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The Library of Babel: A Book Log

"This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences." -- Jorge Luis Borges

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

This Is Not the Blog You're Looking For

Well, OK, it may be the blog you're looking for, but the blogging you're looking for isn't here any more. I've folded the booklog posts in with my other blog, Uncertain Principles, some months back. I just keep forgetting to post a pointer here to indicate it.

If you're only after booklog stuff the posts are tagged with a "[Library of Babel]" in the title, and they can be found in the booklog category archive.

This site will remain as it is, because I'm too lazy to change it.

Posted at 3:07 PM | link |
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Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Tyranny of the Night

I put up a post over at my other blog asking for opinions on which of the many books waiting to be reviewed on this sadly neglected booklog should come first, and the top vote-getter was Glen Cook's The Tyranny of the Night, so it will be the first of (hopefully) several new posts here.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden (who edited this book for Tor) made a comment a while back that they had great hopes for Cook's next series, because the last couple of Black Company novels flirted with best-seller status. He figured that a new series that didn't require ten volumes worth of back-story to understand might get him over the top.

This book reads in part like they were really taking that to heart. There's a lot more explaining of what's going on than in the Black Company novels, in some places almost managing to achieve an excess of exposition, which is unheard of for Cook.

It's also a book with some clear Points to make, as can be seen from the set-up: The world is bounded by walls of ice, and afflicted by supernatural powers (collectively termed "the Night"). Among the civilizations in the world, there are two great religions, both of which were founded in the same Holy Land. One of those two religions (headed by Patriarchs) and an Empire associated with it used to control the Holy Land, but has lost control of it. Their rival power (an empire whose ruler bears the title of Kaif) now controls the lands, but the new Patriarch is thinking of calling a Crusade to regain control.

The political set-up is a little heavy-handed in its similarity to the real world. Cook doesn't pull this off as well as, say, Guy Kay does.

Against this backdrop, you get a fairly typical Glen Cook story. A military commander in the Holy Lands is attacked by a power of the Night, and uses some new technology to destroy it. This was previously unthinkable, and causes quite a stir. The commander in question is quickly sent on a secret mission into the heart of the Patriarchy, where they might be working up to a Crusade, if they can stop feuding and killing each other long enough. There are battles, and scheming, and back-stabbing, and lots of the ground-level military stuff you would expect from Glen Cook in Black Company mode.

It's not quite as good as the early Black Company stuff, largely because the exposition and political set-up come off as kind of heavy-handed. Somebody less bothered by that sort of thing than I am would probably enjoy this more than I did. It's also very much the first book of a series-- most of what goes on really amounts to shifting pieces into position for some later action.

In general, though, if you like Cook's other stuff, you'll probably like this. It'll be interesting to see where he takes the story in the future volumes.

Posted at 4:40 PM | link | no comments

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Die, Spammers, Die

We've been suffering from a massive comment spam attack this morning. Comments are temporarily disabled until we can find a solution.

We apologize for the inconvenience.

Posted at 11:22 AM | link | no comments

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Ghost Brigades

The last of the Boskone-themed book log posts for this year is John Scalzi's The Ghost Brigades, a sort-of sequel to Old Man's War (same universe, different characters). I wasn't on any panels with John, but I did hang out with him a bit, and I bought the book there, so I'll add it in to the general Boskone blogging blitz.

The Ghost Brigades takes up an idea that's set up in Old Man's War, but not explored very much: the Special Forces units of the Colonial Defense Forces, elite troops cloned from the DNA of elderly recruits who die before they can be transferred into new bodies. It's got slam-bang action, snappy dialogue, and some interesting meditations on identity, making it a worthy follow-up to Old Man's War.

The book is set in the same universe, a place of constant violent struggle between alien species, in which humanity is forced to battle to protect its few colonies. The Colonial Defense Forces recruit elderly humans, put them into souped-up new bodies, and use them as infantry to fight wars on distant planets. There are some jobs that are too much for regular troops, though, so they have the Special Forces, the "Ghost Brigades," who are force-grown clones with artifical personalities, and even more extreme modifications. They're the troops Earth uses to do the really important jobs, and pull the dirty tricks that need to be kept quiet.

As the book opens, a Special Forces unit commanded by a reatively minor character from Old Man's War uncovers evidence of a plot against Earth involving three alien races, and a human traitor with unclear motives. In an effort to learn what's going on, they clone the traitor from old DNA samples, and attempt to imprint his personality on the clone. When that fails, he's turned over to the Ghost Brigades as a new recruit ("Jared Dirac"-- all the Special Forces troops are given random first names, and the last names of famous scientists), but the higher-ups keep a close eye on him, and when Special Forces ships start disappearing under mysterious circumstances, it looks like Jared may hold the key to saving humanity from complete disaster.

This is a very well-crafted book, with something for everyone. If you liked Old Man's War, there are a few training and combat scenes here that are every bit as good as the original. If you were hoping for more details in the first book, this volume offers intriguing revelations about the nature and motivation of the alien races, and about what's going on behind the scenes in the CDF. And if you were afraid of a carbon-copy sequel, you have nothing to worry about, because this book takes the ideas set up in the first book, and expands them in new directions.

The book would probably stand reasonably well on its own-- very little depends directly on the events of the first one-- but it would definitely help to have read the first. And, while the plot is brought to a satisfactory resolution, there are enough loose ends and sequel hooks to set up another book (a good thing, that, as Scalzi is under contract to write a third volume in the series...).

I enjoyed this book a good deal, and would happily recommend it to anyone looking for a good, fast-moving, plot-driven read. And I'm looking forward to seeing where he goes with the sequel.

Posted at 9:50 PM | link | no comments


Third in the series of books I read to learn about my panelists for "Is Science Fiction Necessary?" is Permanence by Karl Schroeder. This is a few years old, now, but we had a copy on the to-be-read shelf, which I started before Boskone, and finished the day after the con.

One of the cover blurbs drops the phrase "Heinlein Juvenile," and that's not a bad description of the feel of the book. The main protagonist, Rue Cassels, is a young girl from a space habitat who steals a ship and flees her abusive brother to seek her fortune on another world. On the way, she spots what she thinks is a comet, but which turns out to be a derelict spacecraft. With the help of a distant cousin and a handful of others, she mounts an expedition to the ship to stake her claim, and succeeds through a combination of rational thought, determination, and sheer force of personality. Once she gets there, things start to get deep.

The best feature of the book is really the setting, which imagines a huge web of human colonies on planets and stations orbiting incredibly numerous brown dwarf stars. These colonies are linked by the "Cycler Compact," built around slower-than-light starships making regular orbits among the colonies, carrying news and trade from one to the next. The Compact is in danger of collapse, though, because of the recent discovery of faster-than-light travel, through a mechanism that requires a deeper gravity well than the brown dwarfs can provide. A new society is springing up around "lit worlds," those orbiting stars massive enough to sustain fusion, and provide a launching point for FTL ships. Rue's discovery turns out to have huge implications for both the Compact and the lit worlds.

This is a book that is positively overflowing with nifty SF ideas, from the brown dwarfs, to the "inscape" (where people have brain implants to let them see informative mark-up overlaying normal reality), to several species of deeply alien extraterrestrials, to the "Permanence" of the title, which refers to a religion or group of religions dedicated to the goal of re-shaping human culture into something that can survive for millennia. For the most part, these are handled very well, with the exception of the "Rights Economy" that dominates the lit worlds, and is a little too ham-handedly satirical to work for me (happily, the main plot doesn't depend on the annoying elements).

The actual plot of the book is quite good, but nowhere near as remarkable as the worldbuilding. There are a few too many points where Rue just happens to meet up with somebody who just happens to decide to help her out in some crucial way. There are some fun mysteries along the way, though, and enough exciting action to keep it from becoming dry and preachy, and enough Deep Thoughts about culture and religion to keep it from being pure escapist trash. It wasn't as much fun as Crystal Rain, but it's a good read.

We've got a copy of his first novel, Ventus, lying around, and Permanence is good enough to move it up the reading queue a bit. His latest, Lady of Mazes also sounds interesting, though I don't know that I'll be downloading the novel he wrote for the Canadian military...

Posted at 9:20 PM | link | no comments

Crystal Rain

The second book read in my attempt to learn about the "Is Science Fiction Necessary?" panelists was Tobias Buckell's Crystal Rain. John Scalzi had said nice things about it on the Whatever, and I read the Prologue in the store and was hooked.

I heard Toby describe it as "a Caribbean steampunk space opera novel" or something like that, and that's a pretty good description. It's a lost colony story, set on a planet that was settled by a mix of races and cultures from Earth, and then cut off from the rest of humanity by a desperate action in a war with hostile aliens. The same act that stranded them destroyed nearly all of the high-tech machinery on the planet, so a few hundred years later, the human protagonists have dropped down to a steampunk sort of tech level, while the surviving aliens have set themselves up as gods, and created a menacing Aztec-like culture on the far side of a nearly impassable mountain range.

At the beginning of the book, the Azteca come swarming over the Wicked High Mountains, and threaten to completely overwhelm the humans of Nanagada. In addition to simnple conquest, they have been instructed by their "gods" to find a man named John deBrun, who washed up on shore almsot thirty years earlier, missing one hand and most of his memory. It seems that deBrun holds the key to something mysterious called the Ma Wi Jung, which the alien Teotl desperately want to control.

Buckell rings some interesting changes on the well-worn idea of a lost colony story. For one thing, the cultures clashing here are not your standard European-derived generic human societies-- the Azteca are creepily novel, and the Caribbean-flavored human culture of the protagonists is nicely drawn and very believable. Another touch that I liked is that the people have not, in fact, forgotten that they were a colony world-- most of the high tech is gone, but the memory remains, and there are even a few people from the olds days still running around, kept alive by life-extending nanotechnology. They're doing their best to maintain, and even improve their situation, building steam-powered railroads to link their towns, and generally struggling to raise their technology level. It's fairly obvious what the Ma Wi Jung will turn out to be, but even there, there are some surprises in store.

The plot moves along very briskly, with deBrun and a mysterious dreadlocked human killing machine named Pepper setting off on a desperate quest to the frozen north to find the Ma Wi Jung, pursued by Azteca warships, and dogged by spies. Back in the Capitol City, the prime minister Dihana and her general Edward Haidan mount a desperate defense against the Azteca armies. The action moves quickly-- a lot of events are packed into 350 pages-- and Buckell doesn't pull many punches.

There are a couple of stray bits of plot that don't really tie in to much else, and a few unsatisfying elements to the ending, but this is his first novel, so you can't expect complete perfection. And as a first novel, it's an auspicious debut. He's writing a sequel at the moment (at least, I assume that Ragamuffin is meant to be in the same world-- you can keep up with the process on his blog), and I'll definitely pick it up as soon as it comes out. He's a writer worth keeping an eye on.

(One caveat: much of the dialogue is in a mild sort of dialect (to choose an example line from a thickly-accented character: "Them man can't even test with me mongoose. I don't want the city, we protecting it. Me and you, we go have to reason things out. Things happening"). This isn't nearly as annoying as it might be, and it's actually pretty easy to read. If you're bothered by that sort of thing, though, consider yourself warned.)

Posted at 8:31 PM | link | no comments

The Steerswoman

A couple of weeks back, Kate and I made our annual trip to Boskone, where once again, I was on a few program items one of those was a panel with the slightly alarming title "Is Science Fiction Necessary?", which I was slated to moderate, no less. I was pretty worried about that one (which seemed to have great potential to just fizzle out), so I made it a point to seek out and read books by my co-panelists, so that if nothing else, I could ask them some intelligent questions about their own books.

Rosemary Kirstein's The Steerswoman got to be the first book read, because we happened to have it lying around, as part of an omnibus with the sequel, The Outskirter's Secret-- one of a great many books sitting on the to-be-read bookcase.

Rowan is a Steerswoman, part of an order dedicated to seeking and spreading knowledge, and pledged to always give true answers to any question she is asked. Provided, that is, that the asker agrees to answer any questions she asks. Refusal to answer a question asked by a Steerswoman brings a lifetime ban-- no Steerswoman will ever again provide an answer. As the book opens, she is traveling around looking for information about mysterious jewels that have been found scattered in different places all around the land.

The world she lives in has a generic medievaloid look to it-- low technology level, hereditary nobility, barbarian tribes on the frontier, etc.-- with two mysterious and feuding orders of wizards scatttered around, capriciously ruling poorly defined domains. The jewels Rowan is seeking are described in a manner that clearly suggests higher technology, though, and there are a few other hints here and there that all is not what it seems. People are well aware that the world is a sphere, for example, and early on, Rowan uses some simple calculations to determine that an object launched with sufficient velocity will orbit the world without ever falling.

Predictably enough, it quickly becomes apparent that people linked to the mysterious wizards are trying to kill her, as a direct result of the fact that she's looking for these mysterious jewels. And predictably enough, this only strengthens her resolve to learn more about them. She bands up with Bel, an "Outskirter" from a tribal society on the edge of civilized lands, and William, a young man who wants to become a wizard, and has worked out a few "spells" of his own.

The book moves at a very leisurely pace, and is, all-in-all, a very reasonable sort of book. There are a few major fights, but for the most part, problems are solved by sitting down and thinking them through. Which is fitting, given the calling of the main character.

If you're looking for slam-bang action, this isn't the book for you. If you're looking for a pleasant read about sensible people in a fascinating setting, and the power of a rational and scientific approach to the world, this should do nicely. I realize that that sounds like an absurdly restrictive set of criteria, but it's not meant as damning with faint praise. It's a well-done book with an intriguing setting, and I'll definitely return to read the sequels.

Posted at 8:03 PM | link | no comments

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Competent Neo-Heinlein

The post title is my two-word review of Elizabeth Bear's debut trilogy, Hammered, Scardown and Worldwired (OK, one of the words is a hyphenated neologism-- deal with it). These get thrown into a single entry both because I have a huge backlog, and also because they're really one book. In fact, I strongly recommend not starting the first one without having the first one close to hand.

The books follow the adventures of Genevieve ("Jenny") Casey, a veteran of the Canadian military witha prosthetic arm who has retired to Hartford to try to forget about the past. Some malfunctions of the arm lead her to seek medical attention, and she finds herself drawn back into a world of violence, corruption, and intrigue at the highest levels of world government. Before the whole thing is done, she's got a government conspiracy to unravel, an attempt at genocide to thwart, an ecological catastrophe to avert, and not one but two alien races to contact. There's more than enough plot here for three books.

I picked these up because they were enthusiastically recommended by John Scalzi, and it's not hard to see why. Like his Old Man's War, this is very much a book in the Heinlein tradition. The characters are smart and competent, and successful as a result, the science elements are essential to the plot, and the plotting is crisp and fast.

Unfortunately, where Scalzi mostly manages to avoid the pitfalls of bad Heinlein, Bear... doesn't. The characters are just a little too good (one catastrophe is averted because a member of an evil conspiracy within the government has a change of heart after a conversation with the daughter of one of the protagonists), the major characters are a little too rational, and there's a little too much speechifying. There's even a self-aware computer pulling the strings, and a love triangle plot that doesn't seem to serve any purpose other than as a plug for polyamory.

There's some good stuff here, don't get me wrong. All the problems I mention are obvious within the first volume, and I bought and read the next two all the same. At the same time, though, it triggers a lot of the same reactions as a lot of the less enjoyable aspects of Heinlein's books, though the politics are less annoying. Crisp writing and a fast-moving plot will cover a lot of sins, though, and these were fun to read in a just-this-side-of-Baen kind of way.

(One other warning: if you're the sort of reader who's bothered by stuff like Daniel Keys Moran making the French the masters of the world government, you don't even want to think about the future history here, in which Canada ends up ruling the free world...)

Posted at 4:49 PM | link | 4 comments

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Gateway to the Epics?

In a comment to the previous post, Sean M. writes:

So, I know that there are probably lists out there like this, but is there any long-epic series that a beginner should start with?

I have never really read a long series of fantasy books, but I like the idea of it. I would start with the Wheel of Time series, but just about half of the people I hear mention it say bad things about it.

It's a harder question than you might think, even leaving aside the ethical issue of whether it's a good idea to encourage the reading of long epic series (which many people object to).

The fundamental problem with things like the Wheel of Time or George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is that they're not finished. It's hard to recommend either on the grounds that they might still go completely off the rails (some would argue that Jordan went off the rails about four books ago). I wouldn't want to recommend something that's incomplete.

The other major problem with coming up with a "where to start" recommendation is that the series that were the real gateway drug for this sort of stuff mostly aren't very good. I thought David Eddings's Belgarion was great stuff when I was about twelve, but it doesn't hold up that well. And while I enjoyed it at the time, with a little perspective, you can just about hear the dice rolling in RPG-derived stuff like Raymond Feist's Riftwar and sequels. I even kind of liked Terry Brooks when I first encountered it.

(A further problem is that many of these authors just don't know when to let go, so a reasonable trilogy can be retroactively destroyed by unnecessary sequels.)

The obvious recommendation would probably be The Lord of the Rings, but it's not quite the same thing, despite some similarities. A lot of people who like Tolkien don't like other epic fantasy, while some epic fantasy readers really don't much care for Tolkien. I think this has less to do with the relative quality of the works in question than with the fact that they're not trying to do the same things, but that's a different discussion altogether.

There are also some books that are great if you've read a bunch of epic fantasy before, because they play some interesting games with the format and readers' expectations, but I don't think they'd work as an introduction to the form. Steven Erikson's Malazan books (The first of which is reviewed here) are in this category, as are Gene Wolfe's recent duology (The Knight and The Wizard).

So, I'm left with a bunch of things that sort-of work. Dave Duncan has a couple of series ("A Man of His Word" and "A Handful of Men") that are perfectly competent epic fantasy with all the usual trappings (different races, exploring most of the map, a Dark Lord who needs defeating). Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry is sort of kitchen-sink epic fantasy, with a little bit of everything thrown in. It's got some lovely writing, but it's not entirely coherent. Susan Cooper's "young adult" series The Dark is Rising gets a lot of the flavor, though it's missing some of the elements of classic epic fantasy, and it's YA.

Comments and other suggestions are, of course, welcome. What am I forgetting?

Posted at 8:44 AM | link | [ hide comments ]

As much as I love Duncan, I don't think it's quite fair to use that series as an intro to epic fantasy, because it's lighter in tone than most epic fantasy. Still, it is good, and it partakes enough of the genre that it's not insane to use it that way.

I would never, ever recommend Cooper to anyone. It's way too YA to be a real book.

Other possibilities:

1. Hobb's Assassin trilogy. It has the disadvantage of being insanely depressing, and going off the rails at the end for everyone who isn't Novak, but it's good.

2. Watt-Evans' Obsidian Chronicles are good, but they're not the sort of thing that's going to make people go "Wow!" and start raving wildly.

3. Stephenson's Baroque Cycle has the disadvantage of not actually being epic fantasy, but if what you're looking for is the immersive experience of reading a series of enormous bricks that cover a huge cast over a large period of time (which is much of the enjoyment of enormous epics), it delivers. Also, it's incredibly excellent.

4. Reading something like Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarrion books could actually work. They're insanely and madly generically derivative, but if you're unfamiliar with the stuff they're deriving from, you might not want to poke out your eyes while reading them.

5. Stephan Grundy's Rhinegold is a single book that still feels epic, so is maybe a low-key way to get started. Also, it's explicitly mythological, which some people might like.

Mike Kozlowski, 12.04.2005, 10:34am | permalink

Robin Hobb: The Farseer ,The Liveship Traders, The Tawny Man. The first two trilogies stand on their own. The third really needs the context of the first (but you can almost ignore the second completely).

Liveship Traders is probably the choice as a gateway.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is the other epic that leaps to mind. If for no other reason than to practice skipping the POVs that you no longer care for.

Danil, 12.04.2005, 10:45am | permalink

Mike: As much as I love Duncan, I don't think it's quite fair to use that series as an intro to epic fantasy, because it's lighter in tone than most epic fantasy.

True, but Eddings isn't exactly Crime and Punishment. I basically think of those Duncan books as Eddings done better, so they mostly fit.

I would never, ever recommend Cooper to anyone. It's way too YA to be a real book.

Your allergy to YA fiction is stronger than most.

1. Hobb's Assassin trilogy. It has the disadvantage of being insanely depressing, and going off the rails at the end for everyone who isn't Novak, but it's good.

I thought about mentioning it, but it doesn't really become epic until the final book. The first book is much more small-scale, and has a different feel than your typical epic.

4. Reading something like Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarrion books could actually work. They're insanely and madly generically derivative, but if you're unfamiliar with the stuff they're deriving from, you might not want to poke out your eyes while reading them.

It might work. For me, the problem with these wasn't a genre thing, it's was the RPG aspect-- I was badly distracted by the sounds of dice rolling in the background.

Danil: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is the other epic that leaps to mind. If for no other reason than to practice skipping the POVs that you no longer care for.

Yeah. Those really need a drinking-game style user's manual: "If Simon is lost in a cave, tunnel, or forest, take two drinks, and skip ahead five pages..."

Chad Orzel, 12.04.2005, 11:02am | permalink

Probably the ultimate in the mega-novel would be all those books by Anthony Trollope, but I'm assuming by the books you've mentioned that we're limited here to something science fiction or fantasy-like.

How about Moorcock's Eternal Champion cycle, which is highly uneven but contains something for everyone. I always like the Elric ones (for showing off the anti-hero) and the Hawkmoon ones (for the political side).

Glen Engel-Cox, 12.04.2005, 11:27am | permalink

I've had some similar conversations with new readers recently, and been musing whether Eddings is really as bad I consider him to be.

My forgiving side would say that there has to be some reason I devoured his books at 12-15. I've wondered whether new readers, not familiar with the standard fantasy tropes, cliches and stereotypes, not mention less attuned to noticing plot holes and internal inconsistencies, might have the same reaction as my 12-year-old self.

Some of the books I've tried as gateway drugs:
- Robin Hobb's _Assassin Apprentice_ (mixed success)
- Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarrion trilogy (so far, 2 for 2; both were gamers, and Moon does a great job of taking starting with a D&Dish world and writing a real book on top of it)
- Steven Brust's _Jhereg_ (not an epic brick, but works if you're looking for 'big fantasy world with lots of sequels')
- Dave Duncan's _Man of His Word_ (mixed success; his Seventh Sword or King's Blades series might be better gateways)
- C.S. Friedman's _Black Sun Rising_ (zero success)
- Glen Cook's Black Company series (1 for 1)

One other book I would recommend for this purpose, assuming the end of the trilogy in March is as good as the preceding two: Fiona McIntosh's _Myrren's Gift_. She does have one stylistic tic that might make it easier for 'new to epics' readers: characters are sparsely described. If a character is even named, it generally means that they're going to have a scene with a main character at some point. Background characters rarely gets names or even descriptions, just short-hand (the rich merchant, the whore, the soldier, etc.). While the lack of fleshed-out background makes the setting seem somewhat smaller, it does get away from the 'would be nice to have a scorecard' problem I run into occasionally in, say, Martin ("Okay, the four knights and three ladies who just walked in; am I supposed to remember them from somewhere? Someone just addressed 'Fred'; is that the same person as Lord Whosis?")

Brian Gibbons, 12.04.2005, 3:07pm | permalink

How long does a series have to be to be long-epic fantasy? Would one really want to dive into the genre with a series of, say, 10,000 pages? Anyway, here are a couple of multi-volume series that seem fairly epic to me, but aren't heavier than an anvil:

1. Jack Vance's "Lyonesse" Trilogy - "Lyonesse: Suldrun’s Garden" (1983), "Lyonesse II: The Green Pearl" (1985), and "Lyonesse III: Madouc" (1989)?

2. Philip Pullman's fairly recent "His Dark Materials" trilogy - "The Golden Compass", "The Subtle Knife" & "The Amber Spyglass"?

David Carroll, 12.04.2005, 7:09pm | permalink

Brian: The problem with Eddings is really that his characters are preposterous. This isn't something you notice so much as a young teenager, and it's not something that'll bother a lot of adults, but neither is bad-characterization-blindness something I'd count on when making a general recommendation.

Mike Kozlowski, 12.04.2005, 7:22pm | permalink

There are important problems of biased sampling here.

To be qualified to recommend which long series are good, you need to be a special sort of person.

You need to have a lot of time on your hands. Busy people don't read a lot of different long series of fantasy novels.

You need to be tolerant of bad writing. Writers who churn out long series of long novels have it hard. What's the chance they'll meet the repeated deadlines and write well the whole time too?

You need to be tolerant of unreality. When a writer spends ten or fifteen years writing long, long series of long books, what chance does he have to experience the real world? He can write a long series about court intrigues in a monarchy but he doesn't have time to get a government job and watch the office politics. He has to make it up. Luckily, he doesn't have to make it up from scratch. He can build on what he learned from reading other fantasy series. And the readers will know what he's talking about because they read the same series. When you recommend a series to someone who lacks the background, it's probably a good idea to start with YA. These are the things that create the background for the rest. Starting with great works is like going to chinese opera without the background. When a character flutters her fingers you won't know what it means.

Obviously, good candidates for this will fit the same mold. They should be people who have endless time to read fantasy novels. They should be tolerant of bad writing. They should be tolerant of bad plotting and characterization. They should be eager to get immersed in a fantasy that lasts and lasts.

Once you have a good candidate, then you need to guess what sort of fantasy they'd like to get immersed into. John Norman is a special case, for example. His Gor series started out with an interesting premise. An entire society of insane misogynists, and a hero dedicated to reforming that society. A slow-growing colony of giant intelligent ants keeps the human technology primitive and cures everybody of old age. Human men kill each other a lot and keep most of the hordes of women enslaved. Apparently the immortal women stay fertile indefinitely, the birthrate must be fantastic to support the rate of killing.

Interesting plots and lots of immersive M/f BDSM. Then around book 5 the hero is plotting with his girlfriend to change the society, and they're enjoying consensual M/f BDSM, and he starts to notice, she's bossy and argumentative. It would be so much easier to reform the culture if she just did what he wanted. And by book 6 the hero has turned into just another misogynist swordsman. He takes up a variety of other hobbies to kill people over. And it continued for 25 books that keep getting longer, until Mrs. DelRay took the car keys away. Clearly this would be a good place for readers to start if they like M/f BDSM with the occasional switch.

On the other hand, the Wheel of Time series is good for readers who like to read about dominant women spanking submissive women. Although there are lots of subplots that completely get away from that theme.

A beginner could do worse than reading Tarzan. Tarzan has the advantage that many of the unreal characters are animals. Animals who fight to the death in circumstances where anybody with any sense would negotiate or run away. And it appears Burroughs never met a cat. But the stories are a decent introduction, if very short.

Similarly his John Carter of Mars series. The first book can be read as a postmodern masterpiece -- the narrator is clearly unreliable. When he tells Tars Tarkas that Sola is Tars's daughter, he treats it as touching sentimentality and not as lethal blackmail. And whyever would a Helium airship fleet attack Greens in a fortified position? They had no bombs but they didn't retreat, all but one were shot down. Including a granddaughter of the Jeddak of Helium? What disgrace would put her on a fleet with suicide orders? In the end, rather than marrying the crown prince of Zodanga and cementing an alliance with them, she's married to Carter who has the despised caste mark of white skin, Zodanga has been genocided, and the Greem Barbarians are at the gates demanding an alliance. Her father cries.

But a reasonable interpretation of the other nine books is that Carter has been neutralised and is being fed a load of dreams.

The Diskworld series by terry Pratchett might be good. This is a collection of novels all set in the same world. I doubt that there's a single ovverriding plot to make them all fit together, which means there's one less thing to keep track of. People who like to get immersed in that world would have plenty of books to do it with, and not have to worry about missing one of the sequence because the sequence doesn't matter.

J Thomas, 12.05.2005, 7:00am | permalink

I tend to think of ERB's John Carter series as what could be called "rollicking adventure" stories. You're not SUPPOSED to think hard about what's happening or the whole thing falls apart. Just get in and enjoy the ride (or not, if that isn't what you like to do). Sort of an older equivalent of a modern special-effects extravaganza.

Also an additional note about the Discworld novels. Although there isn't a single overriding plot, there are plotlines and characters that connect multiple books and create subseries within the overall set of novels.

Michael I, 12.05.2005, 9:33am | permalink

I think one of the things that's most difficult about introducing new readers to the epic fantasy genre is the intimidating volume of the true epics. I'd recommend starting with something that has the right tone, but isn't quite as long. Duologies or long stand-alones are what come to mind, generally.

Donaldson's Mordant's Need duology might do, especially for female readers as it has a female protagonist. As an added benefit, the protagonist is a non-fantasy reader from our world transplanted to that of the book, so she doesn't understand or expect the trappings of fantasy epics, either. These definitely don't work for everybody, though, so I'd pick it carefully for the reader you know it would work for.

Kay's Tigana has a nice epic feel in just a single, largish book. The Sarantine Mosaic might be good if the new reader has a particular interest in history...and let's face it, most people for whom fantasy work as a genre probably do.

I've had excellent success with Brust's Taltos books, in part because you can read the first several as stand-alone novels, which, along with their manageable individual sizes, eases a lot of the commitment fear that many folks feel.

Epic Fantasy in general, though, is sort of hard to justify a passion in, considering how many of its "canon" series are...uneven, at best. I still feel little guilt for hooking established readers on Martin whenever I can, but I can see how others might hesitate given how his pace has slowed somewhat.

Skwid, 12.05.2005, 11:00am | permalink

Hah! I suggested _Tigana_ as an epic fantasy in one volume and Chad vetoed it as not having the fate of the world at stake. Which is true, but hey--one volume!

My only other suggestion was actually space opera, the Mageworlds books--but they've also got magic, and families and politics and battles and the fate of the Galaxy, plus they're fun. And the first three are complete enough.

Kate, 12.05.2005, 11:19am | permalink

Oh, and Terry Pratchett's Discworld books are *so* not epic fantasy--they start out by taking the piss out of epic fantasy cliches, actually.

I don't agree with J Thomas generally, mind, but this is something I can at least be specific regarding.

Kate, 12.05.2005, 11:21am | permalink

I think the Mordant's Need suggestion is a really good one.

I think that Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry is also a great idea. I wonder why you think it lacks coherence? Have you posted about this somewhere else that I could read?

I think the Sword of Shanara & the Elfstones of Shanara (Brooks) still stand up well and are good as a "gateway" because their flaws (somewhat derivative, simple themes) won't be noticed by someone not familiar with other fantasy. The danger is of course that the new reader goes on to read his other stuff and then runs screaming from fantasy.

Kathleen, 12.05.2005, 4:18pm | permalink

I was going to mention Malazan but I see you already dealt with it. One thing Erikson's books really have going for them is that the books (especially the early ones) are pseudo-independent so you can get enjoyment from them without reading everything.

Mordant's need is a good choice though I wouldn't reccommend going straight to the Thomas Covenant series afterward.

I'm surprised that Black Sun Rising hasn't done well. I think it is an excellent series, and should be fairly accessible.

Sebastian holsclaw, 12.05.2005, 4:28pm | permalink

Fionavar coherence: It's a gigantic jumble of fantasy tropes mishmashed all together in a way that doesn't exactly fit. Take out the Arthur shit, and it's probably okay, but alas.

Malazan: Malazan is pretty fucking hardcore, though. I don't read it, because I find it frightening and intimidating/silly, and there's no way I'd recommend it to somebody who likes fantasy less than I do.

Mike Kozlowski, 12.05.2005, 6:32pm | permalink

Wow, I just recommended the Malazan books to a very experienced epic fantasy reader, and I still took pains to caution her in advance about the scope and complexity. I would never consider Gardens of the Moon as a book for a newcomer to epic fantasy. Even though, now that Feast of Crows has been a minor letdown, Malazan is safely in first place as my favorite ongoing fantasy epic.

For newcomers, and staying purely with 'epic' fantasy, my response would definately be the Belgarion, if they were young (sub 16). Flaws or no, I've never met a fantasy fan who didn't like it when they were young. Other for younger people are Narnia (which is unquestionably epic fantasy in the early books) and while I've never read them myself I've heard lots of good things about the Redwall series (can anyone confirm?). But in general as fantasy gateway drugs I generally start with Tigana or Jhereg depending on how long a book they look like they can tolerate. Let's face it, there isn't that much epic fantasy that really shows the fantasy genre at its best.

Lou, 12.05.2005, 6:37pm | permalink

Almost all of these suggestions are good ones for fantasy in general, but part of the problem with this specific question is that "epic," to me, denotes a very specific type of series: the whole quest to defeat a Dark Lord sort of story. Things like Brust's Vlad Taltos novels or Moorcock's Elric books don't really work in the same way.

Tigana comes the closest of any of Kay's non-Fionavar works, but I still don't think it works, because the problems are too human in scale. The characters are working for the political liberation of a small number of countries from oppressive human overlords, not to save the entire world from destruction by inhuman evil forces. It's a fabulous book, but it's not "epic" in the sense that I usually think of.

Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books are another possibility that I thought of, but there are so many ways that people bounce off those that have nothing to do with the epic format, that I don't think I'd recommend them.

Chad Orzel, 12.05.2005, 8:50pm | permalink

Michael, if you take _A Princess of Mars_ and look at each detail that doesn't make sense, and imagine what it would take to make it make sense, the whole thing starts to fit together.

First off, everybody lies to John Carter, and he also misunderstands a lot. Dejah Thoris of course tries to manipulate him, though if his memories were right he'd have more chance of successful mating with a lemur than a woman who lays eggs. Since nobody knows what he's thinking, nobody can tell when he's lying. Various people figure out the implications of that right away, they tell him things that he repeats when they aren't around. But somehow it always seems to work out in JC's favor instead of theirs.

The result is a lot like "Cronkheit the Barbarian" but longer and more complex and much funnier. It works. But the later books in the series don't work, or at least the ones I tried didn't.

Kate, is there anything wrong with epic fantasy that takes the piss out of epic fantasy cliches? For new readers? They won't know the difference....

J Thomas, 12.05.2005, 8:51pm | permalink

(1) Discworld is not epic fantasy.

(2) Taking the piss only works when you know the source, otherwise you just stand there feeling bewildered as the jokes fly above your head.

Kate, 12.06.2005, 11:31am | permalink

Since this type of book is right up my alley I will throw in my two cents here. I'm not sure what is distinctive about the longer series other than they involve more characters and have long interwoven plot arcs. Jordan does this more than almost anybody, but the whole thing has gotten out of hand. Martin also epitomizes this so I would recommend him if you don't mind an unfinished story.

*Tolkien, Lord of the Rings. Why start with anything else? Still a great story, memorable characters, unparalleled worldbuilding, and not overly long.

*Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. Great writing, a gritty, low-magic world where lots of characters die, intricately woven plots.

Jordan, Wheel of Time. Starts out great with a cast of thousands and lots going on but will it ever end?

*Hobb, Assassin and Liveship series. Medieval fantasy that breaks lots of the cliches.

Kay, the Fionavar Tapestry. Kind of a kitchen sink fantasy (crossover from our world, elves and dwarves, Arthur), although intentionally so as Fionavar is supposed to be the original world of which all others are echoes, or something.

*I highly recommend Kay's later books, all of which are slightly disguised versions of real historical settings (Byzantium, 14th c. Spain, etc.), usually with little to no magic, but with intricate plots and lots of characters. His writing and characterization are excellent.

*Tad Williams: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Epic world-building, beautiful writing, but a bit slow to get started.

*Tad Williams: War of the Flowers. Epic in theme if not in size (one large book), this is great, beautiful storytelling in a semi-industrialized faerie world undergoing political and social unrest.

When I was in high school I liked Brooks' original Shanarra trilogy (a Tolkien knockoff if ever there was one), R.A. Salvatore's Dark Elf books (great swordfighting), Weis and Hickman's Dragonlance Saga, and Feist's Magician series, and the Joel Rosenberg Guardians of the Flame books. All of these are similar in trappings (elves, dwarves, wizards) to Tolkien (some by way of Dungeons and Dragons), probably the reason I liked them, but weren't very original in retrospect.

A tie in to the Feist series, but more original was Feist's and Wurts' "* of the Empire" trilogy which centers on a Japan-esque kingdom and its political intrigue.

*Duncan, The King's Blades. Less epic, more swashbuckling, very fun.

I haven't read any other Duncan books but I will have to try some. I also have started Gardens of the Moon, but it got interrupted by A Feast for Crows.


Clay Blankenship, 12.06.2005, 4:45pm | permalink

Duncan's Handful of Men quartet is genuine epic fantasy, and (I believe at some remove) actually really good. But it's a sequel to the also very good, but not epic, Man of His Word series, so not a good starting point. I guess The Seventh Sword might count as epic, but it's really crossover fantasy, so doesn't seem to fit to me. Same for The Great Game, only more so.

Oddly enough, the main problem with Duncan is that he doesn't feel generic enough to count as real epic fantasy. Real epic fantasy needs to be totally and incredibly Tolkien-derivative, it seems.

Mike Kozlowski, 12.06.2005, 6:15pm | permalink

You can start with the Handful of Men quartet--I did after bouncing off whiny teenagers in the first volume of the Man of His Word books. Ended up liked both series after reading them out of order, too.

Kate, 12.07.2005, 7:14am | permalink

I can't help thinking that there really ought to be something I want to recommend here, but there just isn't (not that I've thought of yet, anyway).

I'm not sure that reading A Handful of Men before A Man of His Word would work for someone not a habitual F&SF reader already, since a lot of background is introduced in the first novel at a reasonable pace. And as noted A Man of His Word is not technically epic (no world-shattering villain to defeat).

I like Mordant's Need but it's not particularly epic, on the same grounds that Tigana isn't - it deals with events in three smallish countries. (It may feel larger than Tigana because the rest of the world doesn't get mentioned at all, but the scale is still small.)

Hobb's Assassin trilogy is very dark and not terribly representative of the genre. Liveship Traders is OK, but very flabby - it needed to be about 2/3 the length it is, and I can see a novice reader getting very bored with it (I was somewhat bored at times myself).

Dan Blum, 12.08.2005, 4:53pm | permalink

I know I may get shat upon here, but for me, my gateway drug into epic fantasy was the first Dragonlance trilogy.

Highly derivitive, but still packed with gnarly ideas, interesting characters and a well-developed world. There is the Evil Overlord, the Plucky Barmaid, the Grumpy Dwarf, the Solemn Knight, etc.

I think they might hold up well....

Rich, 03.20.2006, 6:59am | permalink

I like a lot of the recommendations here, but as a librarian I really have to call foul in some ways. Some of you are defining Epic Fantasy so strictly that it bears little similarity to much of what is considered "epic" tradition.

An Epic isn't neccesarily about going off to kill the bad overlord three kingdoms away like some of you have stated. Epic can also mean dealing with a single kingdom, or possibly two kingdoms.. look at the Illiad versus the Oddysey, the Oddysey fits nicely into your definition of Epic fantasy but the Illiad doesn't since it's about a single war and no real "evil overlord". Court politics are just as rightly epic worthy as long as they feel "epic" in proportion to normal life.

Now, having ranted for a bit, I'll settle down. It just felt like a few people were bashing established epic series based on the fact they didn't have an BBG in them. Remember that Tolkien didn't invent the wheel people, he was great and all but mainly due to his linguistic inventions rather than the fact that he came up with something new... he did the same thing authors are accused of in relation to him...he stole things from other sources, mainly german myths.

I'm curious why Melanie Rawn hasn't been mentioned? It was my gateway drug into not only Epic Fantasy but court politics and really big books as well.

Feel free to email me with flames and debates both:)

Jason Patteson, 21.11.2007, 4:26pm | permalink

btw, my email is pattesonj(at)

I missed the part that said email wouldn't be published, lol.

Jason Patteson, 21.11.2007, 4:27pm | permalink

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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Another Couple of Bricks in the Wall

Look! It's not dead!

I have been reading stuff in the last two months, I just haven't been good about blogging it. I'll try to get a few posts up here this weekend, though, so I won't feel like quite so much of a slacker.

The process can be sped up a bit by combining together two books in the Giant Epic Fantasy category: the latest books from Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin. It's a natural combination in several ways, mostly because they're both gigantic, heavy books that are far enough into their respective series that they can't really be discussed in detail without spoilers. (I'm happy to discuss spoilers in the comments, if anybody still reads this and wants to comment...)

It's a little frightening to realize that Knife of Dreams is the eleventh Wheel of Time book, with at least one more to come. Worse still is the realization that the series has been going on for fifteen years...

At least this volume shows some signs of plot progress. Two extremely annoying subplots, that have dragged on for the last book and a half, finally get resolved, though the resolutions aren't entirely satisfying. There are also some signs and portents from about eight books back that finally come through. And the non-annoying subplot is brought to a fairly successful resolution, which was nice.

As someone else commented, it's the best book in the series in about ten years. Now, granted, it's still a little long on the "Go Away, Scary Robert Jordan Id!" moments-- as a general matter, the reading experience would probably be more pleasant if you just skim any section with a female POV character. But the scene where Mat returns to his troops was terrific, and almost worth the excruciating Elayne plotline. (Really, you're better off skimming those sections...)

As for A Feast for Crows, it shows some worryingly Jordan-esque trends. For one thing, it's famously late in arriving, and what's been published is actually only half of what Martin wrote-- he split the manuscript into two parallel books featuring different subsets of the cast. More worryingly, despite the length, it's a much less eventful book than its predecessor.

Now, granted, some people have written whole series that were less eventful than the previous book, and there are multi-book epics out there with fewer deaths than you'll find in one chapter of A Storm of Swords. But this book is dangerously close to being a let-down rather than a respite, if that makes sense.

Part of the problem is that the characters he's chosen to focus on for this book are among the least interesting in the gigantic cast of the series. As Kate put it, "A whole book of the Lannisters, and no Tyrion? Bleagh." The Cersei point-of-view sections (which I believe appear for the first time in this book) are also much less successful than the Jaime POV sections from the previous book. While the Jaime sections provided some real insight, and go some way toward redeeming his character, Cersei is even more awful from inside her own head. I doubt that was the intent, but that's the effect for me, and it really weakens those sections.

There are some good bits here ("Good boots are hard to find."), but the book is basically seven hundred places of characters being shuffled around to position them for later events. Which is fine as far as it goes, but I can't help thinking about the Wheel of Time series, which started doing that around Book 5, and hasn't really stopped yet. I hope Martin can avoid the same trap, but as a reader, this worries me.

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