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