Offal-Scrying and the Forces of Justice
Novellas seem to be the new thing: for those of us who want more of a beloved world, or less of a read in busy times, or just less investment in a new author, these quarter-to-half-sized novels seem to fit the zeitgeist. This was how we got into The King’s Justice—having heard great things about Stephen R. Donaldson, but quailing before the commitment of reading the multi-volumed (and decaded) Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, his new double-novella seemed a good fit.
And it is—if you’re looking for rich worlds and magic systems in shorter fiction, if you enjoy well-drawn and surprising characters, if you like a mystery that revolves as much around the world itself as tangible clues—and surprises. Because there’s a surprise. But first—what are they actually about?
In short, we have the tale of a man named only Black who arrives in a troubled town with darker (and lighter) purposes than the wary guardsmen suspect. Digging deep into what’s gone wrong, he finds himself in over his (and the King’s) head—but has a few more resources than even his liege knows. The second novella, The Augur’s Gambit, is quite different: the quixotic narrative of a high-strung (intestinal) seer caught between trust and horror at his queen’s apparent political suicide in the face of separately horrific and impending (according to the entrails) disasters. Set in different worlds and magics, the tales share Donaldson’s keen eye for detail, his knack for creating unique and likeable (even if dark and/or high-strung) characters, and plots that keep you guessing till the end.
What they don’t share is tone and pacing. The book’s namesake novella, about Black, is classic fast-paced fantasy, with a tone befitting its main character and a climax that gets dark as Black himself. The Augur’s Gambit, meanwhile, suffers some from thick, antiquated language, with the narrator’s overwrought emotions slowing the pace painfully. It’s unfortunate, because the mystery he unravels, and the climax of the story, is the better of the two, but be prepared for a thicker read than your average fantasy novel—think Dickens or Dostoevski rather than Sanderson or Butcher (whose styles compare admirably to the first novella).
Okay, but what’s the surprise? In a word, it’s meaning. In a time of fantasy focused more on entertaining tales and fast-paced action, Donaldson manages to work in allegory, involving both tales, on the dangers of harnessing powers (technology in our world, magic in the tales) beyond our control. I won’t spoil it, and interpretations like this are in the eye of the bereader, but suffice it to say Donaldson admirably delivers more in The King’s Justice than a couple good reads. To top it off, there are no mega-happy endings here—Donaldson manages a good balance between Martin-esque darkness and Sandersonian mega-happies, with reveals and wrap-ups that still keep you guessing.
Surprised? We were, and in mostly good ways, at Donaldson’s new novella collection. Whether you’re new to the author, or an old fan looking for a new book, it’s worth a read.
A Flame Forged Lukewarm
This feels like a writing experiment gone wrong. The beginning scene, the opening concept of the novella (because at 100 pages this is not nearly a novel!) is compelling: a warrior woman appears, summoned by need, with no idea of who she is or what she is to do. But from there… she doesn’t go on to learn much about herself, or change in interesting ways, or get embroiled in an exciting plot, unravel a mystery, or even wander a fantasy world so unique and richly imagined we don’t really mind there’s not much story or character. Instead, the world remains sketchy, the character remains too indistinct to have much at stake, the plot feels unplanned and episodic, and rather than build to a big reveal or twist, the climax comes without much preparation or emotional punch, like a birthday cake delivered a week too soon.
It’s the first of a series, so perhaps the setting and plot will deepen, the character will flesh out, and the depth that feels lacking here will turn out to be necessary for what comes next. But we can’t help think of other stories with similar premises—Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Bound Man” starts off with another woman summoned from need and not knowing herself well, and Neal Gaiman’s “Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” features characters on a strange quest to a stranger island and a cave there. Both of these accomplish more in less words, tying up tight tales with lots of depth to setting and character. So while the series may pan out better, and there’s no doubt Brennan has a devoted following for her full-length novels, it’s hard to recommend Cold-Forged Flame when there are so many other great stories to read.
Haunted Without Haunting
If you’re looking for a book with great ideas, lots of dramatic tension, and believable magic set in rich historical context, Ghost Talkers is your book. Though honestly, any of Mary Robinette Kowal’s novels fit that description—she is the queen of historical fantasy. But does the Hugo-Award winner deliver in her new standalone? Yes and no—let’s start with the yeses.
Yes on concept. As always, Kowal’s basic idea for the book is brilliant: spirit mediums are real, working on the front lines of the Allied army in World War One to gather intelligence from newly departed soldiers. It’s haunting work, but young American volunteer medium Ginger Stuyvesant is dedicated to giving the Allies an edge—plus staying close to her British fiancée. But when he shows up at work, a murdered spirit… then the drama begins. Unable to leave because of the danger Ginger is in (he’s murdered as part of a larger plot to discover the spirit mediums’s location) and his need to find a killer, Ginger must work with him to unravel the plot and find the killer—even as they deal with the impossibility of their relationship, and fiancée Ben’s spirit gradually loses coherence. Needless to say, that emotional backdrop plus the rich (and unfamiliar, and well-researched) setting of WWI France supporting a thriller-paced murder mystery with feminist underpinnings—it makes for a great read. Yes on drama, and yes on the fun/educational/surprise-factor only historical fiction can deliver.
And yes on magic! Based again on research into the time, MRK’s spirit mediumship fits the story and the historical context like a glove: reading auras, explaining death and dying, gaining her character insight into another world of emotional auras and wandering ghosts and a dear unraveling fiancée—it’s great.
So what didn’t work as well? Of course this is just one reader reaction, but the story itself felt mechanical. Once the dead body is in place, it becomes a pretty standard mystery, and though the emotion remains high with Ginger’s disintegrating lover, the piecing together of clues and revelation of the murderer lack much punch. Following the theory of the Writing Excuses podcast Kowal creates, it’s hard to say whether this is mainly a relationship or mystery story—both seem to take backstage for the other, and the middle half of the book isn’t as gripping as it might be if one or the other took center stage.
Still, it’s a great read, and the cleverness of the basic concept carried us through the stiffer parts of the plot. In interests of full disclosure, MRK’s very popular Glamourist History series didn't grip us as well as it did others, so it may just be reader preference. All the elements are there, but instead of being haunting, Ghost Talkers is just a pleasant read.