Saturday, September 8, 2007

Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley

Even if you have never read a western, I'm betting that if you picked one up and read an account of a cowboy riding into a mining town and walking into a saloon, you would get a clear sense of the environment being described and an expectation of the story, however sketchy the text was. That's because the western is a highly stylised form, with conventions reinforced by thousands of books, movies, parodies and so on - a gigantic shared world which author and reader can tap into at will. A lot of fantasy operates in a similar way: the Woods, Castles, Elves, Dragons come tumbling out of the box ready formed; a warrior walking into an alehouse needs as little embellishment as the cowboy entering the saloon to create an evocative scene, because we've all been to that same alehouse many times before.

And that's fine. But it's great to come across a fantasy that breaks the mold, whilst staying close to the roots of the genre. Winterbirth is one such and I'll be following the trilogy with interest. For me this was a really fresh read - although many of the expected elements of a fantasy trilogy are here, it comes across as a new creation - a world that has been crafted anew, rather than a retread of familiar elements.

Described by the author as 'epic heroic fantasy', it's a stirring tale of feuding clans and races, laced with treachery and intrigue, punctuated with powerful action scenes. The characters are well-realised, with believable motivations and personalities. There's a certain amount of ambiguity as characters follow their destinies with often violent results, but with a (nicely diverse) group of characters who one can empathise with as the heroes. However I suspect difficult moral choices await the younger characters who have followed a coming-of-age trajectory in this first volume.

Within the 'Godless World', the 'Black Road' is a well-realised theology that motivates one set of clans, a kind of fatalistic determinism similar to the Puritan concept of the Elect, a mixture of predestination and moral absolutism. Although the book is not an allegory of modern times, the exploration of a faith-based drive to conquest, and the politics that surround it, does have an unavoidable resonance with the contemporary world. I would be interested in understanding better the belief systems of the non-Black-Roaders.

Criticisms? I sometimes got my Thanes mixed up and had to use the table at the back to untangle the names. Similarly, some place names had a confusing similarity. But these are minor quibbles with an excellent first novel from an exciting new author.

(I have also written at insane length about the marketing of this book.)

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