Hugh Cook's The Wizards and the Warriors (1987) has one of those timelessly awful late-1980s covers, and a generic cover quote - saying it'd be perfect for fans of David Eddings. In hindsight, someone in marketing really dropped the ball on this one. Maybe in the heady days of the 1980s, when Eddings was Martin, all you needed was a quest and a sword to earn that comparison. But for fantasy readers - or, hell, Eddings fans - buying the book on the strength of this platitude, Cook's debut must've come as one hell of a shock.
Wizards is, sort of, about a quest to stop an evil sorcerer. Kinda. We begin mid-journey, as three wizards have trekked halfway across the world in search of a fourth - a traitor that has unearthed an ancient artifact of doomslinging. Ostensibly linear, Wizards whirls about like the Tasmanian Devil. First, a pair of strapping mercenary warriors - in service to a corrupt local Prince - are recruited. But, well, not first, as they have their own problems to deal with before they can be convinced to join.
There's an invading army, see. Oh, and a peasant chap, with his really unpleasant animal companion. There are a lot of towers and dungeons and magic swords and dragons and pirates and spell-slinging and, all things considered, a lot happens without ever really giving any sense of progression at all. Yet, by the end - a thousand and one side-quests later - there's a hero rewarded (not the one you'd think), a villain defeated (not who you expected) and... good wins?
Which is to say, in the long tradition of books from E.R. Eddison through Jack Vance and M. John Harrison, The Wizards and the Warriors, despite the name and the cover and the dungeons and the dragons... is not actually very much about the plot.
Instead, within its great teaming mass of life is a fantasy about the nature of fantasy. For one, the quirky, self-referential chapter beginnings: which imply rigorous canonisation, but we quickly learn that the information given is - at best - irrelevant. The book itself, in its driest, most academic sense, is an unreliable narrator. For another, the characters are self-aware - weirdly knowledgeable about their role in the narrative and in their society. If anything, the 'quest' of Wizards is about characters learning not to accept their role: whether that's a peasant socially-conditioned to take orders or a warrior that's convinced himself that magic is the enemy. The world itself is, as we learn, malleable: a framework impressed on formless nothing, complete with rules that are made to be broken. Like everything else we encounter, this is batshit and marvellous.
Obviously there are downsides of batshit (however marvellous). The tonal shifts from chapter to chapter can be jarring - especially because Wizards' peripatetic storytelling means that the narrative will leap at random. Set-piece action scenes will stop, mid-scene. Battles will jump to the aftermath. Characters will be abandoned in dungeons, then appear miraculously in the next scene, only to have their escape explained in a desultory way in another. It is, again, hard to see this as anything other than intent: subverting the traditional narrative forms by eliding the climactic moments - it forces to reader to think of what is really rewarding, or what is actually important in the story. But, that said, it is also a pain in the ass.
Similarly, I'm not sure any of the characters are particularly empathetic. Although there are Good and Bad people, also lower-case versions thereof, the book tends to read more as a parable. We're told a lot how the feel and, in context with the other themes, what they see. This sense of viewing the world through a third party's eyes should, literally, put us in their shoes. Instead it has the reverse effect: in an already-untrustworthy book, it reinforces that perception is subjective.
I would hate to call The Wizards and the Warriors an academic exercise - like the best of its literary forebears, it is as entertaining as it is disruptive. It is not, however, in the tradition of David Eddings. If anything, it is an insidiously indirect assault on that tradition - using the same tools and tropes, but in unsettling, undermining way. This book is a wolf in sheep's clothing, and I kind of love it.
Another book in the Gemmellian tradition, Kings of the Wyld stars Clay, a hero that is too old for this shit. He is one of the five former members of the 'band' (Wyld-speak for adventuring team) Saga. Back in the day, they kicked some ass.
But now Clay's retired. He is happy living in peace with his wife and his daughter, and he dreams of opening a nice little inn. But when one of his old comrades, Gabriel, shows up at his door, Clay's facing an offer he can't refuse. As happy as he is not-adventuring, Clay's got an obligation to do the right thing. He picks up his shield, packs his bags, kisses his wife goodbye, and heads back out on the road. They're getting the band back together. (GET IT?)
Fyrst, you should be relyeved that y dyd not wryte the entyre revyew lyke thys. The temptatyon was there wyth thys tytle. Butte annywae...
Wyld is two very, very different books in one.
The first is a - rather emotional - tale of a hero learning his place in the world, and better understanding himself. Despite his years and his experience, Clay's not wholly comfortable with himself - is he a barbarian madman? Is he a loving father? Is he a leader or a follower, a good friend or a bad one? Wyld has a surprisingly self-reflective protagonist, as Clay grows more comfortable in his own skin (even as he loses chunks of it).
Wyld is also a novel of friendship - an excellent, and much needed, example of non-toxic masculinity where dudes can bond and love one another and not 'lose face' by doing so. The men do macho-manly things, but also... talk. And share. And accomplish more together than they do apart. It is a cheerfully uplifting, and more than a little touching, book about a positive relationship between men. Despite the wince-worthy (and clearly intentional) thematic band-pun at the heart of the book, it is a sweet execution of the trope.
The second Wyld, resting more-or-less comfortably alongside the first, is a goofy dungeon crawl (dungeons optional). This is a D&D party - three fighters, a wizard and a rogue. Plus an infinite succession of bards, because, well, if you're going with the 'band' shtick, you might as well go full Spinal Tap. Goofy dungeon crawls can be - should be - fun. And, happily, Wyld is up for a romp. Every bar has its brawl, just like every sky has its airship, just like every abyssal infernal has its mad, mad horde. There are gladiatorial arenas, aerial battles, pissed off dragons, crazy portal-hopping madcap assassins - you name it, and Wyld crashes into it at high speed, probably on fire and screaming.
Happily, Wyld doesn't bog things down with detailed world-building or frustrating spates of infodumping. It is self-aware enough to realise that its readers know that Infernals are bad and magic swords are cool. As a result, there's a lot of lovely showing (not telling) as things barrel forwards from one set-piece action scene to the next. We see the lads bond in battle; understand how they fit together (or don't) as a team. Moreover, by not explaining the how and the why, Wyld saves time for more character development. Clay 'is' how he acts: reliable, relentless, a tendency to apologise to his opponents; a fan of whacking with his shield, rather than hacking with a sword. The others all have their own, personal styles, reflective of who they are.
These two 'books' - Wyld the hackfest and Wyld the introspective novel of friendship - fit together pretty well. There are some rough edges, but, on the whole, there's a balance of fast-moving silliness and occasional moments of genuine emotion. It is, I suspect, a little long - but the story stands completely alone, and it builds to an appropriately enormous climax. The former keeps things funny; the latter builds empathy and makes you care. Good comedy needs real emotion, and Wyld pulls it off.
Well, mostly. Kings of the Wyld is, as noted earlier, probably a little overlong. And, presumably as a side effect of being a novel about a group of dudes and their dude-feelings, it doesn't feature a lot of... non-dudes. Oddly, what grated on me, personally, was Wyld's unfortunate tendency to break the fourth wall with references to 'real world jokes'. Over and above the whole 'band' thing and Spinal Tap parallels, there are, at times, comments like 'the cake is a lie' and arguments about 'literally vs figuratively'. These are little things, but Wyld is a funny book in its own right. It doesn't need to hitch itself to expiring memes. At best, these references go over the reader's head - and I've no doubt that I missed a few. At worse, they annihilate suspension of disbelief and take the reader out of the book entirely. A small misstep, but one that really got to me for some reason.
Still, those small missteps aside... Kings of the Wyld is really, well... fun. It is goofy and silly and fast-moving and explodey. And it does all those things well: it gives the reader everything they need through action, not exposition. Wyld also works hard to make its characters meaningful - you're not just along for the craaaaazy ride, you actually care about the other passengers.