Failure to Launch

So, we’re here writing a blog post again, an update on what’s been going on in the writerly world of James Latimer. And the tl:dr version is, not much. So this post isn’t going to be so much about what has been going on, but rather why it hasn’t. Because, frankly, I’d like to figure it out myself!

It’s not that I’ve been doing nothing at all, but more a sense that I’m not really getting anywhere. It’s been a year and a half since I completed my last first draft, which is my third completed manuscript, and I’ve only done one read-through on it and some minor edits. This is because I’m still working on the two others that I “finished” first, nudging them along incrementally, writing a new scene here, polishing the language there, even sending them out to readers now and then. I suppose I’m incrementally closer to “finishing” them, whatever that means.

And there’s the rub, I suppose.

These books have been compete for a while, and even “finished” at various times, but I’ve obviously never reached a point where I believe their ready for whatever the next step is. Some days, I think they are nearly there, and other days I worry they may never be. I find it very hard to to even understand what “finished” looks like, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and very particular about what I like. I wrote these books, in part, because I couldn’t find exactly what I thought I was after on the market, but judging by my fondness for Hidden Gems, I’m not sure the market is really missing me. Excellent and exciting books seem to come out every day, after all, a fact driven home by the increased amount of reading I’ve been doing (to partially compensate for not writing).

It seems such an overwhelming act of hubris to put a book out there and say, “Here, read this instead of all those other wonderful books, because it is worthy of your time.” Obviously, thousands – perhaps millions? – of people do, every day, whether by submitting to the insatiable slush-piles of agents and publishers, or by putting their book straight in front of readers through the new avenues of professional self-publishing.

The former – no matter how many #askagent Q&A’s I read – still seems daunting and mysterious. Most of the time, you get one shot with an agent, and so your book has to be the best it can be. This only increases the anxiety I have about finishing the books, because if they can always be better, how will they ever be the “best they can be”? After a while, it makes you wonder if the book will ever reach that point, and even if it does, it might not be good enough to entice an agent or publisher. If so, perhaps it’s just time to put it on a shelf and start another one with more potential – but how do you know?

Instead of putting the book on the shelf, I suppose I could simply self-publish, but again, that means the decision on when a book is finished is entirely down to me. Then I have to sell it myself, pushing it amongst all the others clamouring for attention in a crowded marketplace. While I’m confident that my books are as good if not better than many of the others out there, how will anyone find out unless I can master the black magic of marketing and Amazon algorithms? Moreover, the non-exclusivity of the option makes it feel more like something to fall back on if you haven’t succeeded at the traditional route. If that’s the case, then I would be in a way admitting the book isn’t good enough, and why should I inflict an average book on anyone?

(Yes, I know self-publishing is a valid and viable option, and a good way – perhaps even the best way – to make money from writing. But it seems to work best if you have something very marketable and/or the ability to write fast, and I think I’ve demonstrated that I have neither.)

Books

 

I suppose what I’m struggling with is that this writing game is all push and no pull. Nobody is asking me to write books, in fact the marketplace is flooded with fantastic books, many by much better writers than me, and many of which are not getting the attention they deserve anyway. Reading them does take my mind off writing for a while, but I can’t quit for very long without feeling even worse, or (on better days) catching some spark of inspiration that puts me back at a keyboard. But to what end?

Yes, it does seem that I’m a writer, but do I want to be an author? Do I want to have books out there that people read, because one day becoming a published author does seem to be the point of being a writer. I mean, I would probably still do it if it was just a hobby, but I’d certainly go about it in a much different way. Much less editing, for a start. It would be even harder to justify spending time on it, too, and I’d probably just drift away from writing, contenting myself with ideas that played out in my head and not the page. At least, I certainly hope I would. Sometimes it seems a happier place to be.

Something about writing a book makes you want to share it, even if it’s just with one other person. It’s a particularly frightening compulsion, because – for me, anyway – it raises the contradictory dichotomy of being unable to think of anything worse, or anything better, than having your book out there in public for people to gawk at, criticise, misinterpret, or – perversely worse – simply ignore. It seems beyond my (current) capacity to imagine anyone would actually enjoy, like, love, “get”, or even just read what I’ve written.

This reflects my own love-hate relationships with what I’ve written, because I do love them, the characters in them, the world I’ve created, the adventures they go on that speak to me because I spoke them. But I also hate them for not being perfect, for not being as brilliant as the books I adore, for not being powerful enough to draw in readers all on their own without me having to make them available, to push them on people, to beg people to read them and tell me all the energy I’ve expended hasn’t been wasted.

Yes, what I really want is for these books to get up and walk out of here on their own, to take responsibility for their own success, to not need me – to not plague me – anymore. I suppose they are a bit like adult children that are still living at home, which makes the title I chose at the beginning of the article even more apt, I suppose. Of course, they aren’t going to do that, so it comes down to me, and I’m not sure I have what it takes.

Fortune favours the bold, they say, but I’m just not feeling very bold these days.

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Hidden Gems: Villains Before They Were Cool

If there ever is a book that defines “Hidden Gem” for me, it’s Eve Forward’s wonderful fantasy pastiche, Villians by Necessity. Published in limited numbers in 1995, the book is a trope-fuelled bonfire of the cliches of the era. We meet halfling thieves, guilded assassins, black knights, nature-loving druids, vampish sorceresses, barbarians…you get the idea (though farmboys are conspicuously absent). But, unlike the derivative, by-the-numbers epics that have given late 20th C fantasy a bad name, this book turns the standard formula on its head, plays with tropes and assumptions, and all while weaving together an excellent adventure quest that would have any D&D party rubbing their Cheeto-stained* hands with glee.

The twist is, of course, that the heroes of the story are villains – those characters that would occupy the bottom row of the D&D alignment table, that are often there to stall Our Heroes in their quests, that are usually only out for themselves and certainly not interested in saving the world, thank you very much. Yet that is exactly what they are recruited to do (by a True Neutral).220px-villains_by_necessity

Of course, they pale somewhat in comparison to the dark antiheroes of modern standards. And assassins and thieves have always been popular fantasy heroes or sidekicks, and are usually portrayed with scruples and regulations that preclude them being truly evil. Even the cannibalistic dark-elf-like sorceress is mostly de-fanged and largely behaves herself.

But I suppose that’s why we call them “villains” rather than “evil”, because it’s a label put upon them by society, rather than who they are. When contrasted with the Heroes that are supposed to be on the side of Good, Forward makes it very clear that no-one can be painted as simplistically as that, and that everyone is somewhere along the spectrum of grey (as if the 21st C ever had sole license on that).

The problem facing this world – as represented by the six suspiciously regular and appropriately named lands that we visit – is that the forces of Good have triumphed to such a degree that Darkness has been banished for all time. And without the choice between Good and Evil, the sentient creatures of the land are robbed of free will (often violently so). Not only does that make the world a pretty boring place, but it means it is heading for a white-out – not just stagnation but complete stasis.

This isn’t a million miles from Moorcock’s premise in his Eternal Champion books that Chaos and Law need to be kept in balance or the world will either perish through complete entropy or total rigidity. Still, his champions usually end up fighting a rising tide of evil (if occasionally with chaotic help) rather than having to worry about the complete victory of Law. And yet, this victory is the end-point of most classic Epic Fantasy series, and also where our story begins (take that, Sanderson and Morgan).

The story itself is a rip-roaring adventure across six lands, questing after a series of tests that will allow the villains to return Darkness to the world. There isn’t a whole lot of realism here. Despite the point that’s being made about the unrealistic conventions of D&D-style fantasy, Forward still plays mostly within its lines. There are plenty of convenient healing potions and magic tricks to get our protagonists out of scrapes they shouldn’t survive – but such is fantasy adventure, after all, only this time it’s the forces of Good that constantly fail (though they aren’t ever incompetent, being Heroes).

I’m still not sure the libertarian premise completely works – it may work fine for these villains-with-hearts-of-gold, but what about the children devoured by monsters or orphaned by wars? What about the true psychopaths out there, are they necessary for the survival of free willed life? A laissez-faire attitude is all well and good for the competent and the strong, but shouldn’t a society look after the weak, and aren’t they better off in a world where “Darkness” is largely suppressed? Something for the sequel, perhaps…

Anyway, Villains by Necessity isn’t a philosophical treatise, it’s a unique fantasy adventure novel, and a damn fine one at that. Track a copy down, if you can!

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The one time I think Darrel K Sweet works perfectly.

* Sorry, had to.

My Favourite Fantasy Covers

So, we all know we aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover. Which is, of course, a lie – because why else would they have cover art but to attract and entice the would-be reader? And fantasy is perhaps the genre where covers matter most, have the greatest variety, and offer the most scope to delight and disgust.

There are a lot of classic Science Fiction covers out there, and I’d happily have framed copies of my favourites on my walls. However, as much as I like Chris Foss and co., there are an awful lot of books where the gorgeous spaceship on the cover really bears no resemblance to the ones inside, if there even are any. So, as enticing as they are, they don’t seem to me to have to do as particular a job as fantasy covers do.

And other genres do even less work, signifying genre and little else. Romance covers all look basically the same, though I’ve heard there’s some coded information in the particulars of pose and (un)dress. Crime fiction and thrillers just have to have a weapon or a body or a grainy scene (perhaps with crime tape). Chick lit has pastel colours and cutesy art, often with flowers or bows. And while I suppose you get a range in “literary” fiction, it’s often abstract or minimalist or just plain boring.

But fantasy covers…wow. Sure, some of them can be a bit cringe-worthy, especially from certain eras, and some of it can be a bit lacklustre, but on the whole there’s such huge variety of styles and approaches from so many talented artists, that it can turn the fantasy shelves into an art gallery of wonder.

For my taste, I’ve always preferred the evocative fantasy landscape to the character close-up or the more symbolic or abstract cover – with a few exceptions, of course. There are covers I love (and hate) from almost every era of fantasy right up to today. Without further ado, here are a few of my favourites.

Raymond Swanland

I’d be remiss not to start with this modern master, an artist whose covers are about the only character-centred ones that I like. They have a wonderful dark beauty, and are abstract enough to somehow capture the emotion and atmosphere of a book as well as portray the characters irresistibly.

It’s now hard to separate his artwork from the books of two of my favourite authors – one of whom I probably would never have discovered if not for Swanland’s work. I can’t imagine any other artist on the cover of a Glen Cook fantasy now, which makes up for the pretty terrible covers Cook got in the 80s…

Richard Anderson

Another modern master, who seems to be everywhere these days (well, moreso in the US market), his distinct digital style capable of both abstract landscapes, vibrant action, or evocative character studies. He’s pretty much the “face” of modern fantasy right now, and I’m not complaining. (Check out this Tor.com article for more.)

Geoff Taylor

I was going to make this about the 80s covers that I liked, and then I realised a lot of them were by the same artist. Taylor is evidently a master of the evocative landscape often with figures facing away from us, drawing us in. His use of colour is also much more to my taste than some of the more garish 80s/90s covers (looking at you, Darrell K Sweet!). Check out the full paintings which are even more spectacular.

Ian Miller

Another 80s cover set which will, regardless of what else the artist did (and he did plenty), will put him amongst the greats, for me.

Others:

I can’t do a post on covers without including this one by Bruce Pennington, which immediately sold me the book (and therefore series, since it’s book two), and of which I now have two different sets…

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And I also have a fondness for this 1960s craziness (artist unknown):

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And there’s a lot more out there as well, some of which is elsewhere on this blog. I might have to do another one of these sometime…

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.