posted Thursday 17 February 2011 @ 1:44 pm PST
Heroic or high fantasy, whether it appears under the guise of multi-volume “epics” or the shorter-length Sword and Sorcery fantasies, is often overlooked when it comes to judging a year’s best. Due to the outsized conflicts and emphasis in most such stories on plot over theme or minute characterization, such stories cannot be judged in the same fashion as a realist or surreal fiction. Heroic fantasies depend much more upon immersive experiences for the reader to enjoy the unfolding narratives. Resembling more cinematic serials in their wide scope, plot-driven action, and formulaic characters and situations, heroic fantasies have long appealed to readers, from the epic poems of Homer, Vergil, Ariosto, and Spenser down to the faux-medievalist worlds of E.R. Eddison and J.R.R. Tolkien or the morally complex tales of a Fritz Leiber or Michael Moorcock.
One of the criticisms of heroic fantasies is that they rely too much upon formulae, whether they contain the trappings of medieval European life, noble and/or morally conflicted characters, externalized evil, or an over-reliance upon male, straight, Caucasian leads. Yet upon a closer examination, recent heroic fantasies have shifted quite a bit away from these stereotypes. In the nine books (seven novels and two anthologies) selected below, nearly every single one departs in some fashion or another from these traditional assumptions regarding heroic fantasies. Furthermore, as the world today has become more globalized than ever before, heroic fantasies composed outside the Anglophone world have begun to gain huge audiences, with some now beginning to appear in English translation. These authors have introduced new elements into the heroic fantasy formulae, creating a wealth of possibilities for not just non-English writers but also for English-language heroic fantasy authors.
Gardini’s standalone quest novel was by far the best heroic fantasy that I read in 2010. Although not currently available in English, Gardini’s tale resembles some of Gene Wolfe’s best novels. In this novel, Gardini displays a mastery of prose and theme that few authors have managed to achieve in any language. The story is, on the surface, a rather simple one: The leader of the city of Trinidad, the Ducásima (a mage and visionary who protects the laws and soul of the city), has been poisoned. The Axis of the World is in danger. From the search for the antidote for this poison, the story blossoms into a reflection of the nature of the world created and an exploration into the motives found within us. It is not a typical fantasy quest adventure, where the heroes seek an object. Here, it seems the quest itself serves as a realized metaphor for how we humans seek to establish order and to create systems of understanding for the wild, chaotic world around us.
Jemisin’s debut novel has generated more debate over its structure and its central heroine character than any other heroic fantasy published in 2010. Yeine Darr, a biracial female relative to the ruling imperial caste, stands out from most heroic fantasy protagonists because her heroism is not found in her prowess with a weapon or other “outlandish” trait, but because her quiet strength of character captures the reader’s attention. It is easy to mistake Yeine’s deceptive first-person narrative for inconsistencies of character, and certainly some critics of the novel were taken back by Yeine’s healthy, lustful relationship with another character, but these debates underscore the complexities Jemisin has imbued in this character. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, despite some narrative flaws in its execution of certain plots, is memorable for its recasting of heroic deeds and character in a personage who is not skilled in fighting or magic. Combined with a shrewd, unflinching look at the dynamics of social inequality, this debut novel represents some of the changes in focus and characterization that have been transpiring in several heroic fantasies in recent years.
Ever since the earliest epic poems and songs were composed, the warrior has been a key character in most heroic fantasies. In their anthology, Warriors, George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois encouraged contributors to develop within their own milieus characters who embody the myriad qualities associated with warriors. Some of the stories, such as Robert Silverberg’s “Defenders of the Frontier” or Martin’s novella “The Mystery Knight,” take traditional heroic fantasy motifs, such as the knight errant or the duty-bound soldier, and create strong, vivid tales that remind readers of some of the best stories of Fritz Leiber or even the authors’ own earlier works. Others tales such as Peter Beagle’s haunting “Dirae” or Robin Hobb’s “The Triumph,” plumb the depths of the terror, frenzy, despair, and desperation that lie at the heart of heroic acts. Their stories reveal scarred, complex characters whose situations and resolve remind readers of the terrible costs associated with heroism. These four stories are only a small fraction of the spectrum of tales presented by some of the most talented writers active today.
Paul Kearney has a long history of writing short, compact novels that usually center around a single character or small group of characters who face great external and internal conflicts. In his follow-up to the acclaimed reimagining of Xenophon’s history of the Greek Ten Thousand, The Ten Thousand, Kearney in Corvus revisits the world of the Macht over two decades after the heroic events of the first novel. Rictus, the final leader of that legendary army, finds himself torn between his weariness with bloodshed and violence and his need to work as a mercenary captain in order to provide for his family. Although the story’s title hints that the focus will be on the quasi-Alexander the Great, Corvus, and his charismatic leadership, the true heart and soul of the novel lies with Rictus. Kearney masterfully reveals Rictus’ conflicts, his reluctant assumption of command in Corvus’ army, and the terrible events that sunder him from all which he has loved. Corvus is perhaps one of the best character-driven heroic fantasy novels published in recent years.
Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski is perhaps the most well-known non-Anglophone fantasy novelist. His seven volume (eight in some split editions, such as the Spanish translation completed in mid-2010) saga surrounding the monster-hunting Witcher Geralt of Rivera, mixes Slavic and Central European myth, Arthurian-based legend, with a witty, engaging prose that might remind some of the best of Jack Vance’s writing. With this final volume published last year in Spain, Sapkowski’s saga has now been published to its conclusion in nearly every major European language, with the notable exception of English, where only two volumes have been issued to date. This is a shame, as this final volume contains a powerful conclusion that is rare in most multi-volume heroic fantasies.
Over the past five years, Canadian writer Ian Cameron Esslemont has changed from being known as “the other guy” involved in the creation of the Malazan setting that friend and co-creator Steven Erikson has established to becoming a respected writer of heroic fantasy in his own right. In his third novel, Stonewielder, Esslemont’s writing not only complements narrative elements that Erikson had established in his own series, but he expands upon central mysteries surrounding the setting and some of its cast of characters. One of those characters, Greymane, becomes a hero not because of what he has accomplished but rather for what he refused to do, despite the deep personal toll that this decision has taken on him over the past decade. Esslemont’s development of this character is handled well and the concluding narrative resembles strongly some of the more poignant moments in the Malazan novels. Stonewielder is Esslemont’s best novel to date and it is one of the strongest multi-volume heroic fantasies published in 2010.
Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders’ original anthology, Swords & Dark Magic, tries to encapsulate as many strands of heroic, sword & sorcery fantasies as possible within the bounds of a single anthology. While the end result was uneven, with several authors, including Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch, contributing stories that feel too compressed due to the authors’ relative unfamiliarity with composing short fiction, there were a few standout stories that make this anthology notable. Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “The Sea-Troll’s Daughter” brilliantly subverts the ugly/evil, handsome/good stereotypes embedded in so many tales, as the hero becomes more the villain and the presumed villain takes on heroic qualities that are the inverse of those presented in more traditional tales. Gene Wolfe’s “Bloodsport” is perhaps one of his better short fictions in recent years, as he still manages to confound and entrap the reader with the metaphysical qualities of the first-person narrator and his possible unreliability. These two stories alone, combined with several solid if not spectacular contributions from the likes of Steven Erikson and Michael Moorcock, help make Swords & Dark Magic a recommended anthology of heroic fantasy.
Multi-volume fantasies can quickly become tedious for readers, with the glacial plot advancements and the overwhelming number of characters, new and old alike, to remember over the course of several volumes. British author Adrian Tchaikovsky in his “Shadows of the Apt” series (with the first four volumes being published in the US in 2010) so far has managed to avoid most of these pitfalls. The narrative arc that concludes in the fourth volume, Salute the Dark, is sharp, with little sense of extraneous detail thrown in to create a false sense of ponderousness. Tchaikovsky also weaves in elements from other subgenres such as steampunk to create a setting that feels different from traditional heroic fantasies. Combined with his quasi-magical totemic use of insects (beetles, wasps, bees, spiders, moths, mantis, ants, etc.), the atmosphere feels fresh. Tchaikovsky’s characters are complex and yet direct, which allows the author to develop and transform their personalities and actions as necessary. By the time the introductory plot arc concludes with Salute the Dark, the reader will have found herself wondering just where from here Tchaikovsky is heading with his overall series, considering how well he concludes several character and subplot arcs.
Sanderson’s profile has been raised in the past three years with his appointment to complete the late Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, but his original efforts have shown a steady improvement as a prose writer and in plotting elaborate, intricate plots. The Way of Kings, the first in a planned ten-volume series (which in turn apparently will have some connections with his other fictions), is perhaps the most traditional heroic fantasy on this list. However, there are hints of huge plot twists toward the end of this sprawling 1000 page book. It is the hope of new, surprising developments that keep readers consuming succeeding volumes of this type of multi-volume heroic fantasy. The Way of Kings certainly contains the potential for it joining the ranks of other bestselling heroic fantasies such as the aforementioned Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth series.