Now Playing: Jim Ford--"Workin' My Way To L.A."
Before, during and after my exposure to Mr. Martin's doorstop fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (examined last post), I made a couple of tentative jabs back into the genre where I'd spent so much time as a boy. The choice was hard, especially as it's a bit of a trial to run down a decent story without it being part of some publisher-mandated trilogy or other. Just as irritating was the continuing proliferation of so many obvious Lord of the Rings ...homages, tracking the progress of various heroic quests on the part of various heroes and heroines with quasi-Celtic names and heritage. The heroic quest, of course, goes back to the beginning of world literature, and I have nothing against books grouped in threes so long as any one can be read independent of the others. Fortunately, I was able to run down a couple of likely leads that give me hope that there'll be others of their ilk, if perhaps of varying quality. These veer away from the overwhelmingly pastoral emphasis of Tolkienian fantasy (which can be seen to a small extent in A Song of Ice and Fire), have some kind of class awareness that often goes similarly unseen in the genre, and take place largely in cities and populated areas, all changes I heartily support.
Ellen Kushner and Riverside: My first effective foray back into the genre essentially led me to the jackpot first thing. Ellen Kushner's Privilege of the Sword, followed by Swordspoint and The Fall of the Kings (at least in the order I read them, the last co-written by Kushner's wife, writer Delia Sherman), takes place in an unnamed city featuring the unsavory slum district of Riverside. The aesthetic identity derives from early modern, rather than medieval, Europe, though the importance of the university, especially in the last named, suggests eleventh and twelfth century Paris as a possible inspiration. The general tenor, though, is more Restoration and Georgian London, with gaudy brothels, actresses, witty conversations, fine townhouses, and plenty of swordplay. The fractious aristocracy, ruling in uneasy symbiosis since their overthrow of the last king two hundred years earlier, avoid class suicide through employing a loose guild of professional swordsmen to fight their duels for them. These latter feature prominently in the first two books mentioned, while The Fall of the Kings concerns the travails of the university's two rival historians, in a bravura saga of intellectual thrills and political intrigue that actually manages to outdo its two bookends. The Riverside novels have a slight inbuilt advantage, I think, in their relatively unusual setting, but the dialogue is of a high sophistication in its own right. The characters' reserve, too, works well in maintaining the deceptively understated tension. When something really important or powerful happens, it's doubly effective as a result. One tangential twist towards the end of Swordspoint is a particular coup in this regard, reminiscent of another at the end of Visconti's classic 1963 film The Leopard: it doesn't fundamentally alter the plot or characters, but does put a different spin on certain scenes and relations that delivers a subtle new perspective. The world-building maintains a similar light touch; the city, let alone country, surrounding Riverside is never explicitly named (though the country has a number of conceptual kinships to Britain), and though there are various foreign lands across the sea, they don't get explored in any great detail, nor, indeed, does much of the country itself beyond Riverside.
Saladin Ahmed and the Crescent Kingdoms: In a rousing contravention of the Tolkienian western European paradigm, Saladin Ahmed offers a bracing new vision of fantasy fiction loosely based, rather than in Charlemagne and Alfred's legacies, in a fictionalized version of the medieval Middle East and its cultural adherents. Ahmed has written a number of award-winning short stories, was born in Detroit (and lives in the area), and is mutual chums with a cherished friend of mine who's sadly decamped for the Upper South (in a mildly cruel reversal of my own trajectory). It's both alarming and thrilling to think that I might not have known of Throne of the Crescent Moon (2012) had I not been aware of its publication through these channels. The Crescent Kingdoms appear to approximate the Middle East--taking in Egypt and Iran as well as the Fertile Crescent, with the central city of Dhamsawaat reminiscent of Cairo. The African-inflected Soo Republic lies in the southern jungles, and the mighty land of Rughal-ba sounds more influenced by northern India, and its long Muslim control in the form of the Delhi Sultanates and the Mughals.
In the midst of all this opulence lives Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, tea enthusiast and ghul-hunter, whose skill and zeal in ridding the kingdoms of the undead pests magically raised by unscrupulous mortals are starting to flag, at least in the eyes of outsiders. All he really wants to do is sip his beloved beverage (which I fear I can't really get behind, so long as it's tea) at his favorite tea house and watch the spectacle of Dhamsawaati urban life pass him by. Unfortunately, not only are ghul attacks on the rise, they now strike in the midst of ominous political disaffection, as the tyrannical new Khalif bleeds the people dry, despite the best efforts of the mysterious wealth-redistributing bandit, the "Falcon Prince." Hired by his longtime (but mostly unresponsive) object of affection, brothel madam Miri, Adoulla must join forces with his straight-arrow dervish assistant Raseed, and a fiery girl of the desert nomads whose secret powers give the old rogue one more potential headache in his exploration of dark mysteries. They have to move fast, too, lest the mysterious visions everyone seems to be having of rivers of blood flowing through the city come true.
The beginning's a trifle clunky, with Adoulla delivering a number of eloquent perorations on "gettin' too old for this shit," but things right themselves quickly. Dhamsawaat itself is a marvelous creation, and one really gets the sense that it's a city with a real, breathing life and history. The world-building has the light touch of someone like Kushner rather than Martin, with Adoulla's good friends Dawoud and Litaz hailing from the Soo Republic and the "Warlands" (Europe) dispensed with in an amusing aside (though "Braxony" must surely be a land to gladden Poul Anderson's heart). The real triumph in Throne, though, is the character work. Adoulla is an endearingly flawed protagonist--touchy, irritable, defensive of his advanced age--and all the more appealing for his being primus inter pares in something of an ensemble cast. He, Raseed, and Zamia (the growing regard between the latter is movingly if unsentimentally portrayed) come to rely more and more on Dawoud and Litaz, whose own homesickness and ambiguous regard for their adopted city frequently come into play. The sight of such friendly, likable people against a magically dire threat really takes one into the Crescent Kingdoms' world in a visceral way, and the denouement is both heroically typical and excitingly uneasy. There will apparently be further books in the series, and I'll be on the lookout, especially if any more closely involve the intriguing Soo Republic.
As a postscript, I just finished reading Charles de Lint's modern classic Moonheart (1984), which would have gone in with this batch but which (a) veered too close to Celtic miasma for my liking and (b) took place largely in Ottawa, which is very real. I'd definitely recommend it, though, if read as a fable of 80s urban bohemia and the psychic underbelly of Canadian life (the Mounties are even involved). Mr. de Lint has, however, set a number of stories in the fictional North American city of "Newford," apparently, so I'm sure I'll be checking those out before long. The summer reading list is still this side of manageable, so expect more posts along these lines.