Yummy Epic Fantasy Goodness!
I read many good books every year, and my favorites are always the ones that make me sigh with a smile, “Now this is why I love to read epic fantasy.” Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive and Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series have hit this button for me, along with Michelle West’s Sun Sword series, Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy, and most books by Kate Forsyth and Juliet Marillier. This month I’ve lucked into two books I can add to the growing list: Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves and Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of Myth, both reportedly the first volumes in new series I’m already eager to follow to their ends. They have just about everything I look for when I pick up an epic fantasy novel, and even a little more.
The first, of course, is the quality of the writing itself. It’s hard to explain the appeal of prose style in a blog review without stuffing the review full of quotes, which I’m not of a mind to do. I’ll say only that the prose I like best is that which puts me in the story’s world from the very first chapter. It makes me curious to explore that world further, curious to get to know the characters who inhabit it and see how they will cope with the challenges it throws at them. With these books, both Sullivan and Elliott succeed. Sullivan’s prose is breezy and energetic, a welcome antidote to the prevailing gray winds of grimdark. Elliott’s prose is a bit more challenging, more intricate, as befits the less traditional fantasy landscape she’s laying out. But both are involving, and they make an agreeable contrast.
Then there’s the world-building and the situations it sets up — the stakes, the complexities. I always appreciate the best fantasy writers’ capacity to create interesting value systems and throw them into conflict. In Age of Myth, Sullivan presents readers with a culture clash between a race of elves called Fhrey and humans, whom the Fhrey call “Rhunes” (ostensibly an insult). The humans worship these elves as gods, while the elves see humans as animals. Over the course of the novel, both these suppositions are challenged, thanks partly to a clever wrinkle: the Fhrey cannot kill each other, but humans can kill them, as we learn in the opening chapter when Raithe, the male lead, earns the sobriquet “God-Killer.” The Fhrey are intriguing creations, neither pure good like Tolkien’s elves nor pure evil like Terry Pratchett’s; some are villains, while others, though initially misguided, emerge as heroic. The female Fhrey, Arion, is a favorite of mine, as she’s injured and must depend on the Rhunes’ care.
In Black Wolves, nonhumans (demons) have a part to play, but the major conflicts revolve around religions competing for power in a multicultural society called the Hundred (a world with which readers of Elliott’s earlier Crossroads Trilogy will be already familiar). In many multicultural fantasy worlds, one subculture will seek to take over and create a homogenized society in which people follow their strict precepts and all dissent is crushed. In Elliott’s novel, this upstart subculture is the worship of Beltak, a faith that demands almost total segregation of the genders and the elimination of women from all say and activity in public life. Beltak worship is a growing danger, thanks to the foothold it has gained in the ruling family, and causing problems for female reeves (a force of peacekeeping riders of giant eagles) like Marshal Dannarah, a female lead in her late sixties. What I find interesting is that the culture of Beltak worship is not presented as wholly evil; some women actually thrive in their cloistered environment and appreciate their separation from men. The evil springs from the religion’s adherents’ insistence that their way should be the only way, their readiness to impose their will on others. Those on the side of good must find ways to protect and defend freedom in the Hundred.
But all the intricacies of world-building and conflict don’t matter much if I can’t latch onto the characters. When I read Spirit Gate, the first book in the Crossroads Trilogy, I struggled with it because I found myself hating every male point-of-view character in the story, since they all shared the same flaw — a crushing lack of respect for women. Thankfully Black Wolves doesn’t have this problem, as its central male figure, Kellas, retired commander of the titular Black Wolves, is a man of honor in the style of Stormlight‘s Dalinar Kholin. In Age of Myth we get to know Raithe the God-Killer, his wisecracking companion Malcolm (a former slave of the Fhrey), and Nyphron, the leader of a band of rebellious Fhrey. In short, both novels offer stalwart heroes, and if their ideas about gender may be a little backward at first, we get the impression they can learn better.
But for me an epic fantasy is only as good as its female characters, and any such fantasy that follows the Smurfette Principle (one lone woman among scores of men) will have to work very hard to win me over. Neither of these novels comes anywhere near that Smurfette mistake. Both offer not one admirable and honorable woman but many, and with a very pleasing diversity of age, appearance, and personality. Both place a mature woman at the center of the action: in Age of Myth, the widowed late-thirtysomething Persephone, and in Black Wolves, the aforementioned Marshal Dannarah. They’re presented as strong and sensible authority figures, with Persephone filling the role of chieftain for her community in the aftermath of her husband’s death, and Dannarah maintaining her command despite the encroachment of hostile forces and taking a leading role in protecting the kingdom. Considering how commonly the fantasy genre portrays female authority as evil, or at least untrustworthy and unnatural, it’s delightful to see women in charge depicted in a sympathetic light. These are women of vision, even if Dannarah’s concern for the kingdom’s well-being may very occasionally lead her to questionable decisions.
These aren’t the only women whose point of view we get. In Age of Myth we see through the eyes of Suri, a teenage mystic who can communicate with trees and who travels with a wolf, and Arion,, the powerful Fhrey who learns (thanks largely to Suri) that everything she thinks she knows about Rhunes is wrong. In Black Wolves we spend time in the shoes of the young reeve Lifka, desperate to protect her family from the Beltak priests and a prince’s petty vendetta, and Sarai, a disgraced woman seeking a place for herself through an arranged marriage (yes, in the book that makes sense). In addition we get a multitude of female secondary characters, also pleasingly diverse. These women aren’t just there for the male characters to fall in love with. In fact, in both books, romance is a comparatively minor concern (though granted, I’m still only halfway through Black Wolves).
Thanks to books like these, and other new releases in the offing (including Age of Swords, the follow-up to Age of Myth), I don’t have to worry overmuch about the state of epic fantasy. And that makes me very, very happy.