Sunday 18 October 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 19

The early to mid 1990s saw an explosion in the popularity of epic fantasy. Writers in the field went from a few dozen to hundreds as publishers chased the next Robert Jordan or Tad Williams. Sales were extremely strong, but market oversaturation led to a decline in the latter part of the decade. But several major, strong voices emerged from this period who would go on to great success.

The Last Wish

Epic fantasy is not just popular in the English language. Authors such as Tolkien, Pratchett and Jordan achieved fame worldwide, with translated editions of their books selling in their tens and hundreds of thousands, even millions, outside of their success in English. Some authors even enjoyed greater success: Tad Willias's SF/fantasy Otherland series sold very well in the USA and UK, but became a phenomenal bestseller in Germany. Paul Kearney had middling sales in English, but his books are quite popular in places from Spain to Israel.

More unusual, until recently, were authors from overseas being translated into English. Whether this was simple economics - the additional cost of paying a professional translator was not deemed worth it when there was so much homegrown talent available - is unclear. However, in the 2000s publishers began realising that by publishing non-English authors in the States and Commonwealth markets, they could often tap into a large back-catalogue of already-completed works. And the first author to benefit from this was Polish superstar Andrzej Sapkowski.

Sapkowski began publishing short stories about Geralt of Rivia, a "witcher" or monster-hunter, in the late 1980s. In 1990 he assembled these stories as The Witcher (re-released in 1993 in an expanded form under its definitive title, The Last Wish), which became a bestseller in Poland. Its success soon spread to the huge (and oft-neglected) Russian-speaking market as well as across Europe, from Spain to Germany. The book was followed by The Sword of Destiny (1992), a linked series of short stories which established the background and setting for a longer epic. This epic took the form of five novels, starting with Blood of Elves, published between 1994 and 1999 (with a prequel novel being published in 2012).

These books are notable for drawing on a broader range of European mythology than is the norm, and for a large degree of moral complexity. The reliance of the books on Polish wordplay for their humour made translating them challenging, and may have contributed to the delay in their appearance in English.

In 2007 the decision was made to bring the books into English. This was inspired by the release, by CD Projekt, of a tie-in video game called The Witcher. The game was a modest success and was followed by The Witcher II: Assassin of Kings (2011), which was a much bigger worldwide hit. This in turn was followed by The Witcher III: The Last Hunt (2015), which was a worldwide monster smash, selling six million copies in its first month on sale. The English translations proceeded in a haphazard manner, with the release of the later books delayed by immense legal complications. These were eventually resolved and the series was finally released in English to significant critical acclaim.

King's Dragon

Alis A. Ramussen started her writing career in 1988, publishing a stand-alone fantasy novel called The Labyrinth Gate, followed by the science fiction Highroad Trilogy in 1990. Sales were disappointing, so her publishers proposed switching to a pen name to relaunch her career. Now writing as Kate Elliott, her next project was the Jaran science fiction series. This was modestly successful, but she achieved greater popularity with the well-received Golden Key, a fantasy collaboration with Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Roberson. These marked out Elliott as an author watch.

Her next project, King's Dragon (1997), established her one of the top writers in the epic fantasy field. This was the opening volume of Crown of Stars, a series that grew to seven volumes and was completed in 2006. Crown of Stars is both a traditional epic fantasy and one that comments on the genre, with its strong female characters and deliberately low-scaled setting with armies typically numbering in the hundreds rather than the thousands and a much greater emphasis on the power of religion. The series is also notable for being set in an overtly parallel-universe version of Europe rather than a more loosely "influenced by" setting. Its musings on faith and religious power are impressive (particularly the expectation-defying storyline of Alain), and overall it ranks as one of the more interesting and underrated completed series in the field.

Elliott has since written the remarkable Crossroads and Spiritwalker trilogies, as well as the Court of Fives YA series.

Wizards' First Rule

After the immense success of The Wheel of Time, Tor Books began looking for authors who could repeat Robert Jordan's success for them. In 1994 they published the debut novel by an American author named Terry Goodkind.

Goodkind had come to writing relatively late in life, having had a successful career as a painter and cabinet-maker. Dyslexia had made him reluctant to tackle writing, but he overcame this to write Wizards' First Rule in 1993; Tor published it the following year, when the author was 46. The book was initially well-received and sold impressively, so Tor published several sequels. This became The Sword of Truth series, which by the time of its completion thirteen years later had expanded to eleven novels and sold over 25 million copies, making Goodkind Tor's second-biggest-selling author after Robert Jordan.

The Sword of Truth is unusual in that it is heavily influenced by the works of Ayn Rand, particular Atlas Shrugged and the socio-economic theory of Objectivism it popularised. Objectivism states that the will and importance of the individual is of paramount importance and that social systems should not limit the ability of the individual to seek happiness or promote their own success. However, some commentators have noted that this is merely a thinly-veiled excuse for unrestrained capitalist expansion and a justification for the selfishness of the privileged over the unlucky or socially-challenged. The Objectivist philosophy is fairly restrained in Wizards' First Rule but becomes more prominent in later novels (and then completely dominant in Faith of the Fallen, the sixth book in the series) when substantial chunks of the books are given over to the heroes of the series, Richard Rahl and Kahlan, expounding on the theory and its application to their fantasy world at some considerable length. Other political ideas also made their way into the series, such as Goodkind using carciatures of Bill and Hilary Clinton as villains in one novel and expounding on Communism as the primary evil in his world. Goodkind also began stating in interviews that he was not writing fantasy because he loved the genre, but because he saw it as a way of exploring "important human themes", to the bemusement of many reviewers and fans familiar with the series and concepts such as "nipple magic", the "noble goat" and "evil shapeshifting monster who attacks a primary protagonist whilst inexplicably disguised as a chicken".

Despite the naysayers, The Sword of Truth remains one of the biggest-selling fantasy series of recent times. Unusually, however, it's also a series whose profile and sales dipped as it continued. The concluding volumes reached the top of the New York Times bestseller lists, but Goodkind's attempt to launch a tangentially-related series set in the modern world, The Law of Nines, was not successful. A subsequent sequel series to The Sword of Truth, following up on Richard and Kahlan's later adventures, has also failed to achieve the same level of sales as the earlier novels. A television adaptation of the series, Legend of the Seeker, was also cancelled after two seasons (and having very little to do with the books). However, these failures are only relative, and Goodkind remains one of the more well-known - and some fantasy fans may say infamous - authors in the field.

The Baker's Boy

SFF publishing's ongoing quest to find the next big thing turned up an additional success in 1995. A British author residing in San Francisco, Julie Victoria Jones, had sent Warner Books a manuscript called The Baker's Boy, the opening volume of a trilogy called The Book of Words. With the trilogy already in an advanced state of completion, Warners (who used the series to reboot a moribund SFF line) decided to publish the series with a heavy blizzard of publicity, mirrored by Orbit Books in the UK.

The result was a trilogy that smashed onto the bestseller lists and achieved early critical acclaim, not for its story which was standard but for its dark sense of humour, overriding themes of tragedy and murky, complex morality. Jones also proved to be remarkably prolific, producing a fine stand-alone novel called The Barbed Coil in 1997 before embarking on The Sword of Shadows, a sequel series to The Book of Words, although not one that requires detailed foreknowledge of the original series.

Published in 1999, A Cavern of Black Ice represented not so much an improvement in quality but a quantum jump in skill and ability. Featuring substantially improved characterisation and prose skills over her earlier works, A Cavern of Black Ice was a fine fantasy novel that boded well for the rest of the series. Unfortunately, Jones's formerly spectacular production rate appeared to drop off a cliff, with long waits for the sequels: A Fortress of Grey Ice (2002), A Sword From Red Ice (2007) and Speaker for the Dead (2010). The fifth novel, Endlords, has been delayed several times.

Despite these disappointingly long waits, The Sword of Shadows remains one of the more accomplished works of epic fantasy of recent years. Its brooding, freezing atmosphere, its political intrigue and its tragic characters combine to form a series of much greater depth than some of its contemporaries, and if it ends strongly it could be regarded as one of the defining works of its time.

Hawkwood's Voyage

Paul Kearney, a writer from Northern Ireland, began his writing career with three stand-alone novels: The Way to Babylon (1992), A Different Kingdom (1993) and Riding the Unicorn (1994). These novels are notable for featuring characters from the real world intermingling with the fantasy world in some way. A Different Kingdom was particularly remarkable, coming across as a uniquely Irish spin on some of the same ground explored in Robert Holdstock's woodland fantasy, Mythago Wood. Riding the Unicorn hinted at a different direction for Kearney's work, featuring as it did massive battles and clashes between armies in a well-realised fantasy world.

Published in 1995, Hawkwood's Voyage was the logical next step in that process. Set completely in a fantasy world, the novel charts the clash between the western kingdoms of Normannia and the invading hordes of the Merduks of the east, who follow a different religion. The western kingdoms are divided by civil war sparked by an attempt by the fanatical Ramusian Church to press down on heretics and magic-users not sworn to their services. A number of these heretics flee into the western ocean as part of an ill-advised exploration mission seeking a rumoured new continent across the sea, whilst the kings of two of the great western nations break away in an attempt to protect their people. This leaves the eastern kingdom of Torunna to face the invaders alone, massively outnumbered and with only a single beleaguered fortress guarding the way.

The Monarchies of God, spanning five short novels published from 1995 to 2003, was a series ahead of its time. It was unusually bloody and grim, although never gratuitously so, but ended on a note of hope and cooperation. It featured vivid, memorable battle sequences reminiscent of David Gemmell, along with cynical military camaraderie in the style of Glen Cook. The religious turmoil is drawn straight from history (the opening fall of Aekir, the great religious centre of the east, is based on the capture of Constantinople in 1453), but the presence of werewolves injects a shot of sheer horror into the narrative at unexpected moments. The books are also remarkable for carrying a huge amount of plot and character development in relatively few pages (the combined page count for the series is roughly equal to George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords by itself). They also take place later in feigned history than most fantasy books, featuring gunpowder, arquebuses and cannons alongside the more traditional swords and crossbows. Other fantasy series have employed gunpowder (such as Tom Arden's Orokon sequence) but it remains an under-explored technology in epic fantasy.

An intermittent release cycle and the earlier books going out of print before the later ones could be published meant that The Monarchies of God did not achieve the success it deserved on its initial printing: its reissuing in two volumes (Hawkwood and the Kings and Century of the Soldier) by Solaris in 2010 proved more successful. Kearney has since written two volumes of a nautical fantasy series, The Sea-Beggars (the concluding volume has been held up by a rights dispute between the British and American publishers); a Gemmell-esque quasi-historical trilogy based on ancient Greece called The Macht; and a couple of tie-in novels for properties such as Primeval and Warhammer 40,000. His next book, The Wolf in the Attic, is a return to the more intimate, character-based fantasy of his early work. However, Kearney's immense skills at epic fantasy make him one of the more interesting, if underread, authors in the genre.

By the mid-1990s epic fantasy was looking for its Next Big Thing, a series that would come along and redefine the genre. Attempts to simply replicate Tolkien or Jordan hadn't really worked, and although some big sellers had emerged, there still wasn't any sign of a work that would elevate the genre further. When it did arrive, in August 1996, it wasn't from a bright and hopeful young author, but from a long-standing and respected author in the fields of science fiction and horror.


Arrgh said...

The Witcher game trailers are great if you've read the books, but not played the games.

Anonymous said...

J. V. Jones was actually published by Warner Aspect for her first 5 books. TOR didn't pick her up until A Fortress of Grey Ice (Sword of Shadows, book 2). Here is a page from her website describing how it came to be.

Adam Whitehead said...

Owch. I actually used to know that, because I remember it being a talking point when she switched publishers. Thanks and amended.

Anonymous said...

No worries. Cheers, mate. :)

zipdrive said...

A small correction. The title of third Witcher game is The Wild Hunt, and not The Last Hunt as stated.