Sunday, 23 April 2017

Fantasy assortment

Three different novels this time, with nothing connecting them except that they all fall (more or less) into the fantasy genre:

Three, by Sarah Lotz: 

Four passenger planes, in the USA, Europe, Japan, and South Africa, crash almost simultaneously. There are no survivors, except for one young child from each of three of the planes – survivals which seem inexplicable given the devastating nature of the crashes. An adult on one of the planes lives just long enough to leave an ambiguous but chilling message on her phone – apparently about the surviving child. And the children are changed; they have become far more knowing than children of that age should be. The debate soon rages – are they changelings of some kind? Aliens? Harbingers of the Apocalypse?

Sarah Lotz's novel follows in detail the lives of various characters connected with the children as they struggle to understand what has happened to them, under the intense scrutiny of the media and with religion and politics becoming increasingly involved.

The story is told by an author, Elspeth Martins, who has written a book about the three survivors – a book which forms the greater part of Three. It consists of a series of interviews with the characters, news reports and other sources, occasionally interspersed with (and concluding with) sections in which Martins follows up the consequences of having written her story. 

This is an unusual tale, rather slow-paced because of the considerable detail concerning the lives of the characters. It remained intriguing enough to hold my attention, but I'm unlikely to want to read it again.


Silverheart – a novel of the multiverse, by Michael Moorcock and Storm Constantine:

This fantasy has a richly baroque feel, being set in the legendary, ancient, somewhat decrepit and apparently isolated twin city of Karadur/Shriltasi, in which the two parts are separated by being located in different branches of the multiverse. Travel between the cities is possible, but only a few know how. The social structure of Karadur (where nearly all of the initial action is set) is based on clans led by hereditary lords, each specialising in a different metal; with Iron, Copper, Gold and Silver being the four most important. Stirring up trouble in this ossified society is Max Silverskin, a talented young thief who decides to steal a huge diamond which is the symbol of the city – and possibly rather more. Meanwhile, the strange people of Shriltasi seem to have their own agenda, but it is unclear what it is.

All of this sounds intriguing, but for some reason I was never fully engaged. Perhaps it was trying too hard to be different and bizarre, but I found myself increasingly uninterested in picking up the book and continuing with it, so I finally bailed out after getting almost a third of the way through.


Chronicles of Empire: Gathering, by Brian G Turner:

This newly published book is, from its title, clearly intended to be the first of a series. The second half of the title also suggests that this might be a quest type of story in the Tolkien tradition, with an assorted group of adventurers gathering together before setting off to fulfil some vital task. This is indeed more or less what happens, although the group members arrive in an unplanned fashion at different times. While the medievalesque setting is conventional enough, pairing it with time travel from a very distant future is less common, giving the tale a flavour of SF as well as fantasy. There is no magic here, only some (very) advanced science which, as has been pointed out before, might be argued to be more or less the same thing depending on your viewpoint.

The author has apparently being working on this concept for a long time, planning the story arc over a whole series with Gathering seen as merely the first volume. There is a problem with this, however, in that the story develops slowly; the first really exciting action scenes which gripped this reader did not occur until about a third of the way through. After that, the pacing is fine, but I nearly didn't get that far. There are a couple of other consequences of taking such a long view of the plot: the purpose of the quest is never made clear, nor is the identity or motivation of the principal character that obvious (hints are dropped, but nothing more). To return to Tolkien comparisons, for all of the variety in its characters and events, there is never any doubt from very early in The Lord of the Rings that the principal character is Frodo and that the purpose of the quest is to put the magical ring out of Sauron's reach.  Such clarity is missing from Gathering, which appears somewhat inchoate in consequence.

I would also have liked to understand more about the setting: the geography and politics of the world, subjects which are mentioned frequently but never in a way which allowed this reader to get a firm grasp of the overall picture. The author undoubtedly knows exactly what is going on and how everything fits together, but he doesn't always make that clear; and at the end of the book I was still trying to sort out which characters belonged to which factions, and what each faction stood for. This is always a problem in creating new worlds: you don't want to slow down the action by putting in too many infodumps about the setting, but you have to give the reader enough to understand what is happening. Some writers get around this by including an explanatory prologue or appendix, or just extracts from a fictional encyclopedia (or some such) at the start of each chapter.

Once you get into it, this story is engaging and it might well be the start of a worthwhile epic. But as the first volume of a series, this should do more than just introduce the characters and include some initial action; it also needs to capture the reader, by working as a stand-alone novel while being tantalising about what happens next – which means providing more clues as to what the series is all about, and hitting the ground running, not strolling.