Saturday, July 6, 2013

Name of the Game

Summer is really the best time to sink your literary teeth into a new fantasy epic, in my opinion. Past years have seen me undertaking such new world's as Frank Herbert's Dune and Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, both epics in their own right (though, if you've read my past views on the matter, one was clearly superior). So, when the weather started heating up and Seattle hit its high point - temperature-wise - for the year, you can only guess what I grabbed off of the top of my ARC pile: something dense and immense, with some serious intensity, that would also allow me to soak up as much of the blissful air conditioning in the house as I possibly could.

Django Wexler's The Thousand Names follows the timely topic of a country in revolt, led by the people of the Khandarai, religious zealots attempting to drive out their usurping overlords - the Vordanai - back to their homeland. Their plan is primarily successful, until the arrival of a new Vordanai colonel changes the tide of war, and the history of the country, by using secretive and unusual powers, the likes of which no one has ever seen...

The set-up adheres pretty closely to the standard set by most contemporary science fiction: a land, foreign and strange, thrust into turmoil; warring factions of uncivilized natives versus the more organized and developed foreigners; new languages; mysterious artifacts; magic and myth; etc. However, even though the world's tropes were pretty standard to the genre, the construction was flawless. Science fiction doesn't come with an IKEA set of instructions; even with the standard gear and moving points, it is still a difficult genre to develop correctly, and Wexler managed that to perfection.

Furthermore, even though some elements to the novel were pretty standard, they were presented through an entirely new scope and scale: I've seen rebellion, revolution, and the unseating of monarchs, in too many epic fantasy/ sci-fi masterpieces to count (for example, the most often used, "depose the evil ruler(s) by returning the rightful heir to the throne" bit that I am too tired of and don't want to see ever again), but this time, it was done in a new, fresh way, through the scope of colonialism. The side was not with the natives, an aggressive and religiously-oriented group of "gray skins," but with the "pale-faced" usurpers.

The characters were pretty standard to the genre as well, with the focus of the narrative being extracted primarily from the ranks of the opposing war forces - both of them, though primarily the Vordanai military organizations - and hence, the majority were also men. There were a few standout female characters in the bunch, which I was immensely happy to see, but I was also a little bit disappointed in their treatment (most of them honestly might as well have been guys, too).

The fact that the book is approximately 75% descriptions of tactical army maneuvers was surprising to me, being that I'd never experienced that in a book before, and instead of being too monotonous or boring, it was actually pretty cool. After looking into the subject in more detail, I found that it was an entirely new sub-genre of science fiction to me: martial fiction, detailing the movements and lives of those in the armed forces (but for this example, think less of The Things They Carried, and more of Ender's Game). It was interesting to learn about a new kind of writing style, but after about 450 pages, I was pretty worn out from all the canons and guns and line formations. Still, it's always fun to learn new things, and maybe I'll learn more about the genre once the beating feet from all the marching has faded out of my head.

Overall, it was an interesting, fresh, yet classically constructed piece of epic science fiction, that is definitely worth notice by the fans of the genre. And it's so rare that I really get to read good sci-fi. :)

NOTE: My copy was uncorrected proofs, so this all could change. Distribution started a few days ago, in hard cover, from ROC (a division of Penguin).

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