Over the last couple of months, I took a break from reading fantasy. Partly because I was attempting to write a fantasy story of my own and was worried about stealing ideas through osmosis, and partly because I felt I was reading too much within the boundaries of one genre. However, I recently went on holiday to Florida, taking several fantasy novels with me, and I got through five over the two weeks, in what I can only describe as a great fantasy binge.
Right then, it’s been a while. But rather than spending a paragraph navel gazing about not having blogged in a month, I’m going to assume we’re all okay with me getting right into it, okay? Okay.
The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
When I recently met Scott Lynch at a signing for the paperback release of Republic of Thieves, I told him that I hadn’t read it yet, and was saving it for the flight out to Florida. Seeing as it had to keep me entertained for around nine hours, Scott expressed his hope that “it doesn’t totally suck”.
Good news! The Republic of Thieves does not suck.
But, it’s not quite as good as the first two books in the Gentlemen Bastards series, The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, both those books were phenomenal, especially Red Seas, which contained ample amounts of the pirate action I love so much. By contrast Republic is more of a love story, as required when finally bringing the oft mentioned Sabetha, love of Locke’s life, into play. It’s all very fun and well written, and any scenes involving both characters crackle with energy, but in the end I’d have enjoyed a little more focus on the actual job they were doing to rig the election, which ended up playing second fiddle to the characters’ personal lives.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente
First of all, good grief that is a long title.
I was initially turned onto the first Fairyland book by a good friend, who urged me to give it a try, despite my reservations. She was right, it was very good. While it still falls under the fantasy banner, it was nice to break out of the adult mold a bit and read a book where magic is just magic, rather than a systematised series of rules. Not to fault Brandon Sanderson here of course, what the man does is magnificent, but it’s always good to see people taking a different approach.
The second Fairyland book manages to accomplish the feat of retaining the magic of a world that is now familiar. It was a problem the Harry Potter series ran up against. Once we had been introduced to this world beside our own, the novelty was gone and it was up to the story and characters to sustain the series, leading to it floundering a little before really finding its feet and getting on with the plot.
Fairyland gets around this somewhat by introducing a new area of the world, Fairyland Beneath, where a new Queen called Halloween is stealing the shadows of everyone in the world above, and therefore taking their magic from them. Maybe it’s this slight change in setting, combined with making September a slightly wiser, if a little more precocious, teenager, but the second Fairyland story doesn’t suffer from the quality drop off I was worried about going in.
The Shadow Master by Craig Cormick
The first of two Angry Robot books on this list. I was initially attracted to The Shadow Master because of the fantasy renaissance world. It reminded me of how excited I got playing Assassin’s Creed II, and for the most part the setting delivered. The feuding families are great, as are the inventor characters, Leonardo and Galileo.
Where it doesn’t quite succeed is the execution. The plot itself falls apart, with the third act being a lot of running around without anyone seeming to accomplish anything. Perhaps it’s because of all the books, this was the one I read the most piecemeal, in line for rides and such, but it didn’t quite come together for me.
That said, the worldbuilding was genuinely interesting, so I will definitely reread it under better circumstances, and give the sequel a try when it comes out next year.
The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
It’s kind of sad to see that on various fantasy forums The Mirror Empire has picked up a reputation as being “the Tumblr book”. You see, Hurley dared to create a world where rather than a binary gender, there are five or three, depending on the people. And a world where a violent matriarchy rules, and a high ranking General is legally allowed to rape her husband (in a scene I found very uncomfortable to read, as I assume was intended).
And it makes me fucking sad, it really does. Are we really at a point as a community where we will accept the idea that dragons can exist, or that people can use shards of metal to draw magic powers, but as soon as someone creates a secondary world where social constructs are different, it’s written off as “SJW nonsense”? And where someone like George R.R Martin can write about any number of men raping women, but as soon as the roles are reversed, it’s some kind of evil statement?
The fantasy community is made up of people who found each other because they weren’t accepted elsewhere. I know I was bullied for being into this stuff, so finding other like minded people was super important to me. But it makes me sad how exclusionary this community can get. Simply put, being victims doesn’t give us license to be bullies.
You should read The Mirror Empire, look for it to appear on my top ten books at the end of the year. I’ll be very surprised if it’s not there.
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
I’m not sure what I can say about City of Stairs that hasn’t already been said. Bennett wrote easily my favourite book of last year, American Elsewhere, and it’s entirely possible he’ll be topping my list this year too.
Perhaps the biggest success of City of Stairs was that it managed to condense an epic fantasy story down to just over 400 pages. In a world where the genre is frequently more concerned with massive sagas that go on for thousands of pages, written over decades, and encapsulating hundreds of characters, it’s refreshing to see a book that’s just interested in getting in, telling its self-contained story without a single word wasted, and getting out again.
If nothing else, it caused me to stop and rethink my own book from the ground up. Do I really need all these characters to tell the story? Do I need to drag out the introductions as much as I am? Is the reason I’m so fucking bored with writing it that I know I have a cool story in here, but I feel the need to waste 200 pages just setting it up with overlong scenery gazing and a bunch of characters that don’t really matter in the long run? And perhaps, most importantly of all, am I really writing a book about giant Krakens without a scene in my outline where people are forced to fight one? Despite there being both room and precedent for it!
There’s a bit in City of Stairs where a giant called Sigrud fights a gargantuan monstrosity. Quite aside from the rest of the book being a clever and fun fantasy spy romp/murder mystery/political thriller, this one action sequence had me wide awake and gripping the pages, my blood pumping somewhere over the North Atlantic at some unknown time in the dead of night.
City of Stairs is awesome. It’s got worldbuilding and intrigue to rival Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, with plot and pacing that blow it out of the water. You are doing yourself a disservice by not reading it.