Thursday, September 30, 2004

Ex Libris: Steven Erikson and JV Jones (part 2)

(continued from yesterday)

If Erikson can't do anything wrong after four books, Jones seems to have developed a minor hiccup in the second book of her trilogy.

In all honesty, I've always had a mixed appreciation of Jones' works. Her first outing, The Baker's Boy (the first in The Book of Words), didn't draw me in enough when I read it that I didn't bother finishing the trilogy. Likewise, her stand-alone novel, The Barbed Coil, seemed interesting but still not enough to draw my attention.

That didn't stop me from picking up the first book of the Sword of Shadows, A Cavern of Black Ice, with its setting in a sub-arctic land so vividly realized that it contributes notably to the book's suspense and emotional impact. And despite a higher number of fantasy clichés here as compared to Erikson's work, Jones puts a unique spin on these.

In A Fortress of Black Ice, Jones continues the tale of disgraced clansman Raif Severance and magically-cursed orphan Ash March, who are both trying to escape their past. In the background, the northern clans are gearing up for war against each other and the southern city-dwellers while the Sull, a declining warrior race, prepare for the coming of the dreaded Endlords from their prison in the Blind.

Unfortunately, even with Jones' skilled use of multiple plot-lines involving very human characters, she almost drops the ball in this book in what I thought was the book's lack of focus and abrupt ending. Coming after the excellent first book, I was surprised by the drop in quality and heard talks of the 'middle-book syndrome' (whereby the author tries to bridge the first and last books and in effect extends the series needlessly).

Of course, talk on the 'net was that the writing of this book was disturbed by interruptions in Jones' real life such that it took a couple of years before this was published. So maybe the flaws in this book can be forgiven.

In parting, despite the slings and arrows thrown against doorstopper fantasies, there is still hope for the subgenre.

In these two books, we can see that despite accusations that fantasy authors are using retreads of past stories, epic fantasy is vibrant in its need to be imaginatively diverse. And there are no cardboard characters here, no lazy writing on the writers' part to appease big business.

As for the current BFF trend, author Michelle West says:

I will be the first to say that there are some books that simply don't lend themselves to 300K words. They are often books I enjoy greatly, so I'm not complaining -- I'm just pointing it out. But there are some books that do. And epic fantasy is a form that doesn't in any way lend itself to 120K words. Why? Because it often takes about that long to get everything in motion; to introduce the multiple viewpoints, to hint at the size of the conflict, to foreshadow, etc. Readers expect different things from books of different lengths. From a long book, they don't expect a huge rush out of the gate, or a single viewpoint, or Stephen Brust. They expect that there will be a slow introduction of world and character and complications, and they'll read the 300 pages of that build-up to get to the 300 pages of consequence that marks the beginning of a series. (italics mine)

Lastly, with regard to the accusations of 'consolatory fantasy', let's hear it from one of the grandmasters of speculative fiction, Gene Wolfe:

Earlier I asked what Tolkien did and how he came to do it; we have reached the point at which the first question can be answered. He uncovered a forgotten wisdom among the barbarian tribes who had proved (against all expectation) strong enough to overpower the glorious civilizations of Greece and Rome; and he had not only uncovered but understood it. He understood that their strength -- the irresistible strength that had smashed the legions -- had been the product of that wisdom, which has now been ebbing away bit by bit for a thousand years.

Having learned that, he created in Middle-earth a means of displaying it in the clearest and most favourable possible light. Its reintroduction would be small -- just three books among the overwhelming flood of books published every year -- but as large as he could make it; and he was very conscious (no man has been more conscious of it than he) that an entire forest might spring from a handful of seed. What he did, then, was to plant in my consciousness and yours the truth that society need not be as we see it around us.

So if anyone accuses of reading fantasy for "consolation" or worse, "escapism," just smile, shake your head, and read away.

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