New Magic: Five Fresh Takes on Fantasy
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While genre fiction in general can suffer from a by-the-numbers approach, fantasy fans soon notice that a large proportion of the genre’s most highly recommended books end up feeling a bit homogeneous. Let’s face it, if you've read a lot of fantasy, you already know what we’re talking about.
At this stage, we’ve all read books in which a wizard walks into a drawing room and announces that there’s a dragon sleeping atop the accumulated wealth of a neighbouring kingdom. Of course, the dragon’s governmental policies are positively draconian, plunging the region into an economic slump, and only our unassuming protagonist has what it takes to attend the local thaumaturgical university, liberate the gold, defeat the dragon king, and get the girl.
Fortunately, there are plenty of well-crafted fantasy that buck the trend, all you need is someone to point you in the right direction.
Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates
Tim Powers is better known for his fantasy-pirate adventure, On Stranger Tides, whose gold was lamentably transmuted into base metal of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie of the same name. As luck would have it, Powers' flare for mixing fantasy with historical fiction didn’t stop with piracy, and so we have The Anubis Gates.
The book’s plot revolves around an attempt to use sorcery to defend Egypt from the encroaching British Empire. By means too fun for us to spoil here, this has the side effect of facilitating limited time travel from some specific dates to others. The book centres around a fastidiously prepared attempt to travel back in time to hear a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
When it all goes wrong (let’s not kid ourselves, jaunts back through time for meet-and-greets with famous writers never go to plan), the story that unfolds is an unexpectedly dark tour through an early 19th century London addled with barely controlled magics and strange rituals. Powers slides back and forth, describing the historical setting and events with the same level of eerie specificity as the supernatural.
Sergei Lukyanenko: Night Watch
Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch would likely enjoy a better reputation if not for its hit-and-miss movie adaptation. While the film is a confusing maelstrom of spectacular imagery, it communicates little of the book’s incredible setting. Indeed, the movie barely makes it through the first 40 pages of the novel.
Night Watch presents a world in which vampires, werewolves, and warlocks engage in a covert war in late-nineties Moscow. It is a world of gloomy wonder and shady background deals, in which the forces of good and evil fight in a tangled web of violence and Kafkaesque bureaucracy… a horrifying world in which the Minidisc remains the format of choice for personal audio.
Aside from its interesting setting, Night Watch is something of a formal curiosity. While there is narrative line running through the book, its plot proceeds in breakneck fits, flitting from one event to the next, feeling more like a bristle of tightly packed vignettes than anything else. During the best of these, it blends the feel of a noir detective novel with an urban fantasy that follows Anton Gorodetsky, a recently inducted agent of Moscow’s magic-sensitive force for good in the face of evil.
Scott Lynch: The Lies of Locke Lamora
Where Night Watch periodically strays into hard-boiled detective territory, Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora sticks very firmly to its chosen genre. It’s true that many of the typical hallmarks of fantasy are there, but it’s all wrapped around a series of spectacular heists that help to shift the focus just far enough away from what we usually see in fantasy. In reality, it's more of a thriller than anything else.
The Lies of Locke Lamora follows a dedicated team of young criminals, down on their luck confidence tricksters who turn to straightforward theft and burglary in the city of Camorr (which reads as a sort of proto-Venice). The book is split between a series of flashbacks to the protagonists’ training at the hands of an aging master criminal and their (at best) haphazard attempts to navigate the city’s teeming underworld.
What could have been threadbare tropes in a crime novel take on a new flavor in a fantasy setting. It’s one thing to have a mafia breathing down the back of your neck over a job gone wrong, but when that mafia starts hiring sorcerers, things take on a very different complexion.
Andrzej Sapkowski: The Last Wish
In direct opposition to the example of Night Watch, The Last Wish has been buoyed by its adaptation into the The Witcher series of games. Unfortunately, The Last Wish tends to be recommended far less often than Sapkowski’s later novels, which drag a little by comparison.
At its core, the book is a series of disconnected adventures centred around a mercenary monster-hunter named Geralt. The most straightforward of the book's stories revolve around something as simple as knowing the right means by which to dispatch a particular beast. Others others take time to show the strange interplay between an increasingly urban, industrialised society and the monsters that once preyed upon its inhabitants. At their strongest, the stories have a strange, almost folkloric quality to them that sticks with the reader.
As indicated above, The Last Wish is less a cohesive novel than a series of relatively disconnected scenarios into which Geralt is injected. It seldom takes too much time to explain itself, instead pitching the reader into one adventure after another, giving remarkably constrained windows into individual locales and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions about the broader setting.
The only disappointment is that Sapkowski’s later books flesh things out a little more, leaving less to the imagination.
TH White: The Once and Future King
TH White's The Once and Future King doesn't have the same strict "fantasy" feel as the other books listed so far. Instead, it's a charming retelling of the Arthurian myth that ties together a tremendous number of shorter stories into a cohesive narrative.
The book is at its most fantastic when it deals with the relationship between Arthur and Merlin. Merlin explains early on that he was born "the wrong way around" in time, and remembers things from the end of his life backward to the beginning. As a result, he meets Arthur as a child, having apparently "known" the king for many years, and over the course of their association knows him less and less. It's a strange quirk, but it lends the whole book a sense of genuine magic.
Though the book avoids giving too many concrete dates, it's set in the 14th century. Despite this, Merlin periodically mentions elements that are out of order or wears anachronistic clothing; it's such a small and occasional nod to the reader that it's oddly endearing... Indeed, "oddly endearing" just about sums up the whole book.
Overall, this is a swashbuckling adventure that avoids many of the pitfalls of modern fantasy and reads more like a long collection of parables than anything else. As a result, it feels fresh and interesting throughout.