Posted by Hedwig on May 6, 2012
Note: there’s quite a bit of nostalgic/biographical nonsense in the first three paragraphs, but after that I get to discussing China Miéville’s PERDIDO STREET STATION and Scott Lynch’s THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA – in case that might be something you’re into.
I read quite a bit of fantasy as a teenager. THE LORD OF THE RINGS, of course, twice: the Dutch translation when I must’ve been 11 or 12, the original a few years later. I also remember devouring David Eddings’ BELGARIAD cycle, probably even more (I remember reaching the double digits in how many books of his I read), and I would take the heavy tomes with me to school, reading in any spare moment, on the floor with my back against the wall, completely oblivious to my surroundings.
As you may have deduced from the above, I didn’t really develop social skills until college. Obviously I would have liked to be more popular, but at the same time, I didn’t really mind being alone – and the books were perfect company, with their rag-tag band of outsiders who formed a sort of family despite their differences.
You’ll forgive me, then, for the misconception I had for years, that most fantasy books would be about a normal-looking-but-secretly-special young boy (occasionally girl) who went on a quest with the above-mentioned rag-tag group through a land filled with elves and dwarves and orcs, to acquire and/or destroy a certain magical artifact. In fact, a lot of fantasy falls in this category (the lovely boyfriend reads fantasy almost exclusively, and everytime he started a new book I’d check if the definition fit), and though it’s true there is quite a bit that can be done within that template, that’s the kind of fantasy I abandoned a long time ago. But it turns out that the genre’s been expanding far beyond it, leading results so interesting that I might just have to dive back into it with my old fervor*.
It started with PERDIDO STREET STATION, China Miéville’s book about nightmare beasts that get loosed in the city of New Crobuzon, a metropolis teeming with different races (none of them resembling elves or dwarves) and bursting with activity. I loved the first 2/3 of the books especially, enough that I didn’t mind the pages of pseudo-scientific rambling used as a kind of deus ex (kinda steampunky) machina for the conclusion. The world-building is just so good, and Miéville takes his time for the build-up, introducing us to this world and all its facets.
Scott Lynch’s THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA also takes place in a busy city, this one apparently based on Venice, with Dons and Capas and boats and lots of Italian words and names. No other races, here: just humans, and remnants of mysterious “Elders” who left the world long before the events of the story. Lynch evokes the griminess and complex social structure of the city very well, though his world-building is somewhat less impressive than Miéville’s. His storytelling is much tighter: Lamora’s a con man who gets drawn into a much bigger con against his will, and while some beats are a tad predictable (and it’s clear pretty soon who’s expendable and who’s not), he always adds further twists that you might not have seen coming.
Interestingly, both novels have a bit of a meta thing going on too, reflecting on story-telling while telling a story. LAMORA’s a story of a con man, so it has this element sort of built in – for con men, telling a credibly story is sometimes a matter of life and death. In PERDIDO, Miéville introduces a creature called the Weaver, a giant spider-like creature who flits between dimensions of reality, overseeing the texture and doing things seemingly at random (like cutting off ears) because it will make the weave prettier. It’s a nice metaphor for writing: sometimes you have to make cruel decisions – like having a character killed or tortured or put in an impossible situation – because it will make the story better as a whole.
I hope there’s more books like these out there – I’ve heard good things about Joe Abercrombie, BF tells me Brandon Sanderson’s MISTBORN is good despite being a bit more conventional, and I’m planning to read the first two GAME OF THRONES books as soon as the current season finishes, but I could use more recommendations!
*note: you might say: but you read vampire stuff all the time! Isn’t that fantasy? And well, I guess in a sense, it is, though I tend to qualify everything that takes place in a world close to how our own is now as “supernatural”, not fantasy. The terminology is all muddled: since the two books I discuss here take place in big, bustling cities, it’s tempting to refer to them as “urban fantasy”, but of course, that terms been used to describe everything with vampires and zombies etc. already, regardless of whether they have an urban setting (‘cos really, it’s even used for TRUE BLOOD, which is as rural as can be).