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John Joseph Adams – Epic

October 29, 2012

119. Epic: Legends of Fantasy edited by John Joseph Adams (2012)

Length: 624 pages
Genre: Epic Fantasy, Short Story Anthology

Started: 09 October 2012
Finished: 20 October 2012

Where did it come from? From the awesome folks at Tachyon Press for review.
Why do I have it? Look at that author list! How could I resist?
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 24 September 2012.

Epic fantasy
goes short-form… and yes, the font
is still readable.

Overall Summary and Review: Epic fantasy is a genre of big things: big maps, big adventures, big magic, and big page counts. But in this collection, some of fantasy’s best authors set out to deliver an epic fantasy feel in a short story format. (“Short” being relative; some of these stories are only ten pages, but some are 70-plus.) These stories hit a huge range of worlds, topics, and tones, and do a good job of showcasing just how variable epic fantasy can be. There are some I liked more than others, of course, but there are several that I thought were great (and not necessarily the ones I was most excited about based solely on the author list), and only one I really didn’t care for. 4 out of 5 stars.

That contract is simply broadest in epic fantasy: Tell me a great story, the audience says. I’ll work to remember lots of names and foreign terms and odd cultures and strange ways if you sweep me away.

And these authors oblige. –From the Foreward by Brent Weeks; p. 12.

Individual Stories:
– “Homecoming” by Robin Hobb was probably my favorite story in the collection. It’s the story of a noblewoman whose husband’s treason has left their family exiled to a newly-discovered world. They and their shipmates are abandoned in a jungle, left to survive as best they can, but they were not the first people on that land, and although the original inhabitants are long gone, they have left some things behind. Hobb does a really great job with everything in this story; the character development of the narrator is great, the writing is really evocative, both of the jungle and of the tunnels, and it’s effectively creepy. It’s one of the longer stories in this collection (74 pages), but it’s fantastic how well it uses that space; it really does feel epic, building multiple worlds and covering both time and space.

– “The Word of Unbinding” by Ursula K. LeGuin is the story of a wizard, kept imprisoned by his rival, and his attempts to escape. A fine story, but very short, which made it feel rather insubstantial after I loved “Homecoming” so much.

– In “The Burning Man” by Tad Williams, a warrior becomes the stepfather of a young girl, but he moves them to an ancient keep, and is distant and aloof, even more so after the girl’s mother dies. How can she discover what answers he is looking for, and what price will he be willing to pay to find them? I liked the prose style and the narrative voice in this story, but I had a bit of a hard time following the plot; it just didn’t quite click, and didn’t flow as smoothly as I would have liked.

– “As the Wheel Turns” by Aliette de Bodard is the story of a young woman who is forced to choose between two ancient powers that have battled over control of the kingdom – and when she fails to chose, they will kill those she loves, and send her through the cycle of rebirth, forcing her to chose again lifetime after lifetime. Interesting Chinese mythology flavor to this one, which is not something I come across in fantasy all that often. The story itself kept me engaged, but the ending felt a little pat.

– “The Alchemist” by Paolo Bacigalupi was also one of my favorites. In the land of the story, using magic causes the spread of a deadly indestructable bramble that is taking over all the land, so magic has been outlawed – except for those in positions of power. An alchemist has discovered a way to kill the bramble permanently… but will he have the chance to use his invention for the common good? This story was great; the world was very believable, sympathetic main character, it moved along quickly, Bacigalupi made the menace of the encroaching bramble almost palpable.

– I’m not quite sure what to think about “Sandmagic” by Orson Scott Card. Its “protagonist” is a young farm boy whose family is killed by the forces of the empire, and he leaves his ruined home in search of the most powerful magic he can find, in order to take revenge. That’s a fairly standard fantasy set-up, but Card’s main character went fully Dark Side, and became so unlikeable that I wasn’t able to really root for him.

– “The Road to Levinshir” by Patrick Rothfuss is the story of how Kvothe saves two young maidens from a group of bandits pretending to be Edema Ruh. (It’s taken directly from The Wise Man’s Fear.) I love Rothfuss’s storytelling, obviously, and from an action point of view, this story works fine on its own, but a lot of the context behind why Kvothe is so angry about the whole situation is dependent on having read the books, and without it, I think it would lose some layers.

– “Rysn” by Brandon Sanderson is also an excerpted chapter of a novel (The Way of Kings). It’s one of the short “interludes” that Sanderson packed into that book, not featuring the main characters but rather intended to show off the world he’d built, and in that sense, I think it works a little better independently. It’s the story of a trader’s assistant who is learning to deal with the strange cultural differences of trading in a land where they have bizarre things like “grass” and “chickens”.

– “While the Gods Laugh” by Michael Moorcock is a story of the albino swordmage Elric, and a quest to find an ancient book that he hopes will provide him with the answers to the questions that have tormented his soul. I know Moorcock’s a huge influence on the genre, but with the exception of a very short piece in Fast Ships, Black Sails, this is the first time I’ve ever read his work, and: not for me. The story was originally published in 1961, so I realize what is genre-typical now was not genre-typical then, but I found the language very self-consciously “high fantasy”-esque, and stilted and archaic to the point of sounding silly.

– “Mother of All Russiya” by Melanie Rawn is actually the story of Saint Olga of Kiev, who managed to avenge her husband’s death, save herself from having to marry one of his murderers, protect the inheritance of her son, and solidify the country of Russia. (It’s fantasy rather than historical fiction because she does this with the help of magic.) I liked the story, but it felt a little out of place in this collection – it’s epic as far as real history goes, but I still wanted something more. (Bonus: Read/Listen to it!)

– “Riding the Shore of the River of Death” by Kate Elliott is the story of a woman who is riding out with her brother, eager to kill an enemy and thereby prove that she is a man, before she is forced to become one of the wives of the leader of another clan. But then they are injured, and encounter a witch – who commits horrible deeds, but is at least free to act. I really liked the play of gender politics in this story, but I thought the worldbuilding wasn’t as detailed as it could have been, and didn’t quite gel for me.

– “Bound Man” by Mary Robinette Kowal is the story of a desperate man who uses an ancient mystical sword to summon the greatest warrior history has ever known… and she is not best pleased about being ripped through time. That’s admittedly a rather flippant summary, but this story was actually pretty serious, and had some interesting things to say about destiny and history and happens to legends and the people that originated them.

– “The Narcomancer” by N. K. Jemisin is set in the world of the Dreamblood books, but Jemisin does a great job of explaining the mechanics of the magic system and the other worldbuilding details in a relatively short space. (Maybe better than she did in the book itself.) A delegation from a tiny village comes to seek the aid of the Gatherers, since their leader was killed by bandits wielding a strange power. I liked this one a lot; my only issue was that I couldn’t tell how it fit chronologically with The Killing Moon. (Bonus: Listen to it!)

– “Strife Lingers in Memory” by Carrie Vaughn is a story about what happens after the heroic King defeats the goblin hordes and saves the day, and about the battles fought by his Queen after the “happily ever after”. This was a sweet but quiet story, limited in its scope and its worldbuilding, but it didn’t feel out of place in this collection, perhaps because so much epic fantasy does end shortly after the defeat of the forces of darkness, with no thought to the toll that that defeat has on the heroes.

– “The Mad Apprentice” by Trudi Canavan is the story of an ambitious magician’s apprentice, who kills his master and drains his magical energy, and of his sister, who becomes swept up in her brother’s seemingly insatiable thirst for power – both magical and otherwise. This story wound up being not what I was expecting, but still very interesting – less of good magician vs. bad magician (although there is of course some of that), and more of a look at what it’s like for the family of a serial killer.

– “Otherling” by Juliet Marillier is the story of a village in which every generation a set of twins is born, and one twin becomes Bard, raised for their whole life to the duties and talents of protecting the village, but the other twin must pay a terrible price. Interesting idea for a story, but I found it rather predictable.

– “The Mystery Knight” by George R. R. Martin is the third tale of Dunk and Egg, set in Westeros about a century before A Song of Ice and Fire. Dunk, the hedge knight, decides to join a tourney against the strenuous objections of his squire Egg (who is really Aegon Targaryen, a prince of the royal house), and winds up accidentally stumbling onto a plot to overthrow the king. I like Martin’s writing, like the world of Westeros, and like the Dunk and Egg stories, so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed this one too… but I had to go read the wiki for a summary of the first Blackfyre rebellion, since it’s instrumental to the story, and I have a really hard time keeping the Targaryen family tree straight.

Recommendation: These stories have all been published elsewhere, but it was nice to have so many good stories from so many of fantasy’s best authors all together in one collection. Recommended for epic fantasy fans who are okay with their stories occasionally spanning only 70 pages instead of 700.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Couldn’t find any. Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: All fiction is lies, varying only in scope and audacity.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 510: “They cannot calm stormy seas, or cure sheep of the murrain, or bring sunshine in place of endless drenching rain.” – a highly infectious disease of cattle and sheep, literally meaning “death”.
    .
  • p. 528: “Matching plumes adorned his horse’s crinet.” – a set of segmented plates that protected the horse’s neck.
    .
  • p. 574: “His breastplate was enameled blue as well, as were his poleyns, couter, greaves, and gorget.” – a piece of armour for protecting the knee; the defense for the elbow in a piece of plate armour.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2012 9:12 am

    I’m reading this right now! :) And holy cow, is the thing epic. I find I can only read one story a day, even a 50 page epic story effects my brain in a similar fashion that a 700 pg epic novel would, as in “Woah. woah. gotta come down from this”. you know? I’m reading it alongside some lighter stuff, probably won’t finish it for another week or so.

    Hobb’s Homecoming is already my frontrunner as favorite, and come on, it’s Hobb, how could it not be brilliant? I also highly enjoyed the Melanie Rawn (audio is available at Lightspeed magazine, btw) and the Bacigalupi.

    If you haven’t read much Moorcock, I can see how his entry would be jarring. It’s a classic example of his old school Elric sword and sorcery stories. It does come off very dated compared to the rest of the stories in this volume, but I’m a big Moorcock fan, so it was quite the throwback treat me for me.

    so far only the Tad Williams entry didn’t work for me. I’ve tried reading his stuff in the past, and it just wasn’t for me. Classic case of “it’s not you, it’s me”.

    • October 30, 2012 9:45 am

      Redhead – Awesome, I’m so glad you’re enjoying it too!

      The only other work of Hobb’s I’ve read is another short story (in Songs of Love and Death), but I’ve got her books on my TBR pile, so I’ll have to get to them at some point.

      And thanks for the tip on the audio version of the Rawn story… usually I try to post the free podcast versions of stories when I review an anthology, but I totally forgot this time. I think the N.K. Jemisin story (and maybe some of the others?) are also available… I’ll double check and update my post!

  2. November 7, 2012 11:54 am

    Oh, wow, I want this. I will make a note to get it as my Once Upon a Time treat in the New Year… :)

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