Of all fantasy novel subgenres I have two unrivaled favorites: big, sweeping epics with sprawling casts of characters that include plenty of interesting women, and smaller- scale fairy-tale retellings with lovely, lyrical prose and a mystical feel. In the past couple of months I’ve read a fine example of each.
Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
The world of Roshar, which Sanderson has constructed for his epic Stormlight Archive series, is deep and wide enough for a fantasy fan happily to drown in. Whenever one of these novels comes out (Oathbringer is the third), I know I’m going to get thoroughly lost in an amazing landscape. I love this series so much that it’s not enough for me to have and read a print copy only. I must own it on audiobook as well, so the world can sweep me away a second time, or a third, or however many times I like.
I’ll keep my description as simple as possible. The Stormlight Archive centers on a military conflict between the humans of the kingdom of Alethkar and a formidable race of humanoids called Parshendi. A malevolent immortal force plans to use this conflict as a means to destroy the world, and the only hope for survival rests with a group of magically gifted individuals, the Knights Radiant. Three of these Knights are our central characters — Kaladin, a resentful young hero with an instinct to protect victims of injustice; Shallan, a noble woman with a troubled past, who can manipulate perceptions and create illusions; and Dalinar, a military leader with a history of ruthlessness, now seeking to unite opposing factions and recover what honor he can. Surrounding these three is an array of splendid supporting characters, kings and queens and farmers and warriors, foreigners from mountains and deserts, human and nonhuman. One of my favorites is Jasnah, Dalinar’s niece, whose logical perspective is often mistaken for cold-heartedness. I also adore every member of Kaladin’s crew of misfit ex-slave bodyguards, “Bridge Four” (except one, but I don’t want to Spoil too much).
The first book in the series, The Way of Kings, focused primarily on Kaladin, while the second, Words of Radiance, centered on Shallan. Oathbringer is Dalinar’s book, though the others get their shining moments. In the first two volumes, Dalinar’s past has been shrouded in mystery, hidden even from him, but now his worst memories, once taken from him as an immortal’s “boon,” have returned to him, and both he and we learn that whatever we might have imagined about his history, the truth is worse. The core theme of this story is redemption, as he must struggle with the man he has been in order to become the man the world needs him to be. Redemption isn’t pretty, it’s messy, and above all, it’s painful. If Dalinar is to be redeemed, he must own his misdeeds.
The redemption theme may center on Dalinar, but it reaches out to others, including Shallan, who transforms into other personas to avoid the weakness she sees in herself, and Venli, a Parshendi woman indirectly responsible for the death of her more sympathetic sister, who finds herself called upon to become the person that sister should have been. (In actuality one of my favorite parts of Oathbringer is how much we learn about the Parshendi, far from a one-dimensional malevolent race of Orcish monsters.) So many of the main characters are broken in some way, but Sanderson deftly handles the darkness of their situations without ever crossing into nihilistic grimdark territory. In grimdark, virtue is a lie and redemption an illusion. In the Stormlight Archive, hope is never fully lost.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
This wintry tale takes its inspiration from the old story of “King Frost,” in which an innocent maiden is sent out to die in a frozen field by her wicked stepmother, but she survives and is rewarded for speaking to the winter king himself with courageous civility. Arden takes her readers back to an Old Russia ruled by the Tsar and his landowning boyars, and her novel’s greatest strength is the lovely, detailed prose with which she sets her scene, creating a world never truly warm, a world where humans’ survival depends on respect for the spirits of both nature and hearth.
Like all my favorite fairy-tale retellings, this one centers on a female lead, Vasilisa, or Vasya. Unlike the rather passive maiden of the fairy tale, whose chief virtue is endurance, the spirited, tomboyish Vasya is active in her support and her respect for the spirits, fostering a connection with them that she uses to protect those she loves and even, at two separate points, to save the life of an enemy. She’s easy to like, smart and observant and brave, unwilling to fall without a fight into a role she isn’t suited for even though her father and brothers keep telling her it is the “lot of women.” Interestingly, though the father and brothers might represent the status quo, the narrative depicts them with sympathy and understanding. All the important characters are understandable in their own ways, even the villains, the prideful priest “tempted” (from his own perspective) by Vasya, and the envious, tormented stepmother, so unable to catch a break from her first scene to her last that I can’t help pitying her just a little.
Sadly, the book falters where it ought to be the strongest — the climax. Vasya has been a proactive figure throughout the narrative, and we have every reason to think she’ll save the day in the end. But at crunch time, her courage and her power prove insufficient, and it’s left to someone else to strike the death-blow against evil. Yet despite my disappointment, I’m eager to continue with this series. I suspect Vasya’s ineffectuality might be a symptom of “first book syndrome,” since this is the beginning of a trilogy. Arden can’t have her hero (for I have faith that’s what Vasya will become) peak too early. Just how, and how far, will she grow? I want to see.