The Isle of Battle (Book Two of the Swans' War)

by Sean Russell
467 pages,
ISBN: 0380974908

Paragon Lost: A Chronicle of the King's Blades

by Dave Duncan
348 pages,
ISBN: 0380978962

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In the Shadow of Two Towers
by Patrick R. Burger

The recent release of the second film of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, reflects the current strength of the fantasy genre and into this favourable context come The Isle of Battle, the second novel in Sean Russell's Swan's War trilogy, and Dave Duncan's Paragon Lost, a novel in his "Tales of the King's Blades" series. These are works by experienced authors in a field overshadowed by the twin titans Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan. However, this is also a genre that was changed forever by the success of by Stephen R. Donaldson's 1977 novel Lord Foul's Bane, and the current boom still follows the commandment arising from it and its sequels: "Thou shalt write trilogiesÓand quadrologies and tetralogies, etc." Keeping this in mind, it must be stated at the outset that Russell's novel cannot be read alone, while Duncan's can. And yet this recognition of a fact of the current state of fantasy publishing does not excuse the weaknesses of Russell's book; similarly, even though Duncan's book is a tale related to his other "King's Blades" books and not strictly part of a trilogy or tetralogy, it cannot be considered as a happy exception to the multi-volume mania and thus some kind of oddity that must necessarily be measured against different criteria¨both stand or fall as novels. As such, Russell's work is representative of what is wrong with the modern fantasy genre, and Duncan's work embodies what is right with this vibrant literary form.
While The Isle of Battle is touted as "epic high fantasy" by its publisher, there is a distinct lack of an epic feeling in the work. Tolkien is the archetype of high fantasy with the fantastic landscapes of his Middle Earth, the mythic grandeur of his elven race and characters like Sauron, Galadriel and Elrond, and the life-like and loving detail he lavished on the languages, magic and cultures he created. In Russell's work, however, the mythic figures of the tale interact too ordinarily with regular folk like Tam, Baore and Fynnol, and there is a corresponding lack of grandeur: no great descriptive sequences impress us with fantastic landscapes or cunningly wrought magic. Curiously, this very geographical dearth in The Isle of Battle almost becomes a strength as the River Wynnd assumes an almost mystical reality with its omnipresence in the plot. Water imagery is all-pervasive and is made manifest by way of the river-spirits, the nagar, who are central to the fate of the heroine, Elise Wills. She becomes partially possessed by the nagar Sianon, and in this Russell achieves an interesting symbiosis of setting, plot and character which serves to hold the book together. On this promising framework, however, there is often only wispy substance¨the aforementioned lack of description, sketchy characterization and an annoying use of sentence fragments with which Russell intends to deliver some sort of emotional or suspenseful accent but which reveal themselves as gimmicks of a writer seemingly too much in a hurry to actually craft these moments with genuine emotion or suspense. In contradistinction to Tolkien's masterwork, on which he laboured 17 years or so, this book seems to have been done quickly, reflecting the current state of fantasy publishing. The boom in fantasy is encouraging this haste and is paradoxically robbing the genre of one of its hallmarks¨the lovingly worked out and richly detailed settings, characters, magic and storylines. While the comparison to Tolkien may be unfair, Russell doesn't fare well juxtaposed with the other titan of fantasy, Robert E. Howard, either. Howard, in his Conan tales and other stories, epitomized the pulp writer¨one who could write with speed and yet consistently maintain a high level of quality. Howard's prose was vibrant, muscular, fast-paced and seething with a palpable barbarian spirit which established fantasy's first touchstone¨wild and magical action. While sustained Tolkinesque grandeur cannot be obtained through speed, fantasy action can be. A veritable proof of this dictum is that the best sequence in Russell's seemingly hastily constructed novel is the exciting and action-packed hunt for nobleman Carl A'dennT and highwayman Jamm on the Isle of Battle. Given this, it is not surprising that much of the best fantasy written these days¨Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman immediately come to mind¨is set within the already established worlds of Dungeons and Dragons. Drawing upon the collectively created richness of the D&D settings¨which compare favourably with Tolkien's Middle Earth¨authors like Weis and Hickman are able to write at a Howard-like pace, come up with stories loaded with Howardian energy and vitality, while achieving the breadth and epic sweep of Tolkien. Russell's "land between the mountains" does not have the richness of a Dragonlance or a Middle Earth setting, and he allows his obvious skill with action to become mired, along with his narrative, in an interminable fog-bound slogging of his characters through the marshy Stillwater. As a matter of fact, so much of the novel takes place in that marsh that the title of the novel should have been Stillwater¨but such a heading would have betrayed the book's weakness from the start.
While the reality of the commandment since Donaldson to write trilogies (plus, plus) cannot be overlooked when analyzing current exemplars of the genre, it must also be remembered that Tolkien did not intend for his work to be broken up into three books, and that Howard's impressive corpus was built up through a succession of short stories and novelettes. Fantasy writers following the Donaldson commandment must therefore still observe the imperatives of storytelling, and one of these is that the cast of characters must be distinct and recognizable to the readers, or, in the words of Mark Twain, "the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others," "the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate," and "the characters in a tale [shall] be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency." While Russell's large cast does boast such interesting personages as Carral Wills, Lady Llyn, Elise Wills, Samul RennT and Jamm, many of the rest (and there are many more) are just names.
Dave Duncan's Paragon Lost, on the other hand, avoids many of the problems plaguing Russell's work. The novel is a gem of plotting and characterization. The Blades, the central figures of this work and Duncan's series, are Three Musketeer-type adventurers who combine a mystic, almost Arthurian loyalty to their king with a keen awareness of political intrigue. The strongest aspect of the work is the main character, Sir Beaumont: He is intensely likable, endearingly human and admirably resourceful and courageous. He is the agent and executor of a plot that is relentlessly surprising and exciting in its sudden turns. Duncan's plot sends Beaumont and the Blades dashing across the length and breadth of Eurania, satisfying the reader's vicarious lust for adventure.
One is also struck by Duncan's wit¨in fact, one often smiles in delight at the clever humour of Duncan's prose. This sparkling writing causes the reader to reconsider Duncan's seemingly unimaginative reproduction of a distinctly medieval European context in his sub-created fantasy world. This tendency to transparently recreate Europe and pass it off as a fantasy world has long been a criticism of some works in the genre. A master like Michael Moorcock was able to play on this and subvert its clichTd aspects in his Dorian Hawkmoon-Castle Brass series; Duncan's Eurania is similarly unapologetic and successful in its co-opting of primary reality. In fact, Duncan combines his genuine wit and European history to generate excellent characters. Czar Igor of Skyrria is, despite his obvious modelling on Ivan the Terrible, fascinating and chillingly drawn. Duncan's masterful characters breathe a scintillating breath of life into scenes like Czarina Sophie's reaction to Czarevich Fedor's assault on Princess Tasha. This moment, and many others in Duncan's book, are beautifully choreographed emotional dramas. When dashing Sir Beaumont surrenders to Igor, Duncan has so vividly presented the psyche of his marvellous Blade that the reader is rocked by the scene. The book is deliciously sexy as well, revealing a Dionysian joy in life's central sensual pleasure¨one that is far too often missing in the fantasy genre, a fact that is glaringly obvious in Tolkien.
While some might argue that Paragon Lost is an historical romance thinly disguised with a veneer of magic, it is magic¨that essential stuff of fantasy¨that makes the Blades what they are, and the subtle presence of magic throughout Duncan's Eurania makes this a realm that welcomes fans of Tolkienesque high fantasy and Howardian sword and sorcery alike. ˛

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