epic fantasy

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.7.2016
Book from: Personal collection

DID YOU KNOW that before Patricia Wrede hit it out the park with the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, she wrote a fair bit of generic epic fantasy? It’s true! Just look at this:

The Harp of Imach Thyssel

I found a copy at a used bookstore, and could not pass it up. Those glowing tights exerted an uncanny magnetism.

The Harp of Imach Thyssel is the third in a series of five books set in Lyra, all of which appear to have been recently revised and republished in the omnibus Shadows over Lyra (1997). Here’s the plot of Harp:

“Everyone wanted the legendary harp – except the man who found it, and was wise enough to fear its power.”

Execution was as you might expect based on the cover art. Since it’s Patricia Wrede, the dialogue can be witty, the writing is brisk, and some of the characters’ relationships are mildly intriguing, but otherwise, everything, everything about this book feels almost disturbingly superficial. None of the characters have motivations or desires more specific than “I fear/desire the Harp!” + “I love, in an incredibly nonspecific way, my family and hate my enemies.” There’s little to no sense of either political or mythological reality, even after the barrage of historical exposition in the last 20 pages or so. This is epic-fantasy MadLibs and a triumph of telling-not-showing.

I enjoyed this as a historical curiosity, and derived a bit of scandalous thrill from seeing an author who’s now exclusively acclaimed for mischievous but squeaky-clean YA, write something that involves death and sex (or at least overtly expressed sexual attraction). In the abstract, it’s fun to consider checking out the revised version of this, but given the time… I’d rather reread the Enchanted Forest Chronicles instead.

Go to:
Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (1988)
The Grand Tour, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (2004)
Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede (1990)
Talking to Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede (1985)
Thirteenth Child, by Patricia C. Wrede (1985)

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Date read: 4.10.08
Read from: Public Library
Reviewer: Emera

The kingdom of the Six Duchies is stricken with shock when its beloved king-in-waiting, Chivalry, is forced to acknowledge the existence of an illegitimate child. In the wake of his abdication, his bastard son, Fitz, is delivered to the castle at Buckkeep, where he is put into the care of his father’s grim stableman. Despised and half-forgotten, Fitz grows up among the castle’s hounds and horses, and in the streets of Buckkeep’s bustling seaport. Inevitably, though, he is drawn into the affairs and intrigue of the castle itself. Facing mounting unrest and the threat of invasion, King Shrewd seeks out new means of securing his power, and calls upon Fitz to serve the throne as an assassin.

When I picked up Assassin’s ApprenticeI’d been meaning to read Robin Hobb’s work for a Really Long Time – most recently because I’d been craving a return to epic fantasy, but also because I remember being fascinated by the covers of the Farseer Trilogy, of which this is the first book, in an airport bookstore at least ten years ago. Luckily, it met my expectations. Hobb’s prose isn’t particularly stylish or striking, but it clumps along solidly. She does have a particular talent for conveying the rhythms and concerns of everyday life, which is refreshingly grounding in a genre that’s often plagued by grandiosity. Her settings and characters are believable and absorbing (if not terribly complex, in the case of the latter), and the book keeps a meditative pace appropriate to a coming-of-age tale without dragging.

Overall, I found it a consistently enjoyable read, with the bonus – if you’re into that kind of thing – of boundless homosocial/homoerotic undertones*. There’s also a good dose of character-driven angst, and the promise of lots more to come. I will say that as a first book this isn’t a showstopper, thanks in large part to the tight circumscription of Fitz’s life in Buckkeep; I was actually undecided at the end as to whether I’d continue the series. (Hobb’s lackluster prose was the other major detractor.) But that promise of higher stakes in the future, along with my quickly growing love for many of the characters, kept me reading, and indeed, the plot and emotional payoffs in both the second and third books are immense. Basically, if you try the first book and like anything at all about it, stick with it, because all that momentum-gathering is worth it in the end.

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