It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Summing up: reading challenge fail

This year for my reading challenge, I chose to read the first books of twelve fat fantasy series I’d not read before. It sounded easy enough. Fantasy novels, after all, are not known as difficult reading. It should, in fact, have been a doddle. I’ve read and enjoyed fat fantasy novels in the past, so I foresaw no difficulty in reading twelve of them in one year. And it’d be interesting to see whether or not each book persuaded me to read the rest of the series. I had a bit of help putting together a list of a dozen –  people suggested titles, both here on my blog and on LibraryThing, and I picked twelve which appealed. Then I started reading…

I failed.

I lasted six months and then gave up. This is how it went:

January: Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings. The first book of the Belgariad. These books are now marketted as YA, and it’s easy to see why. The novel also felt like a cynical attempt to jump on the fantasy bandwagon by someone who hadn’t quite mastered the spirit of the thing. I’m told the series improves as it progresses. I shall never know. Full review here.

February: Assassin’s Apprentice, Robin Hobb. The first book of the Farseer Trilogy. An engaging narrator, readable prose… but what a dull world. And a prince called Verity. Too little happened in this book’s 480 pages, the story took far too long to kick into gear. Full review here.

March: The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie. The first book of the First Law Trilogy. Everyone raved about this book. It was, apparently, a superb new fantasy novel, different to everything that had gone before. Well, yes. The characters were despicable prats, the narrative circled about the plot without actually engaging with it, and the combat scenes were quite gory. I was not impressed. Full review here.

April: Colours in the Steel, KJ Parker. The first book of the Fencer trilogy. This one was a surprise: I actually enjoyed it and thought it quite good. It’s in serious need of editing – whole passages should have been cut as they add nothing to the narrative – but otherwise the writing flows along, the world is well-built, and the characters are engaging. I’ve since picked up the second book of the trilogy, The Belly of the Bow. Full review here.

May: The One Kingdom, Sean Russell. The first book of the Swan’s War trilogy. This had an interesting world, but the story was so incredibly slow that reading the book proved a chore. I’d like to know what happened, but I’m not prepared to read through 1000+ pages of lethargic prose in order to find out. Full review here.

June: King’s Dragon, Kate Elliott. The first book of the Crown of Stars series. I couldn’t finish this. I got about 100 pages into this 700-page brick and gave up. One narrative thread had a sixteen-year-old girl in slavery and raped nightly by her owner, the other was about a young man who mucks out the stables. I didn’t have the patience to work my way through these to find out what happened.

Unfortunately, King’s Dragon was not only unfinishable, it also put me off reading the remaining six books of the challenge. For the record, they were:

Yes, maybe I made some bad choices – although all the books were recommended to me by others. And, to be honest, there’s still a couple on the list above I’d like to try: the Wells, for example; and the Ruckley. One day, I might indeed read them. But the rest I’ve no interest in tackling. Still, I suppose in one respect the challenge was not a complete failure as it introduced me to a writer whose books I will continue to read: KJ Parker. It also introduced me to some writers whose books I will now assiduously avoid.

Now I just have to think of a reading challenge for 2011.


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Ian bounces out of fat fantasy novel

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts for this year’s reading challenge that perhaps my choice of material perhaps wasn’t all together smart. It seemed like a good idea six months ago… Read the first book of a fantasy series each month. See what I think to it, see whether I’d want to read the rest of the series. And, having read a number of fantasy series, I didn’t think it would be that difficult.

What I’d not taken into account is that my taste in books has changed a bit since I ploughed through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, or George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire…

As a result, May’s book – The One Kingdom by Sean Russell – proved a real slog and I was late finishing it (see here). And I’m running late on June’s. Which is King’s Dragon by Kate Elliott. I also very much doubt I’m going to finish it.

I’m less than 100 pages in. One narrative is about a sixteen-year-old girl who has just been forced into slavery, and it seems her “owner” engineered the situation as much because he fancies her as because he wants some sorcery book she owns.  So she’s likely to be raped. The second narrative has a youth sent to serve the local count. At present, he’s mucking out the stables.

I don’t want to read books like this. And King’s Dragon has 700 pages. It’s not a book, it’s a blunt instrument. To be fair, the writing is perfectly readable. But there’s far too much world-building, one of the narratives is offensive, and the other one is just plain dull.

So I’m giving up. I’m also giving up on the challenge. I managed it for six months, and it was too much of a chore. I’m going to try just one more book – The Wizard Hunters by Martha Wells – and then stop. I’ve got my summer reading project anyway.


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Fantasy Challenge #5: The One Kingdom, Sean Russell

Have I mentioned before that I’m beginning to regret choosing big fat fantasy novels for my reading challenge this year? I think for next year’s challenge I’ll pick books under 100 pages, or at least something that’s predominantly short. Because secondary-world fantasies are generally big books and, at 698 pages in my Orbit paperback edition, Sean Russell’s The One Kingdom is probably not the biggest book of the dozen I’ve chosen for my challenge.

But it may well be one of the slowest.

The One Kingdom is the first book of the Swans’ War trilogy – followed by The Isle of Battle and The Shadow Road – but it’s not Russell’s first novel. He has written two earlier fantasy diptychs (one of which is apparently set in “the Kingdom of Wa”). He also writes historical naval fiction under the name Sean Thomas Russell. According to Russell’s web site (here), the Swans’ War trilogy came out of a desire to write a high fantasy, something he had avoided previously in order to “distinguish myself from the many imitators of Tolkien”. The good news is that The One Kingdom isn’t especially Tolkienesque. It’s more like Robert Jordan. Although, happily, Russell’s prose is a good deal better than Jordan’s.

The trilogy is set in the land of Ayr, which is dominated by the River Wynnd and its tributaries. The valleys formed by the tributaries are principalities in what was once known as the “One Kingdom”. But some time in the distant past, the kingdom split apart, leaving two families vying for the throne – the Wills and the Rennés. It’s the machinations of these two families which forms the plot of the trilogy…

Except it doesn’t really. Or rather, it doesn’t noticeably.

Secondary-world fantasies are typically constructed from story and world, and their appeal lies in one or the other, or both. Since story is so important, it is laid out from the start – this is the quest, this is the prophesy which must be fufilled, this is what must be done to resolve the story, this is where the characters are going and why. But not in The One Kingdom. Russell keeps his actual plot hidden, and it makes for an often frustrating read.

There are two narratives, linked by a single mysterious character. One is a travelogue; the other is an escape. In the first, the young Valemen Tam, Fynnol and Baore are travelling along the river with gypsy-like “story-finder” Cynddl to the Wold of Kern, chiefly because they’ve never left the Vale before and so it’s an adventure. Meanwhile, in the second narrative, Lady Elise, daughter of the head of the Renné family has run away from an arranged marriage because she knows the marriage is part of a plan to start a war in which the Wills will finally vanquish the Rennés.

The mysterious character who pops up in both these narratives, and prods them along, is the rogue Alaan. He meets the Valemen at the opening of the book, and saves their lives when they are attacked by black-clad soldiers (who appear to be after Alaan). He also arranges Elise’s escape from the Renné castle, and hands her over for safekeeping to a duo of minstrels.

Complicating matters is the possible reappearance of a legendary trio – although perhaps “god-like” might be a better description. Caibre, Sainth and Sianon were the three offspring of a wizard in ancient times, and they may have been reborn to fight their battles all over again. One of them seems to have taken over Eremon, counsellor to a prince ally of the Wills, and is determined to drive everyone into war.

There are some nice ideas in The One Kingdom. The best is the River Wynnd itself, which features hidden waterways and tributaries. These are magically hidden, alternate versions of the valleys of Ayr. Unfortunately, Russell has plonked this neat central conceit into a world built after watching Prince Valiant a few too many times. Bits of The One Kingdom may read in parts like the Wheel of Time, but the world-building appears to owe more to Ye Olde Hollywoode Mediaeval Englande than it does to any real attempt at creating a viable world of the required technological level and appropriate culture. The novel’s resolution, for instance, takes place at a ball in the Renné castle, and it reads like something from a Disney fairy-tale. Given all this, it’s easy to understand why the “gritty” fantasies of Abercombie and the like came as such a refreshing change…

Also problematical is the naming. Tam, Elise, Toren, Tuath… these aren’t too bad. But Cynddl is unpronounceable, and Gilbert A’brgail is always going to be misread as Abigail. Yet the place names are chiefly prosaic: Westbrook, Sweetwater, Speaking Stone…

The prose is mostly readable, and occasionally quite good; although Russell frequently tries too hard for high fantasy “authenticity”, resulting in those tortured sentences which are supposed to give the story an olde worlde feel but instead just look silly. The pacing of the novel is… languourous. Possibly even lethargic. Pages of introspection follow brief outbursts of action. Russell even flubs a couple of his big action scenes – the attack on the Fáel camp at Westbrook Fair is one example. It’s all over in a single paragraph, more or less. Whatever shock value it’s supposed to possess is completely missing.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of The One Kingdom. I liked the idea around which the world was built – the river and its magical hidden waterways. I liked the story. That the reader was forced into mapping both story and land as the book progressed struck me as interesting approach. The characters were mostly sympathetic, although a bit flat. Sadly, the villains were one-dimensionally villainous – evil with an “eeee”, in other words. Especially Eremon. Despite that, I suppose I could say I sort of enjoyed it…

Which puts me in a bit of a dilemma. I’d like to find out how the story of the Swans’ War pans out. But I’m not prepared to wade through 1500+ pages of sluggish prose to do so. A synopsis would do the trick, I think – a dozen or so pages summarising the plot of each novel. Yes, that’d work. Any volunteers to put one together for me?


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Fantasy Challenge #4: Colours in the Steel, KJ Parker

I just managed to squeeze this book into April so I am, for the time-being, back on track. Although, I have to admit, I’m starting to regret my choice of reading material for this year’s challenge. Probably because I’m asking too much of the books I selected.

Happily, April’s book, Colours in the Steel by KJ Parker, proved to be a good read. It’s Parker’s first novel, and the first book of the Fencer trilogy (followed by The Belly of the Bow and The Proof House). It was first published in 1998, but it doesn’t read like a fantasy that’s more than a decade old.

In the Triple City of Perimadeia, the outcome of court cases are determined by the two advocates fighting each other with swords, often to the death. Bardas Loredan is one such fencer-at-law, and the fact that he’s been practicing his profession for more than ten years indicates that he’s good at it. Temrai is the son of the chief of the plains people, Perimadeia’s on-and-off enemies, and he has come to the Triple City to make swords in its arsenal. Alexius is the city’s Patriarch, the head of the Order which studies the Principle, which is sort of like magic but much more like philosophy. Then there’s Venart and Vetriz, brother and sister traders from the Island, who keep on bumping into Loredan and Alexius…

Out of these characters, and a handful more, Parker sets up a chain of coincidences which eventually lead to the destruction of Perimadeia. While most plots are only fuelled by coincidence, in Colours in the Steel Parker has made the nature of the coincidences themselves a part of the plot. This all begins when Alexius tries to curse Loredan at the behest of a young woman. Which somehow drags Vetriz, who has a natural and unconscious ability in the Principle, into the story. The various cast-members keep on running into each other at fortuitously opportune moments, and they remark on it. Things seem to happen in just such a way as to lead to a specific outcome, and the characters discuss this. But they don’t know why it’s happening, or indeed how it’s happening. The explanation is, I assume, given later in the trilogy. It makes for an original alternative to the vague hints and snippets of back-history most secondary-world fantasies use to drive a series’ story-arc.

On the whole, Colours in the Steel is entertainingly-written. Admittedly, somewhere inside its 503 pages (in my Orbit paperback edition) there’s a 300-page novel fighting to get out. Parker has a tendency to go off on long discourses on subjects which do nothing to advance the plot, and little to flesh out the world. One example is a lecture given by the city’s Chief engineer to Temrai on the construction of trebuchets. True, he uses that knowledge later, but does the reader really need so much detail? And, to be honest, I was never entirely convinced by much of the detail Parker pours into Colours in the Steel. But it sounds plausible. There’s also a description of a typical courtyard in Perimadeia, where one of the characters is sitting, which stretches over several pages and in which nothing actually happens. There are other areas where the prose bogs down like this and the story is in danger of losing all the momentum it has built up to that point: Temrai explaining how he imagines the city cavalry will attack his army, for example; or Athli, Loredan’s clerk, comfort-shopping for stationery.

And yet the plot of the book is a little… odd. The more you read, the less you understand what’s driving the plot. The characters are the ones powering the story, but Parker keeps the engine itself hidden, revealing only hints and clues as the book progresses. For instance, the young woman who wants to curse Loredan – everyone conveniently forgets her name when they encounter her. This makes no sense, and feels whimsical. Even when her actual identity is revealed, knowing her name would have made no difference.

Despite the prolixity and the secretiveness at the heart of the plot, there’s an amusingly sly cynicism to Parker’s prose and world-building. This is perhaps best exemplified by Loredan’s “career” after being made commander-in-chief of Perimadeia’s defences – he’s alternately cast by the city’s leaders as hero, then traitor, then hero again, then traitor…

There’s no doubt that Colours in the Steel is the best of books I’ve so far read for this year’s reading challenge. And yes, if I see the remaining two books in the trilogy I’ll pick them up. I’d like to know how it all pans out. But even more than that, Colours in the Steel is Parker’s debut novel. She has written two more trilogies, and several other novels since. They can only be better than this one. I wouldn’t mind reading them, either.


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Fantasy Challenge #3: The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie

Yes, I should have posted this last month. But with one thing and another, I didn’t actually get to the book until early April, and I only finished it a couple of days ago. And I still have April’s book for the fantasy challenge to read and review.

But, The Blade Itself… I had high expectations for this novel, as I’ve yet to see a bad review of it. Admittedly, most of those reviews are by people who are bigger fans of secondary-world fantasy than I am. I may have read my fair share, but it’s by no means my first choice of reading. Or second. Or even third or fourth. And for all that I’ve read many of the popular fantasy writers – Tolkien, Jordan, Erikson, Martin, Moorcock, Donaldson, etc. – I’ve never found them an especially satisfying read. The Blade Itself then, I hoped, given its reputation, might prove something different. After all, it was in part because of books such as The Blade Itself – and their reputations – that I chose to make this year’s reading challenge a fantasy challenge.

So if I’ve laden down Joe Abercrombie’s novel with great expectations, I’ve done no more than all those book bloggers and reviewers out there who praise it. And… you just know I’m going to bury it. Sort of.

As far as I can determine, The Blade Itself‘s reputation rests in part on its subverting of genre stereotypes. There’s no peasant hero, no hidden king, no dark lord, no plot coupons or quest. This is a book which rejects templates and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Mostly. The novel’s plot is a case in point. The barbarians in the north have finally organised under a king, Bethold, and are threatening to invade Angland, a northern territory belong to the Union (a united island kingdom). To the south, the city of Dagoska is about to be besieged by the Gurkish Empire, which occupies the continent from which it depends Gibraltar-like. This story is told through the viewpoints of a handful of disparate characters: Logen Ninefingers, an exiled northern barbarian; Inquisitor Glokta, a war hero who is now a despised cripple and torturer; and Captain Jezal dan Luthar, a lazy, arrogant, and not too intelligent officer in the King’s army.

Once upon a time, I thought writing a story featuring a cast of unlikeable characters would be an interesting exercise. Many novels, for example, have anti-heroes – indeed Moorcock created an entire canon of fantasy works featuring anti-heroes. But unlikeable characters and anti-heroes are not the same thing. Abercrombie’s characters are unlikeable – more than that, they’re often despicable. This may be bucking the stereotypes in secondary-world fantasy literature, but Warhammer and other RPGs have been doing it for years. And while it may be an interesting writing exercise, it’s a less interesting reading exercise. I didn’t like Luthar or Glokta; Ninefingers was Conan without the boasting. I didn’t understand why I should want to read their stories. I don’t want to read about prats and pillocks, I see enough of them in real life.

Having said that, the cast of The Blade Itself – and one or two of the secondary characters are actually quite sympathetic – wouldn’t have been so annoying if they had been properly characterised. But Abercrombie uses a technique common in secondary-world fantasy: characterisation by quirk. Each character has a distinctive speech pattern – and some are so distinctive they’re pretty much parodies. Or, in the case of Glokta, Abercrombie presents his thoughts italicised in the prose. And because only Glokta’s thoughts are presented to the reader, he often feels as though he escaped from another book.

The plot has in its favour that it’s not a quest. Having said that, the build up to a war on two fronts is not the most exciting of stories – especially given that The Blade Itself tells it only from the Union’s point of view, and we have only its upper echelons’ prejudiced view of the motives of the northern barbarians and the Gurkish Empire. And those upper echelons are even more of a parody than the central cast. Abercrombie adds to this meagre plot through the introduction of Bayaz, First of the Magi. Ages past, apparently – although exactly when is unclear; certainly several centuries ago – a group of wizards did something which entered legend. Bayaz was one of them, but now he has come back to the Union’s capital, Adua. Except they’re not convinced he is who he says he is…

The Blade Itself is a secondary-world fantasy, which means its world is important. I’m tempted to think a secondary world is more of a hygiene factor – a bad one won’t ruin a book, but a good one will improve it – but perhaps that’s because so many are based on the same models. The world of The Blade Itself is vaguer than most – there’s no map, for example – which actually works to its advantage. Nothing is especially original, and the various societies’ models are plain, but by refusing to treat his novel like a role-playing game supplement, Abercrombie has pushed his story onto his characters. Which would be both a clever move and admirable, if only the characters weren’t such caricatures. Nonetheless, it’s an improvement on many other secondary-world fantasies.

There are some interesting bits in there. But, as in other books of this type, they’re buried in the back-story and it’s only their effect on the narrative which is described. In The Blade Itself, it’s the story of the Maker, and the visit by Bayaz and a handful of others into the House of the Maker, a vast tower in the centre of Adua. That bit I did like.

If there’s a word I’ve heard most associated with The Blade Itself more than any other, it’s “gritty”. I’m not sure if this refers to the unlikeable characters or the level of violence. Because it is a violent book. The damage inflicted in each of the many fight scenes is very detailed. You’d expect a secondary-world fantasy to be violent – it’s in the nature of the genre, they have swords and battles and good versus evil – but none seem to revel in the blood and guts as much as The Blade Itself does. But violence, in fiction as in real life, should be used sparingly. Too much gore on the page, and the story turns into little more than a framing mechanism for one fight after another. A plot needs to be more than that. Thankfully, Abercrombie likes his fight scenes, but he doesn’t let them take over his story.

It occurred to me as I read The Blade Itself that one of the reasons I often find secondary-world fantasy so dissatisfying is because there’s little in it to impress me. In science fiction, you have “eyeball kicks”, or concepts which appeal directly to your sense of wonder; in literary fiction, you can find lovely prose, or an insight whose truth seems so self-evident you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself, or perhaps an artfully-turned plot that causes you to question everything that has gone before. Secondary-world fantasy offers none of these. It is world-building and story. And the world-building is so often built on historical, or earlier fictional, models that little of it comes as a surprise. The story likewise often follows a tried and tested formula. There’s nothing in them to impress me; I don’t find them satisfying reads.

The Blade Itself is a case in point. It’s undoubtedly better than Pawn of Prophecy (see here). Its prose is not as assured as Assassin’s Apprentice – it is, in fact, often clumsy, although it does improve as it progresses – but its world-building is not as dull as in Hobb’s novel (see here). Its plot is certainly less clichéd, and its cast of characters so much anti-stereotype they’ve turned into parodies.

I approached The Blade Itself with high expectations. For a secondary-world fantasy. Which was somewhat unfair. But then, if you approach a book with low expectations and it exceeds them, that doesn’t mean it’s a good book. When people say science fiction should not be held to the same standard as other branches of fiction, that cardboard characters and plonking prose are fine because it’s science fiction… they’re talking crap. The same holds true for secondary-world fantasy. A good secondary-world fantasy should still be a good book. There should be no caveats, no special generic dispensations.

Will I read the next book in The First Law trilogy? Given the size of the TBR pile – not to mention the two cardboard boxes of books I “quite fancy” reading I have in the other room – no, it’s not going to happen. I don’t especially care what happens to the characters, and if the trilogy’s story-arc is simply a war on two fronts, then I don’t especially care how the trilogy ends. The Blade Itself is the best of the three fantasy novels I’ve read for this challenge so far, but it remains to be seen whether it’ll be the best of the year…


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Fantasy Challenge 2: Assassin’s Apprentice, Robin Hobb

Assassin’s Apprentice was not unknown to me when I picked it as one of my dozen fantasy novels for this year’s reading challenge. I knew that it was popular – the first book in a best-selling fantasy trilogy, in fact. I knew that Robin Hobb was a pen-name, used by Megan Lindholm (whose real name is actually Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden). I’d also heard that Lindholm, after ten fantasy novels, found it difficult to sell her next project as her sales had been declining. So she used the pen-name Robin Hobb instead. And Assassin’s Apprentice, her first book under that name, went on to become a best-seller. (A more cynical person than myself might have suggested that the perceived gender of Robin Hobb played a part…)

I’ve no idea how true how that is. Certainly some authors are deemed “category killers”, and subsequently find publication easier under a pseudonym. It seems more likely that Lindholm used the pseudonym simply to distinguish Assassin’s Apprentice and its sequels from her earlier work as it was a very different type of fantasy. Nonetheless, it did feed into my perception of the book…

Which was that Assassin’s Apprentice was a stereotypical secondary-world fantasy.

Except. The book is written in the first person – which is not typical of secondary-world fantasies. But it has a map – which is typical of secondary-world fantasies. I am, I admit, not a big fan of maps in books. I think they’re unnecessary… although I confess there’s a childish amusement to be gained looking up on them the places mentioned in the story. Also, the map in Assassin’s Apprentice did not bode well. I complained last month about Edding’s use of names in Pawn of Prophecy (see here). But at least he made an effort. Hobb instead chose to give the various parts of her fantasyland the most boring names ever – Near Isles, Mountain Kingdom, Neat Bay, South Cove, Cold River, Blue Lake… The characters’ names are no better: King Shrewd, Prince Chivalry, Prince Verity, Lady Patience… (It doesn’t help that Verity is a female name.)

But, the story: Fitz is the apprentice of the title. He’s the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, dumped on the royal family at the age of six. They acknowledge him as an illegitimate son, and he’s left in the charge of Burrich, the Stablemaster. Fitz grows up in the royal castle, Buckkeep Castle, learns how to look after animals, how to scribe, and becomes secretly apprenticed to the king’s assassin, Chade. Much of Assassin’s Apprentice covers Fitz’s childhood and early teen years – his various minor adventures, escapades and learning experiences during that time.

But it is only when he reaches the age of fourteen that the plot of the novel actually begins… Prince Verity is busy using his telepathic Skill to keep the evil Red Ship Raiders from the shores of the Six Duchies (which is the name of the kingdom). But his father, King Shrewd, has decreed he must marry. So Verity’s younger brother, Prince Regal, a nasty piece of work from the first chapter, finds him a bride, Princess Kettricken of the Mountain Kingdom. As part of a powerplay, Regal lies about Kettricken’s brother, the heir to the throne of the Mountain Kingdom, and so persuades King Shrewd to send Fitz with the wedding party to off the Mountain Kingdom prince.

It’s all a heinous plot, of course. And the nasty villains get their comeuppance. And you know they’re villains because they’ve been nasty since they first appeared. Although Hobb makes a decent fist of characterising her cast, she does signpost a bit too blatantly where the reader’s sympathies should lie.

As a secondary-world fantasy, Assassin’s Apprentice fails the immersion test. The world Hobb has created is, frankly, a bit dull. The convention of giving everything prosaic names evokes nothing, and suggests only a lack of imagination. The world itself is pretty much your bog-standard cod mediaeval world – although unlike the real Middle Ages, the royal family are just an ordinary bunch of folks with a bit more responsibility than most. Which seems a bit… egalitarian – a fault of many fantasies by US authors. There’s very little actual fantastic content – a mention of dragons, the Skill (telepathy), the Wit (empathy with animals), and the world itself. It seems odd that the world should feel as though it were painted in washed-out colours, given that over half of the book is essentially world-building.

Despite all that, I found myself enjoying Assassin’s Apprentice. It was an easy read, and Hobb has an engaging voice. I wasn’t convinced by Fitz, the narrator – the action starts when he’s fourteen, but he came across as somewhat older. It was certainly a better book than Pawn of Prophecy, but even so I’ve no plans to continue with the trilogy. Or indeed any other books by Hobb. There are some hints in Assassin’s Apprentice of a bigger story-arc and more interesting revelations. But. While the book is fairly typical of the genre, it also felt a lot like a fantasy with training wheels. It’s too much like a mediaeval boy’s adventure, sort of King Arthur meets Tom Sawyer, with very little actual secondary-world fantasy content.

A step up from last month’s read then, but still disappointing.


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Fantasy Challenge 1: Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings

My first choice of genre might well be science fiction, but I’ve also read a lot of fantasy. But not The Belgariad by David Eddings, for some reason. Perhaps it felt like too much of a cash-in on the popularity of the genre – back in the 1980s – so I gave it a miss. I don’t know. But I’ve now read the first book of the series. And…

I don’t think I missed anything.

Pawn of Prophecy is the first of five books known collectively as The Belgariad. It was first published in 1982, and is still in print now. But as a YA fantasy.

Garion is a fourteen-year-old orphan, who lives on a farmstead in central Sendaria. His guardian, Aunt Pol, is the cook. One day, a nameless storyteller – subsequently named Mister Wolf by Garion – makes one of his infrequent visits to the farmstead. Apparently, something very important has been stolen from somewhere, and Mister Wolf needs to discuss this with Aunt Pol. Which he does. The two decide to hunt down the thief and retrieve the stolen item. Afraid to leave Garion on his own at the farmstead – he is clearly more than just a simple orphan – they take him with them. Also accompanying them is the farm’s blacksmith, Durnik, who fancies Aunt Pol. They are then joined by Barak, a huge Viking-like warrior, and Silk, a weaselly merchant/spy.

The intrepid band head to Darine, a city on the north coast of Sendaria, but miss their quarry. So they head south to a trading city, then across to a major port, before being accosted by a platoon of royal guards and escorted north again – but this time to the Sendarian capital. Where they meet the king, and Mister Wolf, Aunt Pol, Barak and Silk are revealed as rather more important personages than they purported to be. And they’re needed yet further north at Val Alorn, the capital of Cherek, for a meeting of kings.

At Val Alorn, Garion kills a boar in a hunt, unmasks a spy, learns more about Mister Wolf and Aunt Pol, and learns a little more about who he is.

There is, plainly, nothing new here. There wasn’t back in 1982. The Belgariad is the very definition of a secondary world fantasy. Pawn of Prophecy even opens with a creation myth as a prologue – and which so clearly sets the plot of the series that the real natures of the central cast can only have come as a surprise to a complete nincompoop. In fact, there is very much a sense about Pawn of Prophecy of it being a manufactured book, as if it were written to a checklist. Perhaps this is because it’s so clichéd.

Each of the nations on the continent – there is, of course, the obligatory map at the front of the book – has a single characteristic. Sendaria is populated by practical peasants (and where better to hide your Peasant Hero?), Cherek is Viking-like berserkers, Drasnia is spies and shifty merchants, Algaria is Mongol-like nomads, Tolnedra is an empire… It’s world-building by numbers – there’s no real sense of place or culture to each city or nation, only of plugged-together borrowings.

The same is true of the characters. Garion is both the Peasant Hero and the Hidden King. Mister Wolf is the Good Magician. Barak is the Mighty Warrior. Durnik is the Loyal But Slightly Dim Peasant. All are straight from Central Casting. And Eddings makes little effort to further distinguish them from their archetypes. For example, Barak likes beer. A lot. Oh yes – his relations with his wife are somewhat strained. I suppose that “quirk” makes him a little bit different. Except, Silk – who is a typical thief/scout – is in love with his “aunt”, the king’s second wife (the king is his uncle, but she is no blood relation). So the cast are actually as much characterised by their relationships as they are their archetypes.

There’s a bizarre clumsiness to the naming of people and places in the book too. Sendaria is fine… but Ulgoland? Tolnedra? Angarak? Mimbrate knight? Some of the place-names read like accidents on a Scrabble board. They make the place feel even more invented. There doesn’t appear to have been any effort made to make names sound like they fit a particular culture.

The prose reads as though it were dictated. It has that sort of verbal rhythm, and a reliance on set phrases to characterise members of the cast. I lost count of the number of times I saw the sentence “Barak laughed”. Descriptive prose is thin at best. When, for example, Aunt Pol takes on the role of Duchess of Erat when the party reaches Muros, she is described as “wearing a blue dress” and “magnificent”. There are a number of action sequences, and in these the sparse prose works quite well. But the story itself seems to be mostly carried in the dialogue. The characters trek for leagues to some city, then have a discussion. They trek somewhere else and have another discussion. Then there’s an action set-piece. Afterward, they have a discussion.

So, not an impressive work. And I suspect I would have found it just as dissatisfying if I’d read it back in 1982 (when I was in my late teens). I can certainly understand why the Belgariad has been re-categorised as YA. A bratty fourteen-year-old, especially an ignorant one, is a protagonist only teenagers could like. I’d have preferred if he’d been killed early on – although, of course, that was unlikely, given that the series is about him…

I am reliably informed that Pawn of Prophecy is the weakest of the five novels. Certainly on the strength of it I have no desire to read the remaining books. I’ve read the series précis on Wikipedia (here), and neither does that encourage me to read further.

So, the first book in this year’s reading challenge, Pawn of Prophecy, fails to persuade me to try the next book. Let’s hope the next fantasy series I chose is more successful.

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