Although I finished reading both the two Mistborn novels (The Final Empire and the recently-released sequel, The Well of Ascension) by Brandon Sanderson and Brian Ruckley's just-released debut trilogy opener, Winterbirth, a couple of months ago, I have been searching for how best to say what I want about these novels that will not repeat what others (including my colleague here, Jake, has said about the two Mistborn novels and about Winterbirth). So, after almost three months of deliberations, I am going to be talking more generally about what these books brought to mind more than about specific strengths and weaknesses of the individual books. Hopefully, this will serve as a complement to some of the reviews out there.
Over the past couple of years, I have noticed a shift of sorts in the labelling and promoting multi-volume epic fantasies. Starting with the rise in popularity around 2000 of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series after the publication of its lauded third volume, A Storm of Swords, many more epic fantasies were published that eschewed the older formula of a naive adolescent or bumpkin isolated from the currents of his/her society who would, under the almost-always temporary tutelage of a mage/mentor, rise out of obscurity to save the city/kingdom/world realm from the evil machinations of some long-slumbering but finally awake dark evil force. Instead, series such as Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing, or Gregory Keyes's latest series that began with The Briar King concentrated much more on world-wise and weary protagonists or on a "good" that wasn't necessarily Ivory pure or a "bad" that wasn't Thorogood-style bad to the bone. The characters often suffered in much more explicit ways than the protagonists of most of the earlier epic fantasies of the 1970s and 1980s appeared to suffer, and occasionally lead supporting characters would die rather than overcoming miraculously their wounds or surviving the long odds against them. The descriptor "gritty" was applied to these works, setting them off from the older works, which were often perceived as being puerile or outdated in the minds of many of their supporters.
Brian Ruckley's debut novel in his Godless World trilogy, Winterbirth, is the latest of these series to be labelled with this "gritty" tag. Alex Lencicki, the Marketing and Publicity Director for Orbit US, in the press kit describes Winterbirth as "invok[ing] the violence of 300 and the epic scope of J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a book about honor, fanaticism, and war, set in a landscape that is as grim as it is dramatic."
To an extent, this is true. The action here is very unrelenting and grim. It opens with a prologue devoted to a heroic scene from a group that perhaps might best be viewed as being "the bad guys." This group, the Black Road, has an apocalyptic religious world-view and their flight into exile, depicted in that same prologue, ends up with them returning to their old stomping grounds over a generation later. In the interim, there are many tribal-like groups fighting for political dominance in a clan-based hierarchy, with leaders/rulers called Thanes leading each of these clans. Those familiar with Gaelic (Scottish even more so than pre-Strongbow Irish) history will almost immediately notice the similarities in these often chaotic power-sharing arrangements.
While I would agree with those who say that the setting feels "gritty" and more "realistic" than a great many other epic fantasies on the market, I cannot give unqualified praise to this novel. The first two-thirds of Winterbirth were rather sluggish, being overly devoted to showing Thane this and supporter that, not to mention there was this sense of an anachronistic world-view when it came to power arrangements. While the clan-like structures ostensibly represent a sort of cod-honor-based system, the religious movements and organization of the Black Road in particular was much more strongly aligned with the world-views and perceptions of people living after an Age of Science-type revolution. This clash in values probably explains why I had a difficult time relating to the characters and their situations, as I could not ignore this sense of "wrongness" about the societies and I think this boiled over into how I approached the characters. There were some seemingly important characters that were killed during the course of this novel, but I was unable to form any sense of attachment to them, thus weakening the novel's impact in my opinion. In many cases, the "grittiness" just did not lead to a very well-realized novel, although there certainly were enough positives, including the mostly well-done development of the apparent "bad guy" of the series, for me to at least desire to read the second volume to see if the promising glints that I caught might be developed enough to make this a worthwhile series.
Before I discuss Brandon Sanderson's novels, I want to use a quote taken from the Publishers Weekly starred review of Winterbirth to highlight a point about that novel and the two Mistborn novels:
The author's unapologetically stark yet darkly poetic narrative displays a refreshing lack of stereotypical genre conventions, ensuring a fervent audience of epic fantasy fans looking for something innovative in a genre that can be anything but.This quote highlights a divide that appears to be occurring these days in epic fantasies. Many reviewers and readers have come to equate dark, "gritty" fantasies with "refreshing lack of stereotypical genre conventions," as if being all of this one style makes that style somehow automatically better than books that might be more closely aligned with an older style of genre conventions. It is hard, of course, to be "innovative" when everybody else is starting to move into what you are wanting to do, and I think this is something to keep in mind in the coming years as I suspect we'll start to see a backlash of sorts against the overly "gritty" fantasies, just as we've been seeing backlashes against the farmboy trope, the inclusion of doughty dwarves and aloof elves in D&D-style derivative narratives, or of the ten-plus volumes of a WoT-like mega-epic. I started college just when "Alternative" pushed aside the "Hair Metal" bands and when it was oh-so-cool to be ironic and non-conformist in a way that conformed with many others being ironic and non-conformist. Nihil sub sole novus est...
But just because one chooses to use some of the older conventions does not mean that the story cannot be enjoyable or even innovative in places. Those who believe this might point out Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, now with the second volume, The Well of Ascension, in bookstores. There are no real shades of grey characters driving the plot, nor are there buckets of blood waiting to be poured out on the battlefields with vultures circling off in the distance. Instead, we see something a bit smaller, something perhaps more akin to a naive country bumpkin stumbling upon a great inner power, but we see it done differently and perhaps with more sincerity behind it.
Sanderson in his novels has started with a rather interesting question: What would happen if a prophesized hero were to fail at his task? What if the destined Frodo-like character had instead seized the forbidden power and had become corrupted? What would happen in a world where a Dark Lord would indeed reign for a thousand years?
This is an interesting premise and in enticing teaser quotes that open each chapter of both The Final Empire and The Well of Ascension, we see that matters of good and evil can belie the simple surface layer and be complex without having to have explicit suffering and bloodshed. Archetypes such as the Thief and the Thief's Assistant are recast in these novels in ways that revitalize those character types and which introduce elements of surprise, attachment, and ultimately mourning. While Sanderson's prose is far from what I would call elegant, it certainly is serviceable for the needs of this tale and the characterizations and dialogue are an improvement over his first published novel, Elantris. The above-described Kelsier and Vin, while ultimately quite powerful in their mastery of a rather unique form of magic called allomancy (where there are 10 commonly-known metals that can be "burned" by adepts in short spurts to provide certain powers such as increased strength or the ability to mask oneself from other adepts), are rather more flawed and human-like in their actions and interactions with others than what often has been the case in multi-volume epic fantasies. It is rather obvious from reading Sanderson's novels and his interviews that the author is an optimistic person and in these novels, that sense of hope and joy of life pervades the pages and provides a lighter view of the imagined world than what one would find in the "gritty" novels such as Winterbirth.
While I ultimately liked the Mistborn novels a slight bit more than Winterbirth, I have to admit that each ultimately accomplishes most of their intended goals. While Winterbirth mostly captures that sense of a grim, rugged, violent "reality" that Ruckley sought to show in his narrative, Sanderson's Mistborn novels radiate a more positive, "light" approach towards storytelling that serves to demonstrate that one can take an older model and still find some innovative approaches left to explore. Although there are many flaws in both in regards to the pacing and plot structuring, I would in the end recommend both of these for readers based on whichever style they happen to prefer most.
Publication Dates: Winterbirth, September 10, 2007 (US), 2006 (UK), Tradeback (US), Paperback, Hardcover (UK). Publisher: Orbit Books
Mistborn: The Final Empire, 2006 (US), Hardcover. 2007, Paperback.
Mistborn: The Well of Ascension, August 2007 (US), Hardcover. Publisher: Tor