There's been quite a bit of kerfuffle on the internet lately about fantasy - specifically, epic fantasy. Good, bad, regressive, entertaining, etc. etc. And, hilariously, it always seems to degenerate into each side screaming that the other is reading it wrong. As if that's even possible.
Our own opinions are, per usual, all over the shop. But the general thunk of this site is that genre books - all genre books - should be treated with the same respect and scrutiny as any other form of literature. Looking at epic fantasy, there are books that are painfully reductive, conceptually brilliant and everything in-between. Like all genres, epic fantasy has strengths and weaknesses: tropes that make some discussions easy and stereotypes that make others hard. Selectively prioritising one over the other is the privilege of each reader (and, to some degree, reviewer). But what doesn't exist, under any circumstance, is a wrong way to read a book.
Now that I've gotten that out of my system, two epic fantasies: James Maxey's Greatshadow and Rachel Aaron's The Spirit Thief.
I have to admit, my first response to James Maxey's Greatshadow (2012) was sort of chortle. The cover art (a busty blonde with a dragon overhead) isn't exactly to my taste, and the series title (The Dragon Apocalypse) feels like it was constructed with mad-libs. Still, I forged on and I'm glad of it: Greatshadow is a clever, funny, goofy read.
The book's heroine is Infidel, a legendary warrior with superhuman strength and near-invincibility, all stemming from a mysterious past. She's in the mold of the morally ambiguous Conan - using her abilities to loot tombs, rob castles and generally have a great time. Following the death of her closest companion, Stagger, a somewhat incompetent thief, Infidel decides to have one last adventure and then retire in luxury.
The adventure falls straight into her lap. Mr. Maxey's world is dominated by dragons - vastly powerful beings that represent some primal aspect of the elements. Infidel's mission is to join a team of adventurers making a run at Greatshadow, the dragon of fire. This isn't a "sneak in, steal the treasure" sort of thing - it is a carefully orchestrated military mission. And it needs to be. Even lighting a match summons an avatar of the dragon that's capable of wiping out a village, and the great beast himself is buried deep within his mountain lair.
But Infidel's not too shabby - and nor are her companions. She's joined by a shape-changer, a powerful wizard (whose ability is to believe anything he likes), a priest (whose ability is to disbelieve anything he likes - you can see that they're not great chums), an ice-summoning ogress, a swordsman of infinite speed, a mysterious oracle and a legendary knight whose armor is made of pure faith (that's quite cool). This isn't your bog-standard intro quest: Greatshadow is a skip-to-the-back-of-the-book epic-level adventure.
That's the large part of Greatshadow's fun. Infidel and her squabbling comrades are essential superheroes, ones that have gone largely unchallenged. Mr. Maxey not only comes up with ways of vincing the invincible and overpowering the omnipotent, he does so in a well-composed, organic way. This is in contrast to, say, Simon Green's Deathstalker series, which begins with the same premise (unstoppable forces and immovable objects), but essentially boiled down a shouting match of "I shoot you infinity-plus-one!". In Greatshadow, Mr. Maxey imaginatively and cleverly writes his characters through one Big Boss after the other (and, in many cases, one another).
The other fun part is Mr. Maxey's sense of humor. Greatshadow's level 30+ adventure is charming, not po-faced, with a group of flawed, sarcastic, quick-witted and oddball adventurers that are equally comfortable with set-piece battle and rapid fire sarcasm. The story is narrated by the (deceased) Stagger, who keeps his former friend company (unbeknownst to her) as a spirit. Stagger's everyman point of view keeps the superheroic antics grounded. To a certain degree, he's so outclassed by everyone that they're all the same to him. This allows him to focus on the more human (and funny) elements those around him.
Stagger is also the book's weakest point - especially when it comes to his (ill-fated, mostly) romance with Infidel. The ghost bemoans all his lost opportunities and whines a fair bit about how he really loved her as a person (and not the busty, beautiful, curvaceous young woman who is frequently described in meticulous detail). His constant declarations of love are clearly intended to keep him on the side of the angels (literally, I suppose), but he doth protest a little too much. The idea of the "fat, balding, worn-out drunk twice her age" watching Infidel change clothes for all eternity can't help but be a little creepy.
Stagger's misplaced affections aside, Greatshadow is simply a blast. The world's greatest adventurers form a classic team-up to battle a cosmic threat. That's the sort of thing that could really catch on.
If Greatshadow is reminiscent of Simon Green, The Spirit Thief is the epic fantasy translation of Harry Harrison and his Stainless Steel Rat. First published in 2010, The Spirit Thief was Rachel Aaron's debut and the book is now back as part of an omnibus edition, The Legend of Eli Monpress.
Eli Monpress (as you may have deduced, the title character) is the greatest thief of his age. He prowls his world of tiny, fractious kingdoms, nicking the greatest prizes he can find. The Spirit Thief finds him on his biggest escapade yet: the kidnapping and ransom of a king. Eli's ransom request is a bizarre one - he wants his bounty raised. This sort of lunacy defines him as a character. He's clever, not sinister; working to some sort of slightly-touched master plan. [Spoiler? Supposedly this is an ego thing, but I'll eat my hat if it isn't part of some sort of master plan - Ms. Aaron has already alluded to the fact that Eli's bounty could bankrupt the loose league of kingdoms, so this reeks of first act gun. That said, I'm just speculating wildly. I'll get back to you after the next couple books. /Spoiler?]
Eli's talent as a thief stems from his mastery of his world's magic. The land is infused with spirits. Little ones inhabit rocks, doors and plants, big ones inhabit lakes, mountains and volcanoes. The sort of object dictates the spirit's temperament: air spirits are flighty (pun!), rock spirits are more grounded (double-pun!). Wizarding types (a variation of the traditional arcane scholar, down to the mysterious arcane university at the core of things), capture spirits and shove them into confined spaces. They master and utilise their own spirit to dominate those spirits around them.
Eli, however, takes a different approach. He charms them. Not magically - just with his winning personality. He'll chat with a door, make a deal with a field, or just listen to the weather whine for a while. It is an approach that baffles the conventional magic users, but makes for delightful reading: a magical hero that's ultimately about negotiation and cooperation. Given the normal magical trope of a hero who has magical depths that are somehow, magically, deeper than those of everyone else (Midichlorians, of course), a hero that excels solely through having a cheeky approach to things is a breath of fresh air. Like Harrison's James DiGriz, Eli might not naturally be the best at what he does, but he makes up for it with imagination and charisma.
As much as I appreciated Eli, I disliked his travelling companions. The world's foremost magical thief has two sidekicks: Nico, a deceptively frail girl swimming in an enormous cloak, and Josef, a hard-boiled swordsman wielding a powerful (and seductive) magical blade. They're both more traditional fantasy stereotypes than Eli, with Josef fueled by grimdark moodiness and Nico a-roil with dark forces. While Eli plays cat-and-mouse with his pursuers, Nico and Josef trundle forward on more predictable plot rails.
Like all heist-based plots, things go a bit wrong. Although Eli's chosen a supposedly boring king to kingnap, there are other schemes a-brewing. A savvy bounty hunter is ready and waiting for Eli's arrival, a representative of the magical university arrives to take care of the Monpress menace and there's something really unpleasant in the treasury that not everyone has forgotten.
I'll definitely stick around for the next two volumes of the trilogy - largely because, like the spirits, I'm utterly charmed by Eli Monpress. If I found his surrounding cast a little disappointing, it only reinforces how rare and delightful a character like Eli actually is.