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.
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.
There 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.)
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.