Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Beautiful and Gritty: Feast of Souls

           C.S. Friedman is one of the most talented authors to grace the fiction world. Her stories are- without exception- unique, addictive, and fascinating. Feast of Souls is her eighth novel and the first in a series of three but, trust me, I wouldn't sign you up for two thousand pages of fantasy if it wasn't well worth the time. Friedman parallels the award winning game designer Richard Garriot in that she designs every new story from scratch, every time. When asked the key to his success with the Ultima series Garriot said that he threw the old code into the ocean and re-wrote it from the ground up every time a new Ultima was released. This placed him head and shoulders above the competition.
           So what is different about Feast of Souls, what elements are born when you forget all you knew, or think you knew, and start over fresh? The magic is incredible, and haunting. The heart of every fantasy novel is its magic, it is what defines the genre, and Friedman creates a device that chills and enchants. Using magic in her world requires an inborn ability, just like in every other book, but unlike the mainstream novel her story requires that the character feed the magic with their soul. The power that runs her magic is life force and it is eaten away every time a witch uses her gift.
           Introducing a dose of feminism she creates a female character, Kamala, who is tough enough to try and break into the old boys club of the Magisters- the only people in the world who can use their gifts without dying. It is rumored, in fact, that the Magisters are immortal. The only threat to their power is another of their kind. They reign supreme, attaching themselves to a King, Queen, or other noble and providing their services in exchange for lives of luxury and intrigue.
           Kamala is cold enough to make it through the final stages of apprenticeship and learn the truth, Magisters use the same fuel as everyone else. The only difference is that a Magister is trained to steal it from someone else, stealing the soul of the person they latch on to. The final test occurs when the apprentice drains themselves completely and is forced to find another source for their continued existence. Kamala chooses life, and becomes something terrible.
           Strangely enough the Magisters are not the all encompassing threat that drives the plotline. Instead a race of dragon like beings called the Souleaters are the antagonists, and the Magisters are cast into the unlikely role of hero as they gather to fight against their return. The story wends its way across several kingdoms and through the realistic and three dimensional lives of its people. The prose is outstanding, the plot gripping, and the devices unique. Feast of Souls will make you question right and wrong, good and evil, and will enchant you even as it forces you to think.

Editor's Note:
Mythological References:
PP 2-10,16-17,27-28,36-40,44-49.422-425,514-517.538-549

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Groundbreaking: Dragons of Autumn Twilight

                It’s a subject of debate what books launched the fantasy novel craze, but Dragons of Autumn Twilight is certainly a contender. The book is a nice break from modern fantasy, which has become increasingly obsessed with a single hero and a trite plot line. Instead the book features a band of protagonists, ranging from an ordinary barmaid to the first antihero- a tortured mage with eyes that force him to watch everything age and die.
                The action packed plot does not lend itself to easy summary. A group of adventurers is meeting again after five years of exploring, but their plans are taken off track when a couple arrives bearing a holy staff. Unlike much other fantasy, the staff is not the magical item that will save the world, although it does provide a clue about the roots of the inevitable war that’s brewing.
                The book does feature the classic fantasy races, in fact it was adapted from role-playing sessions played by a group of gamers running an AD&D module. The tortured mage, Raistlin, was inspired by one of the gamers who decided to run with his mage character to the point where he only spoke in a whisper. It’s a credit to the writers that the transition from gaming to novel doesn’t show in the storytelling. The fact that it was born in role-playing is a cool tidbit, once you know it’s there you can see how the plotline, formed by a series of quests, follows the classic AD&D module style.
                Aside from being groundbreaking, and featuring an involved, plot driven narrative, the writing is superb. Descriptions are rich and inviting without being overwhelming or wordy. The book is a collaboration between Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis and the presence of two talent authors is apparent only in the level of writing that is produced. The movement of the story is seamless and the voice is unified, the technical and artistic prose is the only evidence that multiple sets of man hours were poured into the work. The quality of writing, combined with the fact that it was revolutionary, make this a great solution to bad fantasy. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Cure for Bad Fantasy: Warbreaker

           There is a prophecy, a magic sword, a poor boy with a gift. Sounds like the premise for every fantasy novel ever written, doesn't it? I'd like to think of the hours that I wasted reading every fantasy novel on the face of the planet as research- valuable research, the fruits of which are at your disposal. I'm pretty sure I've found all the books that don't fit that mold, as well as a few exceptional works that do.
            So, if there's no magic sword, then why is there a chick with rainbow hair practically hugging one on the cover? It's a metaphor. Fantasy artists love those. The short, short, short version of the plot is that there are two countries (Halladren and Idria) and everyone in both countries is pretty darn sure they're about to have a war. Excitement follows.
            It's a simple premise, but relatively unique. Generally the war is well on its way in any novel and it's never the case that people are trying to stop it, mostly they're just trying to win. It gives the book depth because the good guys and bad guys don't wear certain badges, colors etc. and don't necessarily all hail from the same place.
            Sanderson loses points by making the Church into the villain (let's just say that's been done before), but wins big by allowing for shades of grey in his main characters. His heroes are unlikely, but as previously mention they have depth, and his extras are equally three dimensional. There's a princess who isn't, a King who isn't, and there are spies who turn out to be more... or less... depending on how you look at it.
            Politics aside, what makes this good fantasy? First off it has a unique approach to magic. Everybody has BioChromatic Breath, which can affect the world around you. The more Breath you have the stronger you are, and people will sell their Breath. Or you can off them and take it. You can tell how much Breath a person, or an object, has by how colorful it is The amount of magic you carry affects the way you look, and how you sense the world. In addition to the Breath, there are "Gods" that walk among them who have died, are reborn, and can use their new life to change the world- if they are willing to die again.
            For those of you that are hopeless English geeks, you can reflect on this and chortle. That's right, the man inserted an actual deus ex machina into his own plot. The depth of that irony is the number one reason why I christened Bad Fantasy Rx with Warbreaker. If ever there was a genre that abused the deus it is fantasy, and Sanderson's nod to that is done so cleverly it is easily overlooked.
           So far we've got good magic, deep characters, and interesting plot twists. Sanderson has a solid story, but the icing on the cake is that he writes exceptional prose. His books tend to be upwards of 500 pages, but are they draw you in and keep you reading.

                                                                        Buy it Here

Editor's Notes: 
Mythological References:
PP, 3-11, 33-44,46,152-157,374-380,498,512-516,526-527,600-602,629,635,650-651