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.

 

Hidden Gems: Monarchies of God

So, I didn’t really have a long-term plan when I started this series on underrated or under-appreciated fantasy, only that I wanted to encourage discussion of some books I’ve really enjoyed. The subject of this latest post came up in a recent Reddit thread, and it certainly fits the bill. It’s a bit older than both previous series, and has slightly better reviews, but it’s still one of those that I think deserves a bit more attention than it gets.

I found the first book of Paul Kearney’s The Monarchies of God, like so many books, when it caught my on the shelves of my favourite secondhand bookshop. Spine-out, it was the title first – the name Hawkwood was familiar to me from medieval history, and piqued my curiosity (as did Voyage, to be fair). The cover was a certainly eye-catching1251979, too, and the story on the back sounded like something I could get into. But I’m not sure I bought it right away – I’m a cautious sort – and in doing some research on-line I might have stumbled across mixed reviews and decided against it.

Of course, when a book that you’ve never heard about has several copies available at the secondhand bookshop, there’s often a reason for it, so I was prepared for mixed reviews. And even though I often get better results judging a book by its cover than its reviews or hype – in fact, that could be the moral of this series of posts – it’s still not easy to take a plunge into the unknown.  However, because sometimes the first impression of a book won’t leave me alone, I obviously eventually picked it up – and was captivated.

Now, I won’t say I fell in love with this book or the series, unlike the previous series of Hidden Gems. In fact, I haven’t actually finished it yet. But anyone that knows me will realise that persisting as far as book four out of five means that I must really like something about the series, and I will definitely finish it someday.

So, why am I writing a review of a series that I haven’t actually finished and I didn’t fall head-over-heels for? I guess sometimes you just find a series that, though somewhat flawed, really gets its teeth into you and won’t let go. And I would describe certainly describe this series as tenacious.

Published in 2001, it’s one of those series bridging the previous era of fantasy to the modern. It’s got the grit, the realism, the crushing of expectations that we’ve come to expect from GRRM and the like, but it’s also got the remnants of idealism and good-vs-evil from the classic era. It’s a sweeping story with high stakes, high peril, and disparate plot threads in far-flung locations. Frankly, it’s not my usual fare!

It does another thing that sometimes bothers me, in that the world is a very close analogue of our own. A lot of the geography and history parallels our own, with a few twists and simplifications. Luckily, it focuses on an era that I’ve not read a lot about, and presents a compelling alternate experience of some of the themes and conflicts.

8421031And did I mention it has great attention to historical detail, especially in ships and military matters? The battles are vivid enough to smell the blood and gunpowder (yes, black powder fantasy alert!), and when at sea you can hear the cry of the gulls, and feel the roll of the deck and the salt breeze in your hair. The ring of authenticity here helps put this above other similar series, for me, at least.

Add in characters that are as flawed, devious, determined, honourable, competent, desperate, brave, despicable as anyone could want, and just enough light at the end of the tunnel to keep you hoping while it knocks you about, and you’ve got something special. Not flawless, but still a treasure.

Anyway, despite it containing any number of elements that I wouldn’t have normally chosen to read about (including werewolves), somehow it just connected to me in a way many other series haven’t. I’m still very much looking forward to that final episode, when I get around to it.

It’ll probably wait a while yet, and I’m savouring the anticipation.

Hidden Gems: Take me home, Caravan Road

So, I decided to do a series on books/series I consider under-appreciated, namely because they are among my favourites, yet I hear very little about them when out and about in the fantasy community. My first was on Mark T Barnes epic trilogy, Echoes of Empire. This one is about another series of books that have come from the margins to become some of my all-time favourites…

Books

There is a storyteller’s cycle of tales, and they begin like this:

I first noticed K V Johansen’s Blackdog because of its phenomenal Raymond Swanland cover. Obviously, covers don’t always lead one true – good books often hide behind bad covers, and vice versa – but once an evocative cover has caught my eye, I do find it very hard to ignore. This one promised exactly what the blurb backed up – a mysterious warrior, part demonic animal, surrounded by a raging conflict. The fact that one of my other favourite authors – Glen Cook – shared the same cover artist lent the book additional associative attraction. On top of all that it seemed to be standalone, and I do like a good standalone.

Clearly, here was a book meant for me.11282970

I may have sensed it right away, but it still took me a while to actually get my hands on it. Not being a big seller, it wasn’t widely available, and I contented myself with the promising sample section online. I have to admit, I was also slightly put off by a few not-so-glowing reviews (this was back when I had less of a social community and relied more on reviews from random strangers on Amazon or Goodreads). But it kept calling to me, and when I could no longer resist (and had some gift card balance), I finally ordered it. Finally, that gorgeous cover was mine, in all its extra-sized glory.

Obvoiusly, I loved it.

Apart from it being an excellent story set in a marvelously rich world – imaginatively anchored in our own history, but brimming with magic and mythology of its own – it delivered on the two things that originally attracted me – the promise of the cover and the stand-alone nature of the story. It even went so far as to remind me of Cook inside as well as out – that weighty sense of history, momentous events seen from the personal level, glimpses of powerful movers and living legends – everything you could want from fantasy. And moreover, it managed to get through the arc of what could have been an epic trilogy (with a bit of padding, and maybe a bit more time for some of the side-characters), in just one book. To have a book any more perfect for me, I’d have to write it myself

20697569However, celebrating the fact that it was a rare standalone doesn’t mean that I was in any way disappointed when I discovered sequels were being published. There was clearly a bigger story here, continuing from the world’s ancient past, happening in other faraway lands, and full of potential for the future. When it became clear that the next story would focus on Marakand, the enigmatic city in the middle of the Caravan Road that binds all these tales together, I couldn’t wait to read more. I was overjoyed to meet some familiar characters in The Leopard, along with some impressive and intriguing new ones, and to really get to know another full-realised setting (or two, actually). The cataclysmic climax in The Lady is a bit messy, but a few heroes still emerge at the end, and limp away down the caravan road to further adventures.

I knew at this point that some of these survivors would end up in Nabban, and I could hardly wait to read about their continuing adventures. So far, so very, very good…28587697

So, great books, but are these a series or standalone? The author has weighed in herself on the subject, but my short answer is that each could certainly be read as a standalone (counting the two-volume Marakand as one), but you get a fuller picture if you read them all, and in order. However, if you want to jump in on Gods of Nabban for whatever reason, go right ahead.

These are fantastic books which blend the myth, magic, and lore of classic fantasy with the complex characters, wider inspiration, and enriching diversity that makes modern fantasy great. You really should pick them up.

And whatever you do, just be aware:

Long ago, in the days of the first kings of the north – who were Viga Forkbeard, and Red Geir, and Hravnmod the Wise, as all but fools should know – there were seven wizards…and there were seven devils. If other singers tell you different, they know only the shadows of tales, and they lie.

Hidden Gems: Echoes of Empire

So, I’m not going to do a recap of 2016, because it wasn’t nearly as exciting as I hoped, for various reasons. And I’m not going to set out a series of goals for 2017 either, apart from resurrecting the blog a bit, of which this is step one. Neither can I really recap 2016 in books, because my reading is never particularly up to date, nor is there much I’m looking forward to reading in 2017 that’s actually from 2017 (I’m just way behind!).

Instead, I want to talk about a few series that I think are criminally under-appreciated in the fantasy fandom community, as far as I can tell at least. They may not come as a surprise to readers of this blog or those that follow me elsewhere, but after reading yet another hugely popular and widely praised book and getting very little from it, I am even more mystified how these are overlooked.

I know I have odd taste, rarely coinciding with the mainstream for whatever reason, which I’ve mentioned before on here. In some respects, my not liking something is a better indication of its success than the other way round. Still, I can’t believe these books wouldn’t be loved by more people, if only they knew about them.

And, because I ended up writing so much about the first series, it looks like this will be a series of blogs, not just one. Lucky you!

(I don’t think they will be about my favourite self-published books – if you want those, go here.)

Books

This is just my standard pretty-cover border, though I will no doubt cover some of these…

First, Mark T. Barnes’ epic “Echoes of Empire” trilogy, from a few years ago. Now, it didn’t go completely unnoticed at the time  – the first book was a Gemmell Morningstar Award finalist – but it’s sank swiftly out of sight and the author hasn’t found a publisher for any follow-up work. Obviously, I think this is a shame, because this series restored my faith in modern fantasy and reminded me what the genre is capable of at its best.

To start with, the author throws just about everything into this book – complex societies drawing inspiration outside medieval Europe, new races (including Lion-men and near-immortals; almost no-one in the books is actually human), a few types of magic, physics, philosophy, politics, a touch of lurking Lovecraftian horror, some steampunk elements (flying boats, ghost-souled-automata, the odd gun), a lot of made-up words, romance, betrayal, revenge – you get the gist. It’s as if he packed a lifetime of ideas into his first trilogy, which makes a lot of sense, but is not always the case.

17046606Clearly, this staggering creativity could have got out of hand, especially for a debuting writer, and I don’t suppose it would work for everyone. Frankly, I’m not sure it would have worked for me had I known everything going in, but as it was I picked the book up on a Kindle deal largely on the strength of the cover and a sense that it was something different. And I certainly think it works – especially as, from what I can remember, the author doesn’t info-dump all this massive complexity on you at once. In fact, a bit like another series, the name of which I dare not speak aloud, it takes you a while to understand the various layers of what’s going on, and some things are left tantalisingly unexplored.

What gets the reader through, I think, is the disciplined structure of character POV, and the three chosen characters for it. I’m not usually one for sprawling epics with a cast of thousands – especially if more than a handful of them have POV parts. Here, the author rotates neatly between three: the main character, the main villain, and the warrior caught between the two – lover of the first, daughter to the second. It’s a fairly classic triangle, in a way, but it works really well here, with each having their own journey, and their own momentous choices to make.

For me, the villain, Corajidin, steals the show a bit, like a more Machiavellian MacBeth, tragic in many ways but with nobody to blame but himself in the end. Indris, our hero, has been (not unfairly) criticised as being a bit too powerful, but, like Achilles, it is his personal struggle and the demons within which are his most debilitating adversaries. Mari’s story is the most personal, and while she is the least powerful of the three, she has a more human strength (though she’s not – remember, almost no-one is) and her choices are often the most difficult, the bravest (in part, due to her comparative weakness), and the most admirable.

And the focus on these three characters doesn’t mean there aren’t many, many other memorable ones. Indris has a loyal band of diverse sidekicks, including a rare human, and the aforementioned ghost-automaton; Corajidin has his own retinue of dastardly advisers, assassins, witches, concubines, and, eventually, some eldritch allies even he is unsure of; and there are plenty of powerful people outside both “sides” as well, working to their own ends. 17779549

For me, the most impressive thing (besides the kitchen-sink worldbuilding), was the way politics and war was portrayed within a stable and complex system. There is no all-out conquest here, nor really a full-blown civil war – almost everything is and has to be done within the boundaries of the society’s stratified social and political structures. Corajidin isn’t trying to usurp the rightful king or conquer a noble neighbouring nation, he’s just trying to get elected.

Granted, he’s allowed to do a bit more than most current politicians to get there, and there’s plenty of bloodshed, but there’s a certain weighty (and uncomfortable) realism in the realpolitik of it. Even when his depredations and questionable alliances become more obvious, he still finds support, and the actions of both sides are still limited by tradition, law, and political considerations. Looking back in light of recent events, the way in which the established system accepts and accedes to the creep of corruption it is all too real…

Of course, it’s still fantasy, and fairly High and Epic fantasy at that, with the stakes raising to saving-the-world level sure enough. It’s gritty without being too grim, possibly because it’s set in this advanced, cultured, long-lived empire rather than the chainmail-and-shit take on medieval times so popular elsewhere. Again, this is one of the things that makes it stand out, for me, demonstrating another way to write compelling fantasy: that you could throw a kitchen-sink of high-fantasy concepts into a unique and novel world yet retain a sense of gritty realism, not just by making everyone backstabbing arseholes (though they exist, to be sure), but by making everything have consequences, and limits.

And by making the characters human. (Even if their aren’t.)

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If you’ve read them, I’d love to hear from you. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?