Tales Spun Around a Hedge Knight’s Fire
There are two ways to go with this book. One is to take it on its own merits: three well-crafted novellas with memorable characters getting into memorable messes in a well-loved setting. The other is to take it in socioeconomic context: three previously-published stories rereleased with illustrations, either as a fix for starving fans, a reminder that a new book may eventually come, or a money grab at the new and less-zealous among Martin’s readership.
If you’re among the newer fans, the book is undoubtedly worth a read. Everything we love about Martin is here: the deep and credible worldbuilding, the unexpected (and oft fatal) plot twists, the crooked but loveable characters and, of course, Martin’s top notch prose. Set 100 years before the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire, these novellas follow lumbering hedge knight Dunk (“Dunk the Lunk”) and his unusual squire Egg (secretly young Aegon of the still-in-power House Targaryen) through a series of tourneys and low-level political conflicts, with Egg’s secret identity and Dunk’s lumbering stature pulling them out of many a sticky situation. The stories are by turns dramatic, lackadaisical, humorous and insightful, spun in masterful prose.
Despite its similarities to A Song of Ice and Fire, there are a few big differences here. One is the pacing: for short stories where not a lot goes on, they take their time doing it. Unlike many of today’s break-neck shorts, these tales meander through the Westeros of old, an enjoyable way to fill an afternoon but perhaps not appropriate if you’ve only got fifteen minutes at lunch. There’s also little of the continuing drama of character we love in Martin, the rise or disastrous fall of personality that makes the series shine. In fact, despite Dunk and Egg being a likeable and well-matched pair, they don’t learn much in the course of the stories, nor do the tales have real bearing on the main series. They are more like tales told around a hedge knight’s humble fire, spun (and perhaps embellished) more to pass a long evening than to recount anything of true note.
That is one way to view the book. The other would be for those of us who read the Dunk and Egg stories years ago, already hungry (and now starving) for any new Song of Ice and Fire material. For us, all this book adds are some pleasant but superfluous illustrations, and the convenience of one volume should we choose to read them again (which I did, rather than outright die of malnourishment). For those few of us also trying to make a living as a writer (ahem, me), the fact that these “never-before-collected” (i.e. previously published) stories debuted at numbers two and three on the US and British bestseller lists can rub the wrong way. Sort of the like the valedictorian who applied for all the scholarships though she knew she was going to Harvard, just to take them from her peers, the move can appear more about money or ego than good fiction. Beware, dear readers, lest my cynicism corrupt your ample good nature.
What to make of A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms then? These are worthy tales, no doubt. If it is your first time around the hedge knight’s fire, they’ll serve well to pass a dull evening. Those of us who’ve sat here before, however, may wonder if the teller doesn’t recount them here (never-before-collected—with illustrations!) more for coin or attention than the true love of the tale.
Character Escapism: Sure, but How?
No matter the genre, people want to read about people. Get me caring about characters and I will buy anything, from Stephen King to Cormack McCarthy to Futurama. There is a line in the sand however—consider James Bond. In 26 films he has never died, never not saved the day, rarely legitimately cared or changed much as a person. We don’t watch these films for human interest so much as technical curiosity: yes, he’s going to get out of each increasingly sticky situation, but how?
Larry Correia’s Son of the Black Sword falls solidly into this category. It is action-packed, with the odds stacked against the hero despite his (partially-earned, partially-magic) exceptional fighting ability and commitment to justice. Though he realizes something radical about his past, it changes the hero little, and he reads basically as an automaton for duty/justice (there is even a magical reason for this). In his journey from champion to outlaw and back his internal state changes little, and he is too powerful for us to really believe he’ll ever lose a battle—it is again only a question of how. Two demons at once? A roomful of enemies? A team of sorcerors? A whole army? Sure—but how?
Dear Readers, this is not my kind of fantasy, though in my youth I enjoyed my share of Conan comics. This is escapism more radical than fantasy’s usual alternate time and place. It’s escapism of character—Correia’s hero is the impossible person many people (not to say teenage males) wish they could be: strong, exceptional, undefeatable, always doing what’s right even when it’s wrong. You don’t read them to learn about human nature so much as for a good yarn/stress relief.
That’s not to say stories like this can’t have something for everyone--Shadows of Self features a hero we rarely believe will fail (though he does experience real emotions), but his world is interesting enough, his supporting characters human enough, and his plot surprising enough that even those readers who aren’t looking for ego escapism get drawn in. Not so with Son of the Black Sword—while a few of Correia’s side characters go through profound changes, we don’t stay with them long enough to care much about it. His plot has a few twists built in, but they’re undeveloped, and without investing in the characters, they lack impact. The world is not particularly unique (aside from demons imprisoned in the sea)—the political/economic setup is familiar, the magic not well explained, and the cultural differences between peoples slight. The hero’s magic black sword is cool, but sounds a lot like Brandon Sanderson’s Nightblood (intelligent weapon the hero talks to, that kills all but the noblest who touch it).
In short, this is neither my kind of fantasy, nor does it have the bells and whistles that might give it broader appeal. If you, however, are into a little character escapism, or a male-centered story of blood and battle, you might just enjoy Son of the Black Sword.
Pirates! Airships! Talking Cats!
When I pitched this (audio)book to my brother as a way to ease our 31 hour road trip, his reply was “Airship piracy? Yes please.” Though we both felt the book could use a few more airships and pirates, the addition of fun characters, snappy dialogue, and sentient cats made the miles fly by.
The book starts with a gripping airship battle, setting an appropriate tone for the book: fast-paced, funny, memorable characters and just the right blend of fantasy and steampunk awesome to pull you through the few moments that aren’t top-notch. Chief among these are some frustratingly air-headed magicians and a plodding plot—but before we complain! Let us sing Butcher’s praises like his airships sing, diving into battle.
The Cinder Spires world (this book is the first of the series) is awesome—humanity living in ten-mile high towers, believable (for once) reasons why airships work, inter-tower warfare and a nuanced environment make wandering the world and discovering its secrets a constant pleasure. Almost all Butcher’s characters are fun and likeable—from the laconic-humored Captain Grimm to the always-does-what-she-shouldn’t young Gwendolyn and the colorful cast of the airship crew, big personalities drive his story and punctuate the action with clever humor. Butcher has a talent for snappy dialogue, and it’s part of what pulls us through what may be one-too-many fight scenes and coincidental encounters between main characters.
But enough of that—the book has talking cats. Raul, sidekick (or, in his eyes, casual overseer) to main point-of-view character Bridget, is everything cat lovers (and haters) know cats to be: lazy, violent, arrogant, disdainful, food-obsessed—and explains it all in believable (if humorous) cat terms. Raul’s chapters are the highlight of the book, and the extra awesome that pushes The Aeronaut’s Windlass from a good to a great read.
Not all of his characters are ringers, though: the magician’s apprentice in particular, central to the story and infecting most of it, can talk only in third person, and both she and her master (though suitably excused for it bc of the toll their magic takes on them) are frustratingly eccentric and air-headed. For all Butcher’s sense of humor and character, their chapters (and even their appearances in other chapters) fell flat for both my brother and I. The story itself meanders some too: from an epic duel that never happen to fights that feel like filler and one too many just-barely-in-time moments, the plot isn’t always surprising or satisfying. Worldwise, the magic feels kind of slapdash, and the two religions, The Way and that of God In Heaven, feel shallow and inserted basically because people need religion. Perhaps Butcher is just leaving room for development in sequels.
Quibbles aside, The Aeronaut’s Windlass has enough gripping action, memorable characters, and laconic humor to make it well worth your time. If the characters don’t change much, nor many deep human truths come to light (well, there might be one or two), it’s still better than 90% of the fantasy out there. If you like pirates, adventure, high magic, steampunk and the lighter side of fantasy (did I mention talking cats?), this book is your next read.