Last year, in Drakenfeld, Mark Charan Newton introduced us to his Classically-inspired fantasy empire and the shadowy investigative body that kept it held together: the Sun Chamber. Drakenfeld followed one of the Sun Chamber's star (sorry) investigators, the titular Lucan Drakenfeld, as he foiled a series of hideous crimes in the nation of Detrata. In the best tradition of both fantasy and crime novels, Drakenfeld mixed the epic with the deeply personal: Lucan's actions swayed the fate of an empire, but he also wrestled with the demons from his own past.
In Retribution (2014), the second volume, Drakenfeld returns - as does his ruthlessly efficient assistant, Leana. The two leave Detrata for Koton, leaving the old for the new; a metaphor that spans many levels. Whilst Detrata is an ancient, seemingly-established (almost decadent) nation, Koton is a new one - just barely stabilised after years of turmoil. Similarly, whereas Detrata is deeply personally significant to Drakenfeld - a land weighty with his own family's past - Koton is new territory. Not only has Drakenfeld never been there, no Sun Chamber investigator has even been invited before.
Koton is a fascinating place. It has recently been united under the rule of Queen Dokuz, one of the book's most interesting characters. On one hand, she's brought order to a population of warring tribes and is busily trying to modernise her country into a player on the world stage. On the other, she's a ruthless dictator. Through Drakenfeld's eyes, Retribution treats her situation with the respect and moral ambiguity it requires - there are no easy answers to Koton's future, and whether or not Dokuz will be seen as a saviour or a demon will be determined by posterity.
Understandably, given the nation's fragility, it is with great trepidation that the Queen invites Drakenfeld and Leana into their country. This isn't a social call: there's been a horrific murder of a leading religious figure, and the local authorities are stumped. Drakenfeld must solve the crime and appease the Queen. Neither look to be easy tasks.
Nor are those the only challenges that Drakenfeld must face. Throughout the course of Retribution, he wrestles with his own debilitating illness, a conspiracy of assassins, a precocious princess and the mounting threat of war. So good thing he's got the unflappable (and wonderfully competent) Leana at his side.
Drakenfeld remains a unique hero in the realms of epic fantasy. He's not physically gifted - he's not an unstoppable swordsman or brawny brawler. Nor is he a cunning master thief, with an array of tricks, gadgets and acrobatic talents. And he's certainly no wizard - sorcery in the world of the Drakenfeld series is a rare (largely absent) trick. Instead, Drakenfeld is a surprisingly ordinary chap: he's smart, he's empathetic, he's got a knack for making friends (and enemies) and always being in the wrong (or right) place. By being loyal, diligent, smart, friendly and dedicated, he 'saves the world'. He is, essentially, the un-Chosen One: a fantasy hero, but not superhero.
This isn't just revisionist epic fantasy, it is optimistic and, in its way, heart-warming escapism - fundamentally positing that ordinary people can make a difference. If traditional epic fantasy presents a character that the reader wants to be, the Drakenfeld series dares to present a hero that we can be: the inspirational, not aspirational. Lucan Drakenfeld battles against the worst villains in the world, and stops unspeakable horrors - and he does so by keeping his eyes open and doing the right thing. It is a fusion of the humanity of the modern crime novel with the scale of the epic fantasy. Mark Charan Newton's hero might not be the most cinematic sort of swashbuckler, but he's certainly one of the most fascinating to read.
(Still curious? We interviewed Mark Charan Newton about Retribution last week.)
Lloyd Alexander's Westmark trilogy - Westmark (1981), The Kestral (1982) andThe Beggar Queen (1984) - is similarly fascinating: a fusion of traditional fantasy with influences from other genres, as well as clear historical inspiration. Westmark, the kingdom, is reminiscent of pre-Revolutionary France - a weak monarchy, a strong aristocracy and a vast number of schemers on all sides of the political spectrum. Theo, a printer's apprentice, gets caught up in the intrigues almost as an accident: he prints a commission that hasn't been authorised by the authorities and, as the situation escalates, he's forced to flee his hometown. Theo falls in with disreputable sorts - the thief Mickle, and the con-man Count Bombas - and, through his adventures with them, begins to learn about the real world.
Westmark is 'fantasy' only in that takes place in a secondary world - there's no hint of magic or the supernatural. Instead, similar to KJ Parker (or, indeed, Mark Charan Newton), Alexander uses a world of his own devising as a sandbox: an opportunity to experiment with ideologies in a universe clean of pre-existing assumptions. Theo is an idealist: an optimist and a fervent believer in the nobility of human nature. As the trilogy progresses, he's forced to reframe those beliefs in the light of war, suppression and rebellion; including acts of violence that he both witnesses and commits.
Similarly, the other characters of Westmark embody different philosophies. The revolutionary Justin is another extreme idealist, whose violent obsessions fly in the face of his own personal failings. The journalist Keller, the rebel Florian, and, of course, Mickle - they all have their own deeply-held personal beliefs, and all must make tough decisions - sacrifices and compromises - as events progress. Even the villains - the ambitious King Constantine of the neighbouring Regia and the sinister bureaucrat Cabbarus - are portrayed empathetically. No one is without a system of belief, and even the most monstrous acts are shown as following a sort of darkly realistic logic.
As with the best of young adult fiction, Westmark is both surprisingly dark. Certainly no character is 'safe', and readers expecting a traditional stableboy-to-high-king narrative will be sadly disappointed. But Westmark is also supremely triumphant. If there is an ultimate philosophical lesson, it isn't about nobility as much as resilience. Good does win out, but in unexpected, costly and hard-earned ways. Westmark, a bit like Retribution, is also about the triumph of the ordinary - something highlighted in the climactic conclusion of The Beggar Queen. If traditional fantasy follows the Stan Lee adage that 'great power equals great responsibility', these books highlight real heroism: the struggles of those without great power, and their desire to make a difference.