about the Serpentwar Saga, when maybe its the best thing Feist did.

Shadow of a Dark Queen, the first book in the saga, starts in familiar enough fashion. There's two young boys from humble beginnings in a tiny town. From there, things take a left turn and instead of a quest, or adventures with the elves, Erik and Roo find themselves in the army, training for a probably suicidal mission to infiltrate the horde of said dark queen. I don't want to give away too many spoilers so I shall speak in generalities here; the Serpentwar Saga does have it's share of big showy magic, but most of its about war, politics, trade and being human. It takes this series a bit closer to Parker and Kay than it does to Brooks and Eddings; it's almost like a less extreme Wheel of Time in places.

A big part of what makes it for me is the relationship and differences between Erik and Roo. Best friends and fellows in not belonging, their lives take radically different approaches after their enlistment. Erik finds a place he belongs and a feeling of responsibility, and climbs the military's ranks. Roo by contrast sticks with his dream of getting rich and leaves to become a merchant. And while Erik's genial company to read about a war with, Roo is a gem. A self-aggrandising, unscrupulous, greedy and short of empathy gem. Seeing his cunning is fun - and Rise of a Merchant Prince is one of the very few fantasy books I've seen to concentrate on a merchant - but watching him try to make sense of his life, trying to find a sense of belonging and very slowly growing up while blunder into life's traps? Golden. And he's just vulnerable and moral enough for it to work. There's so few characters like Roo, and twinning his narrative with that of the super solid, ever conscientious Erik gives it the right light needed.

As for the rest of it? It has a fun supporting cast. My particular applause goes to Duke James, the closest thing to Vetinari outside of Discworld, and his grandsons James and Dashell, who sort of mirror the Erik-Roo contrast. It's rammed full of memorable scenes, particularly of the "ordinary person in the presence of superhuman prowess" and "moment of personal triumph/tragedy". They're not the absolute best I've ever read, but they more than satisfy. It casts a decent light on some of the forgotten in fantasy, its victims and everyday inhabitants; Helen Jacoby and Kitty are my favourite minor characters of that kind.

It is better written than the Riftwar too, and delves deeper into the characters' frustrations and hopes. I don't think this series is less idealistic than its predecessor, but it does admit that sometimes the idealists aren't and can't be where they need to be in terms of power. The nobles of the Riftwar Saga are, by and large, decent and reliable eggs. The nobles of the Serpentwar Saga aren't bad people, by and large, but they can't be trusted to put aside their egos and do what's needed. And the theme of responsibility vs ego is a fairly big one in here; it not only helps keep the disparate threads together, it adds a pleasing sense of tension and realism to the largely human concern based plot. And that's true of no one more than Roo.

After The Serpentwar Saga, Feist never really returned to this sort of story, going back to adventure plots, a focus on magicians other politics, and hugely gonzo world-hopping adventures. There's some good books there, but nothing I'd ever really recommend to somebody else. 

It's a shame. This and the Empire trilogy (which deserves a review of its own) showed that Feist could really pull off this sort of Epic Fantasy - probably better than he did quest fantasy. He doesn't stand at the absolute pinnacle of this art form, with Jordan and Martin and Kay, but he stands close. I feel like there's probably people out there who have a soft spot for this sort of fantasy but who haven't heard of the Serpentwar Sage. Hopefully this corrects that and brings a few of those people some extra pleasure.