Folklore is ingrained in cultures around the world and is one of the most common inspirations for fantasy fiction around. For as long humans have been curious and looking for explanations, folklore has been there to fill in the gaps. Human minds created thousands of fantastical creatures and unique worlds, separate from our own in an effort to explain the workings of the world. A family with an unruly child might be nurturing a changeling, while the striking of lightning might signal the fury of a grand spirit. When items went missing in a house, there were stolen by gremlins or other creatures. These beliefs used to be common knowledge, known to be true around the world. But there comes a certain point in every culture when people stop believing, when the explanations for phenomena are found to be mundane. The belief may be gone, but the influence of these stories lingers.
A certain amount of pressure is placed on an author’s second novel, especially when the first novel gains the level of attention and acclaim of R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War. A second novel, whether it be the second ever or the second in a series, is expected to be better written than its predecessor. A second novel is expected to have a better understanding of plot, of its characters, and of its readers’ expectations. A second novel is expected to improve upon the first in every conceivable way. This is easier said than done for most authors, and is easier to accomplish in the beginning of a career, where there is still learning to be done. The longer an author writes, the more series, they craft, the greater the risk of sequelitis setting in. Sometimes, the second story is worse than the first. The Dragon Republic, R. F. Kuang’s second novel, is a sequel done absolutely right.
Time travel is one of the best travelled staples of science-fiction, from books to television shows to movies, it is the ultimate form of exploration. The concept of time travel is almost as old as the history of writing, with the first known written example dating to around 400 BCE. In the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, King Raivata Kakudmi journeys to heaven to meet Brahma, the Hindu creator god. When he returns to the moral world, centuries have passed. Time travel in fiction, from this ancient epic to Stargate and Doctor Who, usually involves physically transporting one-self through time, bringing your body and memories with you. Threats include meeting your past self, or encountering the grandfather paradox, or making changes to the past which may affect the future. Very rarely do we get a novel in a similar vein to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, where time travel is a person journey into your own memories.
Some of the best novel series understand that, in order to keep a fictional world interesting, they need to change or play with the genre in some way. A novel is never just science-fiction, it can be a mystery set in a science-fiction universe. Or the first novel can be hard science-fiction, where the second brings fantasy elements into the mix. With The Outlaw and the Upstart King, Rod Duncan’s follow up to last year’s steampunk adventure The Queen of all Crows, he takes readers away from his sci-fi Victorian setting and to somewhere new. The setting of this second novel resembles a more medieval, violent Arthurian wilderness with none of the first novel’s trappings of setting.
Fantasy is a versatile genre. There is classic fantasy, high fantasy, grimdark fantasy, science fantasy, urban fantasy, industrial fantasy, and more. Any other genre can be combined with fantasy in ways that improve both genres. The Lord of the Rings is thought of the epitome of classic fantasy, but even that combined a gritty war drama, politics, environmentalism, and linguistics into its story. The Dresden Files is the quintessential urban fantasy, taking elements of modern-day noir and crime drama alongside its elements of high fantasy. Then there is industrial fantasy, the combination that often seems the most contradictory. When we think of elves and gnomes, it is not the natural inclination to imagine their industrial age. Yet imagining an industrialized fairy tale is exactly what Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Mother accomplishes.
A good fantasy series can potentially go on forever. Series like the The Wheel of Time or The Dresden Files easily tell a dozen books worth of story. However, a great fantasy series knows it’s ending, even if takes a while to get there. Jim Butcher has stated he knows the ending for The Dresden Files and how many books the series will contain. The reader can see that the story is leading somewhere definite. Even if the ending suggested in book one is now the ending for the entire series, it still suggests a finality. Jennifer Estep’s Crown of Shards series is only two books in, but we already have a sense of where the ultimate plot is going. Machinations have already begun and there is a clear-long term villain. Ultimately, it is always possible for a series to arrive at its first ending, and realize there is more story to tell. With great fantasy, there is a sea of endless possibility that allows characters to develop and keep the plot always interesting.
Pulp fiction is a relatively new genre of fiction, originating in the late eighteen-hundreds, at the height of Western colonization. The sun never set on the British empire, and they (along with the Americans) ransacked the world in an endless hunt for artifacts and remnants and ancient civilizations. None of them held a greater allure than Egypt. While the genre was popularized by Indiana Jones, it predates the archaeologist by many years. The tales of Allan Quartermain and She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard really brought pulp fiction into prominence. Ancient tombs and treasures were being discovered every day, and the world was much larger than it is today. At the turn of the century, the Western world became obsessed.
This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, where the first humans in history stepped foot on the Moon. The first steps a human took on a celestial body other than the Earth. For all of known history, we have looked to the stars and wondered what was out there. Today, we know more than we ever have about the worlds beyond our own, but that has does nothing to stop people’s imaginations from filling in the blanks. Tiamat’s Wrath is the latest novel in James S. A. Corey’s ground-breaking science fiction series, The Expanse. Beginning in 2011 with Leviathan Wakes, these books have taken a realistic approach to fictional space travel, using the technology of today to extrapolate and imagine what space exploration may look like in the future. It is not an exaggeration to say that The Expanse is one of the greatest works of modern science-fiction.
Tomorrow morning I will be posting a review of James S. A. Corey’s Tiamat’s Wrath, book 8 in one of my favorite works of modern science-fiction, The Expanse. This eventual 9 book series has been released almost every year since 2011, and even spawned The Expanse tv series, recently purchased by Amazon. As this review is concerning a sequel, much of what I discuss may not make sense to someone who is not familiar with the story. Unfortunately, this is not a series I would recommend jumping into partway through.
If you have not read The Expanse series yet, I highly suggest catching up on this excellent work of science-fiction. I consider this series to be one of the defining works of modern science-fiction. To see my thoughts on the series until now, check out my previous posts “2017 Reading List Part 5” which talks about the first 6 books in the series, and “The Art of Empire Building,” my review of book 7.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a tome of a book. Well over six hundred pages, this is a fantasy epic with a modern writing style. This book is not a quick read. It is dense, and every page is packed with beautiful prose, fascinating characters, and different worlds. This is the type of book that transports you easily and refuses to let you go, making sure you dwell in the world it is building. The density of the novel does not end up being a drawback, and you can feel the journey the characters have taken by the time you close it on page six hundred twenty. This is the kind of density that submerges you fully in the narrative, and transports you to a world so unlike other mainstream fantasy. This review will not do the novel justice. Only reading it can.