Briefly noted: Dave Duncan, Sharon Shinn

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Dec 102005

It’s been a while since I made a book post. I have actually been reading, but only in fits and starts, rather than my usual “swallow a novel whole in two hours” mode. While I was on vacation in Florida, my brother gave me a bunch of books, and I just finally finished reading them; I also never wrote about one that I took with me and finished while I was out there.

What it really makes me want to talk about intersects with games, and that’s the impoverishment of the fantasy imagination that certainly afflicts fantasy games and fortunately doesn’t much afflict these books.

At first glance, the Dave Duncan books about the King’s Blades might look like they are derivative.

The world features close fascimiles of England, Germany, France, Spain, Russia, the Aztec Empire, and what appears to be perhaps Switzerland, perhaps Lichtenstein? Magic is done with elementals, hardly surprising, and there’ the welcome but familiar humor amidst unsentimental dueling and derring-do.

But the fact is that these books are original. The King’s Blades are bound by a sort of geas, a conjuration that makes them obliged to defend their ward — without changing their opinion of said ward, who might indeed be despicable, a traitor, or merely feckless. This runs so deep they may well go mad when they fail to defend the ward.

In addition, Duncan plays with the traditional trilogy format — you can read any of the books listed above in any order, really, despite their presentation as two trilogies. In fact, one of the trilogies will perform a bit of a mindf* on you along the way, because the books contradict each other.

I first started following Duncan with the Man of his Word tetralogy a while back, then I stopped. Now I think I may have to go back and fill in all the other books, because while that series was entertaining, it wore on me eventually.

Similarly, Sharon Shinn’s Mystic and Rider also features magic granted by the gods that clearly seems divided into familiar elemental types (our heroine mystic can use fire, the opponents seem powered by the moon). And we see a taciturn soldier, a spunky noblewoman living the rough life, a naive kid with astonishing powers, and so on.

When I first read Shinn’s Samaria books (they started with Archangel), I was worried that a once-promising writer who wrote delicate fantasies like Summers at Castle Auburn and The Shape-Changer’s Wife might be turning into Mercedes Lackey on me.

I still recall the dismay I felt upon reading Lackey’s Arrows of the Queen and realizing that I could literally map it chapter to chapter to McCaffrey’s classic juvie Pern novel Dragonsong. Girl gets beat up by abusive family? Check. Girl runs away? Check. Girl forms telepathic bond with wise and lost dragonet, er, I mean horse? Check. Girl runs cross-country, only to be brought to a an academy where they train those like her? Check. Girl reveals startling talent? Check. Girl makes friends with a scamp of a boy who knows all the byways of the academy and is always getting in trouble? Check. Girl graduates far earlier than anyone would have expected, setting up the next book? Yeah, yeah.

Imitating McCaffrey in the genre of what might be called “fantasy romance” is of course nothing new. (And really, the originals are very worth reading if you never have). Shinn’s Samaria books had a clear debt that only became apparent the further you read into the series. But the books, despite fundamentally being romance novels, also had some fascinating worldbuilding that dealt with religion, a touchy subject.

And in Mystic and Rider Shinn is dealing with very much the same topics as Duncan — loyalty and honor and responsibility, and where the lines cross. Even the magic system that seemed far too familiar has plenty of unique twists: the stones that burn the practitioners of one sort or another, the tight limits on the different elemental styles, and so on.

If you want to see Shinn’s skill for this in full bore, check out The Truth-teller’s Tale and The Safe-Keeper’s Secret, a fantasy world where the magical skills are always telling the truth, and always keeping secrets, and not much else. Now that’s a cool magic system.

All of this is by way of saying that the fantasy novels that stick out tend to have some very distinctive characteristics to them. They aren’t just the same old elves and dwarves. (God, what was the last book I read with elves in it? I can’t even remember.) Game fantasy settings have a long way to go to catch up to the the level of engagement with their material that even midlist fantasy does.

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