The Painted Man

At the weekend, I finished reading the first book in the Demon Cycle by Peter V Brett, The Painted Man. This has been a book series that I’ve been thinking about getting into for a number of years now, as I kept seeing the beautiful covers on the shelves of my local Waterstones when browsing the fantasy section, but had always somehow held myself back. Well, no longer! I started reading the first early last week and, while it did take me a while to get into, as soon as I was there, I was absolutely hooked.

The first novel in any series like this is inevitably going to suffer from some pacing issues as the world is built up, though I must admit to being particularly impressed at the way the story almost seemed to know when it was beginning to lag, and picked itself up. At 544 pages, there is actually a lot of story packed in here, as we cover a period of about 14 years in the world of Thesa.

As ‘the Demon Cycle’ might suggest, the book is set in a world of magic and demons, where the people are plagued by nightly attacks from a nether world of demons referred to as the Core. The Corelings are split into a number of elemental types, fire demons and rock demons, etc, and rise up from below to terrorise humanity every single night. The humans manage to protect themselves through the use of magical wards which, when lined up correctly, form a protective barrier around their homes, though there is always the risk of these wards being somehow obscured, leading to the net to fail.

We follow three characters across the course of the book, though the trio don’t actually meet up until the final portion of the book, which can cause some disconcerting leaps in the narrative. We start with Arlen, who watches as his mother is killed by a demon, his father standing aside in fear as it happens. This causes a breakdown in the father-son relationship, and eventually prompts Arlen to flee from the little village of Tibbet’s Brook. He manages to survive in the wild by being particularly good at drawing wards, which impresses the messenger Ragen into taking him along to the free city of Miln. Messengers have something of an exotic appeal, as they spend days on the roads, defying the coreling attacks. Arlen wishes to become a messenger himself, but at first is apprenticed as a Warder, where he quickly makes a name for himself, though never losing sight of his ultimate goal.

Leesha is a young girl from Cutter’s Hollow, who seems to have her life planned out by her overbearing mother, though has a spark of something that makes her wish for something more. Quite by accident, she finds herself apprenticed to the herb gatherer Bruna, a crotchety old crone who teaches the girl everything she knows. Herb gatherers are the medicine-women of the world, though also guard the secrets of science that once held sway before the demons began their nightly war three centuries previous. Over the years of her apprenticeship, Leesha comes to learn much, and is eventually sent as a sort of exchange to the free city of Angiers to work in the hospit there.

Finally we have Rojer, a small boy who watches his parents killed in a coreling attack, but is saved by the jongleur Arrick, who takes him under his wing somewhat begrudgingly, and over the years teaches him the tricks of the entertainer’s trade. Rojer was maimed in the attack that killed his parents, losing two fingers, but nevertheless displays an aptitude for playing the fiddle, though any money he manages to make Arrick drinks away, and the two are forced from the city of Angiers to work around the villages and hamlets. While on the road, Arrick flies into a drunken rage and nearly gets Rojer killed, but manages to fend of the corelings long enough to save Rojer, who discovers that his music has a way of either hypnotising the demons with its calming melody, or else driving them off through discordant notes.

Arlen becomes a messenger, relishing the freedom it allows him, and using his time to search for lost treasures in long-ruined cities. While at one such ruin of Anoch Sun out in the Krasian desert, he discovers a tomb etched with many long-forgotten wards, along with a metal, warded spear. At the city of Krasia, where the men still fight the demons, Arlen joins them in their holy war, and his prowess with the spear does not go unnoticed by the first warrior of the city, Jardir, who betrays Arlen and takes the weapon. Arlen manages to return to Anoch Sun, and his mind begins to work over the idea of how the wards on the spear repelled the corelings. He paints offensive wards onto his hands, and the next night does battle with a sand demon, managing to kill it. Slowly, he begins to paint more of the wards onto his skin…

At Angiers, Rojer is badly beaten by a rival jongleur and ends up in Leesha’s hospit, where the two become friendly. However, news reaches her of a plague sweeping through her old home, and she leaves the city with Rojer pledging to help her on the road. They’re attacked not long after, and Leesha brutally gang-raped, but before the corelings can get them, the mysterious Painted Man appears to help. He accompanies them on the road, and the three slowly grow to bond, though when they reach Cutter’s Hollow, they find the village a shadow of its former self. Arlen, as the Painted Man, incites the villagers to fight the demons, and while the toll on the people is great, they manage to survive the night, fending back the demons for the first time in centuries. The people begin to look upon Arlen as the fabled Deliverer of myth as they rebuild their city in a warded defense pattern. However, there is another figure riding out of the desert claiming to be the Deliverer, wielding the warded spear from Anoch Sun…


This book is just fantastic!

While there are some moments that feel like Brett is trying to channel George RR Martin with his brutal depictions of corelings dismembering humans, there is actually a lot more to this book than one gruesome tableau after another. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of moments where I felt reviled (to say the least), and I thought the attack on Leesha and Rojer on the road was a bit too out of nowhere, but in the main, it’s the actual substance of the story that drives this book forward, and there is plenty of substance to be found here!

The magic in this book has a fairly sensible feel to it, and the story overall has a really grounded sense that makes me believe what is happening within the plot. Does that make sense? I mean, some fantasy novels are just that, with all manner of outlandish things going on. Here, there is a very clear sense of rules at play, and the world makes sense within that context. It’s always an important point for these kinds of books, but I have to say, it definitely succeeded there. There is also a highly developed sense of history within the book, and I found myself really interested in learning more about the fabled age of science, and of the ruins of Anoch Sun. Stuff like this gives the book real depth, and I hope we dive into that in the subsequent books in the series!

The three main characters of the book quickly established themselves in my affections, to the point where I found myself really rooting for them when things took a turn for the worse. The whole section with Arlen in Krasia I read in one sitting, as I just had to find out what happened next. Of the three, I think Arlen definitely came across as the most interesting, even though at times his constant need to be a free spirit did come over as a bit petulant-child-like. His willingness to fight the demons, and his transformation into the Painted Man of the title was an entirely believable character arc, and I can’t wait to find out where his story is going next!

Overall, this book is highly recommended!!

The Earthsea Quartet

The Earthsea Quartet

It’s birthday week here at spalanz.com, and as part of celebrating all things fantasy, I want to feature a book that I’ve come to enjoy, the Earthsea Quartet from Ursula le Guin!

Back when I was in college, my long-time gaming buddy Tony recommended this omnibus to me, and I picked it up but never actually read it. In moving house a few years back, I’ve evidently lost it as I cannot find it anywhere in my flat, but a couple of weeks ago I noticed it in the local Waterstones and decided it was high time I picked it up to see what all the fuss has been about.

There are now six books in the Earthsea series, one of which is a collection of short stories that are also set in the fantasy realm. The first, A Wizard of Earthsea, was actually published in 1968, and the sixth, The Other Wind, in 2001. As of writing this blog, I’ve actually only read the first two stories, but I’m just so excited about this series that I couldn’t wait to start talking about it here!!

The stories are all set in the archipelago of Earthsea, a collection of islands surrounded by a vast and uncharted ocean. The main island, Havnor, is apparently analogous to Great Britain, though the cultures of the archipelago are not intended to be derivative of real-world settings, which is something that I really enjoy. Indeed, there is so much to recommend these stories that I cannot praise them enough!

A Wizard of Earthsea
The first novel in the series follows the magical training of a young boy from the island of Gont, named Ged. Names are actually very important in Earthsea, and the foundation of the magical system – by knowing a thing’s true name, a wizard is able to use magic to influence it. Ged is therefore known as Sparrowhawk in the course of the story, as he learns how to use his powers first as an apprentice to the wandering mage Ogion, and later at the magical academy on the island of Roke. Ged is first tricked into reading a book that summons a strange shadow which Ogion banishes, but later, at the academy, he is goaded into displaying his powers by raising the dead, at which this shadow reappears and begins to pursue Ged across the world.

The novel – it’s actually more of a novella – is just so impressive, I don’t really know where to begin! I love fantasy stories that are in this sort of post-Tolkien, pre-Game of Thrones period, where there is actually a lot more wonder and, really, a magical feel to the world, when authors didn’t feel the need to fall into prescribed story beats and such. A Wizard of Earthsea is actually quite small-scale in comparison with a lot of more modern fantasy novels, but this can be deceptive as we learn about the world of Earthsea in a protracted, progressive way, which I do enjoy quite a bit.

Something that I really liked was the way the wizarding academy on Roke did actually feel like a more medieval version of Hogwarts, where students could build friendships and rivalries, and both enjoy and dislike their lessons. While Harry Potter blends the fantastical with the realistic in a really great way, Earthsea is obviously a lot more clearly fantastical, and yet it still feels grounded in an almost believable way.

While I am quite firmly of the belief that this shouldn’t be an issue, it’s also worth pointing out that Ged – and most of the people of Earthsea, for that matter – are black. Much like the Drizzt novels I’ve talked about on this blog previously, having a black hero / central character in genre fiction is still really quite a big thing, and I think it’s important to note that fantasy has often been ahead of its time in this respect.

The Tombs of Atuan
The second book (also a novella-length story) completely changes tack, as we travel to a small island in the far east of the archipelago, and delve deeply into the religious cult of the Nameless Ones. There is a Dalai Lama-style ceremony where the late priestess of the Nameless Ones is reincarnated as a child born at the exact moment of her death. The child, Tenar, is consecrated as the priestess at the age of six, renamed Arha, and trained for her service. As the years go by, Arha is inducted in the many mysteries of the religion, namely the labyrinth underneath the temple complex, where she one day discovers a thief – Ged. He has come searching for the lost half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe, half of which he came into possession of during the course of the first novel. Arha traps him in the underground labyrinth, but he becomes a source of fascination for her, and she eventually comes to help him escape, and the two leave the island having reforged the ring, which is said to have the power to bring peace to all the islands of the archipelago.

The Tombs of Atuan is a definite change of pace after the first book, and I was initially quite surprised when I read it, having expected to have more tales of Ged the wizard. While he does of course appear, this is most assuredly a story centred around Arha, and the two books have been said to form both male and female parallel coming-of-age stories. Despite being surprised by it, however, I actually really liked the tightly-woven story, and my curiosity only grew with each chapter – in this respect, I think it is more definitely a page-turner than the first book. However, both were tremendous stories!

I said earlier that these books fall into the sort of early-modern fantasy genre, which is of course quite difficult to describe further, but I suppose the main attribute they possess is a sort of self-awareness – these books know that they are fantasy, in fact they knew they were young-adult novels before young-adult novels were a thing, and they don’t try to be anything more. As such, they are a truly fantastic read in the very real sense of that word. There’s no attempt to spice things up for a different market – these are fantasy books, written for people who want to read fantasy books. Aside from the racial ideas I mentioned earlier, there’s no attempt to politicise the story, either. It does what fantasy should be best at: providing escapism.

I could proselytise all day about these two stories, but I think the best thing would be just to read them for yourselves – each one is really short, and provides such spellbinding storytelling that you can get through them quite quickly. If you haven’t already done so, definitely pick them up; if you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

And stay tuned for more on Earthsea as I make my way to the remaining books in the series!!

Fantasy Week!

Hey everybody!
My blog is turning three on Friday, 21 April, and in the tradition of previous Birthday Weeks here at spalanz.com, I’m having a theme week where I explore all manner of stuff in something of a microcosm of what my blog is about. This year, I’m declaring it Fantasy Week, and will be taking a look at all sorts of media with a fantastical setting.

This could of course be contentious, as some things will naturally be left out. I’ve got blogs lined up that will be taking in Dungeons and Dragons, the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy, as well as some other odd bits that I hope you’ll enjoy! Of course, one week of blogs can’t encompass everything, and there will naturally be some things that fall somewhat by the wayside – most glaringly, Lord of the Rings isn’t being featured this week.

Why?

Well, because my love and enthusiasm for Middle Earth really needs its own week – maybe when it comes time for the fourth birthday…

I’ve enjoyed fantasy books since I was a child, and regularly used to devour them over all else in the school library. In later years, particularly after discovering there were Star Wars novels, I’ve moved more into the sci-fi realm, though always find myself full of unbridled enthusiasm whenever I discover something new, such as The Elenium or the Powder Mage trilogy. Indeed, even modern classics like the Legend of Drizzt, I’ve come to quite late-on! I’m hoping to share some more of these fantasy classics as the week progresses, however, so stay tuned for more amazing stuff!

I’ve already waxed lyrical about how much I love a good fantasy novel, covering a fair breadth of the staples in this blog from 2014, so I’ll say no more for now, but let’s get on with the show!

Tales of the Drow

Dungeons and Dragons week continues!

Following my look at the Legend of Drizzt boardgame on Tuesday, it’s only fair that I look at the books that inspired it all. As I mentioned in that blog, I came to Drizzt in early 2013, and was a bit hesitant at first, due to my prior commitments to the Star Wars universe. I suppose I felt like I didn’t have the room for something as big as this in my head. A similar argument was made in the early days for Warhammer, but that didn’t last, either. My friend and gaming buddy Tony has been a D&D fan for as long as I can remember, and had frequently tried to get me into the fantasy realm, though I’d always resisted. However, after playing and enjoying the offerings of the Adventure System boardgames, I thought I’d see what the fuss was all about, and bought the box set of the first three books in the Legend of Drizzt line. A line that, I hadn’t realised at the time, stretches to thirteen novels, with an anthology of short stories!

The Legend of Drizzt

So I embarked on Homeland, snowed up at home, and found myself utterly enraptured. From that first chapter, describing the drow raid against the backdrop of Drizzt Do’Urden’s birth, I was hooked. The intricacies of drow society sucked me in even further, and within a matter of days I’d finished it. Homeland is one of those books that took me along for a truly incredible ride, one that I needed to have a break after, to catch my breath and digest it all. While I find the trope of a misunderstood hero not fitting in with his society really quite hackneyed, the execution here is just fabulous.

I’d only previously encountered RA Salvatore through his Star Wars novels – Vector Prime, and the novel for Attack of the Clones. Both of these had been a bit wordy, and a bit heavy-going, so this only added to my suspicions about the series. However, Homeland threw all that out of the window, and proved to be an immensely enjoyable experience. Seriously, I cannot tell you just how much this book has pleased me – you just need to read it and see for yourself.

Real life intervened at this point, however, and I found myself moving house, so unable to move onto book two, Exile. When I finally made it to this book, I was ensconced in my new place, no snow on the ground, but had a similarly enjoyable experience. It’s set ten years after Homeland, so I suppose the break helped… We get to see even more of the Underdark, the land of eternal night. Dark Elf (drow) society is further expounded upon, and the characters of the previous book further developed. Even though Drizzt is now an outcast of his society, due to his conscience, we still see plenty of Matron Malice and her brood.

Drizzt’s mother is actually among the pantheon of amazing fantasy characters, for me. Literally every scene she was in had me engrossed utterly, so that when I’d put the book down to, say, get another coffee, I’d be surprised by the fact that I was in daylight! Yes, it really was that incredible. However, the whole story is just propelled along so well that it’s really easy to become so embroiled. Without the burden of exposition that Homeland has, Exile is consequently just an awesome adventure!

Book three, Sojourn, unfortunately started to let me down. At the end of Exile, we know Drizzt is now determined to live his life on the surface of the world, and of course this whole trilogy has been a prequel to the Icewind Dale trilogy, where we see Drizzt on the surface like he’s been there for years. Sojourn, therefore, has classic “bridge syndrome” of needing to get a character from A to B. The story is still good, of course, but it does feel a little ploddy at times.

All in all, however, the Dark Elf trilogy is bloody marvellous! You really need to go out there and get a copy of these books!

The Crystal Shard full cover

As I said, anyway, Drizzt first appeared in The Crystal Shard, where he was actually a supporting character to the tale of the young barbarian, Wulfgar. The popularity of the Dark Elf, however, led to the Legend being born, and it didn’t take long for the prequels and sequels to come, and the whole to be repackaged as the Legend of Drizzt. However, reading The Crystal Shard now, it feels a little uneven at times, as it’s being sold as a Drizzt novel, though there is a lot of focus placed on Wulfgar. At any rate, The Crystal Shard is a big difference from the previous stories, if you read them in this order as I did!

Inspired by traditional fantasy rather than the RPG, there is a lot of Tolkien in The Crystal Shard. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. I’m not actually a fan of Tolkien’s prose, as I find him unnecessarily long-winded, but his inspiration is beyond question, and his influence tremendous. Here, we get a lot of Tolkienesque scenes and sequences that feel like they’re trying too hard to be Tolkienesque. If they had been more Salvatore-esque, perhaps they would have succeeded much better? Well, anyway, this was Salvatore’s first published novel.

All of this aside, it’s pretty epic in its scope, and features a handful of story kernels scattered throughout that would spin off later novels in a completely natural way. Awesome stuff. While the story is notable for just how human the main characters are, it’s particularly noteworthy for the issues of race it addresses. Drizzt is a Dark Elf, a species also called drow, which I have mentioned before of course, but in D&D, Dark Elves are literally dark, with black skin and white hair. That the drow are reviled on the surface of the world for their evil deeds is a really nice metaphor for addressing racism in the modern world. Of course, this was before the Dark Elf trilogy, when we discovered that the drow really are evil and heartless. But I was particularly impressed with how Salvatore worked this into the book, and it goes to show how fantasy writing isn’t all about escapism. Written in the late 1980s, though, this perhaps also helped legitimize D&D, at a time when it was being demonized for encouraging Satanism.

Moving on!

While knowing that the ideas from The Crystal Shard would be picked up in later novels, I was nevertheless surprised to discover the next book in the trilogy, Streams of Silver, went a completely different route. Bruenor Battlehammer takes centre stage as we follow him on his quest to find his ancestral homeland of Mithral Hall. This book introduces the assassin Artemis Entreri, sent to pursue the halfling Regis to regain a valuable gemstone. Essentially a road trip story, it is actually really enjoyable, with a lot of twists along the way as we explore more of the world. By the end, however, all appears lost, as Bruenor appears to have died in his battle with the dragon Shimmergloom, and Regis has been captured by Entreri.

The Halfling’s Gem concludes the trilogy, though I have yet to actually finish this installment! Shameful, I know. A huge chunk of the beginning of this novel takes place as a boat trip, and I have to admit, I felt a bit journey-ed out by this point. I tend not to like road-trip stories where the focus is on that journey, I have to say. They tend to have a rambling quality that I find unfocused, but that’s just me. I abandoned book three roughly in the middle, over the summer of 2013, and I’m not entirely sure what I moved onto in its place! However, I have now embarked upon my attempt to finish it.

There are, after all, so many more Drizzt books out there…

The Legend of Drizzt

Buy it from amazon:
The Legend of Drizzt, set I (out of print, I believe, but linked because it’s the box set I mention)
Homeland
Exile
Sojourn
The Legend of Drizzt, set II (also out of print, it appears)
The Crystal Shard
Streams of SIlver
The Halfling’s Gem

25th Anniversary Edition, book one (the Dark Elf trilogy)
25th Anniversary Edition, book two (the Icewind Dale trilogy)

Fantastic!

fantasy

Fantasy. How marvellous. I love a good fantasy story, which you may have picked up on if you’ve been reading this blog for any great length of time. It’s all about the escapism, the exercise of the imagination… with a good fantasy book, I can get lost for hours at a time.

I have vague memories of reading a book when I was still in school to do with a snow queen or a snow witch…something along those lines, anyway. Recently, though, it all started with Lord of the Rings of course. I’m not one of those people who grew up with Tolkien – I first came upon the book thanks to the hoopla of the Peter Jackson trilogy. A lot of people seem to disparage the movies – the purists, I suppose you could say – but I happen to think otherwise. I mean, they brought a whole new audience to the books, and seemed to really regenerate interest. Anyway.

Lord of the Rings is one of the archetypal fantasy epics, if not the archetype, with so much coming out nowadays almost entirely derivative of Tolkien’s work. However, I must admit to finding it a bit long-winded. Yes, it’s all about the journey, and yet it’s a fantastic storyline with compelling characters and epic situations, but the execution is a bit… periphrastic, if you will. The Hobbit, however, I did enjoy. Lots of fun, that one.

From Lord of the Rings, let’s take a look at another archetypal fantasy series: Dungeons and Dragons. First published in 1974 as the now-iconic role-playing game, a whole library of books have been published to support the line. One of those absolutely brilliant moments in publishing came in 1988, with the publication of The Crystal Shard, from the pen of RA Salvatore. A novel trilogy that was intended to showcase the barbarian hero Wulfgar, the result was unintended, but perhaps not unexpected – the meteoric rise of the drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden. A dark elf from the Underdark, Drizzt is unique among his kind for having a conscience. The Icewind Dale trilogy spawned a whole industry of Drizzt material in subsequent years. That first threesome has a lot in common with Tolkien’s world, but Salvatore absolutely nails it with his prequel, the Dark Elf trilogy. These books are absolutely incredible, and I can highly recommend them!

From D&D, we head over to Warhammer, my obsession du jour! Another game setting, this time from 1983, Warhammer Fantasy is a mix of the usual tropes with a historical perspective that seems to be based on 17th-century Germany. Again, a whole library has sprung up to support the setting. For a game whose only objective is to eliminate your opponents, the novels that I’ve read so far have been really quite excellent! I’m currently reading through the latest novel in the End Times ongoing saga, which is one of these books I mentioned as being the sort that I can just lose myself in. In terms of providing background to the game beyond the army books, Warhammer novels have proven to be surprisingly awesome!

The third of the game tie-ins comes in the shape of Pathfinder. Published from 2009 as the bastard offspring of D&D, the Pathfinder setting has also spawned a whole series of novels under the Pathfinder Tales heading. I’ve not managed to make it to any of these novels yet, but have three in the collection, and will be posting about them when I get there!

Finally, we have A Song of Ice and Fire. Back in 1996, George RR Martin brought out his massive tome of a book that is, admittedly, more akin to historical fiction for the most part. But then we get dragons, and all sorts of stuff kicks off. While I’d dispute calling it “high” fantasy, fantasy it remains, so thought I’d mention it here. I do enjoy A Game of Thrones, however I have some issues with it. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the “adult” nature of these books, but most of the time it is entirely gratuitous, and gives me the impression that such scenes are only there to “legitimize” the novels as being for adults – and to offset the dragons, perhaps.

It’s a good story, so far at least, with a lot of compelling characters and some excellent set pieces. It’s definitely worth looking into, and I feel it’s better than the TV show that’s still going on. But then, I suppose this is part of the reason why I like books so damn much, as they allow you to create the world in your head, rather than seeing just one person’s view of it.

At any rate, I’ll stop with my musings now. But get yourselves off to the bookstore, if you haven’t already, and check out some of these books today!

My fantasy story! part three

Hey folks!
So my current fantasy project is still underway, and taking up a fair bit of my spare time creatively. That’s the main reason why I haven’t been doing much in terms of the Star Wars fiction cycle that I had started back in May. However, I still have to actually make any headway in terms of writing!

Currently I’m planning to write a prologue that will serve to introduce some of the setting for my plans, that hopefully will be available online soon enough…

My Fantasy Story! part two

Evening all!

Just wanted to share with you some very exciting news!

I’ve been trawling through my harddrive this afternoon trying to find a picture I took about eight years ago. I didn’t find it, but I did find something pretty amazing: a folder entitled “My fantasy-adventure book” with seven files in, which turn out to be the long-lost documents I wrote back in the day for my fantasy story! Amazing, huh?!

Continue reading “My Fantasy Story! part two”