Monday 13 August 2018

Fantasy catch-up

Some of the fantasy novels I've read recently:

The Heritage of Hastur, by Marion Zimmer Bradley: I have been aware of MZB's work for many decades, but had never read any of her novels. Having recently been impressed by a short story (Measureless to Man, in Lost Mars), I thought I ought to try her longer fiction.  Some research indicated that the Darkover series seemed to be a good place to start, so I picked what I wrongly thought was the first one (in internal chronological order), The Heritage of Hastur, which I noted was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1975.

The combination of a medieval culture plus psi powers, coexisting with the technologically advanced Terran Empire, was an interesting one, but I found the story rather frustrating from the start. In terms of plots the novels are supposedly "stand alones" but the author assumed a level of understanding of the setting that I lacked, so I was rather mystified for a while. Once I got into it I found it OK although not a gripping page-turner, but what I then tripped up over was her tendency to drop "spoiler remarks" in terms of "…I should have realised that…"; "…my emotions should have warned me…" and "Caer Donn was a beautiful city. Even now, when it lies beneath tons of rubble and I can never go back…" and so on. One of these "spoilers", dropped in at the right moment, can add dramatic tension, but a whole series of them is just overkill! Eventually, I reached the point when I decided that I had too many other promising books to read, so I stopped.


The Dragons of Dorcastle, by Jack Campbell: Jack Campbell became famous for the best-selling Lost Fleet series, reviews of the first three of which are on this blog. If you like military SF on the grand scale, with huge fleets of starships battling it out at sublight velocities, nobody does it better. More recently the author has turned to fantasy, so I thought I'd try The Dragons of Dorcastle, the first of his series (six books published to date), The Pillars of Reality.

The story is set on the world of Dematr, populated by humans who fall into three groups: the dominant Great Guilds of the Mechanics and the Mages, and the commons who form the great majority and are regarded with contempt by the Guilds. The Mechanics and the Mages are in complete opposition to one another and avoid all contact, officially regarding each other as frauds and tricksters. In fact, the Mechanics are science-based engineers who have the monopoly of such skills, whereas the Mages are mystics who have developed a range of psychic powers. So when two precocious teenagers, Alain, a Mage, and Mari, a Mechanic, are thrown together by chance, there's trouble ahead. Particularly since it gradually becomes clear that there are mysteries and conspiracies under the surface, and when Alain and Mari overcome their initial revulsion and team up to investigate them, it emerges that some people are willing to take drastic measures to stop them.

The book is an entertaining read, but not as satisfying as I had hoped. There is great – and rather repetitive – emphasis on the developing relationship between the two young protagonists, leaving me with the impression that the target audience might be teenage girls. The story lacks the sophistication and emotional complexity of Bujold's Chalion stories, for instance; but to be fair, Bujold is exceptional. I was sufficiently interested to order the next book in the Pillars series, and see where it went from there.

So I started the sequel, The Hidden Masters of Marandur, and unfortunately this delivered just the same, only more so. The breaking point for me came when the two young heroes spent an entire 18-page chapter sitting around a campfire talking – mostly about their feelings for each other. By this time I had concluded that not only were these stories written for adolescent girls, they seemed to have been written by one. Enough was enough – I have far too many other books awaiting my attention to spend any more time on this series.


The Hallowed Hunt, by Lois McMaster Bujold: This is set in the same world as The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls, both of which have been reviewed here. However, The Hallowed Hunt is not a sequel, featuring entirely different characters and being set in a different part of that world. What they have in common, apart from the medieval/feudal background so common in fantasy, is that in certain circumstances people can be literally possessed by other beings who may be supernatural (in the previous novels), animal or even human (in this one).

Lord Ingrey, the hero of the tale, is possessed by a wolf, which he has learned to control. He is sent on a mission to arrest Ijada, a young woman who had just killed a prince of the realm. What he finds when he arrives causes him great concern, and he soon finds himself juggling his responsibilities as he tries to protect his prisoner from her likely fate.

In some respects the plot is very reminiscent of Chalion, with the clever hero having an unfortunate history and battling for his own survival while coping with possession and being drawn into a romantic entanglement. However, Hunt is sufficiently different to hold the attention and, as it is written by one of the best story-tellers in the business, it is still a lot better than most.


Bound, and Marked, by Benedict Jacka: These are the eighth and ninth books in the Alex Verus series, and like the others they continues the developing story of the modern-day diviner and his magical friends, each book having a combination of long-term and stand-alone plot elements. The cliff-hanger at the end of the seventh book was that Verus was compelled to work for the Dark Mages; in Bound he is forced to try to tread the line between obedience to his Dark masters and maintaining links with the Light Council. He is, as usual, kept on his toes as powerful mages from both factions are very keen to see him dead. Bound offers nothing very new, but the quality of the writing and the pace of events provide the same page-turning pleasure as the rest of the series. And yet another final twist nicely sets up the next volume.

In Marked Verus is elevated to the Light Council in controversial circumstances, which doesn't stop other mages trying to kill him, as usual. He finds himself acting as a go-between in an effort to trap his former Dark master, Drakh, who has stolen many magical items from the Council and is behind a plot to stir up the adepts (people with limited magical powers) but naturally this doesn't go to plan. An interview with a dragon gives Verus pause for thought, and he realises that his close friend Anne is in extreme danger. Meanwhile, his position of relative safety on the Council appears to be coming to an end – thereby setting up the next episode. Jacka is on top form for this one; no sign of any plot fatigue!