Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Ex Libris: Steven Erikson and JV Jones (part 1)

This is the reason why I read fantasy books.

Multiple volume works of imaginary worlds. Courageous heroes fighting ancient evils. Mysterious sorcerors and frightening monsters. These are all part and parcel of the epic fantasy subgenre created by one of the grandmasters of fantastic literature: John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

However, fantasy today has been getting a bad rap because of the clichés prevalent in the subgenre as pushed by Tolkien's successor, Terry Brooks, and role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons: the doorstopper serial efforts, the naive protagonist, the spunky princess, the wizened guide, the ambiguous prophecy, the dangerous quest, the doughty companions, the pseudo-medieval settings, etc.

(And the elves, don't forget the pale, thin, pointy-eared environmentalists in green tights!)

Lately, there was also the recent smackdown initiated by New Weird writer China Miéville against Tolkien for his 'consolatory fantasy' which set off a lot of debate in the internet community:

The idea of consolatory fantasy makes me want to puke. It's not that you can't have comfort, or even a happy ending of sorts, but to me the idea that the purpose of a book should be to console intrinsically means the purpose is therefore not to challenge or to subvert or to question; it is absolutely status quo oriented – completely, rigidly, aesthetically – and I hate that idea. I think the best fantasy is about the rejection of consolation, and the high point of fantasy is the Surrealists – which is a tradition I've read obsessively, and am a huge fan of, and see myself as a product of the 'pulp wing' of the Surrealists – that is, using the fantastic aesthetic to do the opposite of consolation.

(I do remember reading somewhere that Miéville was a bit taken aback by the heat generated by his statements. Apologetic? Not really, more like tired of questions about the matter.)

I swear, Tolkien must rolling in his grave due to all the hullaballoo.

But there is still hope.

Two of these are Steven Erikson and JV Jones, part of the 'Big Fat Fantasy' (BFF) books trend, with Erikson the brains behind the 12-book military-fantasy, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and Jones the creator of the Sword of Shadows trilogy.

(A word of warning though: any reader who tries to jump into either of the books reviewed below might get lost so best check out book one of each series first.)

Steven Erikson's House of Chains is the fourth book of the series already so Erikson is almost nearing the half-way mark.

Erikson likewise changes gears from the wars raging across the Malazan empire and introduces in the first part of the book one of his most peculiar characters ever: Karsa Orlong, a savage tribal warrior. (Think Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian and you won't be far off the mark with Karsa.)

Later on, he relates what happened some years after the death of the famous Seventh Army commander, Coltaine, as a result of the Whirlwind uprising. Despite the fairly complex array of subplots that support the rather dark tone of the story, it is the duel between Tavore, Coltaine's imperial replacement, and her sister, the Whirlwind rebel seer Sha'ik, that is the focus of the book.

In this particular case, Erikson is lauded for combining the epic fantasy subgenre with dark military fantasy: akin to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace but on a imaginary world. Malazan is peopled with a cast of thousands: there are grim gods, immortal races, fantastic creatures, innumerable armies on the march, and dying and newly-born empires galore.

But that doesn't mean that Erikson forsakes characterization as his hapless soldiers survive through black gallows humour, camaraderie and sheer luck. There are no cookie-cutter characters here as even the most minor characters have a back story to draw the reader's sympathy.

This is most evident in the savage warrior, Karsa Orlong, who could just have been a pale copy of Howard's Conan. But Erikson takes Howard one better and shows how a simple bloodthirsty barbarian can mature into a remarkable warrior.

Next up: JV Jones' A Fortress of Grey Ice, the second book of her trilogy...

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