Thursday, February 3, 2011

New Fantasy Books

Glen Cook, I can't thank you enough.  The fantasy genre was a bland pretty place before you came along.  All that high fantasy was getting pretty old - sure there was the Thieves' World series, which was introducing a darker, grittier version of the fantasy genre to people, but it wasn't until Glen Cook's Black Company series that shit got real.

Well, not real - but different.  Darker.  The Black Company is the first fantasy series that I'm aware of that draws heavily on the military stories coming back from the Vietnam war.  Books like Chickenhawk, Fields of Fire and the excellently-titled Conduct to the Prejudice of Good Order deal with the experience of war in a way that previous fantasy fiction hadn't.  War, and the experience of making war and of living life as a soldier were brought to the fore by these books, and many of the themes started making the jump into fantasy around the start of the '80s.

That's not to say that they weren't around before that.  Much of REH's Conan stuff was pretty darn gritty, and actually holds up pretty well today.  Red Nails ain't no picnic, that's for sure.  So the darker themes have always been there, sometimes lighter, sometimes heavier.  We seem to be getting into a darker shade of dark phase here, though.

I just picked up Joe Abercrombie's "The Heroes" and "The Steel Remains" by Richard Morgan.  Just as a caveat - I like this kind of fantasy.  Eddings and his "indoor plumbing" fantasy worlds were fine when I was 13, but I frankly enjoy stuff with a little more hair on it's chest these days.  Hell, I read hours of board books to my 2-year-old, I don't need more kiddie stuff when I actually get some time to read myself.

I had slightly mixed feelings about Abercrombie's last novel - "Best Served Cold".  The only character that I really liked, Caul Shivers, turned into a total bastard by the end of it, and I never really came around to rooting for Mercatto.  She didn't really seem to learn much in the course of the novel.  But "The Heroes" is a much better story.  It actually reminded me a bit of Jeff Shaara's "The Killer Angels" in terms of categorizing the effects of war on various individuals involved, from new recruits to veterans on both sides.  It was a much more interesting novel, and the better of the two.

As for the Morgan, I really, really like the Takeshi Kovaks series and I'm reading 13 right now, with Market Forces queued up on the ebook reader - so I'm a fan.  I wasn't blown away by "The Steel Remains" though.  It was interesting - kept me entertained and turning pages right through to the end, but I can see how it wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea.  You don't see gay male characters much in fantasy - I can think of only 2 other series off the top of my head, so that might put some people off, and the violence is pretty Morgan-ish, but I've read his other stuff, so it wasn't that far off.  It just never really grabbed me like the Kovaks books did.  Looks like it's the first of a trilogy, though - so we'll see where it goes.

So good times in fantasy if you like yours with a bit more spit and a bit less polish.  If you want a decent middle road, the new Ian Esselmont, Stonewielder, might be a good pickup.  That guy has steadily improved since his underwhelming first book, and now I find I'm enjoying his stuff more than Erikson - which is quite a thing for me to say.


  1. Thanks for the tip-off. I was wondering about whether or not Abercrombie and Morgan's books were worth picking up. Now I will have to pick up at least the former book.

    If you like military-styled fiction you might want to check out Bernard Cornwell's Arthur series (if you haven't read them already). It's a bit agnostic on whether magic actually exists in post Roman Britain, but one of best series I have read in a while.

  2. Yeah, I recommend the Abercrombie and the Esselmont. The Morgan was decent, but I like his Sci-fi better than his fantasy.

    I quite like the Arthur series by Cornwell, and the Jo Walton series about Arthur is pretty good as well.

    My favorite Cornwell is the Warlord series, though. Uhtred of Bebbanburg is a big favorite of mine.

  3. I really enjoyed the Black Company books, at least the first 6 of them.. I disliked how the Wars of the Crystal plains just dragged and dragged.. it hurt to see characters like One Eye and especially Goblin go the way they did. It's a series I recommend a lot, but I always tell people to stop after the White Rose.. and only read the Silver Spike if they absolutely have too.

    I think thats the thing though, The Black Company books have giant flying aircraft carrier like windwhales.. its unmistakably a Fantasy novel.. yet does give a good picture of what life on the ground would be like in the army of a dark lord. But at the same time, the humanity of characters like Croaker continues to shine through all the blood and sweat and toil he endures. The same cannot be said of a lot of characters in some of the more recent books.. who are simply assholes and remain unrepentant about that until the last.. and they generally come out of the series smelling like roses to boot. Its a rather annoying strain of cynicism.

    I'm planning on striking out and reading the Malazan series once the Crippled God is out. I aim to read them in order chronologically.. starting with the Bachalain and Korbel Broach novellas and Night of Knives.. I'm hoping it will limit the "Tossed into the deep end" feeling that Gardens of the Moon exudes.

  4. Yeah, the Black Company series did kinda start to lag a bit for me when the Lady came onboard and the Company headed South (literally and metaphorically).

    I don't tend to require that the good guys win and everyone gets what they deserve in my fantasy. I like Abercrombie, after all. But it is nice to have a character that you can root for. Which was Croaker most of the time in the Black Company.

    I suppose that's why Guy Kay is a solid for me - he always has characters that I can root for, even if the best doesn't always come about for them. Heck, even Logan Ninefingers in the first Abercrombie series was worth rooting for. Too bad he's a psychotic killer sometimes.

    Your idea for approaching the Malazan series has some merit. I find the Esselmont books much more approachable in the "WTF is Happening" sense. Let me know how it works out for you.

  5. The only Cook I have is the original Black Company, which I have not yet had a chance to read. Still trying to get through all the 19th Century writers like Morris and Dunsany!

  6. I read enough 19th C stuff doing an English Lit degree at university. I like my stuff a bit more current these days.

    I do still need to read Dunsany, though. I'll probably have time, even though the new Scott Lynch, the new R Scott Bakker, the new Erikson, the new Patrick Rothfuss are all coming out in the next few months.