Looking at some of last year's debuts, it is fun to see how they - with the help of some wild extrapolation - represent the evolution of three very different traditions of British fantasy. So, without further ado, let's gird our loins, say farewell to the small village that never really understood us, reluctantly accept the quest that only we can accomplish, and head off in pursuit of our destiny...
Sabaa Tahir's An Ember in the Ashes is, perhaps, the easiest of these three books to talk about, as it is such a perfect archetype of what it is: an all-star gathering of YA tropes.
We've got two protagonists - Laia and Elias. One's orphaned, one's estranged from their eeeeevil parent. Both have special missions, awkwardly-discovered Chosen Destiny Powers, and harrowing day-to-day lives, periodically punctuated by the need to make Difficult Decisions. Both are spectacularly attractive. Both have 'obvious' love interests (in natural conflict with their Undeniable and Powerful Attraction to one another). Both are born to - and assigned - roles that they don't want to play. Both crave, in order, Freedom, Understanding, Something Different, A World More Fair, and a bit of sexy cuddletimes.
To celebrate, three very different romances: a contemporary space opera (kinda), a globe-trotting adventure (kinda), and a Regency romance (kinda). Love is in the air, and it is not so easily classified.
Madeline Brent's Moonraker's Bride (1973) is another of the award-winning novelist's semi-Gothic, globe-trotting, quasi-Victorian escapades. I'm slightly obsessed with Brent's books ever since discovering that 'she' is the pen name for Peter O'Donnell, who also wrote the action series Modesty Blaise. The obsession has now paid off with a handful of really delightful books, of which Moonraker's is one.
Lucy Waring, our heroine, is born overseas, an orphan in a remote Himalayan village. This means she's got practical skills (including yak-herding!) and an adventurous spirit... but is completely on the back foot in British society. The combination means she can be shy, but courageous, and supremely competent... yet also in constant need of rescuing. This is the delicate balance that Brent creates in all 'her' books, and it might be at its most delicate in Moonraker's. Further familiar twists include the circumstantial-marriage-that-could-be-real-love, family secrets, and a lot of ponderously-delivered pop psychology.
Lone Star Planet (A Planet for Texans) by H. Beam Piper (1958) has been skulking on my shelf for ages, and, I'm pleased to say, there's (slightly) more to it than just a goofy cover. In the far future, the entire population of Texas has picked up to go settle a frontier planet - they're keen to get away from the rules and regulations and gov'mints and such. Our hero, the plucky ambassador from the Solar League, has been tasked to woo them back. There's an alien invasion on the horizon and New Texas would be better 'in the tent pissing out'... at least, so the League think.
Most media artifacts come to the public fully formed, the creative process long since edited away or consigned to the rubbish bin. With comic books that process has typically been more open to the public. For starters, when following a long-running series over a number of years, you can see how characters and concepts grow and change in time. If the series has the same creative team you may also see how an artist’s style or a writer’s craft develops as they gain experience.
Basen is the nephew of the dead king of Tenred, who was (whilst alive) the most hated man in the world. Despite their shared surname, however, Basen is firmly on team Good. He and his father were exiled before the last war, and have spent their last few years scrounging out a living in the (enemy) kingdom of Kyrro. No home to go to; no future ahead of them.
Basen, however, has some tricks up his sleeve.
Trained as both a swordsman and a mage (the perks of a royal upbringing), when the famed Academy opens up new students, Basen sees this as an opportunity. Although his father is insistent that Basen try out as a warrior, Basen sells the family sword and buys a wand instead. Despite the wand-seller giving him a faulty article, Basen still astounds the examiners and gets accepted.
Basen also makes the first of his many new friends - the healer Alabell. Alabell and Basen feel an immediate frisson, and bond over Alabell's Academy stories, Basen's sordid family history and the fact that Alabell too is related to royalty.
And with that, Malevolent begins.
The 'I' is Libby. She's a high school senior, but not a very active one. Stricken with 'Valley Fever', she's virtually bedridden: even on the good days, she's worried about ranging too far - her mysterious ailment could strike at any time.
Malevolent opens on one of those good days. She's feeling fairly strong, plus, the beekeepers are in town. Libby's family has an almond farm. The annual visit of the beekeepers and their pollinating bug-friends is not only important to the farm's success, but it is also a lot of fun to watch.
This year is especially fun, as there's an enigmatic stranger in the mix. This newcomer works with unnatural speed, and has a connection with his bees that seems almost magical. His strength, speed and pallor all combine to make Libby think - jokingly - that this newcomer, Mal, is a vampire. (awkward cough)
And we're off! I'm participating in this year's SPFBO - a competition that pits 300(!) self-published fantasy novels against one another in search of ULTIMATE GLORY. This site is one of the 10 sites reviewing and judging the books.
My task is to sift through 30 of the entries. I've already cut 24 of the 30 (details on those books here). This week, I'll be reviewing my final six, using a version of our DGLA criteria. Only one will go on the final round!
<cue dramatic intro music>
K'lrsa is a Rider of the White Horse Tribe. She's young, but her skills on horseback and in combat - as well as her dauntless courage - have made her a fully fledged warrior of her tribe. Her father, the leader of the tribe, is immensely proud, even as her mother wishes she would settle down.
There are minor dramas, certainly - an overly-ardent admirer, disconcerting rumours involving trade routes - but K'lrsa loves her home and her family, even as she seeks further opportunities to prove herself... and all of this is swept away when disaster strikes.
After years of chewing over it and thousands of words of inconclusive blog posts, I still have very little idea where the division is between 'YA' fantasy and 'epic' fantasy (interesting - heated - discussion on this very point over at r/fantasy).
I mean, physically, it is generally around 15-20 feet - depending on the size of the bookstore. But as overarching, sub-genre distinctive themes? I got nothing.
Marie Lu's The Young Elites (2014) further muddies these opaque waters. The Young Elites is also a unique sort of muddle, as it contains both very-much-YA and very-much-epic-fantasy tropes within the same book. Rather than blurring the two together, it happily plucks from both extremes.
Adelina is a malfetto, one of the scarred survivors of a great plague that swept through the land. Although generally despised as 'cursed', some malfettos also exhibit magical powers - these are called 'Young Elites'. (Why one term is cod-Italian and the other cod-Ralph-Lauren-catalogue, I have no idea.) These Young Elites are sought after by both the Inquisition (who wish to kill them) and the Dagger Society (who wish to recruit them). Adelina, as you might expect, turns out to be a rather powerful Young Elite - one that's greatly desired, in every sense, by both sides.
The author of Red Rising, Golden Son and Morning Star will be at:
- Dark Societies (Waterstones Piccadilly) - 6 pm, Saturday, 20 Feb
- Goldsboro Books - 6.30 pm, Tuesday, 23 Feb
- The Edinburgh Bookshop (Edinburgh Academy) - 6.30 pm, Wednesday, 24 Feb
- Waterstones Birmingham High Street - 7 pm, Thursday, 25 Feb
If you've not read the (recently-concluded) series, they're like rolling The Hunger Games and Starship Troopers into a big ball, dousing the whole thing in cocaine and then setting it on fire while launching it from a cannon. That is to say, "good clean fun".