Wednesday 2 December 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 30

In the mid-2000s fantasy, and epic fantasy in particular, went through a renaissance. The reasons for this are numerous and varied. The impact of Harry Potter, particularly as its fans grew up and moved onto more adult fare, is one possible explanation. The success of the Lord of the Rings movies and people wanting more is another. Fans of series like The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire moving onto other series as the waits between volumes became longer is also possible.

But for whatever reason, at the start of the century a series of new major fantasy talents debuted. All got off to a good start with works that sold well, and some went on to become major best-sellers in one territory or another.

The Magician's Guild

Trudi Canavan's debut novel was published in 2001 and focuses on Sonea, a poor girl who is (reluctantly) persuaded to join the mage's guild so she can take control of her powers before they can run amok and kill innocents. Throughout the novel and its two sequels in The Black Magician Trilogy, class issues are contrasted with issues of perspective (particularly the way differing forms and types of magic are given value-judgement names).

The Black Magician Trilogy was a big success in its native Australia but also did very well upon its publication in Britain and the United States, becoming the biggest-selling debut fantasy series since Terry Goodkind...until a certain Patrick Rothfuss published his first novel in 2007.

The Weavers of Saramyr & Retribution Falls

Published in 2003, The Weavers of Saramyr was the opening novel in The Braided Path (2003-05), a trilogy by Chris Wooding that moved away from the traditional use of Western European tropes in favour of elements drawing on Asian mythology, as well as simply using original ideas with no firm rooting in a real historical tradition. The trilogy sees the empire of Saramyr dependent on a magic-wielding elite who hold ultimate power, and they are eventually drawn into conflict with freedom fighters anxious to restore the Empire to freedom.

In 2009 Wooding began publishing his second major fantasy series, The Tales of the Ketty Jay (2009-12), with Retribution Falls. This series fuses epic fantasy tropes to steampunk, drawing inspiration from films and TV series involving aerial battles as well. Both series, although wildly different in character, setting and tone, show the author's willingness to bend genres and bring together radically different influences and inspirations to create something new, fresh and exciting.

The Blade Itself

First published in 2006, The Blade Itself was the debut novel by British film editor Joe Abercrombie. He'd been working on the book, on and off, for years and finally got it to the position where it was publishable. A chance meeting with an editor at Gollancz saw the book get to the shelves and, helped by Pyr Books in the US, became a quick cult success. With Orbit US taking over publication of Abercrombie's fourth novel, he that achieved a breakthrough in sales across the Atlantic as well.

Abercrombie's first six novels take place in his signature setting, The First Law world. The first three books (2006-08) form a coherent trilogy, the next three (2009-12) are stand-alones with some linking subplots and secondary characters but each book is primarily independent. This setting is, at first glance, a traditional fantasy secondary world focusing on the "civilised" Union, an island-nation which is expanding onto a northern continent, populated by clans of violent barbarians, and also facing opposition from a desert empire to the south. The First Law books draw together disparate heroes (if only self-appointed ones) who must join forces to defeat the enemy. However, it soon turns out that their own allies and in particular their apparently grumpy-but-friendly wizard mentor are actually viciously amoral, manipulative individuals who are out for their own advancement.

Abercrombie has been praised for his gritty moral ambiguity, his avoidance of pat or cliched endings and the employment of a dark and twisted sense of humour. His prose improves remarkably over the books, and he does unusual things in his later novels of using the epic fantasy template to riff off Mafia revenge movies, historical war stories and even spaghetti westerns.

To keep things fresh, in 2014-15 he published a YA trilogy, The Shattered Sea, set in a far future, post-apocalyptic Scandinavia, featuring morally compromised antiheroes and realistically-flavoured characters trying to get by in a crazy world. This mix of accessibility and complexity has helped make Abercrombie one of Britain's biggest-selling genre authors.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Scott Lynch's debut novel, The Lies of Locke Lamora (2006), was arguably the first novel to benefit from the advent of the "blogosphere" in the mid-2000s. Fantasy review sites including Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, Nethspace and the OF Blog of the Fallen had first appeared in the middle of the decade and provided platforms to review and discuss books before the arrival of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads. The Lies of Locke Lamora was discussed on such sites and on book forums for a good year or so before it was finally published, and when it did arrive it was to significant critical acclaim.

Scott Lynch's debut is set in the city of Camorr, an Italian-flavoured city-state riven by classic issues and also dominated by unusual structures left behind by an ancient but enigmatic race of powerful creatures. The book focuses on a gang of thieves who are drawn into events beyond their control, with bloody, tragic and (somehow) hilarious results. The focus is on Locke Lamora, an extremely lucky, skilled and arrogant man forever getting in over his head and having to be constantly rescued by his constant friend and ally Jean. The book is well-written and brimming with verve and atmosphere, but it's key success is being a vital novel which makes the world and people feel alive. The sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies (2007), combines these elements with a pirate adventure on the high seas.

Unfortunately, health issues delayed the arrival of The Republic of Thieves, the third novel in the planned seven-volume Gentleman Bastard sequence, until 2013. However, when it was published it was to tremendous sales and critical success: the long wait had not only not damaged Lynch's reputation, but added to it. Republic darkens and complicates Locke's story by introducing his female sometimes-love interest, sometimes-nemesis, Sabetha, and also radically reconceptualises the series by making it more serialised and epic, a process which continues in The Thorn of Emberlain (2016) which moves the series into full-scale war.

The Name of the Wind

In 2007 DAW Books attracted a lot of attention by announcing that they acquired had something very special. Indeed, the last time respect editor Betsy Wollheim had made such a fuss about an epic fantasy novel it had been The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams, a novel that had profoundly changed the genre forever, so a lot of fans sat up and took notice.

The Name of the Wind was an absolute monster smash hit when it was released. It sold like proverbial hot cakes on both sides of the Atlantic, smashed debut author fantasy sales records like paper and gripped the imagination like very few other books had done. It was certainly the biggest and most successful epic fantasy debut of the 2000s. The reasons for its success were clear: a marketable and charismatic narrator, a simplistic premise (essentially an adult Harry Potter story, in a secondary world) which belies a much more complex and subtle story about an unreliable narrator, and some rich and evocative prose. An incongruous climactic battle against a wyrm aside, it was a compelling and interesting debut novel.

The sequel, The Wise Man's Fear, was published in 2011 (a delay that caused some grumbles, as the author had claimed the entrie Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy was already complete before publication) to similarly rapturous popular acclaim and even stronger sales, although the critical reception was more mixed due to the novel's much greater length but a distinct dearth of major plot or character developments. Some claimed that this was part of the trilogy's appeal, its constant thwarting of expectations built up from earlier genre novels. Indeed, the series could even be described as a distinctly anti-epic fantasy, defying convention in search of something new. Whether the series will have achieved that remains to be seen in the concluding volume, The Doors of Stone, expected in 2016/17.

And Also...

Other fantasy series which appeared during this renaissance period included Karen Miller's Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology (2005), Gail Z. Martin's Chronicles of the Necromancer (2007-10) and Tom Lloyd's Twilight Reign series (2006-12).

Established authors also enjoyed renewed success during this time, with Raymond E. Feist recovering from a turn-of-the-millennium dip in form with Honoured Enemy (2001, with William Forstchen) and Talon of the Silver Hawk (2002), which both re-injected some life into his flagging Riftwar Cycle. Unfortunately, later books continued to decline in quality with the series struggling to a final resolution in Magician's End (2013).

More positive was Gregory Keyes, a reliable author of alternate-history (in the Age of Unreason series) and rural fantasy (in the Chosen of the Changeling duology) who wrote and executed a well-received epic fantasy sequence called The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone (2003-08).

Paul Kearney, author of the excellent Monarchies of God sequence, experienced a mid-decade crisis when his excellent Sea-Beggars series was cut short after two volumes (2004-06). Attempts to bring the final volume to print were thwarted by complex legal issues, leaving the series incomplete against the author's will and to the annoyance of his fans. However, he was rescued by Solaris Books who published a new, Greek-inspired fantasy series called The Macht between 2008 and 2012.

In 2001 an established, experienced author of books for children, Gillian Rubinstein, published her first novel for adults using the pen-name Lian Hearn: Across the Nightingale Floor. The novel used ancient Japanese history and mythology as the basis for an epic fantasy tale, eventually encapsulating three novels, a prequel and a sequel. The series was credited for reviving interest in Asian history and folklore as a setting for fantasy stories.

Most vividly out of this period, hard-boiled cyberpunk and science fiction author Richard Morgan moved decisively into fantasy with his Land Fit For Heroes Trilogy (2008-14), starting with The Steel Remains. Morgan's remit was simply to make a kick-ass story that brought fantasy screaming into the 21st Century. This may have been slightly redundant due to the advent of authors like Bakker, Abercrombie, Erikson and Lynch, but Morgan's work packed in enough twists to make his contribution stand out. His lead character is gay, and almost aggressively so with no punches pulled. The story is strident and angry and political, riffing off class divides and government corruption and the threats of the allure of true power. It is dark and powerful, although arguably the series took at least most of the first novel to work out what exactly it wanted to do before starting to achieve it.

This shot in the arm given to fantasy was sadly parallelled by sad news for some of the older guard. David Gemmell suffered a cardiac arrest and passed away in 2006 while writing the final novel his excellent Troy Trilogy. In 2007 Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers. He would pass away in 2015, but before then would spend the rest of his life fighting for the right to die and for treatment of the terrible disease, all the while producing further Discworld novels. In 2009 David Eddings, one of the founding figures of modern epic fantasy, also passed away at the age of 77. Robert Jordan was diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis and passed away in 2007, leaving his mammoth Wheel of Time sequence unfinished.

The task of finding an author to complete the Wheel of Time series should have been daunting for his widow and editor Harriet McDougal, and his publisher Tor Books. After all, the author they chose could well be construed to be inheriting the mantle of writing for the most ambitious epic fantasy series around. However, the choice in the end was made simple by the fact that Tor Books already had an author working for them who was already working on epic fantasy series - universe, in fact - that absolutely dwarfed even Robert Jordan's formidable ambition.


Unknown said...

Up next Brandon Sanderson!

Johan Sporre said...

J V Jones!

Jens said...

It's nice to see you mentioning of some works that are often overlooked. I don't think I've ever seen Woodings Braided Path trilogy mentioned elsewhere in the past years (but I may just not be looking in the right places).

One question: you say that Hearn's (Rubinstein's) Tales of the Otori consists of "five novels and several spin-offs". I've been tempted to buy these for a while (and should do so soon). I wasn't aware of any spin-offs. As far as I know there's a trilogy followed by a sequel and a prequel bringing the number of novels up to five, but no other work in this world. What have I overlooked?

Adam Whitehead said...

JV Jones is in Part 19:

As for Lian Hearn, I goofed :)

Johan Sporre said...

Oh, I hadn't read that part. I liked what you wrote - I too feel A Sword of Shadows to be a very good series (one of my favourites). Even though Speaker for the Dead is also one fantastic book, the fifth book in her series is called Watched for the Dead :)

Are you planning to do something similar for Science Fiction history?

Anonymous said...

I really thought pt. 30 would be the last. How many other parts till History of Epic Fantasy becomes Present of Epic Fantasy?

Caddarn said...

Surprised there was no mention of David Gemmell's passing in 2006.

Adam Whitehead said...

The tale grew in the telling. I am postulating 3 parts left, possibly an additional summing-up and then maybe a source/summary list. We're pretty much there.

Unknown said...

brilliant series of articles dude

Anonymous said...

I just started reading Richard Morgan's books and they are really good! Thank you for the recommendation.