This summer, I took a break from some of the heady theology, and dipped back into the fantasy genre. Part of my thinking was that the Harry Potter series was ending, and I wanted to find something to take it's place. The nice thing about contemporary fantasy literature is that most of it is a really quick read (try jumping from Calvin or Augustine to this stuff .... you feel like the pages fly by!), so I've been able to enjoy a lot of it this summer. Here then are some mini-reviews for your consideration.
The Lies of Locke Lamora
I mostly enjoyed reading this caper novel...and that bothers me. Set in a fantasy city modelled on Venice near the cusp of the renaissance, this story focuses on the extraordinarily brilliant con man, Locke Lamora, and his band of thieves. There is magic in the book, but it's very subtle. The imaginative world is rich and detailed and the characters are vibrant in their individuality. But it's all dark. The characters are all theives, cutthroats, charlatans, powerhungry aristocracy, or something worse. Author Scott Lynch is not squeamish about depicting cruelly enacted bloodshed, nor does he flinch at killing off major characters. About the only virtue in the book is that of loyalty to friends. The ethos presented hearkens back to darker pagan days...the ethos of Odysseus the trickster. Quite simply, I felt oily after reading this book. Lynch plans a 7 book series....he's a talented writer, but I think I'll pass.
Slaves of the Shinar
This debut work from Justin Allen (indeed, all of these, except Harry Potter, are debut novels) hasn't received much attention...but it should. This isn't strictly fantasy per se. It's actually an imaginative story set in the distant legendary past (those familiar with the land of Shinar will recognize it as taking place in the antediluvian world...indeed one of the minor characters turns out to be the father of Noah). So we see here Allen's imaginative understanding of who the Nephilim of the Old Testament were....as they prepare to sweep across Shinar (ancient Mesopotamia) and conquer it all. This book shares many things in common with Locke Lamora...unflinching violence, many of the main characters are thieves and cutthroats. However we see glimpses in this text that there is something worth fighting to preserve. There are ordinary citizens of the Mesopotamian towns who are interested in being peacable and not shafting others. Indeed, out of the epic conflict with the Nephilim, many of the theiving and hard bitten characters begin to grope toward something like civilization. It's a good read...not exactly uplifting, but neither is it cynical.
but the winner is....
Imagine the typical epic fantasy story... the young hero from a backwater village is summoned forth. He's told that the prophecies speak of him... and that he is the one to defeat the evil overlord.
And he fails
What does the world look like after a millenia of domination by the evil overlord? What happens when the peasantry begin to see hope again for freedom from domination? That is the scenario of this book. In some ways, it feels like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Solshenitzen's tale of living in a Russian gulag), in other ways, it is not unlike the Lies of Locke Lamora -- an incredibly clever thief and his gang work on an outrageous plot to take down the evil emperor. We also have the coming of age element of the young naive hero (or in this case, heroine) who must learn about her amazing powers and discover her place in the rebellion against the emperor.
OK. It's Star Wars in fantasy land. And I mean that comparison in the best sense. I found this book to be rich in both realism about human frailty and optimism that there is indeed something worth fighting for. The story has a strong redemptive theme to it. Here's a series that I look forward to reading more of.