Hidden Gems: James Branch Cabell

So, I’ve probably reached the end of the line (for the moment) with this Hidden Gems series. It’s been a fun ride, but there are only so many books out there that a) I’ve read and b) I think are underappreciated. No doubt I’ll update it as and when I unearth another one.

Before I go, however, I thought it worth mentioning James Branch Cabell. Never heard of him? Not really a surprise. Cabell was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, but wrote comic fantasies before fantasy was really a genre. As such, though apparently widely admired (and made notorious by trials and scandals), he’s been largely forgotten by a fantasy tradition to which he never really belonged.

Having read some of his work (of which there is a lot), I think this is a shame. Just because his fantasies are comedies, they are by no means fluff to be dismissed. Obviously, they aren’t going to satisfy a craving for Sword & Sorcery or Grimdarkness, and they aren’t Epic in the sense we’ve come to know. However, the characters do go on epic adventures through fantastic lands full of peril, strange creatures, gods, devils, and other recognisable trappings of the genre.1110887

However, whereas Terry Pratchett had a wealth of well-known tropes to spoof, Cabell mainly had the romantic legends to draw on – Arthurian, Ancient Greek, etc. From what have read, his books also have a deep melancholy at the core of the comedy. His flawed heroes crave adventure but are probably better off without it, their wanderlust never quite leading them where they wanted.

The heroes I’m talking about are Jurgen – the titular monstrously clever fellow of his most famous book – and Dom Manuel, the protagonist of the 25-volume “Biography” which Cabell spent 23 years writing (obviously, I haven’t read it all). Both feel quite similar due to Cabell’s voice, but of the two Jurgen seems more cheeky, Dom Manuel (at least, in Figures of Earth) more earnest. Both have an astounding weakness for a pretty face; in fact, Jurgen puts James Bond to shame both in conquest and double entendres.

These double entendres were the reason for the aforementioned obscenity trial (which he won), but they are very tame by today’s standards. In fact, due to the old-fashioned prose, it took a while before I was sure they were even there – it was much funnier afterwards. Even without them, there’s still enough of an adventure (though more philosophical than action-oriented), but the “monstrous” character of Jurgen is what sets it apart.

figures-of-earth1Dom Manuel is a more considered fantasy, less of a humorous comedy. The world-building is a bit more consistent, but the fantasy-land in Cabell’s head is closer to the mythical Albion of Arthurian tales than anything post-Tokien (or Eddison). The series is confusing as well, without a clear chronology as far as I can tell – though this does make it easier to read without collecting all twenty-five volumes.

So, why are these hidden gems? For me, it’s because they are a window onto a different era of fantasy, but proof that people were already having fun with the genre, such as it was, both deconstructing the mythological epic, and also using fantasy to make points about human existence (even while laughing).

Also, they are just a lot of fun.

NB: Cabell apparently rhymes with “rabble”. Now you can sound smart!

 

Hidden Gems: The Sunset Warrior

So, I’m going back to the obscure in my efforts to unearth hidden gems for the discerning fantasy reader. I read this series a while ago, and it’s so obscure I wonder about bringing it up at all. However, it’s definitely got some things to offer that you may not find elsewhere.

Eric Van Lustbader is known better for his thrillers – he’s written about a dozen Bourne sequels, continuing from Ludlum’s originals, as well many more in his own series. However, the former music journalist’s first published novel was the post-apocalyptic fantasy The Sunset Warrior in 1977, followed soon after by Shallows of Night and Dai-san to complete the trilogy. In what is a recurring theme with me, it turns out it’s not actually a trilogy, but a five-book sequence, though the fifth, Dragons of the Sea of Night, was added almost two decades after the fourth, Beneath an Opal Moon.9780352306753-uk-300

I’ll admit to only reading the trilogy that I thought it was, but what a trilogy! The first book is almost pure post-apocalyptic scifi, taking place in an underground bunker city (a distant forerunner of the Silo sub-genre). The claustrophobia and forgotten-history aspects are well done, and we get to know our hero. It’s not a spoiler to say he eventually breaks out, and things start getting pretty wild from there. The second and third books are almost pure fantasy, with just a hint of the original far future concept, but they aren’t your normal fantasy either.

Lustbader is a clear fan of East Asia (one of his thriller series features ninjas), and the fantasy world discovered outside the bunker is definitely Asian-inspired. This alone sets it apart from the tired faux-medieval-Europes of its contemporaries. A lot of this comes across in the embracement of Eastern martial arts and a bit of the philosophy/mysticism that often goes along with it. I can’t comment on the accuracy of this, but the action is convincing, and it seems more respectful than the Sean-Connery-in-Rising Sun style oriental fascination that developed in the ’80s.

The refreshing setting also, to my mind, carries hints of similarly-far-future-fantasy greats like Moorcock’s  Runestaff series and Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. There is the same dazzling vibrancy overridden with a sense of decline and decay. Perhaps it is the nature of post-apocalypse fantasy to have a sense of fragility, knowing that however permanent the current societies and empires may seem, they are built on the ruins of others that vanished in the blink of an eye.

Another 9780352306777-us-300aspect shared with these series is the archetypal hero, the bluntly named Ronin. He is definitely a chosen one in the classic mould, a trope many of us have since tired of. He’s also, from what I can tell, a white man starring in an Asian story, another tired trope that has come in for recent criticism. That aside, he’s neither a callow youth nor a reluctant anti-hero, just a normal, pragmatic type stuck in a fantastic adventure, driven by his own need to explore and caught up in larger events. There are doses of classic tragedy in his journey as well, as you’d expect, and the future thriller writer keeps up an almost constant tension and threat throughout, especially in the claustrophobic first book.

So, the books are a mix of a lot of elements, some of which could be seen as problematic and other which can be got in other classics. What then sets these apart? It’s a hard question, because I recall these so fondly largely, I suspect, because my enjoyment was completely unexpected. I knew nothing about them when I picked them up at a bargain book warehouse, and, though I was intrigued about this self-titled Ronin, I was taking a leap of faith in reading them. This seems especially strange nowadays, when my TBR pile is chock-full of books I *know* are good and need to be read ASAP.

Of course, the reason I picked them up was the captivating (UK) cover of the second book, by the famed Bruce Pennington. The other two are equally awesome, in their own way, but there was something about the driven red splash of the sail-powered ice-boat amongst the icy blue of the frozen seascape that conjured up fantastic adventures I wanted to be part of. Anyone who knows me or follows this blog should be surprised I bought books just for the covers, but in this case – and many others – what was underneath lived up to the promise on the outside.shallowsofnight

If I’d found the US covers first, I would *never* have read them, I guarantee that. YMMV.

However, I hope I’ve given you reassurance that these books are worth a look, whatever the cover. They are certainly not going to be for everyone, but if you like a stoic hero with a sword striding (or stumbling) through a fantastic (and rather unique) world that you discover as he does, you can do far worse than these hidden gems.

Hidden Gems: Monsters with Pretty Faces

So, after going back before Tolkien (!) for last week’s Gem, I’ve got something more contemporary to rave about this week. Not liking Jacobean prose will no longer be an excuse, though, unfortunately, living in America may be. (No, you can’t blame Trump for this one – but I’d import a copy before the wall goes up.)

This a series (two books so far, third on the way) is flying under a lot of people’s radar, despite some rave reviews, and I think it definitely qualifies as a Hidden Gem even in its relatively young life. Many books probably deserve more attention than they get, but with a lot of them, I can see some reason the mainstream wouldn’t embrace them, despite their brilliance. Not so with Rebecca Levene’s Hollow Gods.

Today’s genre, for better or worse, is full of the grim and the gritty, the dark and the even darker – and fans seem to love it. Of course, there’s always been darkness in fantasy, and probably a lot more grit than people choose to remember, but if everything isn’t crap in a modern fantasy story, then it just isn’t real enough for today’s connoisseur. Strange that it would bother so many fans of a genre that regularly features magic, wizards, gods, monsters, elves, and stews cooked round the campfire…

Of course, today’s genre headliners often have very little of the fantastic in them, sticking to humanity in the main, and the worst of it, at that. Levene’s Hollow Gods certainly delivers in this regard – from page one – but unlike a lot of contemporary “grimdark” works, there’s also a huge dose of imaginative fantasy as well. We’ve got golden cities and mirror towns and travelling fairs…and they are all, to borrow a phrase, wretched hives of scum and villainy.

smilersfair_visual1The series is full of the unexpected, and brilliantly so, defying expectations from the cover onward. Things go wrong, people suffer, moments of triumph misfire, and the only law is that of unintended consequences. I don’t think that’s a spoiler, but hopefully fair warning. Because the cover doesn’t give you any…

Don’t get me wrong, the covers are gorgeous, but they don’t exactly prepare you for what lies within (unless you like your clues incredibly subtle). I do wonder if half the reason this is a hidden gem and not a breakout success are these beautiful covers, which – if they were to match the interior of the books – would be a bit bloodier and weaponised, like many of those contemporaries I alluded to earlier. A shame, perhaps, but there we are.

(To be honest, there’s probably a strong argument that it would sell better with a guy’s name on the cover. Such is the grimdark world we live in.)

Strangely enough, I may not have read it had it been suitably advertised – I’m not always a fan of the overtly grimdark. It didn’t take me long to figure out what I had in my hands (as I said before, first page of the prologue), but by then I was hooked. It also has a pretty wide cast of characters spread across a continent – again, not usually my bag – but these characters defy expectations as well. Yes, there’s a outcast warrior and a homicidal maniac, but there’s also a farmboy straight out of your classic epic – and therefore way out of his depth. And there’s a young prostitute with a heart of gold trying to make good – only this time, he’s gay.

bff-hunterskindAnd then there’s the world, a mix of the familiar and the utterly alien. I wasn’t sure if the presence of some of the Earth-analogues cultures and languages were just useful shortcuts or some deeper worldbuilding enigma, but there is so much else going on that these questions fade into the background. From the fact that nobody can make a permanent settlement due to the threat of the underground worm men, to the brilliantly topical Brotherband, to the fact that the gods and the epic war fought many generations ago aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, the first book keeps you on your toes. The second book, however, blows the socks right off them.

It should be no surprise that an apparent debut series is so confident and competently written, as Levene is apparently an experienced pro with lots of industry credentials. With this series, however, she shatters the shackles of writing other people’s characters and worlds in spectacular fashion. If you want something grim and dark, but also epic and spectacular, get your hands on this gorgeous monster of a series.

Hidden Gems: Holiday in Zimiamvia

So, we’re going even further back in time for this week’s Hidden Gem. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s easier to find books no-one’s talking about the further back you go, even with some of the big names. Does that really make them a hidden gem, or just a forgotten favourite? Moreover, books of bygone eras are going to have limited appeal to today’s audience, so it may be an even harder sell than my usual obscurities. However, if fantasy is in many sense a backwards-looking genre, even if it often evokes the past to comment on the present, then I think there’s a lot to be gained by connecting with the genre’s own past.

Also, the books are just good.

Some people may be surprised to know that J.R.R. Tolkien wasn’t the first modern fantasy author, and I’d imagine not very many people will have read books that predate his genre-defining masterworks (some consider even them too old to bother with). Some of the names are still fairly well-known, of course, from prolific pulpsters like Robert E. Howard and Fritz Lieber, to one-book curiosities like Hope Mirlees or John Myers Myers; from comedy (James Branch Cabell) to horror (H.P. Lovecraft) to fairy-tale (Lord Dunsany) and myth-inspired (Evangeline Walton). And that’s not counting all the classic adventures  or romances with touches of the fantastic in them. Fantasy was certainly not a mainstream genre of fiction, but Tolkien definitely had both predecessors and contemporaries.2910

One of those was the curious Edwardian, Eric Rücker Eddison, whom Tolkien himself once called “the greatest and most convincing writer of ‘invented worlds’ that I have ever read”. And, though Tolkien would soon surpass him, I can certainly see why Eddison would be considered preeminent until then. Unlike some of those other authors, many of whom use the short-cuts of established fairy tales for their settings and characters, Eddison goes in for extensive worldbuilding, giving his imaginary lands their own history just as you’d expect from any modern fantasy author – there are even maps!

In his more well-known The Worm Ouroboros, Eddison takes a slight misstep in framing the subsequent fantasy adventure within an Earthling dreamer’s visit to Mercury. This conceit would be less jarring if it wasn’t almost immediately forgotten about and never referred to again – almost as if the author was afraid to do a straight otherworld fantasy (which no-one would bat an eyelid at these days). Then there is the further distraction of a nation-naming convention using common fairy-tale creature names (Witchland, Demonland, Goblinland, etc. – apparently he did a lot of the naming when an imaginative child). Once you get past the naming, the archaic prose, and interludes of Jacobean poetry (instead of Tolkien’s elvish), you have a fantasy unlike any other since. Memorable heroes, epic quests, bloody feasts, shifting allegiances, sorcerous magic, all wrapped up in a war that begins as soon as it ends.

Compared to that standalone epic, the Zimiamvian Trilogy is in general much more confident and mature. While there is the same Earthbound-dreamer to frame it, he is this time an important character, and the country he is transported to (though apparently part of the same world) is fully realised and mapped out. Rather than the mythical figures of some childhood history of the Trojan war, or the lusty heroes of Olivier’s Henry V, the characters in Mistress of Mistresses and A Fish Dinner in Memison are more rounded, more grown-up, their choices and failings more like those of normal people.274065

Of course, these are still books about Great Men and the Women Who Love Them, but the time between great events is more fully explored. Sometimes this means the story bogs down a bit in romantic-philosophical interludes, but the slower build-up does tend to lend more dramatic heft to the moments of decision and action. Though not nearly as action-packed as The Worm (at least, until the summarised war in the sadly unfinished Mezentian Gate), I found the political manoeuvring more compelling.

At times, it’s a bit like Game of Thrones, if it had been written in three-hundred years earlier. In other ways, it’s a Jacobian Prince of Nothing with the polarity reversed so that everyone is admirable (for much of the same behaviours), portrayed in Technicolor and not shades of grey. But mostly it’s just unique.

Archaic prose (though about a century more modern than Worm’s), uneven pacing, and a mangled chronology (each subsequently published book takes place before the last, and 3 overlaps 2) do make the trilogy a flawed work of genius, and definitely not for the casual fantasy reader. So why am I moved to include it among the hidden gems?1403865627-500x500

For me, these books are all exceptional in the way they capture the raw essence of myth-making, distilled by Tolkien but diluted by subsequent authors the further it got from the source. Even more than Tolkien, Eddison’s sagas recall the zeal and zeitgeist of ancient heroic “histories” as only a Victorian/Edwardian gentleman could write. If Tolkien’s works bear the scars of WW1, Eddison’s are unapologetically antebellum (despite them basically being contemporaries). Great Men do Great Things – including fight when they need to – and the little people don’t get a look-in. Women work their influence on and through these men, but are secondary, though significant.

No, it’s not comfortable politics, but all these heavy historical anchors mean Eddison evokes a past more fantastic and alien than many modern costume dramas. If you want fantasy fiction that really transports you somewhere else – and not just to the cosy adventurer’s tavern where the same old stock characters are LARPing about – then Eddison could be your gateway drug.

 

Hidden Gems: Barbara Hambly

So, it was tough to pick who to feature this week, because I’ve had to examine what I think qualifies as a hidden gem. First, and most obviously, it has to be a book or series I really like. This could mean something that is one of my all-time favourites, or something that came along and changed the way I read fantasy, or just something fun. The definition of “hidden” is a bit trickier, because my perception might be off, but I suppose I’m just looking for books that I don’t hear discussed very often, or at all.

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Yes, it’s “Gandalf”, in your kitchen, with a can of beer

Like last week, I’m going back in time to the heyday of Big Epic series, the days when people were reading Brooks, Eddings, Feist, Williams, and Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms. At least, that’s what I always hear people were reading. They were also reading Kerr, Rawn, Moon, Bradley, Lackey, and, of course, the subject of today’s blog – but I don’t hear so much about that.

I’m going to feature the author this time, rather than a series of books, because it’s hard for me to explain why Barbara Hambly is so awesome without looking across her body of fantasy work. I haven’t read anywhere near all of it – she’s hugely prolific, and in multiple genres, too – but everything I have read – though it often seems straightforward on the surface – ventures off the beaten path, subverting tropes at a time when most were still embracing them.

Take her best-known series, the portal fantasy Darwath Trilogy. The start is memorable but fairly standard, with a Gandalf-y wizard showing up to take our heroine into a different world, which she must help save. Unlike Narnia et al. however, our hero is no callow kid, but a graduate student who knows herself and her stuff. And the peril they face is no one-dimensional domination-bent dark lord, but alien creatures of mindless, relentless horror. The way they adapt to the invasion of the Dark, combating opposition among their supposed allies as well, creates moments of  claustrophobic terror and bleak despair. Though still following a fairly standard format, the trilogy is both much darker and more mature than it would seem on the surface, just enough askew from the staid expectations to make it interesting and rewarding.

176268And this is what Hambly does with most of her books, as far as I can tell. Along with being equally well-written, the other two I’ve read certainly perform a similar trick on well-worn tropes. In Dragonsbane, a dragonslayer and his partner are called upon to exterminate a scaly pest, but this is no “St. George and Smaug” act. Again, the characters are not your typical heroes or villains – something we are used to know, but was much more groundbreaking back then – and the plot soon goes in unexpected directions.

The Ladies of Mandrigyn is perhaps not so subtle, taking a familiar-sounding Magnificent Samurai plot and making it all about the women. Again, this was more radical at the time, but that twist is only the beginning. In Hambly’s more grown-up fantasy worlds, nothing is easy or straightforward, even for legendary mercenaries. Where you might normally have a classic training montage leading to a great victory, Hambly goes into all the realistic difficulties of turning housewives into killers and then pulling off a coup.

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Cover so bad I had to include it, but only very small…

So, an obvious question is, have they aged well? I think so, because Hambly’s ahead-of-her time unpredictability has created unique works that are neither the straightforward trope-fests of some of her contemporaries, nor the jaded inversions we have today (which are starting to wear their own grooves, lets be fair). If you are looking for infallible heroes and unambigiuos endings, these may not be for you, but if you want proof that this was not just the age of the Epic-by-numbers, these are it.

And you don’t have to take my world alone for it, because Hambly comes up all the time when authors are asked about their inspirations, especially underappreciated or underrated ones. In fact, she so often mentioned as underrated that I’m not sure she is anymore! She certainly seems to be something of an author’s author, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell the story of how I discovered about these hidden gems. Well, like Hagrid’s dragon egg, they were handed to me in a pub by a mysterious stranger – not with any ulterior motive that I know about, but with equally wonderful results. It’s not every day you receive such an unexpected treasure trove, and I hope I’ve passed on some of my own good fortune in writing this.

Hidden Gems: Awakeners

So, I’ve covered quite a lot of ground in this series on fantasy books or series that I think deserve more attention. This week, I’ve picked another book that’s got more than its share of sci-fi elements, like many a 1980s fantasy did, but for all intents and purposes can be read as a fantasy. However, the sci-fi elements and approach give it a scope that most fantasies don’t even attempt.

The late Sherri S. Tepper is widely accounted an underrated author – prolific and well-respected, but never a top-drawer commercial success. Part of this may be her, from what I can tell, usual brand of mixed speculative fiction – fantasy-like stories set on worlds so different than they could also be science fiction. The exact definition of each genre is a debate we won’t get into, but I consider one element of good sci-fi to be the presence of an experimental hypothesis to be explored. Many fantasies also have this ‘what if?’ factor, though often it is less explicit, disguised in a more historical setting, and confounded by magic.

1960191In the case of the The Awakeners – a duology I read in omnibus – the action is set in the far future, on a once-colonised exoplanet where the human colonists now live in a roughly-medieval society. This is by no means a unique trope (though often the far-future fantasy seeing is a post-apocalyptic earth), but rather than just being an excuse to replay the middle ages, the setting here, and discovering the suppressed truths about it, are central to the story.

The first remarkable thing about the planet in The Awakeners is the River, a huge equatorial ocean that flows strongly in one direction. The North Shore of this river is where the main settlements of the humans live, and the river influences everything from commerce to theology. Going against the flow – even on land – is proscribed by the ruling religion, and the boats that ply the current float continually downstream, visiting village by village in a seven-year cycle. This unidirectionality even fuels their faith in a sort of immortality resurrection.

So far, so fantasy, and to be fair the other “sci-fi” element also has fantastical consequences: the presence of aliens natives. Many fantasies feature oppressive and/or exotic non-human “races” (which are actually species), though often they are of a magical or mythological origin. The difference here is that it is these creatures who are the natives, not humans, and while the struggle is one for ultimate survival, there’s the underlying tension of who really has the right to be there. Still, as these aliens are avian near-humanoids with primitive technology, they fit into the fantasy without any difficulty.

tepper-awakeners1It is the way these factors are used to determine the whole story that lends this book such a distinct sci-fi air, for all its fantasy trappings. The plot revolves around a young boy and girl – one a river-boatman, the other a novice priestess – who learn dark and dangerous secrets about their world and religion that rules it. Naturally, this involves the river and the alien natives, as well as the distant colonial past and the fragile equilibrium that has been established since.

The book is strikingly mature, not in terms of rating, but in terms of the strong themes and the way they play out. It has a lot to say about religion, colonialism, and the dark truths that societies accept. There is more tragedy than triumph, almost no “action” in the normal fantasy sense, but an absorbing story woven with consummate skill – and with a sharp point. This is no “escapist” fiction, no pulp adventure. I’m not even sure it’s “enjoyable”, but it is an amazing, absorbing read: a book at times very hard to put down, and one that stays with you.

The Awakeners is neither Tepper’s most celebrated or popular book(s), but it happens to be the only one I’ve read, revisiting it makes me wonder why I haven’t read more. It helped that it is self-contained (albeit two books at once), but she has other stand-alones that I’ve added to my ever-expanding TBR. If this is the standard she sets, I look forward to reading them, expecting them to be just as vivid, absorbing, and thought-provoking…but perhaps knowing they are not something to be undertaken lightly (as well as the sci-fi aspects) has kept me from rushing straight to them.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s read The Awakeners, or Tepper’s other books. I’d also love to hear of anyone else’s Hidden Gems  – I’d be happy to host a guest blog for anyone who wanted to talk about one. The criteria is only that it’s a fantasy book that you feel is unfairly overlooked, whether that’s a newer book not getting enough attention, or an older one that’s fallen out of sight. Let me know!

Hidden Gems: Winter of the World

So, we come to another exposé on books I think more people should read, or at least talk about. So far I’ve been covering relatively recent books, because it’s easier to argue that they are underappreciated in their own lifetime than when they have faded a bit in time. That lifetime seems very short these days, and even bestsellers from previous decades have gone out of fashion and struggle for attention. As somebody who’s favourites have rarely been found among the bestsellers, current or past, I worry there are many older hidden gems that may fade away completely…

But not if I can help it!

This week’s hidden gem is an example of an almost-extinct creature, and, if I’m honest, something that may be very hard to sell these days. Michael Scott Rohan’s Winter of the World trilogy (haven’t read the two sequels) is a clear Tolkien-clone, but one that is exceptional in that it almost matches the master, not in the superficial ways many paler imitations do, but on a spiritual level, if you will.

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Ian Miller brilliance!

Big claim, I know!

Like many fantasy fans, I’d spent years trying to find a series that recaptured the Lord of the Rings experience, which for me was about the sense of authenticity and depth, as if it really were a long-lost myth rediscovered by the author. So many other series had either tried and failed, or gone in a different direction which, while often more successful, did not satisfy that particular itch. Remarkably, this series did, striking that note of mythic authenticity, providing the same depth of scholarly application (there are appendices!), evoking the same aura of deep time, all while being a cracking adventure.

And at the same time, it is its own book, drawing on slightly different, often more tragic, mythology and storytelling tradition (more Norse/Germanic than Norse/Anglo-Saxon). It’s also a series about one character, a flawed hero more like the legends of old than Tolkien’s relatable-everyman hobbits  or the reluctant anti-heroes of today. It’s more like the master’s Beren and Luthien or Sons of Hurin than the ur-prototype, but you get the feeling that this is because both draw on the same source, not because (like too many others) these are copies of copies.

285760There are a few other unique things about this series, too. First, it’s about a smith, not a warrior or wizard, and as a result there’s a lot of smithing in the book. Of course, he’s no ordinary smith, he’s a Mastersmith, able to blend magic into his metallurgy, crafting wondrous items to help him challenge the gods (they started it). Since smithing is a rather solitary and stationary task, there are passages – even chapters – in these books that could have been boring if not described so vividly and passionately (YMMV).

The other notable thing about the series, and another thing differentiating it from Tolkien, is the setting, which is explicitly Earth, but long ago, during an ice-age. This is where the appendices come in, describing in convincing detail the paleological evidence for the book, including different species encountered and the supposed fate of the peoples. Knowing this is a dying world due to be erased by encroaching ice lends a gloomy atmosphere to the books, enhancing the tragedies – and triumphs – within.

There are, of course, dwarves and elves, taken from the Tolkien mould, but re-forged into beings somewhat more sinister and even more tragic, due to the above factors. (And they also get paleological explanations, as well, if that’s your thing.) One of the key supporting characters is a dwarf, the daughter of a king, a stalwart warrior, long-sufferingly loyal to our sometimes-selfish protagonist. (The other sometime sidekick, if you’re interested, is a bit of an Aragorn-clone. In my books, there are worse things to be.)2a3f012912a06aa1d0043210-l

The story follows Elof, our hero, as he seeks his destiny across the frozen world, learning his craft, meeting friends and enemies, pursuing the swan-woman he loves, and butting heads with gods. The interaction with gods is another thing separating it from Tolkien and taking it closer to the Norse/Germanic myths (and not just because – spoiler – they are the same gods). Elof drives the plot, often through his mistakes, like the archetypal mythological hero (Odysseus et al.) he is, and while this means you don’t always like him, or even fully understand him, you can’t help but stick around for the epic ride.

So, there it is – the series that, for me, came closest to matching the Master at his own game, yet with enough distinct features to make it a brilliant series on its own. I know it won’t be for everyone, but by the (Norse) gods, it worked for me.