Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Summer Book Report: From the Trenches of Fantasy Literature

Most of my friends know that I'm a fantasy literature fan. It started with C.S. Lewis and grew into a love of the Tolkien works. I'm particularly drawn to the genre of epic fantasy, and have spent countless hours in the works of Terry Brooks (Good, but not as good as I wanted), Christopher Stasheff (great), Robert Jordan (started well and then became abysmally dull), Dennis McKiernan (really entertaining, though preachy at times), and JK Rowling (is any commentary really needed here?)

This summer, I took a break from some of the heady theology, and dipped back into the fantasy genre. Part of my thinking was that the Harry Potter series was ending, and I wanted to find something to take it's place. The nice thing about contemporary fantasy literature is that most of it is a really quick read (try jumping from Calvin or Augustine to this stuff .... you feel like the pages fly by!), so I've been able to enjoy a lot of it this summer. Here then are some mini-reviews for your consideration.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Yes, I waited in line. Yes, I read it within 3 days. Suffice it to say I found the ending to this epic very satisfying. Rowling worked in some very nice Christian imagery and worked out the various conflicts in the plot well. Of course, in terms of imaginative energy, this series has been running on steam that was built up since book 4...very little of the verbal cleverness that characterized books 1-3. But the spirit was there, and that's what counted for me.

His Majesty's Dragon

This was recommended to me as "Master and Commander....with Dragons." Think Napoleonic wars...think British stiff upper lip and "God save the Queen" and all that rot. Then throw in dragons as though they were giant bombers with aviation crews. It's a clever idea. The writing was brisk and the adventure was crackling good. Even so there was something missing. This wasn't really an epic as much as it felt like a historical romance novel without any kissing. Heavy on plot, light on insight into human character. Author Naome Novis gives a fun first read, but I'm not sure this is going to make my "I've got to read the series" list (there are, by the way, two follow up novels thus far).

The Lies of Locke Lamora

I mostly enjoyed reading this caper novel...and that bothers me. Set in a fantasy city modelled on Venice near the cusp of the renaissance, this story focuses on the extraordinarily brilliant con man, Locke Lamora, and his band of thieves. There is magic in the book, but it's very subtle. The imaginative world is rich and detailed and the characters are vibrant in their individuality. But it's all dark. The characters are all theives, cutthroats, charlatans, powerhungry aristocracy, or something worse. Author Scott Lynch is not squeamish about depicting cruelly enacted bloodshed, nor does he flinch at killing off major characters. About the only virtue in the book is that of loyalty to friends. The ethos presented hearkens back to darker pagan days...the ethos of Odysseus the trickster. Quite simply, I felt oily after reading this book. Lynch plans a 7 book series....he's a talented writer, but I think I'll pass.

Slaves of the Shinar

This debut work from Justin Allen (indeed, all of these, except Harry Potter, are debut novels) hasn't received much attention...but it should. This isn't strictly fantasy per se. It's actually an imaginative story set in the distant legendary past (those familiar with the land of Shinar will recognize it as taking place in the antediluvian world...indeed one of the minor characters turns out to be the father of Noah). So we see here Allen's imaginative understanding of who the Nephilim of the Old Testament they prepare to sweep across Shinar (ancient Mesopotamia) and conquer it all. This book shares many things in common with Locke Lamora...unflinching violence, many of the main characters are thieves and cutthroats. However we see glimpses in this text that there is something worth fighting to preserve. There are ordinary citizens of the Mesopotamian towns who are interested in being peacable and not shafting others. Indeed, out of the epic conflict with the Nephilim, many of the theiving and hard bitten characters begin to grope toward something like civilization. It's a good read...not exactly uplifting, but neither is it cynical.

but the winner is....


Imagine the typical epic fantasy story... the young hero from a backwater village is summoned forth. He's told that the prophecies speak of him... and that he is the one to defeat the evil overlord.

And he fails

What does the world look like after a millenia of domination by the evil overlord? What happens when the peasantry begin to see hope again for freedom from domination? That is the scenario of this book. In some ways, it feels like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Solshenitzen's tale of living in a Russian gulag), in other ways, it is not unlike the Lies of Locke Lamora -- an incredibly clever thief and his gang work on an outrageous plot to take down the evil emperor. We also have the coming of age element of the young naive hero (or in this case, heroine) who must learn about her amazing powers and discover her place in the rebellion against the emperor.

OK. It's Star Wars in fantasy land. And I mean that comparison in the best sense. I found this book to be rich in both realism about human frailty and optimism that there is indeed something worth fighting for. The story has a strong redemptive theme to it. Here's a series that I look forward to reading more of.