It’s January 2017, and what will my reading year bring? I hereby resolve that it’s not going to be eleven months of filling in time before Brandon Sanderson releases Oathbringer, the third Stormlight Archive volume. Instead I’m going to spend quality time curling up in the comfort of familiar favorite authors like Kate Forsyth, Juliet Marillier, and Barbara Hambly, and finding some new names to add to my favorites list. I’m going to dive into epic fantasy worlds, some that look a bit like medieval or Renaissance Europe and others that couldn’t resemble it less. I’m going to do some exploring in genres I’m not as familiar with, like historical (rather than contemporary) urban fantasy. And I’m going to seek out lesser-known works that just might be to my taste.
I’m already off to a pretty good start.
One of the most refreshingly unrecognizable fantasy worlds I’ve read appears in Mark T. Barnes’ The Garden of Stones, which I read on Kindle. The basic plot may feel familiar — a group of rebels must band together to stop the rise of a mentally unstable tyrant, and since this is the first of a trilogy (called Echoes of Empire), their ultimate victory is delayed — but the vivid details of culture, landscape, and character names are like nothing I’ve seen, certainly not European but not wholly Asian/Eastern either. The challenge of conjuring images without some securely familiar frame of historical reference is a rewarding one, and one I wish authors would ask of their readers a bit more often. My favorite aspect of this world: gender is of light account. Both men and women appear as leaders, soldiers, healers, and mages, and no one questions their presence at any level of society. The foremost “wise mentor” figure is a woman, and the stalwart hero’s right hand and best friend is a female not of his race. The female lead still has quite a bit of growing to do, but I can already tell she will come into her own in future volumes.
M. H. Boroson’s The Girl With Ghost Eyes takes urban fantasy in a less typical direction by choosing 1898 San Francisco Chinatown as its setting. Female protagonists with supernatural abilities, like Li-lin whose “ghost eyes” enable her to see and to move within an often terrifying spirit world, may be common in the genre, but unlike so many of them, Li-lin, a widow only recently bereaved, is not distracted by various amorous temptations. Boroson’s narrative is first-person, so we learn about Li-lin’s worlds as she moves through them, as she tries to put an end to a threat to her father and eventually the whole of Chinatown. The hallmark of Li-lin’s character is resilience, as she devises various plans for defeating the threat, sees those plans fail, and then tries again. She may think to herself from time to time that she is powerless, but she persists in trying. Though her enemies and her society may tell her she has little value, she values herself. Her shoes are at times frustrating, but ultimately rewarding, to walk in.
Mickey Zucker Reichert’s Beyond Ragnarok is the first volume of an out-of-print epic fantasy series published in the 1990s. I stumbled onto the title, with its attention-getting reference to Norse mythology, on Goodreads’ “Best ‘Strong Female’ Fantasy Novels” list, but I only lifted it to the top of my Want-to-Read ranks because I chanced on the final two books at a favorite used bookstore’s going-out-of-business sale, and I picked them up on the odd chance that I would enjoy the first one. A book over seven hundred pages long represents a commitment. Once you start it, you know you’re going to be with it a while, and other stories in which you might be interested will have to wait their turn. If I’m going to proceed through such a book, it has to engage me in a big, quick way, and keep me wanting at every turn to know what will come next.
This little-known epic, perhaps the victim of a glut of multi-volume epic fantasies back in the day, managed to do just that. What do I love even more than reading about female characters being awesome? Reading about male and female characters being awesome side by side, as comrades. In this mythic world in which humanity is ascendant and the gods and elves are in decline (which the gods accept, but the elves… don’t), male and female heroes can share in an adventure; among a hybrid race, the Renshai — to which the most prominent heroine belongs — no gender distinctions exist in its warrior class. The prose is nicely readable, the action plentiful. I may not have been smitten with the love triangle that emerged in the book’s last half, but thankfully the romance plot does not altogether swallow up the characters involved; for all of them, other concerns remain important. If love triangles there must be, I’d be okay if they were more like this one.
Beyond Ragnarok and its sequels (Prince of Demons and The Children of Wrath) can be tricky to find, but fans of heroic adventure may find much to like here. It’s actually a sequel to an earlier trilogy by Reichert, The Last of the Renshai, but I’m pleased to report that Beyond Ragnarok, at least, can be read and understood without having first read the earlier trilogy.
So many books, so much to look forward to.