It is the holiday season and hopefully everyone here will find themselves with a lot of free time this holiday season. Free time in my life means time to read more books. Besides non-fiction and Science Fiction, I enjoy a good Fantasy series. Previously, Science Fiction was cutting edge and Fantasy had fallen into a rut where every story seemed to be a clone of The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, or the Amber series. About ten years ago, that started to flip, naturally with the publication of The Game of Thrones. Now, it is Science Fiction that is stuck in the rut and several good Fantasy offerings available. Here are three author recommendations for the holiday season.
JOE ABERCROMBIE: Imagine if the illegitimate child of Quentin Tarantino and George R.R. Martin, after several years of doing blow and curb-stomping Orcs, decided one night to get drunk and watched Conan the Barbarian and thought to himself, ‘I can do better than this’, and started writing books. What he would come up with would a lot like what Joe writes…and I am hooked.
Joe Abercrombie is younger than me and used to write screenplays, grew up reading the same novels I did, and is fully versed in pop culture lore. That sentiment is one full display here. His books are supremely cinematic in their scope of drama and action. Best of all, this man writes the best dialogue in the business. When Monza and Caul Shivers assassinate a man in the basement of a tavern, the conversation is the fantasy equivalent of Pulp Fiction Vincent Vega and Jules riffing on ‘You just shot Marvin in the face!’ When you read as much Fantasy as I do, you get use to a certain cadence and tone of speaking. When you get hyper-realistic funny speeches like these, you remember them.
Joe has written six novels to date, a sweeping ‘save the world’ kind of trilogy followed up by three standalone novels in the same setting using characters that survived from the first trilogy. The setting is kind of low fantasy setting where magic is incredibly rare, technology exists, and cannons are starting to make their way onto the scene (I would guess 1400-1500 Europe equivalent). The first trilogy was excellent and had two of the best characters I had read: Inquisitor Glokta, the crippled misanthropic torturer of the King, and Logen Ninefingers, a Barbarian that is trying to make peace with his past…except for his anger management issues and the fact that everyone wants him dead. The trilogy was awe-inspiring but what made it the best fantasy trilogy I had read was the ending. It would be a crime for me to reveal anything about it but suffice it to say, it was the single best book ending I had ever read. The last chapter was absolutely perfect. Better than any single scene I had ever read in any book ever.
But here is the amazing thing is that the three standalone’s were BETTER THAN THE TRILOGY! Maybe it was because it used characters that I grew emotionally invested in the previous three books. I don’t know. But I do know that there were points that I choked up in all three of them, they were that damn good.
Joe Abercrombie is currently writing a second trilogy set in the same world and presumably dealing with the outstanding issues, of which there are many, brought about the events of the first books. I am a total fan-boy for this guy’s books and plan on being the first kid on my block to have my hands on them when they are released. If you are into Fantasy, or loved the Game of Thrones, you owe it to yourself to know this guy’s work.
R. SCOTT BAKKER: If Joe Abercromie’s books are summer blockbuster entertainment, R. Scott Bakker’s books are the Independent Film that is thought provoking and sticks with you long after you left the theater. Bakker has written two trilogies set in the ‘Prince of Nothing’ setting, a fantasy world that is modeled after 8th – 9th Century Byzantine Empire where the world suffered a horrible cataclysm centuries earlier, the north is lost to murderous beasts called Sranc who are guided by beings that came to the world through what may be a crashed spaceship (they never explicitly say it, but it becomes obvious what happened), and magic is worked by a few wizards who translate syntax and philosophical concepts into powerful spells. The writing is very dense, intricate and mature.
The setting up the first trilogy is something I have never seen before…in the midst of a Holy War against heretics in the south part of the Circle Sea. The Chief Priest of the dominant religion has called a crusade to seize a Holy City and all the nations of the world have sent their nobles to take part. The first three books are about the Crusade and all the dramas and intrigue that happen as the armies gradually work their way south. The series reminds me a lot of the Dune series in that dozens of pages are dedicated to schemes, plots and motivations of the various players. The other thing that this series has going for it is that they have the absolute best battle-scenes. I am not talking individual combat here; I am talking chapters devoted to single battles where hundreds of thousands of men clash across wide epic battlefields.
Be warned about this series, there is no laughter to be found in these books. They are incredibly bleak and graphic and pull no punches. These people are fighting a holy war and torturing and murdering prisoners from the other side is the least of what they do. There is no enlightenment here. Most of the people here are dirty and illiterate. Rape, murder, and atrocity flow off of the pages and the author doesn’t spare you from the increasingly grim body count. As the host moves south, the story increasingly descends into madness and horror. Women don’t fare well here. There are no warrior maidens in metallic bikinis swinging eight foot long bastard swords. Outside a few powerful nobles, women are spoils of war in this world gone mad. The main characters of these novels are engaged in as vile and loathsome of a task as can be imagined and the behavior ranges from faith driven fervor to manipulative cynicism and thus are generally unlikable. If you can handle this type of reading though, you will find a gripping story that demands your attention: You have to see what happens in the end.
The second trilogy of books is set twenty years after the events of the first trilogy and the events that occurred. The tone is different, this time the fight moves to the north and the story turns more violent if that is possible. The first book of the second trilogy has one of the best fantasy sequences I have read. It is an underground dungeon crawl just like The Hobbit, except this one is a cross of Aliens and the At the Mountains of Madness. Take a psychopathic ancient creature, a religious fanatic leader and his band of elite hardened mercenaries and assorted crew, and then have them pursued underground by a band of ravenous demons who plan on eating, murdering and raping them, in that order. The entire sequence (two hundred pages or so) was brutal and scary and had me on the edge of my seat the whole time.
If you can handle it, Bakker’s books are equally brutal and authentic, horrifying and heart-breaking, and about as epic and gripping as anything that you can find. Not for the squeamish, only adults should apply.
PATRICK ROTHFUSS: Patrick is the most conventional of the three authors on this post, but don’t let that put you off or else you would miss a guy that I personally think is the modern heir to J.R.R Tolkien. Like Tolkien, Patrick is a university professor and approaches his work with the same care of language and narrative. Patrick is relatively new writer and has written two of three books in his Kingskiller Chronicles and they have become immensely popular New York Times Bestsellers and swept fantasy awards in 2007 when the first book came out.
The appealing thing about The Kingskiller Chronicles lies less with the story, which while entertaining and extremely well written, is conventional and just far enough off the beaten path to be interesting. The appeal comes from HOW the story is told. The story introduces you to a man named Kote, an innkeeper in an out of the way place. The man gives the air of a person that has been utterly defeated in every manner possible, emotionally, physically and mentally. Yet in the first couple of chapters, you catch glimpses that this guy once was something else; he might have been a more capable man, maybe even a hero. The man is approached by a Chronicler, a man that is looking for an infamous hero called Kvothe and wants to write a story about his life. I am not betraying anything by saying that the innkeeper is Kvothe and he agrees to tell the story of his life. He warns him that the story is going to take three days to tell, of which the first book is day one of the story.
The paragraph above does not do the concept justice. Patrick does an outstanding job of creating the atmosphere and the mood and establishes the story within the story concept masterfully. I won’t talk about Kvothe’s tale other to say it is a really good one and Patrick’s approach makes you really want to know how the young man from the tale becomes the defeated man in the Inn. Even better, there is a meta-layer to the story. There is something terribly wrong in the Inn and as Kvothe tells his tale and the story jumps between the past and the present, it becomes increasingly obvious that as the story progresses towards its climax matters are coming to head within the Inn itself and the end of the story may result in death and destruction. The story really has set its claws into me and the final book of the trilogy should be coming out next year.