Thursday, November 19, 2015

EPIC: The Summer Tree Preview

I wrote John O'Neill the other day that Guy Gavriel Kay's The Summer Tree was like Andre Norton's Quag's Keep run through The Silmarillion. Sure, it's a bunch of Canadian grad students not American gamers who get sent to a magical world, but it's a good enough analogy for my tastes.

For those not in the know, Kay hasn't always written fantasy set in slightly fictionalized mildly fantastic versions of the real world. His first books were the three volume series called The Fionvar Tapestry. Five Canadians are transported to the ur-world, Fionavar. A great war between the forces of light and those of darkness is brewing as the big bad dark lord is about to break free from a thousand years of captivity. 

What separates it from so many of the other dark lord epics is the depth of Kay's knowledge and use of the corpus of Western myths on which to build his story. Fionavar, its gods, its heroes have their roots explicitly in the stories of Scandinavia and the Celtic world. He doesn't just strip the exteriors and slap them on his own creations. He gets down into the blood and sinews of Odin, Yggdrasil, the Wild Hunt, and so many other things we've read a thousand times before but manages to find new life in them. Like Henry Treece and Alan Garner before him, he found the darker currents flowing through those myths. He then mixes them into a pretty standard high fantasy setting to create something that was much tougher and blacker than was common in the mid-eighties.

Back in the late nineties, after not having read much fantasy for a decade, I deliberately threw myself back into the genre. Since most of my friends didn't read it and the state of the web was a far cry from what it is today, I picked up John Chute's massive Encyclopedia of Fantasy (a great investment at the time. Even today I wander through its pages regularly. Though nearly two decades out of date, it's still an important part of my library). I wanted something to hip me to some of the better, or at least more interesting, epic fantasy I'd missed. Kay's Fionavar books looked pretty alright. That he had served as Christopher Tolkien's right hand during the creation of The Silmarillion made it even more appealing. 

So I read them and liked them. As familiar as the myths and legends he was playing with were, I liked how he used them. Rereading The Summer Tree this week I'm happy to write, so far I'm still liking them. I'm hoping the other two books, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road, hold up as well. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

EPIC: Red Moon and Black Mountain Preview

Not all epics require great length. Great scale and scope can be imparted without having to resort to thousands of pages. Proof of that is Joy Chant's Tolkienesque Red Moon and Black Mountain. Great heroes contend against the forces of evil for the fate of an entire world in this fairly short book. James Stoddard, author of The High House (a book I need to read and just came out as an e-book), calls it the best fantasy novel no one reads. 

According to Lin Carter's foreword, Chant's first novel was discovered by Allen & Unwin, the "discoverers" of Tolkien and his UK publishers. They passed the manuscript on to Tolkien's US publisher, Ballantine, and owner Betty Ballantine gave it to Carter telling him it was terrific. Hesitant about anything being billed as Tolkien-like, he found he loved it, dubbing it a "classic" and worthy of release with the Ballantine Adult Fantasy unicorn colophon.

I first read it about fifteen years ago and remember really liking it. So far it's holding up very well. It's sort of LotR mixed with Narnia and run through Alan Garner's early fantasy novels. It's interesting to read a book influenced by Tolkien before the entire genre seemed to be subsumed by it in the wake of Terry Brooks' success.

Chant only wrote two more novels, both set at different eras in the same world as Red Moon and Black Moon. Aside from a pair of short stories and a non-fiction book called The High Kings, she doesn't appear to have written anything else. Sadly, all her works are out of print.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

EPIC: Lord Foul's Bane preview

I just finished Lord Foul's Bane, the first volume in Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant Chronicles. It was the second of two manuscripts pulled from the submissions pile by Lester and Judy del Rey back in the mid-seventies when they were looking for the next Tolkien. The first was Terry Brook's The Sword of Shannara and I totally get picking that one. This one not one bit whatsover.

Sure, it's got a dark lord, a quest, magical horses, and a magic ring. After that's all bets are off. Donaldson's fictional world, simply (or, unimaginatively) called the Land, is one with no semblance to the faux medieval or the standard swords & sorcery settings of most previous fantasy.

Instead, he created a world that seems like it was mined from some previously unknown mythology. Every character, every prop, every place has some deeper significance behind its simple appearance. It's a little off putting at times. Intended to be portentous, much verges on the pretentious. Character names risk seeming silly (see Lord Foul). Mostly, though, it works.

There's a real daring to be so deliberately intense, even over the top. You need a story that can bear the weight and Donaldson has one in Lord Foul's Bane. I'm really looking forward to finishing off the first trilogy over the next few months.

Until Tuesday and my Black Gate review, here's some of the various covers over the decades.

original hc by S.C. Wyeth

sfbc by Janice C. Tate

pb by Darrell K. Sweet

by ?