Fantasy's Golden Age By Hilary Williamson (April 2009)
Our January editorial, New Year, New Authors, addressed ten of last year's outstanding mystery and thriller debuts. I recently reviewed a brilliant debut in another of my favorite genres, fantasy. This was Ken Scholes' Lamentation (first in a planned five Psalms of Isaak), about which speculative fiction superstar Orson Scott Card said: 'This is the golden age of fantasy, with a dozen masters doing their best work. Then along comes Ken Scholes, with his amazing clarity, power, and invention, and shows us all how it's done.'
Card's enthusiastic endorsement left me pondering who are these writers, whose imaginative flights are painting fantasy's golden age in this second millennium? I looked at debuts in the last few years. For 2009 (so far anyway, the year is young) the star is Ken Scholes, whose outstanding Lamentation begins with the bang with which an unknown enemy destroys a great city and center of knowledge, and continues to unveil Macchiavellian manipulation at an individual and societal level. It deserves its rave reviews.
In 2006, Patrick Rothfuss loomed high above the fantasy crowd with The Name of the Wind. It introduces Kvothe, a relatively young, obviously powerful man living as a humble innkeeper in a remote town in a land at war. There's a sense of dangers creeping up on him. Readers learn more about Kvothe as he, at first reluctantly, embarks on three days of storytelling, telling the truth behind his legend. Those three days map into the Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy that began with The Name of the Wind. A legion of fans anxiously await the second day's telling.
The year 2006 was a vintage one for fantasy debuts as it also marked the release of A Shadow in Summer, the first book in Daniel Abraham's enthralling Long Price Quartet (followed by A Betrayal in Winter and An Autumn War). This unique series develops and examines the implications of a seemingly decent society wielding absolute power over others, through its few poets exercising ultimate control over their enslaved creations. Abraham examines hard choices between justice and vengeance, truth and compromise.
That same year, Scott Lynch made a spectacular fantasy debut with his dizzying Lies of Locke Lamora, whose (anti-)hero has been a master con artist from a very young age. He and his Gentlemen Bastards execute sophisticated confidence games in a cruel world, in which all-powerful Bondsmagi have a monopoly on sorcery. These adventurers, addicted to the big con, continue to fight overwhelming odds in Red Seas Under Red Skies, and five more books are planned in the Gentleman Bastard sequence, the next being The Republic of Thieves.
Though Sherwood Smith didn't debut in 2006 - she's been penning wonderful YA fantasy for some time (Crown Duel being my favorite) - she did launch a new and exceptional adult fantasy series with Inda (continuing with The Fox and King's Shield). This excellent, multi-layered series stars an out-of-the-box thinker and military genius. It's set in a complex, well realized world filled with ambition (individual and national), conflict and magic. Smith's stories are painted with broad brush military strategies and national politics as well as finely drawn relationships between individuals, and filled with thrilling action.
This was also the year that Brandon Sanderson launched his dark Mistborn series with The Final Empire (his first book was Elantris in 2005), continuing his oustanding - and most unusual in its magical elements - trilogy with The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages. In this world, a hero overcame a great evil but then succumbed to the corruption of power to impose a thousand year tyranny. Rebels use Allomancy - burning various metals for empowerment - to fight back against the godlike Lord Ruler. Sanderson has also been chosen to complete Robert Jordan's A Memory of Light, the two-part conclusion to the bestselling and hugely popular Wheel of Time.
Looking at the works of these golden age fantasists, what stands out for me is that the genre has moved away from Tolkien's small band of good guys fighting ultimate evil to the kind of moral ambiguities and shades of gray that are much more true to life - and even more interesting to read and think about. There is an impressive array of complex characters (human and non) as well as innovative forms of magic that showcase the authors' own imaginations.
Now that I look back over this list it seems incomplete. Other relatively new names - like Jacqueline Carey, Juliet Marillier, Sarah Zettel, and Jo Walton - deserve to be there, not to mention the fantasy greats who have been around a little longer and are still writing in top form ... Orson Scott Card himself, Kage Baker, Robin Hobb, Ursula K. Le Guin, Charles de Lint, George R. R. Martin, Patricia A. McKillip, Robin McKinley, Terry Pratchett, Sharon Shinn, Michelle West (and I will kick myself later for missing some of my own favorites here.)
Wow, Orson Scott Card is right; it is indeed a golden age of fantasy!
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