Monday, September 24, 2012

Epic fantasy series list: What is out there - part 2

This weekend I decided to find some time to continue my list. Last time I describe LoTR and three of my favorite series, and now I am continuing with few other large series that I have read.

Let's start with "The Stormlight Archive" by Brandon Sanderson, which will probably be a short paragraph, since this series has only one book published, "The Way of Kings", of planned ten. I already mentioned Sanderson in previous post, as a second writer of "The Wheel of Time", after passing of Robert Jordan. Sanderson has previously written only some stand-alone books and one short trilogy, "Mistborn", so this is his first published big fantasy series. But at the time, this is Sanderson's first (if I remember correctly, maybe one of first) work, which he started writing over ten years ago. The books take place in very original and detailed setting, which is intrinsic to Sanderson (he is known as "the magic-system guy"). We don't learn much of the background of the setting, so we can expect revelations in further books. For now, the most distinctive features are gigantic and constant storms, magical but passive form of life (or spirits) called spren, and magical swords and armors called Shardblades and Shardplates that give its wielder superhuman abilities. There are three main POVs. Kaladin is probably the hero of the story, but he is not a typical messiah hiding as shepherd: he is a grown-man, with poor background but educated, experienced as soldier and very capable. At the beginning of the story, he is betrayed by his commander and turned to slave. Shallan is minor noble, who begins a plot which result is restoration of her family's wealth by association with famous magician (a Soulcaster), who is at the same time sister of King Elhokar. Dalinar is uncle of Elhokar, a famous commander, but somewhat notorious because of his temper, and currently not in King's favor. I was very impressed with this book, as was the general audience - although there were some complaints on length and slowness of the book. "The Way of Kings" is a start of large epic fantasy series, one that I have big expectations of. Nevertheless, I would recommend waiting for few more books to come out before giving a more precise assessment of this series - so wait a few years if you are not an exclusively epic fantasy fan.

"The Sword of Truth" series by Terry Goodkind is a series that I started reading after I finished published book of "Wheel of Time" at that time (it was somewhere in 2006). This series was compared to "Wheel of Time" much, it was on the list and was quite popular. And I was pretty satisfied at first. But after I started broadening my horizons by reading more and more different series, I was less and less satisfied, until I ultimately stopped reading after sixth book (this was the first time in my life that I haven't finished series I have started; not connected to this, I think that I finished every book I have started, ever). The main character of the series is Richard Cypher, who somewhere at the beginning of the first book discovers that he is a Seeker of Truth and is given the Sword of Truth - a magical blade that can cut through anything as long as its wielder believe it is his enemy. Richard has lived his life in Westland, a land isolate from others by a barrier and devoid of magic, in contrast to the rest of the world, where magic is part of it. Richard, supported by Confessor Kahlan Amnell (Confessors are female judges with a gift of magic helping them finding truth and banishing crime) and the First Wizzard Zeddicus Zu'l (called Zedd, Richard adoptive grandfather), travels to the Midlands where his purpose if defeat Darken Rahl, leader of invading Kingdom D'Hara, before he unleashes the Magic of Orden and either destroy the world or complete conquer it. Later books introduce new elements and important characters, but these three remain the most important. This sound like a standard epic fantasy, and it is - it is not even so bad if you are occasional reader who likes fantasy and don't expect some serious material. But if you are a hard-core fan, there are several reasons to skip this series. First that comes in my mind that Goodkind likes to invent things as he goes. After finishing first book, that is pretty much standalone, second books suddenly introduces a new continent (that everybody knew about it, but didn't find it necessary to mention), new enemies, new races, new magic, new history... Later books start to look like something that is part of a larger arc, but there is no plan in his books. Second thing is the main character, Richard - he is just too good. In every book he discovers he is capable in some new way - a cook, a warrior, a leader of men, a sculptor, an economist and anti-communist... Did I mention that he is tall and good-looking, very friendly and is never wrong? He becomes irritating very fast, except if you think you are perfect and then this is like reading about yourself having invented adventures. Goodkind is also fond of "borrowing" concepts from other series (like Sisters of the Light). Plots of the books are usually simple, and always ending with Richard proving that evil is not worth it. It's been a long time I have read these books, so my memory is maybe faulty, but "The Sword of the Truth" is not a series I would recommend. Maybe it is not as bad as I remember, but there are definitely better series out there.

Before I start reviewing "The Belgariad" and "The Malloreon" series by David Eddings, there is a confession I have to make. When I was younger, I was a member of library and this was my only source of books. Now, I buy all books I read. But there was one summer when I was in college, when I had too much free time and too few books to fill it, so I downloaded few series: "The Belgariad", "The Malloreon" and one more (which I will review later). This is not important for this review except in one aspect - I have read ten books only once and that was more than five years ago, so my memories of these books are not exactly fresh. B&M were written in the eighties and are considered as fantasy classics, next to LoTR, "Shannara" or "Earthsea". As such, I contains several classical tropes and many readers will find it familiar - but not in derisive manner. The main character of "The Belgariad" is a boy named Garion. He lives at a peaceful farm, in a medieval world full of kingdoms and and magic. This changes when Garion is taken from the farm by a mysterious man called Mr. Wolf and his aunt Pol - who are later identified as Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress and Garion learns that that he is a descendant of ancient King Cherek, who responsibility is guarding the Orb of Aldur. The Orb is a supreme artifact created by god Aldur and later stolen by evil god Torak - later retrieved by Belgarath and Cherek. In five books we follow Garion as he travels the world, meeting kings, witches and gods, growing up to a real King, until his ultimate confrontation with Torak. I don't really remember much of the details (this synopsis I wrote with help of Wikipedia as much as from my memories), but I remember that I enjoyed these books very much. They are written in best style of Tolkien (although a bit lighter and funnier) and a rightly considered classics. They are books that I would recommend giving kids after they finish LoTR, but I also wouldn't mind rereading them. But on the other hand, I wouldn't reread "The Malloreon". This series continues books that needed no continuation - several years after the final resolution of "The Belgariad", it is discovered that nothing is actually settled and they need to fight a new "Child of Dark". All this wouldn't be so bad if five books of "The Malloreon" weren't so similar to "The Belgariad" - we have the same character that visit the same places, almost in same order. The style remains the same, and the books are good, but they never reach quality of the original pentalogy. So, from my side, a big recommendation for "The Belgariad" to everybody, but skip "The Malloreon" even if you are tempted the contrary.

Now, we are making a jump toward something more modern: "The Second Apocalypse" by R. Scott Bakker. While both "The Belgariad/The Malloreon" and "The Sword of the Truth", even "The Stormlight Archive" are written in that classical style where heroes are noble, bright and pretty, while villains are deformed and dark, Bakker is a member of contemporary writer where such distinction in less obvious - and sometimes there even isn't one. I have read the first book in this series "The Darkness that Comes Before" quite some time ago, but only last and this year did I continued until reaching fifth publish booked (of nine planned). The setting is very detailed and original, with a long-lasting history and it is more Dark-age than medieval. There is common magic, several large and small kingdoms, and two warring monotheistic religions. People forgot the events that happened two thousand years ago - a war between humanity and the No-God. Right at the beginning of the series, a Crusade has been pronounced by Holy Shriah of the Inrithi Faith again the infidel Fanim. But not everybody is so religious and there are factions that plan to use the Holy War for their own interest. Drusas Achamian, a sorcerer of Mandate School (a sect that remembers the first Apocalypse and considers their duty to stand ready for the Consult, servants of defeated No-God) is sent by his superiors to follow and spy on the Crusaders. But there he will find something unexpected: a Messiah. Anasürimbor Kellhus, a secret member of sect called Dûnyains that excel in intelligence and psychology, whose mission was to find his exiled father, decides to use this superiority, to use Drusas and to use even the Holy War to finish his mission. But what nobody counts on is that the Consult have their own plans. This is just a part of the plot and there are more characters: a whore, a prince, a fanatic... Everybody is described in great depth and nobody is what you expect of them. As with Martin and Erikson, Bakker is a master of grey morality: is it an evil when somebody sacrifices thousands to save millions, and is someone wrong to refuse his Messiah if it means sacrificing his love? Bakker uses the same style that Guy Gavriel Guys uses: mixing normal third-person POV with occasional encyclopedic narrations, often about history and far-away events, and this works pretty well. At the beginning I mentioned that Bakker is a contemporary writer; by that I mean that he doesn't pretend that good guys and women don't take shit and he doesn't skirts from sex and explicit violence. He is not a grittiest writer ever, but he neither easy. I also mentioned that the setting is very detailed - you won't realize how much until you reach the end of third book: a fifth of the book is dedicated to an Encyclopedic Glossary similar to the one in LoTR, explaining some ancient history and the main players of that time. What the series is missing to become one of the best things out there is empathy for the characters. Sure, the characters are memorable and impressing, but Bakker fails in making readers establishing a connection with them. Another objection is second and third books: they are good, but they become a little tedious. But things really improve with fourth book, "The Judging Eye", which is really exciting and in parts was remind me to LoTR's trip to Moria, although more darker and violent. Also, both "The Judging Eye" and "The White-Luck Warrior" have really unforgettable endings. All in all, "The Second Apocalypse" is definitely a thing to be read by fans of epic fantasy, except by those with really weak stomachs.

This is it for now - in next post we will continue with few books that I haven't read completely.

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