What Remains of Heroes by David Benem

The quality of self-published, or indie, books is getting better and better. Not just the stories themselves, but the editing, covers and all the other professional aspects of the business. So much so that the best of the bunch are, in every important respect, the equals of their traditionally published cousins. Here I review one of the leading indie fantasy books from the last few years.

 

CHARACTERS

I would class this as character driven fantasy, in the sense that you feel that the author started with the characters and allows them to take centre stage. We follow the point of view of at least half a dozen as the story develops and all of them have well defined personalities. Lannick de Veers is a broken ex-soldier with a dark past. Zandrachus Bale is another unlikely hero, living a safe life amongst his books in the Abbey until forced to go out into the world. Karnag is an assassin with no moral code. True to the theme of the series, none of the characters are traditionally heroic, and are often reluctant. This adds some complexity to their characters, but at times can be overdone, especially since the reader has the impression they are going to do the right thing in the end anyway. I enjoyed the range of characters, though it does mean the plot moves slowly at times, since most characters have their own separate storyline. Indeed, the three mentioned above still haven’t crossed paths by the end of the book. This would suggest that the series still has a long way to go.

 

WORLDBUILDING

We are in fairly familiar territory here. The kingdom of Rune is under threat from evil forces from the past. There is a solid historical backdrop to the story, with the Sentinels, demi-god style characters, who have defended Rune in times past, banished by the High King some generations ago. And they need to come back. It is a modern, Abercrombie-esque setting, with humans taking centre stage and no mention of elves, dwarves etc. Some considerable thought has gone into the politics, with a High-King gone mad (we never meet him); a Queen in peril; evil figures at court; and a mention of thanes, who sound like regional noblemen, who may well come into the story. I appreciated this attempt to flesh out and make a believable world. In the end it felt secondary to the main storylines, since the principal characters are political outsiders (unlike Game of Thrones, for example), but there are hints that this angle may be developed in later books. Finally, there is magic in this land, often quite dark and scary. Benem avoids incorporating a new magical system with detailed rules into the story, which I appreciated. On the other hand, I didn’t detect what the limits or costs of magic use are.

 

PLOT

The king is mad, war with the kingdom’s neighbour is brewing, and behind it all a dark, hidden sect, who worship an evil God, are pulling the strings. The Sanctum, a group of book reading old men generally held in contempt as ‘spookers’, must begin a search for the long forgotten Sentinels. Some of these Sentinels and/or their followers are revealed in the book, and they are not always what the reader is expecting. As indicated above, this is an ambitious start to a series, with multiple plot lines started, and a story that slowly reveals itself to the reader. There is a lot more to come and it doesn’t surprise me to see that it has taken Benem over two years to come up with the sequel. This is thoughtful, meaty fantasy, and worth waiting for!

 

I would encourage people to pick up a copy of this book and to look out for The Wrath of Heroes, which, according to the author’s website, is due out soon.

 

A Game of Thrones by GRR Martin

It’s been 20 years since A Game of Thrones hit the bookshelves. It’s had a transformative effect on the world of Fantasy, partly down to the huge success of the HBO Series. But when I first read it, in the late 1990s, it was just another fantasy novel. Few people knew then what it would become.

 

Characters

It’s fair to say that Martin has no better in terms of character creation. That said, the first novel of A Song of Ice and Fire is, to some extent, a different experience to the later books in the series, never mind the TV version. The series is known for many things: its huge scope, including the number of characters; the author’s willingness to kill off many of his characters, at regular intervals, with no sentimentality; the ‘grey’ nature of his characters, with a lack of simple good/evil characterisation; then of course the sex and violence, which is more apparent in the TV series than the original books.

These characteristics had not fully appeared in the first novel, however. Yes, there is already a big cast of characters, but the POV is pretty focused on the Stark family, the only notable exceptions being Tyrion and Daenerys. This makes A Game of Thrones a more tightly written affair than some of its successors, and allows the reader to engage with the storyline. The death toll is not so high. And while the grey areas are already there, from my perspective as a reader, I was soon rooting for the Starks, who were effectively the ‘good guys’. Around them was created a fascinating support cast, but they were the protagonists.

It has been interesting to see how the series has developed. The role of the Stark family has remained important, but it has undoubtedly been watered down. Other characters have barged their way into the story, taking it in new directions, some of which, I think, were not in the author’s original plan.

Worldbuilding

Martin took the classic, medieval-inspired fantasy world, and made it bigger, more densely populated, and more real than anyone had done before. That he was able to provide this scale and still deliver a killer story is perhaps his greatest achievement.

Most of the action takes place in Westeros, a kingdom recently united after a vicious civil war. The cracks in this unity are already beginning to show, however. Meanwhile, the Daenerys storyline reveals that there are many more realms beyond Westeros. Sometimes, there are so many other lands, with so little connection to the events in Westeros, that the scale of the world can seem too big.

At this point, the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is barely fantastical at all. There are no pointy eared elves, or fairies flying about, or wizards with long grey beards. The only dwarf is…well… a real dwarf, not a member of a fantastical race. It’s easy to forget how many of the staples of fantasy fiction were culled by Martin. In so doing, he modernised the genre and opened it to a new group of fans. That’s not to say that wizards, elves and dwarves have had their day—far from it. But it he did, in effect, introduce a new sub-genre, that tends to be called grimdark.

Of course, Martin didn’t do away with magic, not at all. He didn’t do away with an evil menace either, for surely that is the white walkers who live beyond the Wall. But he revelled in flawed characters, making difficult decisions in a cruel world they had no control over, a world not unlike our own.

Plot

Hmm. Where to start? There are so many plot lines. A central one is the political struggle for the Iron Throne. Then there is the supernatural threat to Westeros itself. But in some respects, the series resembles a soap opera, with multiple characters and storylines all interwoven into one whole. Of course, a harsher critic might suggest that Martin has failed to interweave said storylines and somewhat lost control of the project. It has become so complex, that Martin’s original vision of a trilogy is long gone and the series has yet to be completed, some twenty years after the release of the first book. Maybe it never will in the author’s lifetime. This is both a tribute to the scale of the project and a flaw and source of frustration to fans.

Conclusion

A Game of Thrones is a seminal, must-read novel for fantasy fans. I remember reading it all those years ago. I wouldn’t call the book an inspiration: I was in my mid-twenties when I read it. I had already picked up the fantasy bug from earlier novelists and was toying with my own ideas for a fantasy story. But it set a benchmark. It made me rethink my ideas. Not necessarily to create something the same, or as large: trying to do that could send a mere mortal mad. Just to make my own story better. All fantasy writers are now operating in a post A Game of Thrones world. The genre is no longer the same. How many books can you say that about?

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Tigana is a classic, stand alone fantasy novel by one of the greats of fantasy fiction. It is named after a province in the mythical Peninsula of the Palm.

 

Characters

Kay uses multiple points of view in this story, meaning that we look through the eyes of a number of characters. This allows us to follow events across the Palm, from a number of perspectives. I tend to enjoy this approach to fantasy writing and the author handles it well. Most of the characters we follow are exiles, of one kind or another, from Tigana: Devin, young and green; Catriana, equally young but more mature; Dianora, whose story is largely separate from the other characters; Baerd, her brother, full of anger and purpose. Interestingly, their leader, Prince Alessan, is never used as the POV by Kay, leaving him more mysterious and remote, which I think was a good decision. We are even treated to the POV of one of the main adversaries, Alberico of Barbadior, which Kay seems to enjoy writing. The characters are well drawn, with clear motives and backstory. They are also complex: the heroes make morally dubious decisions to get what they want, and the villains can be sympathetic, too. I found I cared about the characters. Having said that, when the book was finished, I didn’t find myself missing them, which can happen with my favourite books.

Worldbuilding

The story is set in the Palm, which is geographically an upside down Italy. Like medieval Italy, it is divided into different, disunited provinces. At the beginning of the story it has been invaded by two different foreign powers, Ygrath and Barbadior, who have divided the Palm between them. The world feels real, with a history, culture and religion of its own. Each province has its own unique characteristics, which inform much of the plot. All this world-building is done with a light touch, so that it never intrudes too much on the story.

There is magic in the Palm, but no great magicians. This explains how the antagonists, Brandin of Ygrath and Alberico of Barbadior, were able to conquer it in the first place. It also helps the reader to root for those struggling for independence, since they are underdogs for this very reason.

Style

Tigana is an effortless read and Kay writes with a sense of poetry, like the earlier fantasy writers. It is, therefore, different to the more modern trend of gritty writing which can make it feel more dated than it is in some ways (it was published in 1990). This sense of poetry and magic pervades this novel, reminding me of classic Arthurian literature. It means that the world is perhaps not always logical or realistic—that’s OK, though—it’s a fantasy novel.

Plot

The story is centred on the fate of Tigana, one of the provinces of the Palm. It has been cursed by Brandin of Ygrath, as punishment for its resistance to his invasion. We focus, therefore, on the efforts of the heroes, mostly exiles from Tigana, to save their homeland. The themes of duty, of belonging to a place or people, are therefore very strong. None of the heroes are ‘super’ heroes, with extraordinary magic or martial skills to help them. Indeed, many of them are most proficient at making music. Neither do they have an army to help them. This fact is both a strength and a weakness of the book. It means that we root for them, as underdogs. However, in order for them to achieve their goals, we have to swallow a fair amount of dubious plotting. The route to victory, apparently, involves years of wandering around carrying out complicated/pointless acts of rebellion, or, conversely, huge acts of self-sacrifice. There is no conventional rebellion or civil war here; neither is there ever an outright attempt at assassination of the two wizards by the heroes. This is despite the fact that other attempts at assassination make it seem eminently achievable. This lack of realism in the plot was the one thing that made me harrumph while reading. Having said that, this is pretty standard fare in the fantasy genre.

Conclusion

This is a really good book, still loved by many, that has stood the test of time. It doesn’t have the complexity of some fantasy epics, but we are so used now to fantasy stories as trilogies, if not longer, that this is a somewhat unfair criticism. In Tigana, Kay achieves in a single novel what many authors fail to do in a series. If we are to judge it against other single, stand alone fantasy novels, then it is up there as one of the best ever written.

 

Rogue One

As a long time Star Wars fan I was upset that one of 2016’s last victims was the legendary Carrie Fisher. She was such an engaging and honest personality whose contribution to the Star Wars story shouldn’t be underestimated. There was some consolation in the release of another Star Wars film though. Rogue One kept the roster of old characters to a minimum, giving a new generation of stars a chance. I’m sure the ever generous Fisher approved.

Chronologically, the film is set just before the first Star Wars film, A New Hope. The Rebel Alliance learns of the building of the Death Star – a powerful weapon central to the Star Wars movies. This places it in familiar enough territory for even the most conservative-minded fans to accept.

Character wise, however, we have a brand new group. Much of the first part of the film is introduced in setting up the new characters, especially lead character Jyn Erso, played well by Felicity Jones. It’s fair to say it takes a while to get going and is a bit over-complicated at first. I was a bit nervous that my 10 and 9 year olds wouldn’t follow it. They were fine in the end and enjoyed it, though I wouldn’t recommend for younger age groups. It would appear that in the final edit they cut out much of Jyn’s adult backstory, which may have been quite interesting: instead we get the rather predictable tragic opening sequences, which have been done to death by Star Wars, let alone the wider genre. A strong supporting cast is added as the film goes along. Personally, however, I didn’t find these characters quite as engaging as in the original movies or the more recent outing, The Force Awakens. There certainly wasn’t a totally unique character added, although K-2SO, a sarcastic ex-imperial droid with a wiped memory, came the closest.

The plot centres on an attempt to locate a weakness in the Death Star which could be exploited by the Rebel Alliance. Once it gets going, the film moves along at a good pace and has a great climax – the last half an hour or so is the best. It is certainly dark in places, but then this is nothing new. The familiar Star Wars world is recreated effectively, with enough new additions to keep us interested. Quite a number of older characters do return for brief cameos – this is generally well managed and not intrusive. One method I was less keen on was computer generated characters rather than the use of actors – this was too techie for me and ‘broke the spell’ somewhat.

All in all this was a good addition to the Star Wars canon and recommended viewing if you’ve somehow avoided it. If you are allergic to Star Wars, there is nothing here to cure you of your terrible affliction. The film does point the way to future projects. One-off stories such as this are already in the pipeline. Eventually, I hope, film-makers will be able to go off in new directions within the Star Wars universe and this film helped people to see that they can enjoy a Star Wars movie without the Skywalkers and other familiar faces in it. Not that I or many like me will ever forget that first time they fell in love with Star Wars – and the role that a certain princess from Alderaan played in that.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Saw this at the pictures this weekend with the family. It is the first of what will be a series of films written by JK Rowling and set in the Harry Potter universe. In the UK the film was rated 12A. It was perfectly fine for my 10 & 9 year olds, who love the Harry Potter films. A younger girl behind us didn’t like it so much and got scared, asking to go home, so parents need to do some research first before they go.

Newt Scamander is the main character, played as a wide eyed innocent by Eddie Redmayne. An ex Hogwarts student, he arrives in 1920s New York with a case full of exotic creatures on a vague mission to release one of them into the wild. He finds himself involved in the US wizarding world, partly because a number of his beasts escape his case and cause trouble. He befriends a female wizarding detective and demoted Auror, Tina Goldstein; and a muggle, or no-maj, aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski. Scamander likes magical creatures but beyond this there’s not a whole lot going on character wise, either with Newt or his friends: the acting is average, so it’s a bit of a shrug of the shoulders character wise.

This is the same for the plot. Parents and kids alike found it hard to follow at times, not helped by the mumbling delivery. There are essentially three plot lines that weave together a bit awkwardly: Newt’s aforementioned missing beasts; a much darker story about a dangerous Obscurus roaming New York; the mysterious dark wizard Grindelwald is also on the loose. It sags in the middle and is a bit too long. The plotlines are resolved in a rather perfunctory way. The parents struggled to maintain their interest in all of this and one of them fell asleep – but the kids enjoyed it.

So, what else is going on? Lots of CGI monsters, of course – this was well done, I suppose, without being memorable. The kids liked the fantastic beasts the most. The 1920s setting, with the addition of magic, was perhaps the highlight for me. There was the usual Rowling humour, enough for the kids to enjoy, but few laugh out loud moments. There is also some love interest thrown in for those who require it.

All in all, it’s a little messy, but does enough to entertain as a family film. Rowling fans won’t be disappointed. My kids felt that it was on a par, in most respects, with the Potter films, which is high praise from them. It’s not, for me, a film for adults alone. One of those films where the kids will want to get the DVD next year and the parents might leave them to it.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

So, finally got round to reading this debut by one of the big names in modern fantasy. The Name of the Wind regularly tops the lists of the best fantasy books of the 21st century. That’s a blessing and a curse. When I got round to reading it, I was expecting something pretty exceptional.

 

Characters

My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me

 

Kvothe is the main character of this book, of that there is no doubt. Many fans have fallen in love with him and it’s easy to see why. We are introduced to the red haired Kote as a simple innkeeper. It soon emerges, however, that he has been much more than that. A Chronicler arrives, looking for the famous Kvothe. Kote begins to tell his story to a small audience and we are transported back in time to when he was called Kvothe, as a young boy. Kvothe’s early years, up to 15 or 16, are the centre of the story. He is very young, but extremely talented: a musician; magician, of sorts; brave; attractive to the ladies; intelligent, since he goes to university at a remarkably young age. Well hey, this is fantasy. Many people would like to be Kvothe. At times, however, I found his perfection to be a little annoying. Nonetheless, his trials and tribulations make you root for him to succeed.

The book features a host of supporting characters: his parents; his first teacher, Abenthy; various other masters at the University; friends; his love interest, Denna; Ambrose, his antagonist at the University; Bast, his assistant in the frame story. And many more I could name. But all of these characters are kept at arm’s length, to an extent, to allow Kvothe to be centre stage. Many, such as Denna and Bast, are deliberately mysterious. Overall they are interesting, with hints as to their future role in the story, but after 660 odd pages we still don’t know them that well.

 

Worldbuilding

As with the characters, the world that Rothfuss gives us hints of much more to come in later books. In this novel there is still a sense of mystery about what kind of world we are dealing with. We are introduced to a pseudo-scientific magic system, called Sympathy, which explains how people can perform ‘magic’. This makes it something that can be studied, in a multi-disciplinary kind of way, at the University. Thus, you can have natural ability and develop it through your studies. There are restrictions on students using this magic outside the University. All of this is easy for the reader to grasp and accept, being not so different from Hogwarts after all. We are only given tantalising glimpses of other aspects, however. We know that there are non-human creatures about, but this is left vague.

The world Kvothe inhabits is lovingly created at the micro level. There are two key settings: first the city of Tarbean; second the University with the associated cultural hub of Imre. These locations are so well described that you get immersed in the environment in which Kvothe is trying to make his way. Details such as the currency, the buildings and inhabitants are rich and believable. At the more macro level, there is less. Most of the story is set in the Commonwealth, but this is a vague entity. The towns and cities seem to be, to all intents and purposes, self-governing, but even here there are no discernible political leaders. Ambrose is a member of the nobility, who we are told are rich and powerful, but there is little sign of their influence. Again, this may be fleshed out more in later books, but I was left with little understanding of how this world ‘works’.

 

Style

Rothfuss is a great writer and this is surely key to his popularity. He deals with a long and complex story effortlessly and his descriptive writing is lush without being heavy. He has produced a coming-of-age story that can be enjoyed by any reader, not just fantasy fans.

 

Plot

This is a story that takes its sweet time. Kvothe is given pages and pages in which to grow. Not so much has happened by the time we get to the end, it has to be said. The evil Chandrian, whom Kvothe is trying to uncover, remain as mysterious as they are at the beginning; as does the girl he wants. Kvothe’s spell at the University is not yet at an end. That’s not to say that we haven’t been taken on a journey. But it seems there is a lot of work left for the second book to do.

 

Conclusion

This is a great read by an author with a mature and light touch, dealing with familiar themes. As I say, it rises above the genre, in a similar way to the Harry Potter series. It seems ideal for fans of Hogwarts who are ready to move on to a more adult fantasy setting. Finally, it promises much for the rest of the series. The second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, is already out and, so I’ve heard, even longer!