Book of Knights by Yves Maynard

January 21, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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I learned of this book because Gene Wolfe dedicated a volume of the Wizard Knight duology to Yves Meynard (“with greatest respect”) and quoted from it in the other. As I understand it, Gene Wolfe had not read The Book of Knights when he wrote the first draft of his work but after reading it and seeing there were some common elements, he contacted Meynard.

The similarities between the two works are not many. A few of the surface details are the same…it would spoil Meynard’s book slightly to say which ones. More meaningfully, both books are about how people should live, or at least aspire to live. Each author codifies the principles they think are important into “knighthood” and, to sidestep the small problem that real knights were none too respectable in hindsight, both use a fantasy world.

So the books have a few similar details and the same overall message, but otherwise they couldn’t be more different. Gene Wolfe is an author of mazes and metaphysics. His settings are always compelling both in their complexity and in the way all the seemingly disparate elements serve the story’s aims. Meynard, at least here, is working in the fairy tale subgenre, so while there are many fantastic creatures and settings to be found, what is important is less the setting than the hero’s ability to react to it.

I like complex stories if the author can pull it off, so Gene Wolfe is my favorite author, but Meynard has probably knocked off Neverwhere on my list of best “fairy tale” stories. This is the sort of story that Neil Gaiman was trying to write with Stardust but couldn’t quite get down on the page. Where Gaiman seems to have trouble making his fantasy seem significant, Meynard carries off every facet of the fairy tale solidly. His imagination in contriving settings and characters is superb and though the story is simple it takes itself seriously. Finally, the use of adult themes and struggles is handled much better than in Stardust, and indeed much better than anything similar I have read. I’m not sure if I agree philosophically with the conclusions the author seems to endorse at the end, but that’s not reason for complaint as it’s uncommon enough for there to be anything to disagree with in the first place.

I recommend the book very strongly to those who like the fairy tale side of fantasy, though keep in mind this is still an adult work (i.e. King Rat not The Hobbit).

Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson

January 9, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Given that I wasn’t hugely impressed with the first Thomas Covenant trilogy you might be wondering why I read the sequel trilogy. Well, because I was on a trip and that’s what I had brought, that’s why. So much for that.

In any case, this is more of the same. In fact, it is too much more of the same. The fatal flaws from the first trilogy are back in force: perfunctory quest plot, flimsy world-building, and worst of all, a massive emphasis on the exploration of the psyches of people who are far too traumatized for me to relate to them. Yes, people, since in this trilogy Thomas Covenant has a female partner who has also undergone a series of soap operaish melodramatic tragedies and been terribly scarred.

This time, though, the books suffer in a big way from fantasy inflation. I think when they were published the big honking door stop as fantasy masterwork must have been taking hold. There’s one book…maybe one and a half books…worth of story here, but it is brutally overwritten. Meanwhile, the plot coupon quest has some arbitrary events happen to stretch it out. I’m sure that Donaldson and perhaps his fans could enumerate Important Changes that occurred in the main characters as a result of these events that were crucial for the ending to take place, but I cared so little about those characters I didn’t follow closely enough. It’s not just that they are having boring angst, but so many pages and pages of boring angst! I had to skim. Sue me.

The books salvage, just barely, a three star rating because I found the concept of the Sunbane (introduced in the first book to great effect and then ignored thereafter in favor of standard fantasy locales) to be remarkable. Because of that I thought the first book threatened to be the best of any of the six Covenant books, but what follows was so dull it didn’t amount to anything.

If you liked the original Thomas Covenant series then by all means read this one. If you didn’t like the original Covenant books, avoid. If you haven’t read the books at all, I’d advise against it. There’s too much mediocre series fantasy out there to settle for something this arduous to read.

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