Adult Fantasy and Fiction
After getting swept up in the Harry Potter craze a few years ago I started to wonder what adult fantasy novels would be like. I had a hard time finding what I was looking for: a good mix of character development, engaging dialog, well-rendered scenes, and a meaningful use of magic and other genre specialties. I found and read a few classics, but over the last few years a ton of great work has been coming out. I am excited to be sharing some of my favorites with you, both new and old, from the adult fantasy genre.
A Wizard of Earthsea
Ursula Le Guin is a time-tested author who deserves more than a simple book review. Her writing is the high bar for the genre as far as I am concerned. Her explorations serve as powerful social commentary providing unique worlds - exquisitely and poetically rendered - that are different enough from our own as to give perspective without escape. My first reads were The Dispossessed and the Left Hand of Darkness, but for this review, I am going to focus on A Wizard of Earthsea.
The world of EarthSea is equal in scope to other famous lands of fantasy like Middle Earth or The Seven Kingdoms. The first story takes a classic narrative arch following a single character. A young student wizard makes some stupid mistakes and pays a terrible price. Now he is chased across the known world by an incarnate darkness. What will it take for him to finally be free of this menace?
LeGuin's writing captures the inner workings of characters with unusual richness that renders them both flawed and recognizable. Using not just characters but the narrative structure itself to illustrate archetypal concepts makes this work Shakespearean. The way in which geography shapes different cultures within a society and imbues communities with a kind of inherent suspicion of the Other sets up a resolution that is fundamental to our individual humanity. A highly engaging read appropriate for 13 and up, and with enough layered in for adults as well.
Way of Shadows
Growing up in the cities dark corners, Azoth learns hard lessons early. The older boys brutalize and exploit the younger, and it's even worse for the girls. Far from the shadows of the castle and the wealthy enclaves of the city a criminal underworld thrives. The most feared are assassins trained in the use of magic, known as “wet boys”. In a desperate move to protect his friends, Azoth becomes an apprentice to most feared wet boy in the city, Durzo Blint.
The story comes in three fairly distinct parts: the initial escape from the slums, the apprenticeship, and finally the transition to wet boy. Each part brings an exponential increase in the number of characters and layers of intrigue. In this way, the narrative world parallels the development of our protagonist, the terrible responsibilities that he is shouldered with always just outstripping his capacities. Will his anchor in the world, his oldest friends, be there when he needs them? Can he or the kingdom survive accelerating forces moving against them? For a child who has survived only through his loyalty, who will he choose when those he cares for wind up on opposite sides of the coming war? This is a great fantasy story; I am excited for the library to get the next book in the series, but it is definitely for mature audiences only.
The Fifth Season
This breakout novel has become a hit and promises more as the first part of a trilogy. The story splits between three main characters in very different parts of their lives. A young girl swept off to a magic school where her life is literally do or die; a practicing sorceress who must navigate complicated politics and an unstable partner; and a mother whose world has just come crashing down around her. We follow these three through a world where magic is incredibly dangerous, highly distrusted, and vital to preventing tectonic upheaval.
This book is a compelling character study, giving a chance to walk around inside of these characters through intense life events. Over time, we get to see the undulations of a human life, the forming and dissolution of relationships and the hope and terrible danger of trying to reinvent oneself by running from the past. This work is certainly for a mature audience, taking dark turns and dwelling in the fear created by social conflicts amped up by magic. And this is perhaps the book's most important point: that the rules and structures that we create to make us safe may become the thing that alienates us from those who can best protect us. Because of the complexity of the narrative and adult scenes, I would recommend for mature readers only.
A Darker Shade of Magic
From the book's title, the jacket's description of “blood magic”, and the cover art, I was expecting a noir story involving vampires, but this was not the case at all. This is a twisting narrative that weaves together different versions of the Victorian era city of London, each more magical than the last. These realms are tied together by the last Antari, capable of travelling between the realms, using the aforementioned blood magic. The role and corrupting power of magic is the running theme in the book, but tragically it is also the only hope for our hero. Can he return a cursed artifact to the lost Black London, sealed off because of its pervasive and corrupting magic, before it sets havoc loose?
My favorite part of the novel is the book's anti-hero sidekick, Delilah Bard. She is a thief, grifter, and eventually a murderer who's life seems constantly on the cusp of tragedy even as she pulls off her latest crime. When she runs into Kell, one of the last Antari, she ends up saving him and forcing him to help her enter a better, more magical London. Her antics throughout the book give the work a grounded, lilting edge in the make of great literary scoundrels before her. I'm thinking about picking up the next in the series so I can see what she does with a pirate ship. Good for ages 13 and up.
This unconventional narrative gives us another female protagonist. This time, our story comes as a kind of Russian folktale about a sorcerer who takes a young girl from a small rural village to serve him every ten years. He always chooses the best, smartest, prettiest girl ... but what happens when he doesn't? Agnieska is sure her closest friend will be chosen, as is everyone else in the village. But in a strange twist of fate, the mage's eyes fall on Agnieska and her awkward and adventurous apprenticeship begins.
This is a great story about finding your own way in the world. The pace of the story keeps moving with an assortment of interesting characters and an escalating conflict with a menacing force from the dark and mysterious neighboring wood. But central through it all is the evolving relationship between Agnieszka and the old sorcerer, the Dragon. Our heroine remains true to herself against the wishes of the strict and structured practices of the Dragon. What will she unleash with her wild and reckless ways? Can she control the great and creative power within her before she is swallowed by the darkness in the wood? Highly recommended for all ages.
Set in the contemporary world, The Magicians helped launch my renewed interest in adult fantasy. After reading Harry Potter as an adult, I was sure there was a more complex narrative with greater attention to adult conflicts waiting to happen. The Magicians delivers! Quentin Coldwater is accepted into a magical academy before he really knows what that means. After a lifetime of wishing magic were real, he doesn't care. But before all is said and done, he will have gained and lost more than he could have imagined.
At first, I thought this book would follow the same architecture of the Potter series, with a little more college appropriate partying, jealous fighting and fear of expulsion. But halfway through the book, the characters were going through a dark and powerful graduation ceremony and then ... what? The social relevance cannot be understated for twenty-somethings finishing school with no real direction and sense of purpose. In this magical world, there are a lot more temptations and a much greater breadth of loss and pain than some other fantasy novels. Watching these flawed characters generate conflict on an epic level evokes the humbling tragedies of Greek drama. Way better than the TV version (sorry Sy-Fy channel!), recommended for late teens and up, and definitely check out the rest of the trilogy.
The Blade Itself
Perhaps my favorite of the books described here, The Blade Itself is the first installment of The First Law Trilogy, which follows a few main characters through incredible circumstances. The cast of characters includes an arrogant minor noble, a barbarian, a sorcerer and a torturer. Truly an epic, The Blade Itself brings together our main characters and gives us the strong characterization that will carry us through the rest of the trilogy.
A fair warning, I recommended this book to a colleague who likes the genre. They found the descriptive torture scenes too disturbing to continue. The violence in this part of the story is particularly gruesome and not for the faint of heart. I found it an important element and a welcome part of reality that quickly demystifies the often romanticized nature of violence. I think I enjoyed seeing conflicted characters like the barbarian Logen Ninefingers or the torturer Inquisitor Glotka do horrendous things and see themselves trapped by their circumstances and choices. Meanwhile, other characters pull the strings and get the rewards. The dangerous, fleeting rewards. Expect wicked twists and epic violence across a complicated political landscape. For adults only due to excruciating scenes of torture and general violence.