David Walton’s Quintessence and M.C. Planck’s Sword of the Bright Lady are fun, fast-paced books that do some fresh things with some classic tropes of both fantasy and science fiction. Quintessence starts with a lovely what-if: How would the Age of Exploration have been different if the world had, in fact, been flat, and if all those places where the maps said “Here there be monsters” actually had monsters in them? There’s a lot of spectacle, and the bestiary is delightful. Sword of the Bright Lady follows the adventures of a mild-mannered mechanical engineer who’s abducted from our world by the war god of another, a god who needs modern help to save a nation of mostly innocent people in a world where feudalism has supernatural underpinnings.
I liked both books, yet both had problems I could not ignore.
Walton chose speedy pacing over deep characterization, so most of his characters are from central casting — all but a middle-aged mother, precisely the kind of character who would, a generation ago, have been either conveniently dead and off-stage or a target of ridicule. Instead, she turns out to be the surprising heart of the book. A divided heart, whose struggle drives the action even when she’s absent for chapters at a stretch. Because she has fewer precedents, she’s fresh. If only Walton’s plucky maiden character had been one tenth as vivid and individual as her mother! But we’ve seen plucky maidens before, and Walton’s in a hurry to show you pyrotechnics and sea serpents, so he cuts corners with the character he seems to have intended to be the main protagonist. You can find my full review here.
Planck’s characterization is much more psychological and varied. His cast of thousands soon comes to feel like a neighborhood the reader lives in, and most of the secondary characters who inhabit it are drawn with clarity and sympathy that increases steadily as the protagonist gets to know them. The women of the alternate universe are all different from each other, with their own respective contributions and preoccupations and stories to tell. Alas, the one woman who drives the hero’s actions most — the wife he left behind in our world, whom he’ll do anything to see again — remains a nonentity. She never appears onstage, but for all the time Christopher spends thinking about her, it’s a problem that we never find out anything about her but the color of her hair. She is functionally indistinguishable from a precious Ming vase. What’s weird about this is that the precious Ming vase problem is common among books and films that don’t come close to Sword of the Bright Lady in quality. How did M.C. Planck, who manifestly knows how to write women well, get stuck in this Hollywood trope? I talk more about this book, and the precious Ming vase phenomenon, in my review here.
Meanwhile, the books I can’t put down, the ones I won’t be reviewing because the series started too long ago and is already barreling along toward the ranks of the classics, are the first two volumes of Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive. Like many fantasy readers, I was initially put off by the sheer bulk of the first volume, and if I’d known that Sanderson intends to make this a ten-volume series, I might never have picked it up. And that would have been my loss. Fortunately for me, the goodie bags at Balticon included free copies of The Way of Kings, and now Dan and I are both hooked. We keep ourselves up until all hours, racing each other through the second volume and gossiping about the characters. I like a book I can wallow in, one that gives the characters hundreds of pages in which to breathe. And though Sanderson shows us plenty of priceless, exotic artifacts, there’s not a precious Ming vase in sight.