The Magister Trilogy

By C. S. Friedman

In Feast of Souls, the first book of the Magister Trilogy, C. S. Friedman introduces a truly novel (to my knowledge, at least) magic system. The imperious and nearly omnipotent Magisters can wield incredible magical abilities, but their powers draw upon the life force of a randomly chosen other individual. As long as they are willing to ignore the fact that their powers literally come at the price of someone’s else’s life, Magisters can use their powers willy-nilly. The only exception to this rule is that when a Magister’s “host” eventually kicks the bucket, the Magister is totally vulnerable for a short period of time.

Lately, I’ve been listening to a writing podcast created by Brandon Sanderson and some colleagues (Writing Excuses), and one of Brandon’s observations that I like a lot is that in fantasy, “the constraints on using magic are more interesting than the magic itself.” That is, we can imagine a character who can overcome every obstacle, effortlessly, with magical powers, but that’s not an interesting story. What is interesting is in seeing a system of rules created, and then watching our protagonist exploit those rules in order to overcome obstacles. In that sense, I think Friedman has a great setup here. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t come together.

My main beef with the implementation of Friedman’s characterization of the Magisters is that their whole shtick is about avoiding death (which in practice means being really careful about the circumstances in which they use significant amounts of power). However, early in book one, it becomes clear that an ancient enemy may be re-emerging, which would be a clear threat to the magisters. Nevertheless, Friedman allows virtually all of the magisters to put their heads in the sand, even though some of them were alive the last time this enemy existed, and should be highly aware of this threat. It may seem like a quibble, but it really drew me out of the story, and made it difficult for me to see various characters’ actions as being believably motivated. That’s a dangerous slope, and indeed, I petered out early in book two.

Final analysis? These aren’t bad books by any means, but they didn’t capture and hold my attention.

Rating: 1 – Skip it

 

 

 

The Sword Of Shannara Series

By Terry Brooks

Between Terry Goodkind and now Terry Brooks, I’ve really been plumbing the depths of “guys named Terry whose fantasy novels I read as a kid” lately. My most recent Terry-related experience was inspired by noticing the MTV(!?) show The Chronicles of Shannara, which somehow I had missed up to this point. As someone who read virtually everything Brooks published between like 1997-2002, I was curious to see what MTV (seriously, MTV!?) would make of his Shannara books. Spoiler alert: the show is truly awful. 

After watching the travesty of a TV show, I felt compelled to go back to the source literature to see if my fond memories of Shannara were justified. I can still vividly remember some of the books’ best scenes: the Home Guard’s Crispin standing against the Reaper, Allanon wrestling with the cackling Jachyra, the destruction of the Druid’s home at Paranor. Not bad staying power for books that I haven’t read for 15 years! In any case, I picked up The Wishsong of Shannara to refresh my memory (it was the first in the series that I could find on my shelves).

What’s the verdict? Well, it’s mixed. The good news is that the books are 1000% better than the hormone-filled dreck that is the MTV show (seriously Terry, couldn’t you get HBO to bite?). The bad news is that they’re definitely a bit amateurish, or at least Book 3 (published in 1985) was, so it’s possible they improved later in the series. Their main flaw, to my mind, is that Brooks is often guilty of violating the “show, don’t tell” writing maxim. Characters often give monologues about their innermost motivations, only to have other characters mentally recap the same information to the reader, which gets old fast. The reader is really never asked to do any work, instead, everything is spoon-fed, and characters are generally pretty 2-D.

So, in general, I was a little disappointing upon my re-reading. The good news is that I loved these books when I was in the 12-18 year old range (or so), just like I loved pretty much everything else Brooks wrote (The Word and the Void Series, The Magic Kingdom of Landover). With that in mind, I’m going to go ahead and give this series the “young adult tag.” For younger readers who are mostly interested in a satisfying, linear story-line, Brooks’ books are still a great choice! For more mature readers, maybe not so much.

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Running with the Demon, Split Infinity

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens That Made England

By Dan Jones

Let’s start by getting this out of the way: this is not technically a fantasy book (and it’s definitely not a sci-fi book). The Plantagenets is a history book, chronicling the era in which England was dominated by the Plantagenet family line (1154-1485). Nevertheless, I’m listing the book here, and will be filing the review under “fantasy” for ease of cataloging.

The reasons why I’m including this in the blog are that A) it’s an excellent book, and B) it basically reads like a fantasy adventure sans magic. Granted, the book does span over 300 years, but it includes a bevy of important figures and events that helped to inform ancient and modern mythologies: Richard the Lionheart, returning from the Crusades to confront his brother John (who, despite being best known as a nasty lion in the animated Robin Hood, went on to have a long and moderately successful kingship of his own); the ravages of the Black Death; The Hundred Years’ War with France; the rise and fall of Thomas Beckett; the creation of the Magna Carta; the sinking of the White Ship. The list goes on!

This was a time of incredible change and Jones does his best to give an even-handed account of the strengths and foibles of the monarchs, their families, their friends, and their foes. One of the things that I like about this extremely broad perspective is that it helps to make it clear just how arbitrary the course of history can be. It’s easy to look back and see things like the creation of the Magna Carta, or the expulsion of the English from France and think “well of course things turned out that way,” but Jones helps to show just how unexpected or unlikely these things really were.

In past reviews, I’ve commented on my preference for strong plot over strong prose, and this history of early England is basically nothing but plot. Jones’ writing is excellent, but it’s clear that his goal is to keep the story moving, and there’s not an ounce of fat on the book. I very much enjoyed it, and am looking forward to reading his subsequent book about the time period covering the War of the Roses (a time period which, incidentally, inspired significant portions of A Song of Ice and Fire).

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The War of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors, The Last Kingdom