- Banewreaker, Jacqueline Carey
- Godslayer, Jacqueline Carey
- Mistborn: The Final Empire, Brandon Sanderson
- Mistborn: The Well of Ascension, Brandon Sanderson
- Mistborn: The Hero of Ages, Brandon Sanderson
- Plague Year, Jeff Carlson
- Plague War, Jeff Carlson
- Plague Zone, Jeff Carlson
I had a conversation with a friend about fantasy tropes, and she suggested I read both the Carey duology and the Sanderson series. She said they were subversive in rather different ways, but that neither one quite went far enough in undermining the norms of the genre. I enjoyed both series – Mistborn rather more than Banewreaker – but in the end, I agree with her assessment.
Banewreaker‘s premise is that the Evil Dark Overlord is actually not so very bad, and that the whole war is really the fault of the supposedly good guys. Unlike some authors who enjoy this kind of reversal, Carey’s development of this concept is neither heavy-handed nor implausible. (Sorry, Anne Bishop.) For example, there’s a lovely scene where one of the Good Guys is horrified that the Evil Dark Overlord is served by madmen and cripples. Why, she asks, doesn’t the Evil Dark Overlord cure them, since he could? The protagonist replies that the Evil Dark Overlord loves these people as they are, unlike the Good Guys who just want them to be fixed. It’s a beautifully morally ambiguous look at the systems of virtue represented in fantasy novels, one that tears away the veil of innocence over a lot of what the “good guys” do and is often uncomfortable even for the reader.
The problem with Banewreaker is, unfortunately, the story itself. The world and the moral questions and the history are all really excellent. The protagonist is pretty cool too. Unfortunately he is stuck kidnapping the Whiniest Elven Princess Ever, about whose fate we are supposed to give a crap. Then said Whiny Elven Princess proceeds to screw over all the characters one might actually care about. I’m sure this is meant to be very meaningful, but really I just wanted to boot someone in the nuts.
Mistborn does a better job of combining good world-building with good story. The “twist” premise is that the Great Foreordained Hero fought the Big Bad a thousand years ago … and lost. Now everything sucks. Fortunately our heroes can save the day! (And perhaps my favorite piece of the story is that the heroes are perfectly aware that they’re themselves playing into certain mythic fantasy tropes by thinking the day is save-able by them!) Sanderson does one of my very favorite things in a story. The heroes generally get what they want, after some Exciting Adventures … and then find out that there’s problems that come with the new situation. Turns out saving the world is freaking complicated. That’s exactly as it should be.
My only complaint with Mistborn is that the main character spends a lot of the first book going, “OH NOES am I pretty and can I open up to overcome my awful past and will anyone ever LURVE ME?” This leaves me rolling my eyes. Of course the hot love interest is going to fall in love with you, honey. It’s some pretty damn fake drama, and I’m disappointed in Sanderson for wasting time and space on it*. Fortunately she gets over this tendency after the first book, at which point she can start to deal with the very cool personal drama generated by the larger situation.
Also, Sanderson is freaking hardcore. If you read the books all the way to the end, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Carlson is also pretty hardcore. His books are full-on post-apocalyptic drama, in which a terrible nano-weapon has made it unsafe for humans to live below 10,000 feet. The first book starts personal, but the second and third expand out to look at the ecological and geo-political implications of the particular apocalypse he imagines. In all three books, he alternates survival drama with high-octane action, usually successfully. I particularly appreciated that Carlson doesn’t use a post-apocalyptic scenario to explain why women need to be protected, subservient, commodities, etcetera. He has lots of totally kick-ass female characters in the latter two books, which I definitely enjoyed. Be warned, though: some of the choices he makes are way over the top, and he also doesn’t pull his punches.
* Admittedly there’s a section of the book where Vin has to pretend to be something she’s not. The tension of carrying off the deception is beautifully done, even though it builds on some of these irritating not-exactly-a-problems.