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.