Royal Assassin – Robin Hobb

Note: as this this the second book in a trilogy, there will be minor references to the events of the first book.

The second book in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy picks up roughly where Assassin’s Apprentice leaves off, with FitzChivalry, royal bastard, recuperating after nearly dying in the mountain kingdom. He was successful in ensuring that Kettricken managed to marry King-in-Waiting Verity, but the underlying problems—including the continued raids from the Red Ships and the ambition of Prince Regal—have only intensified. All is not right in the Six Duchies.

Royal Assassin is a long book, and felt it, with the plot covering a lot of ground. It may be effectively divided into two halves: one where hope for salvation comes from men, and another where the hope is straight from legend. In the first, Fitz works alongside his mentor Chade and Verity to thwart the Forged Ones and build a fleet to confront the raiders at sea. In the second, Verity leaves on a quest to find the Elderlings that legend says once saved the kingdom, while Fitz works with Kettricken to hold the kingdom together against Regal’s worst excesses as King Shrewd’s health fails. Bridging the two parts of the story are the continuing personal relationships that so defined the first half. Fitz courts Molly Chandler, reduced temporarily to a maid in the castle, but King Shrewd has other ideas about his romantic future. At the same time, Fitz has to build rapport between Kettricken and Verity who are so different, yet more alike than they care to admit, and negotiate a family drama between Chade, his half-brother King Shrewd, and Prince Regal where the first two are unwilling to accept that the third is willing to sabotage his own family to satiate his own pride.

There are of course more of these relationships, including another one with an animal, a wolf, that plays a critical role in the plot. Rather than parse these relationships in any sort of detail, though, I want to double down on the central point I made in the post about the first book, which is confirmed through the text of Royal Assassin. Fitz is adequate as a character, but what makes this story so effective in its first-person narrative is this web of relationships and the emotional connections they create (including hatred), whether through mundane interaction, through magic, or through their absences in the case of the Forged Ones. Hobb’s genius in this book is how thoroughly she develops the connections, so when they are ripped away, Fitz’ pain is conveyed all the more powerfully. Along the way, the reader gets a sense of both positive and negative relationships in a variety of contexts. If the humanistic purpose of reading is to develop emotional maturity, I cannot think of a fantasy or science fiction book that does this more successfully than this.

Royal Assassin relies on emotional tension enough that it frequently a difficult book to read, even as I became ever-more enamored of its craft. The story feels condensed because so much of the plot takes place in the same handful of rooms in Buckkeep, while, at the same time, there are two powerful threats. The one is nameless and apocalyptic, threatening the very existence of the kingdom as the Red Raiders bear down. Where other fantasy stories might make this the primary conflict, though, Royal Assassin doesn’t. Our central villain is the vain and influential Prince Regal, easily dismissed, but supremely dangerous. Our protagonists suspect what he is up to, but can’t prove anything and so are forced to largely watch helplessly while he schemes his way to the top—and proves better at doing this than at actually governing.

It is possible to pick nits with Royal Assassin. The conclusion, for instance, struck me as both too much like a variation on its predecessor and it suffers a bit from second-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome, but its positives vastly outweighed the negatives and I am looking forward both to concluding the series and reading more in this world.

ΔΔΔ

I am really enjoying this month (or more) of reading books written by women. Last night I started reading Denise Mina’s Still Midnight, a Scottish detective mystery featuring detective Alex Morrow. Without being able to speak to the book’s overall quality just yet, I am already noticing subtle differences with, say Wallander, in terms of the types of details Alex attends to regarding her presentation.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, George RR Martin

If George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is the dominant representation of the medieval world in popular culture, then the Dunk and Egg chronicles, of which this collection of stories is a part, are his version of the Canterbury Tales.

I am exaggerating here a bit and, much as in the comparison of even a richly textured world like this one and our history, the fictional measures up too flat, but the premise is the same. Each installment is a short story in the adventures of Dunk and Egg—that is, famed knight Duncan the Tall and Prince Aegon of House Targaryen—of the sort as might have been written in the White Book of the Kingsguard. The three stories in this installment are The Hedge Knight, The Sworn Sword, and The Mystery Knight: the first records the fateful tournament that led to their pairing, and the two subsequent stories occur with Aegon as Dunk’s squire, even though he himself is just removed from that stage of his life and has barely more training than his now-charge had access to in his palace life. (His deep secret that threatens to reveal itself is that Dunk was never actually knighted, but escapes because there is no one who can refute his word, which, ironically, he can defend on his honor as a knight. Dunk believes in chivalry in a way few of his peers do, but knightly honor is a collective fiction that they all subscribe to, at least in public.)

These are small stories that are set almost a century before the events in the A Song of Ice and Fire and largely eschew familiar locations. While the official plot explanation for this is that Dunk wants to help make Egg better than his brothers by giving him experiences outside his privileged upbringing, it serves to build the mythology and thereby lend depth to the world. It is possible one could read these books without the other baggage, but, generally speaking, the stories fall into a sub-genre of heroic origin stories, those where the ending is known, but the path is not. The Hedge Knight particularly hews to this model where the tension is built by establishing that it takes place before the hero was fully formed and thus even knowing the ending it is clear that he is wildly over-matched from the outset.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms more than adequately whet my whistle for tales from Westeros—an unfolding saga that I’ve been reading since I was fourteen or fifteen. I am very much more on the “take all the time you need, George,” than this one.

I don’t like it as much as the main series, but mostly because, like other “legends” books for other settings, I find myself lacking the same attachment to the characters that hooked me in the first place. There is still a lot to appreciate—world building, action, morals—and one of the funniest moments for me was in how the best tourney knight was a man of inconsequential name who, at least in that context, was superior to the famous lords. He’d never be in the debate among the “great knights”, though, perhaps because of his birth, perhaps because he wouldn’t hold up on the battlefield (something not discussed), but more likely because he was just as apt to take a fall in whatever round promised him the best return in terms of gambling odds and prize money. His “honor” wasn’t part of the equation so much as making money. This, of course, scandalizes our honest Dunk, but further serves to raise questions and provide commentary about the reputation of martial prowess, both in the world of Ice and Fire and in the fantasy genre more broadly.

In short: the stories in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms are a pleasant and worthwhile installment in the growing Ice and Fire canon and if the next book out from this setting is a volume dedicated to the Targaryen years, I wouldn’t mind spending some more time with these two since they, by and large, are moral paragons in a world where those are so hard to find. (Really, their stories will be in the second volume of that history, but, as I said before, I can wait.)

ΔΔΔ

I am currently reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise, a torturous story about art and exploitation, civilization and noble savages and I can’t yet tell if it is profoundly disturbing, utterly brilliant, or both.

EQ in fantasy literature: Assassin’s Apprentice

I am breaking my formula with the title of this post. Ordinarily write-up or review posts are just title:author so as to alert readers to its nature. In this case, I thought it better to foreground the direction this post is going to go.

Fitz is a is the bastard son of Chivalry, the former heir of the house Farseer, which rules over the Six Duchies. This status affords him some advantages, including training and lodging in the castle in Buckkeep where he is raised by Chivalry’s devoted retained Burrich, but also makes him the target of enemies based on nothing but his parentage. Fitz is thrust into the machinations at court, all the while secretly receiving tutelage from Chade, the secretive royal assassin.

All the while, the kingdom is under assault from the Red Ships from the Outislands, brutal raiders whose demands are for wealth in return for killing their captives. Refuse, as they will be returned as husks devoid of everything that makes them human.

Assassin’s Apprentice steers into a lot of fantasy tropes, some of them cringe-worthy. The food is bread and meat, with deep skepticism of fancy dishes, class is hierarchical and predictably ingrained in society, and names have a particular bluntness. Fitz is a preternaturally talented young man, with incredible, untapped, and untrained magical ability. His destiny is not totally within his control, but he is protected by teachers who look out for him—and one who may have other motives. I was underwhelmed by Fitz as a character, in part because of these tropes and in part because as I grow older I am increasingly bored by stories that hinge on the experience (and heroics) of teenage boys.

And for all that, I found myself marveling at Assassin’s Apprentice and thinking that it seemed distinct from other books in the genre, even twenty years after its release and without the explicitly trope-defying mode of some more recent books. The question is, why?

Most fantasy heroes or antiheroes are lauded for the cleverness, their skill at arms, or their intelligence. I am painting here with a very broad brush, but the colors are approximately accurate. When brawn and brains fail, the recourse is to luck or stealth and the world-systems often enable these pathways. There are famous friendships (e.g. Legolas and Gimli) and such relationships can be critically important, but they are not often the principle on which the story is constructed.

In Assassin’s Apprentice, Hobb does exactly this. Fitz is launched into a world of machinations where the things he excels at are the ones that are repeatedly kept from him. As a result, he is repeatedly forced to rely on his relationships and the ability to get a sense for the situations he finds himself in. In other words, Fitz’ greatest strength is his emotional intelligence. This extends likewise to the magic system, ‘Wit’ when dealing with animals, ‘Skill’ for humans. In both cases, its greatest power comes from the practitioner’s ability to manipulate the senses and emotions of a target and multiple plot points rely on the consequences of this magic.

I don’t know whether Hobb’s building Assassin’s Apprentice around emotional intelligence was by design or a happy accident, but, in either case, I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

ΔΔΔ

I am now reading China Mieville’s Embassytown.

The Kingdom of the Gods – N.K. Jemisin

Note: This book is the third book in a trilogy so while I will avoid spoilers for this particularly book, there will inevitably be allusions to the events of the previous two.

A century has passed since the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, nearly as much since those of The Broken Kingdoms, and the world is changing again. The power of the Arameri, the family that once ruled the entire world, is diminished—its wealth and power being challenged and its members being killed under suspicious circumstances. But there is an even more fundamental happening: Sieh, firstborn of the godlings, god whose portfolio is most perfectly encapsulated by childhood, is losing his powers. More specifically, he is growing up.

No longer able to reside in the realm of the gods, Sieh is forced to live among mortals, relying on their friendship (and, frequently, grudging charity), including from the Arameri heir Shahad, her twin brother Dekarta, and the youngest of the godlings, Ahad. These people have limited patience for Sieh’s growing pains, though, particularly because he has, at one point or another, managed to offend each of them. Nevertheless, as Sieh discovers nearly too late, they and the world are in grave danger because there is a hidden foe of Sieh’s creation (and antithetical to his nature) that is looking to recreate existence.

The Kingdom of the Gods follows the pattern set by the two earlier books to good effect, dropping into an unfamiliar and disorienting situation right along with the protagonist—Sieh, in this instance. The first person narration once again provides novel insight into the world and moves the plot along well, but also contributes to its jumpiness since one of the plot points is Sieh’s erratic aging. The conclusion to the series also picks up where the previous two books leave off in terms of addressing issues of abuses of power inherent in, for instance, rape, but also manipulations within friendship. The result is a book that provides a thoughtful discussion of friendship and moves along well, but comes cross as somewhat less tightly constructed than the two previous installments, both of which operated on tighter deadlines in the narrative.

On the whole I liked The Kingdom of the Gods as it continued particularly to explore the cosmological setting established back in the first book. Jemisin’s take on these was a logical extension of what had already been established such that elements such as how godlings interacted with things antithetical to their nature and how they discovered what their nature actually is were refreshing. At the same time, though, there was a tendency to err towards making things too neat. This works for the story in the sense that it makes things easier to explain, but it nevertheless left me frustrated because it seemed to diminish the world of depth.

I had other complaints, but I don’t want to nitpick too much. Endings are hard and I did not feel cheated the way I sometimes have with how a series ends. Jemisin does well not making the trilogy continuous so much as consecutive, picking three stories from a long period of time and letting the world breathe between each book. Each sequel is recognizably in the same world and dealing in somewhat different ways with the same themes, but not simply picking up where the last left off. The result is that the gods are the characters who are largely carried over from one book to the next, but this does not mean that they remain constant either. In sum, I am looking forward to reading Jemisin’s other work and have a copy of The Fifth Season on my to-read shelves that I will probably open later this year.

ΔΔΔ
Next up, I am currently reading Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood. This is my first exposure to Wolfe’s work and only now in the home-stretch am I actually appreciating the plot—the rest of the book strikes me as literary self-indulgence of ego and lust.

The Broken Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin

Ten years have passed since the events in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the world as entirely changed. Sky, once a radiant white city is now bound to the Wold-Tree, among whose roots the lower city is set. The community has a clear hierarchy, with those of greater wealth and status residing higher in the tree. There is, however, a more fundamental change in the world: Itempas has been deposed, cast into a mortal form, and the children of the three, godlings of many stripes, have been allowed to return the world provided that they remain in the city.

Oree Shoth, a blind street merchant selling trinkets lives in this city, among the shadows of the tree’s massive roots. Most people shy away from Oree because of her peculiar visage, but she has made friends among her fellow artists, among some of the godlings of the city, and with one homeless man she found in the muckbin and took into her home. Oree’s blindness is not total; but the only thing that she can see is magic. This gift will prove both a blessing and a curse, when it comes to light that someone is killing godlings—a development that deeply displeases Nahadoth, who has demanded that the killer be brought to justice with in the next thirty days. Present at the time of the latest murder, Oree and her house-guest find themselves at the center of the conspiracy.

The Broken Kingdoms is a worthy follow-up to Jemisin’s debut novel in just about every way. It deepens the series’ world, both in terms of introducing new races and places and by developing the cosmology. The latter remains a play on traditional cosmological tropes: surprise, the three have children! And these children embody fundamental characteristics such as hunger or mercantilism in their interactions withe world of mortals! But Jemisin fleshes these relationships out, developing what happens when mortals and gods mix (hint: they don’t) and how the traits manifest. For instance, the godling whose nature embodies hunger likes both consuming flesh and consuming the longing lost children have for love. Likewise in terms of story, The Broken Kingdoms retains the basic structure of a young woman without a clear understanding of what is happening interacting with the gods and a deadline come much too soon, trading the upper class for a lower one and the genre of political thriller for deadly mystery.

There are elements of The Broken Kingdoms that will come across as predictable for anyone who has read the first book, but this is not strictly a criticism since Jemisin does a good job at layering developments so that even the obvious feel right. Moreover, the mystery plot largely serves to move the narrative rather than being the be-all, end-all the way it might in a traditional detective novel. Looking at it in this respect, the mystery-on-a-deadline lends the novel with a sense of impending doom and makes sure that it does not lag. Its weakness, however, was also evident in that, for all of Oree’s protestations toward poverty, the immediate danger she is in and her wealthy godling friend had a way of blunting any social commentary established by setting the story in the lower rungs of society. Yes, the issues are there, but they take a back seat to the plot and the way our heroine interacts with gods in this world make them seem more superficial than another sub-genre might have done. This is a minor criticism given the constraints within the rest of the story but is something I noticed despite the thoughtful texturing of the book as a whole.

Some aspects of the writing and the world did not feel as fresh as the inaugural novel, but that is to be expected, and I appreciated the use of a blind character to give a new approach to describing the setting. All in all, I am looking forward to seeing how Jemisin finishes the trilogy.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I recently finished reading Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade about the history of Batman and the comic’s role in American culture and am now reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin

Yeine Darr is the ennu of a small, wooded, backwater kingdom in the Northern part of the world, but has had to give that life up because she is summoned to the Arameri city of Sky, a floating palace from which the world is ruled. Though she has never been to Sky and is woefully unprepared for what she will find there, Yeine is not like other outsiders because her mother, now deceased, was the sole daughter and presumed heir to Dekarta, the ruler of Sky and chosen of Itempas (god of order and ruler of the universe). Now Dekarta is nearly dead and Yeine is summoned to join two of her cousins as his potential heirs and so finds herself thrust into a political conflict that, if she is to have any chance at survival, requires her to learn about Arameri customs, hierarchy, and brutality. Complicating matters further, Yeine meets the legendary weapons of the Arameri, Nahadoth, Sieh, Kurue, and Zakkarn, all gods bound by Itempas into servitude at the conclusion of the God’s War thousands of years ago and beings with their own agenda and know more about Yeine than she knows about herself. The ceremony to anoint the next chosen of Itempas is set to take place two weeks after her arrival and Yeine must uncover Arameri secrets, her family secrets, quickly if she is to be more than simply a sacrificial lamb.

There is a lot I really liked about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It is a political thriller set in a fantasy world and like all books that introduce a world, the reader needs to have a way in. The more fantastical the world, the more important this entry is, but, the more time the author spends developing the world, the more he or she may be criticized for caring more about the world than the story. Jemisin does an astoundingly good job of introducing our protagonist (Yeine) who knows some things about the world, but transferring her to a part of the world where she knows nothing so that the reader learns everything right along with her. Combine this with thrusting Yeine immediately into the heart of the action where she must learn about the world in order to survive the conflict and you have a book that is in some ways entirely about introducing the reader to the world without sacrificing the plot for worldbuilding one iota.

The world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms may be taken in two ways: the cosmology and the mundane setting. The novel’s cosmology is a play on a fairly traditional triad of original deities, one who embodies chaos, one who embodies order, and one who embodies change. From these three deities come all of existence, including their children and their creations. In this world, however, the god of order reigns supreme, because in the dim twilight of history there was an event called the God’s War where Enefa, the god of change, was killed and the god of chaos, Nahadoth, along with their surviving children were bound into servitude. Not only do these divine forces act directly upon the world, but some of them are forced to do so by mortals, which brings me to mundane setting. There are (perhaps) a hundred thousand kingdoms in the world, all with sovereignty, but under “benevolent” Arameri hegemony. The Arameri largely reside in Sky, a palace and city that serve as the seat of world power where disputes are resolved. Peace (order, really) is the objective, provided that the lesser powers bow to Arameri demands. Some of these are to a contemporary mind benevolent—no slavery, human rights restrictions—but Arameri guidance is absolute and any opposition is to be brutally crushed. For plot reasons, the world setting largely takes a backseat to the cosmological one, but it nevertheless serves as a clever way to build contrasting views of the Arameri among whom Yeine finds herself.

I had minor quibbles about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Occasional, passing comments seemed somewhat out of place in their addressing of what seemed likely particularly modern concerns. This is not to say I disagreed with the stances taken, but rather that such comments seemed particularly “of their time.” There were likewise a few scenes, including one involving a bathroom, that I found a little cheesy. None of these should take away from what is an enormously entertaining and very thoughtful debut novel. By way of recommendation, I will say that I am very much looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy and to pick up Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which won the Hugo Award for best novel.

ΔΔΔ

I just finished reading a history of the city of Odessa (in Ukraine), chosen in part because I have ancestors who came to the United States from there. Next up is probably going to be Stefan Zweig’s Confusion.

The World of Ice and Fire – George R.R. Martin, et al

Note: this is the first of two or three book write ups that are part of a backlog that developed because of a) dissertation revisions, b) a leaving town for a conference, and c) grading. I finished this book more than two weeks ago and hope to be able to write more frequently going forward.

One of the things I have always loved about fantasy and science fiction novels is the world building. It was for this reason that I dismiss the (perfectly valid) criticism that a series like the Wheel of Time became too unwieldy and has too many point of view characters to maintain a riveting story. These extra characters that might unbalance the plot a little bit also allow you to explore the world in more depth even while often playing out a take on a familiar apocalyptic story arc.

Full disclosure: I also own and like the flawed The World of the Wheel of Time, which tried many of the same things as The World of Ice and Fire, but, ultimately fell a little bit short. One might also offer the same critique in comparing the world building of the two series.

The World of Ice and Fire is an illustrated, encyclopedic history of the world in which the The Song of Ice and Fire is set, running from the dawn of time up nearly to the most recent books (it is dedicated to King Tommen). It is at once lush and full of detail and maddeningly and clearly incomplete. On the one hand, it explicitly avoids recounting stories told in narrative form elsewhere on the grounds that those histories have already been told; on the other, it is written in the form of a history, meaning that it often alludes to controversies and theories, judging them for which is most accurate, and avoiding mention of subjects that might be touchy for the patron of the work, with no mention of rival kings or Tommen’s parentage. Moreover, it is suggested that this work was in the making for a number of years since the dedication to King Tommen is over one or more names that has been blotted out. Then there is the issue of information unknown even to the Maesters of the Citadel, whether because the necessary documents are lost, the history is unrecorded, or information about a distant land, has just never made its way to Westeros.

Having started in middle school, I have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire at this point for more than half my life. As a fan, I really, really liked this book. The World of Ice and Fire strikes a fantastic balance between offering new information about the world and its deep history, while not devolving into a pure reference book. A few minor quibbles on issues of consistency (for which I can make a case for intentionality) aside, the artwork is also gorgeous, giving new vibrancy. One might have wanted more information about, say, the relationship between Houses Stark and Bolton, but the author of this history makes it clear that that is not the history he is telling. Instead, it is a history of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and their place in the wider world. The detailed history of the North (or the Vale or the Reach or Dorne) is simply not relevant to that project.

I also found The World of Ice and Fire a fascinating read as a historian. The purported historian often offers digressions on topics that might be of interest (e.g. the origins of the Hightower at Oldtown), and engages in debates about over the veracity of myths and mentions the previous research that the work is based on. These fictional histories lend credibility to this work and offer anther layer of depth to the world building. Now: this is a particular vision of history. There is some small focus on the general characteristics of “peoples” (in a crude ethnic sort of sense), but movers of events are the great men and women of the past. This is, after all, a history of the Seven Kingdoms written for the king(s).

In sum, I really like The World of Ice and Fire and highly recommend it for anyone who likes the series.*

*I can’t speak for anyone whose interest in in the TV show.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I have a backlog of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley. I am currently reading Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night.

The Dark Tower – Stephen King

The Dark Tower has been on my to-read list longer than I think any other book. I first considered reading it sometime in high school, but never got around to it until I found a copy in a used book store a couple of weeks ago. It also occurred to me as I made my way through that this is also the first Stephen King novel I’ve read. That leaves me with a lot of catching up to do, on the one hand, but some amount of ambivalence on the other.

A short synopsis: Roland is a Gunslinger walking across a post-apocalyptic(?) wasteland giving chase to the Man in Black, who he blames for having caused the destruction of his home and family. The Man in Black has left traps for Roland and he is briefly waylaid by an orgiastic interlude with Alice and the need to take care of Jake, a lost boy who is from another time and place, but the pursuit continues.

I can see why people like The Dark Tower and I can see why it is a classic. Roland is one of those tenacious archetypes of the lone hero who can’t be deterred from his mission and flashbacks to his upbringing hint at the prodigy of stubbornness. Even his prey is nameless and faceless through most of the book, adding to the archetypes. The world is a post-apocalyptic mashup of the American southwest, medieval Europe, and some added flavor from elsewhere, and, for the most part, the story is solidly crafted to have a surreal aura. Still, I found something lacking. For one thing, it reminded me of a number of 1970s/1980s fantasy novels with pseudo-terrestrial settings that I almost always find jarring. Dystopias where something has happened are fine, but for a book to not really be set on earth yet feature a christianity as the common religion take me out of the setting. For another, I found the first third of the book or so to be fairly jumbled up and somewhat overwritten. It is not that this section was exactly bad (it reveals Roland’s character and gives plenty of setting), but I didn’t understand why I ought to care about any of this. In contrast, once The Dark Tower started to give Roland context through flashbacks, something that both played in- and added onto his archetype, the story got significantly better.

The Dark Tower ends by answering one of the questions it starts out with, but also opening up the setting for the rest of the books in the series. I don’t know that I will read them, though I have been told that the next few, at least, are worth reading. I liked The Dark Tower well enough, but King’s writing and the story didn’t grip me the way other series sometimes have and I have a lengthy to-read list that includes a number of fantasy books by authors I like a lot more.

Δ&DeltaΔ

I finished reading Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms this morning and will write up some thoughts about that at some point. Next up is Leonardo Sciascia’s mystery novel To Each His Own.

The Dresden Files

I have now, as of two weeks ago, read the first three books in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series and thought it would be an apt time for some reflection of the series, which I have described as pulpy, but fun.

Harry Dresden is the only publicly-listed wizard in America, with his advertisement appearing in the phonebook. He doesn’t do love potions or the like, but works as a supernatural private eye, with most of his income from a standing retainer with the Chicago police department. Lanky and dressed in a duster, with a silver amulet, staff, and hammer-action pistol, Harry strides into battle against vampires, were-wolves, ghosts, demons, and evil wizards; in this line of work he has seen–and done–some stuff that would make most people flinch. Around him are his cat Mister, the spirit Bob, the knight Michael, Detective Murphy, and the reporter Susan. Most people, including Susan and Murphy, don’t really know what is going on and Harry goes out of his way to shelter them from the worst of it.

Butcher has created a magic system that is simultaneously well thought out and ill-defined. For instance, magic has a tendency to cause technology to fail, so Harry uses the simplest guns, cars, and other technology available, but neither is there a guarantee of failure, so it can just happen to happen at the most inconvenient points. The rest of the system is built along similar lines where there are rules to how various sight abilities (eye contact, etc.) work, and how spells are constructed (circles need to be completed, potions use three ingredients that are linked to the outcome), but the specifics are often unclear even to Harry, who always wishes that Bob, the ancient spirit, was around to tell him how to make something. This mix gives a consistent feel to the books, but also allows for a great deal of variance based on the story. I also assume that Harry is leveling-up, as it were, but the general lack of specifics in that regard make it a little hard tell.

The first three books each dealt with one particular case Harry investigates, but their greatest virtue is that they serve to populate the world of the story with a growing cast of characters. This is something that typically happens as series develop, but one of the things that stood out in the first book was how few actual characters existed. Sure, there were plenty of things that needed to be attacked or dealt with and a number of individuals standing around in the background of the story, but there were really only about four real characters [plus Bob and Mister] and only Harry was actually central. Part of this falls back to the noir frame for the story, since Harry is the detective out on a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets, so to speak. I got the impression early on that urban-fantasy, noir procedural was actually what Butcher was setting out to write, what with its observant first person narrative and shadowy investigations, but in the next few books noir has become more garnish than substance. In the same span, Butcher has begun to flesh out a slightly, and I do mean slightly, larger cast of characters, both those who are meant to be heroes and those who are villains in order to build a multi-book story-arc.

I like this series, but, after three books, I am still not sure how much. There was enough foreshadowing in the most recent book to suggest that they may be ready to transition into something a little more substantial than procedural, but I really don’t know. They are fun and easy to read, in contrast to some of the denser things I either have to or choose to pick up. At the same time, I am three books into a very long series and the number of actual characters is very small, particularly given how close the point of view is to Harry himself. I will probably read the next book in the series, but I can’t say when. Right now, these are feeling like change of pace books–fun, but not insistent enough to demand to be read.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

Liu’s debut novel, the first in the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy is a revelation in the field of epic fantasy. Instead of being modeled on the tradition of Lord of the Rings (and The Wheel of Time and like stories), with reluctant or unlikely heroes destined for greatness going on a quest, Liu models his story on Chinese epics, telling the tale of an imperial dynasty, corrupt courtiers, vengeful couriers, devoted servants, and a man determined to help a realm that groans under the weight of the nobility. All the while, the gods, siblings who oversee the islands, meddle in human affairs and choose their champions.

On the archipelago of Dara there have historically been seven Tiro kingdoms, endlessly squabbling, until the kingdom of Xana conquered the other six. Instead of ruling wisely, the new emperor brutally suppressed opponents, ran roughshod over tradition, and laid out heavy taxes and impositions on the new subjects in order to create ever greater monuments to the emperor. But the emperor dies and rebellion breaks out, giving opportunity to the likes of Kuni Garu, the dandelion, and Mata Zyndu, the chrysanthemum. The two, who are the closest the story has to traditional protagonists could not be more dissimilar. Kuni Garu is a poor man from a poor family, who flirted with being a bandit and a local thug, before finding a calling with civil service, where he demonstrates both efficiency and an ability to inspire others to success. Despite the humble origins, Kuni promises his wife Jia that their life will always be interesting. Mata Zyndu is the scion of a noble house, an eight-foot tall unstoppable warrior with two pupils in each eye and a burning desire to avenge his family and his country for the wrongs suffered during the conquest. His loyalty is to traditional honor, traditional nobility, and glorious battle. The two come to declare themselves brothers.

Yet, fate and the gods scheme to drive them apart and fuel the continuation of wholesale slaughter until only one man remains standing.

This brief synopsis of the narrative doesn’t do justice to the rich tapestry that is The Grace of Kings that spans the length and breadth of the realm, a large number of characters, and dozens of years. Liu’s writing is beautifully formal in the style of epics, but is moving, the setting itself deeply conservative and the narrative optimistically progressive. Every character is flawed, but a precious few are irrevocably so. To wit, the straightforward and rigid Mata is a villain of sorts, but his motives are genuine and there is real hope that he could indeed be a hero, while the upstart Kuni makes mistakes and blunders but has a nobility of spirit that even Mata recognizes. Most of all, Liu doesn’t rely on fantasy’s traditional story structures where the reader learns about the world through the growth of the characters and increasing the complexity with each book, yet he is able to inject poignancy into the interactions between characters, particularly Kuni and his wives. Everyone is engaged in one schemes, even against those closest to them, but there is real affection. The Grace of Kings is a soaring epic that blends political intrigue, romance, honor, and gender roles. The gods intervene, but by indirectly meddling, encouraging people’s behavior rather than acting directly so as to keep their pact.

At the conclusion I don’t know where the story goes from here. The story is set for dynastic intrigue, but, if the first book is any indication, there is going to be something more ambitious than just that.

I loved The Grace of Kings and I highly recommend it for anyone who likes epic fantasy.