Friday, March 13, 2009

What's so wrong with derivative pseudo-gaming fiction, anyways?

So last night I finished a relatively new fantasy novel: Gail Z. Martin's major debut novel The Summoner, Book One of the Tales of the Necromancer series. I had picked the book up one day over lunch when I realized I didn't have anything to read, so I got through the first thirty pages or so and then wound up shelving the book for six months. A couple of weeks ago I decided to give it another try, and many, many (many) pages later, I've finished volume one and volume two, The Blood King, is now on deck.

To not bombard the first few lines with a bunch of hyperlinks, here's Martin's MySpace page, as well as her Tales of the Necromancer Series website, and her series events blog page.

Just FYI, if you are one of those people who scream "Tell me nothing!" about books/movies/TV you want to get into but don't want to know about beforehand, skip forward until I tell you to stop in bold. You've been forewarned.

The Summoner details the adventures of a young prince forced into hiding and exile by his evil older brother after said brother (with the help of some evil wizard dude) kills his dad, his mom, and his spunky tomboy kid sister. Teaming up with his ragtag band of unlikely heroes, the protagonist suddenly discovers that the meager trickle of magical power he knows he possesses actually hides - of course - Real Ultimate Power (cue Luke Skywalker parallels here). So he flees with his ruggedly handsome captain of the guards / best friend, the beautifully handsome court bard / best friend (who can toss knives like a Ninja, by the way), and the gruffly stoic and handsome sergeant at arms / wise old campaigner. Oh, and our hero is boyishly handsome, to differentiate him from all the other handsome people in the book.

Later on the heroes meet up with the roguish smuggler/swordsman/mercenary who professes to be "only in it for the money" but who later steps up and takes his altruistic place in the coming struggle between Good and Evil (cue Han Solo parallels here). This dude falls in love with the party's cleric - I mean magical healer, who happens to be BFF with the main protagonist's love interest, Xena Warrior Princess from the next Kingdom over (there's some "girl talk" here and there, but it's not too bad). Along the way they also collect a befuddled but "cute in that charming old man kinda way" scholar/fact machine, as well as a spunky and wise-cracking kid who somehow manages to not get immediately slaughtered in the first five seconds of every fight they get into. There's also the big, bearlike protective dude, the Vampire Who's Actually A Good Guy, and numerous and sundry other stock fantasy characters.

Also noteworthy is that the main character is a Summoner - a mage who specializes in dealing with the dead. He can see and interact with spirits that no one else can see, and can help them "cross over" if they want to, or banish evil spirits that are dangerous. Of course, he also has access to Magic Missile and Light and Detect Magic and other various and sundry "generic fantasy spells", cuz its just cool to have him throwing bolts of fire or lighting a torch by looking at it. There is even mention made of "levels" of spells and workings, although they are kinda sorta equated to the years of a mage's training (suuuure...). Oh, and there's a magic sword. And magic armor. And a magical amulet. And a magic cloak. And a pet miniature dragon. thankfully there are no elves or hob - I mean little people. And no "orcs". Lots of generic magically created "fell beasts", though.

Okay, done with the spoilers...

Looking at everything I wrote above, you'd think I couldn't even make it past the first, oh, three hundred pages or so (the book is 640 pages). The truth is, the book went by shockingly quickly - it took me a while to read only because I didn't have that much sit-down time to do the reading, but when I did have the book at hand, I was able to blaze through it. Part of the problem might be the oddly large font it's printed in - the publishers could have easily cut a good fifty pages by shrinking the font half a point. I've ranted before - here and elsewhere - about how modern publishers, especially in the fantasy and science-fiction genres, seem to let their authors run wild with page counts and crank out inches-thick behemoths with no real editing control. When I think "paperback novel", I'm thinking something I can tuck into the back pocket of my jeans, not something the size of a desk reference dictionary. But, this has been the trend in fantasy/sci-fi books for the last twenty years or so, starting with the whole Jordan / Feist / Goodkind deluge and continuing forward.

Anyhow, back to the book. When all is said and done, I liked it. It's no shock to regular readers here at the T&B that my tastes in genre fiction / movies / TV run to the campy / schlocky / lowbrow. I dig Kothar and Thongor and I've got Beastmaster on DVD (and I've seen it at least a dozen times). I read Warhammer Fantasy and 40K media tie-in fiction, and while some of it is rather good, a lot of it is just entertaining trash. So reading The Summoner, while there isn't a whole heck of a lot in it that's engagingly innovative or original, I was entertained. The writing style is serviceable - nothing particularly prosaic, but not awkward or difficult to read. Even though the caracters aren't particularly original, they are more "comfortably familiar", and even though there's the inevitable adventuring party of characters (the wizard, the bard, the healer, the fighters, the rogue), after a while you just tell the nagging part of your brain to shut up and enjoy the book.

Frankly, the fantasy market is pretty well saturated, and any time someone manages to come out with something innovative and original, a dozen wannabes come along to make a profit on it. In my mind, derivative doesn't necessarily mean bad, and if you come right down to it, anyone who manages to pull off selling a series of hefty fantasy novels in this day and age of "whatever you do, don't send us your 'role-playing game setting as fantasy novel' manuscript" has managed to beat the odds. Martin didn't self-publish, this isn't a series of blog postings, she isn't working off a fandom website - she's a middle-aged woman who's managed to land what many of us would consider a dream job - being a professional fantasy novelist. Even if Martin's work isn't an incredibly original and innovative "new voice" in fantasy fiction, she's produced an entertaining and engaging series with enough twists and action to keep me reading. It's not high art, but it's a worthy companion for a daily bus ride, lunchtime reading, or while getting the laundry done.


Wyatt said...

Whatever happened to the light read anyway? Now it seems like everything has to be (or tries desperately to be) cerebral social fiction or the author slits his wrists. I'm the kind of guy that likes decidedly unbrainy fiction and movies and entertainment, because it, well, entertains me. It's kinda sad that this days saying that would lessen people's opinions of you.

SambearPoet said...

If you like that, you might like Heart of the Hunter, my free fantasy audiobook, which is here:

Anonymous said...

I'm sure part of the problem is that publishers are more concerned about "brand" these days, so a "brand" author like Goodkind or Jordan will get less editorial scrutiny than a new writer. Plus there's the whole problem of a challenged industry going for the guaranteed sell instead of innovation, and someone somewhere at the publishing houses have been convinced, for whatever reason, that "750 page epic high fantasy bloviation" sells better than Carter/Leiber/Howard low fantasy S&S.

--Pere Ubu (tog23 AT