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The Best Books of Our Time* [with Links]

Four Fantasies: Fire Boy, The Brazen Gambit, The Never King and A Stranger at the Wedding

Fire BoyFantasy time! Not, like 'the Royals come back to win the division and the Series' fantasy, we're talking about the more realistic stuff - with jinn, dragons, and, er, weddings.

Four recent reads, showing the breadth, depth and wonderful weirdness that can be found on the fantasy shelves.

Sami Shah's Fire Boy (2017). An early - or not so early - book of the year pick. To slap some labels on it, Fire Boy is a YA, edgy American Gods, but then, none of that is particularly accurate. Wahid is a weird kid, growing up in Karachi. He was a sick child and now he's a gormless teenage. But he's got some fun friends, a loving family, and a future that's more or less bright.

Then things go horribly, terribly wrong. Wahid starts seeing things that aren't there. There's crazy assassin is after him. Oh, and he's in a horrible car wreck. Suddenly he's gone from secure and self-absorbed to a life on the run, with everything taken from him. His search for answers takes him to some very strange, and not entirely earthly, places. Fire Boy has all the classic elements of Chosen One-ness and Portal Fantasy: Wahid's a gawky, geeky everyman with a good heart and a lot of potential. But there's also a shockingly edgy overlay - this isn't a book that pulls its punches, and manages to be truly shocking and surprising as the one twist leads to another. Karachi itself comes to life, as Shah brings its sprawl and the splendour to the page, effortlessly weaving in the city's mythology.

The book is punctuated by interstitial scenes - thus the American Gods ref - with various djinn and spirits wreaking havoc on ordinary people, and they are brutally good. I suppose one disclaimer: Fire Boy has a cliffhanger ending that moves immediately into Earth Boy. Some editions (depending on region) have both books as a single volume (as intended, I suspect). So if you're picking up this book - as you absolutely should - throw the second into the shopping cart as well.

The Brazen GambitLynn Abbey's The Brazen Gambit (1994). A recommendation from Ben Peek (of The Godless), and noteworthy in a lot of ways.

First, this is easily one of the best RPG tie-ins I've ever read. As Pornokitsch reader/sufferers will know, I'm slightly fascinated by the ways that worlds go transmedia - and the oft-awkward transition between RPG (inspiring, fluid, open-ended) and novel (canon, fixed, structured) is always fun to study. The Brazen Gambit is set in the Dark Sun world, and, although it touches on the epic events of the setting, the campaign and the other novels, Abbey decides that discretion is the better part of valour, and tucks the adventures of Gambit away in a small corner of the setting. Similarly, the novel is self-contained: it has clear hooks that lead to bigger questions, but as a plot, Gambit begins, middles and ends. The characters grow and develop, and embiggen (RPG-style), but without fundamentally impacting the world. 

Second, it reflects Dark Sun's unique moral and, er, cosmological setting. A bit like Krynn (please see: 60,000 words of Dragonlance-related ranting), the world of Athas has a strange relationship with conventional morality. Which is all the more delicious, given that D&D is based on the measurable, objective ethics of the alignment system. But Athas is, essentially, post-apocalyptic fantasy, and the code of romantic chivalry that informs conventional Goodness no longer applies: survival is all, and adherence to systems of survival, the ability to work collectively, is what makes Athasians tick. This makes for a very interesting fantasy, and Abbey takes full advantage of it. Our protagonist is a cog in the machine - a low level bureaucrat in an (unrepentantly) 'evil' city-state. But that's important, because survival depends on collective action, as well as the necessary evil of the city's overlord. When our 'hero' finds himself caught up in a conspiracy, and suddenly on the wrong side of the law, he is forced to flirt with rebellion - and learns that there are other systems of survival, and of viewing the world. Are they Good-er? Are they Right-er? Even by the end of the book, we're not entirely sure.

Third, it is just plain good fun. The Brazen Gambit sits halfway between the pulptastic railroaded set-piece action of Dragonlance and the world-building tourism of the Tékumel novels. Abbey integrates what is a very strange and exotic world, but also doesn't shy on the action. 

It isn't, of course, perfect. The ending is hasty - a literal deus ex machina. Our hero, Pavek, is kind of a dick. Not necessarily in a morally-intriguing survivalist way - just... a dick. There are also a lot of hasty plot twists and sudden betrayals, which are less interesting after the first four or five. And, annoyingly, some of the most classically interesting moments happen to non-Pavek characters, and in the background. Oh, and, finallythe most interesting part - from a purely cosmological/setting/magical - sense is a magical interaction that indicates that the city itself is a sort of... magical spirit. Previously, this is indicated to be reserved for natural phenomena, but if cities are worthy of that type of theological representation, that kind of subverts everything we've learned, and the principle character's worldview. Alas, that's seeded... and ignored. Argh.

Stranger at the WeddingAnd two quick ones:  

James Abbott's The Never King (2017). Billed as 'in the style of Gemmell', but, well, I'm not a Gemmell fan and I did like this. So... take with a grain of salt? After a nasty betrayal by an unscrupulous duke (now king), the finest warrior of the kingdom is condemned to a distant prison. The former king's spymaster busts him out, and the two of them - with other strange and talented allies - band up and start a revolution. Lots of sneaky tactics, and a ton of set-piece action scenes: battles in woods, battles versus monsters, midnight heists, you name it. Good clean fun, with old school, over-the-top heroes teaming up to smite old school, over the top villainy. If you're the sort that likes reading about a man scything down hundreds of baddies with dual-wielded magical swords whilst his comrades cover him with magical exploding arrows, well, a) you're my sort of person and b) this is the book for you.

Barbara Hambly's Stranger at the Wedding (1994). Fourth in the Windrose series, but very much stands alone. A young wizard receives a premonition of her sister's impending doom, and returns to her estranged family in an attempt to prevent it. This is a a slow, thoughtful mystery, with the magic well-integrated and an enjoyably mouthy, smart protagonist. It was a little longer than it needed to be, and, to nitpick, the romance was somehow both overtly telegraph and weirdly sudden. But the relationships between the families - and the complexity of the social mores - were utterly brilliant. It is a book filled with hard decisions: who to love, who to trust, how to live and where to belong. And these are all answered - wisely and warmly - and with good humour.