Good, but nothing new … RETURN TO HONOR by Brian McClellan

I’ve enjoyed all of Brian McClellan’s short stories set in the world of the Powder Mage trilogy so far, and RETURN TO HONOR is no exception. Featuring both Vlora and Olem, it includes two of my favorite supporting characters from the first two books of the tirlogy, and even includes Verundish, whom I believe we first met in HOPE’S END.

In RETURN TO HONOR, Captain Vlora is sent on the trail of a traitorous guard captain who is looking to escape the city with information that we’re told could harm the war effort. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a MacGuffin, but it gives Vlora an excuse to visit with Verundish for a bit of advice, and she in turn points Vlora to Olem as someone who can help.

Olem may be my favorite supporting character from the trilogy so I was excited to see him here, and the story is pleasant enough, but at the same time I can’t say this is mandatory reading for Powder Mage fans. The action scenes are well-done and we get some insight as to how Vlora is treated after cheating on Taniel, but I wouldn’t say there’s really anything new here.

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Better Than a Potato in a Minefield … FIREFIGHT by Brandon Sanderson

In February 2014, my bride-to-be and I drove to South Padre Island to scout out what proved to be our wedding location. Accompanying us on that 12-hour round trip was Brandon Sanderson’s STEELHEART, read by MacLeod Andrews.

I don’t usually listen to audiobooks, but I knew I had a long drive ahead of me with very little in the way of scenery, landmarks or entertainment. It turned out to be a great decision, and so I pre-ordered FIREFIGHT and looked forward to reading it as soon as it was released. I wasn’t disappointed.

In much the same way that Sanderson’s second book in the MISTBORN series, THE WELL OF ASCENSION, handled the difficulties created by defeating the antagonist in the series’ first book, FIREFIGHT recognizes that defeating STEELHEART not only didn’t solve all the Reckoners’ problems, but it actually created some new ones.

Early in the book, the new mayor of Newcago asks David what the Reckoners’ plans are for taking on all the high epics coming to the city to challenge David and the rest of the Reckoners. David soothes her concerns, but it’s all a bluff — if there’s a plan, he doesn’t know it.

There’s also the newly-discovered knowledge that Prof, head of the Reckoners, and Megan, David’s love interest, are both epics.

“I’d grown up practically worshipping the Reckoners, all the while loathing the Epics. Discovering that Prof was both … it had been like discovering that Santa Claus was secretly a Nazi,” David muses.

One of my favorite things about these books are the way Sanderson blends the sheer fun of normal people fighting back against superheroes with plenty of character contemplation and world development. Sure, David and the Reckoners have some awesome action sequences, but there’s also a lot of time spent with thoughtful dialogue about the world they live in and what the clues they discover mean to their situation.

In FIREFIGHT, David remains the goofy kid we grew to love in the first book, but he’s also coming to grips with the fact that his lifelong determination to kill Steelheart means that he doesn’t quite fit in with other kids his age. More importantly, he’s wondering just how much humanity remains in the epics around them, and questions whether the Reckoners’ actions have the moral justification he’d once thought.

Fortunately, Sanderson blends these more serious considerations with the same humor featured in STEELHEART. David still struggles with metaphors/similes:

I mixed with ordinary people about the same way that a bucket of paint mixed with a bag of gerbils.

and David’s interactions with Megan continue to entertain.

“You’re like a potato!” I shouted after her. “In a minefield.”
She froze in place. Then she spun on me, her face lit by a half-grown fruit. “A potato,” she said flatly. “That’s the best you can do? Seriously?”
“It makes sense,” I said. “Listen. You’re strolling through a minefield, worried about getting blown up. And then you step on something, and you think, ‘I’m dead.’ But it’s just a potato. And you’re so relieved to find something so wonderful when you expected something so awful. That’s what you are. To me.”
“A potato.”
“Sure. French fries? Mashed potatoes? Who doesn’t like potatoes?”
“Plenty of people. Why can’t I be something sweet, like a cake?”
“Because cake wouldn’t grow in a minefield. Obviously.”
She stared down the hallway at me for a few moments, then sat on an overgrown set of roots.
Sparks. She seemed to be crying. Idiot! I thought at myself, scrambling through the foliage.Romantic. You were supposed to be romantic, you slontze! Potatoes weren’t romantic. I should have gone with a carrot.”

In FIREFIGHT, most of the Reckoners leave Newcago for Babylon Restored (formerly Manhattan), to take on Regalia, a High Epic who knew Prof and Tina before Calamity. At first I was concerned, as the Reckoners leave Cody and Abraham, who of my favorite Reckoners from the first book, but Sanderson uses the opportunity to introduce new characters well, and the addition of Mizzy adds another strong character to the cast.

If you liked STEELHEART, I can’t imagine you being disappointed by FIREFIGHT — Sanderson brings even more humor, even more interesting reveals and just as much emotion as we saw in the first book. It’s only a few days since FIREFIGHT was released and I’m already looking forward to CALAMITY’s release date.

A Classic Tolkien Alternative … SWORDS AND DEVILTRY by Fritz Leiber

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably heard the name of Fritz Leiber and his two most famous creations, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Within the subgenre of swords and sorcery (a term Leiber is credited with creating), Leiber and Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, loom large, and the impact of their characters and world continue to play a role throughout fantasy literature even today. From Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld to Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria, Leiber’s characters and the city of Lankhmar inspire today’s bestsellers more than 75 years after the first Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story appeared in print.

Nyki Blatchley has already provided a thorough description of what Fritz Leiber has meant to the fantasy genre here, so I’d prefer to write about the first of seven collections, Swords and Deviltry, in which we meet both Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser separately, beginning with Fafhrd’s story in “The Snow Women” (1970), the Gray Mouser’s solo adventure in “The Unholy Grail” (1962) and the story of how the two came to join forces in the ominously-titled “Ill Met in Lankhmar” (1970), which won both Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella.

I wasn’t terribly impressed early in the book, which opens with “Induction,” an approximately 300-word introduction to the world of Nehwon and the city of Lankhmar that could easily have been cut without costing the reader anything. “The Snow Women” introduces us to Fafhrd and his desire to leave his native Northmen and discover civilization in the southern cities, and how he falls in love with Vlana, a southern dancer/prostitute who seeks someone to take her back to Lankhmar to wage war against the Thieves Guild. For the most part, this chapter seems to have been written more to offer a glimpse of Fafhrd’s life before he met the Gray Mouser than to provide an exciting tale in its own right.

“The Unholy Grail” was an improvement, as the Gray Mouser seeks to avenge the death of his master, the wizard Glavas Rho. Rho’s early description of the Gray Mouser prepares us for a protagonist who’s willing to fight the bad guys with even blacker magic:

“You are a middling dutiful scholar, but secretly you prefer swords over wands. You are more tempted by the hot lips of black magic than the chaste slim fingers of white, no matter to how pretty a misling the latter belong – no, do not deny it! You are more drawn to the beguiling sinuosities of the left-hand path than the straight steep road of the right. I fear you will never be the mouse in the end but mouser. And never white but gray.”

It’s a cunningly-crafted description that sets Leiber apart from so many of his swords and sorcery brethren, and sets us up to follow a character who, like Fafhrd in “The Snow Wives,” finds himself at a crossroads.

It’s in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” where the story really picks up, as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser each ambush the same set of thieves at the same time. Together, they defeat their foes, then return to the Gray Mouser’s home. Recognizing kindred spirits in one another, they celebrate alongside their respective women, Ivrian and Vlana. In their drunken revelry, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser decide to infiltrate the Thieves Guild, a decision that ultimately ends in tragedy.

It’s in this final chapter that the book is at its most exciting and the characters of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser most come to life. While both are solid characters, it’s clear that they’re at their best when they are together – it’s the relationship between the two that makes these stories so memorable, and gives Leiber an opportunity to showcase his humor and wordplay in a way he simply can’t when they are separated.

In some ways, with its morally-gray protagonists and straightforward references to sex, it feels like a very modern book, but its use of women is clearly very much outdated. From the beginning, when Fafhrd strives to escape the control of his ice-witch mother and the fiancé he has impregnated, it’s clear that the women are often obstacles to be overcome in our characters’ quest for happiness, and even when Fafhrd meets Vlana, it’s heavily hinted that she is merely using him as a means to an end.

Admittedly, there’s a certain strength in Vlana’s actions as she attempts to make her way in a world dominated by men, and even Ivrian displays a certain nobility in her early attempts to help the Gray Mouser overcome her father. But ultimately, if you’re looking for a book in which the women play an equal role to the men, these won’t be the stories for you. As Leiber spent decades writing the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, it’s possible that this changes, but at least in these three stories, an old-fashioned dynamic is quite strongly on display.

Despite that, I think men and women alike can enjoy the adventure that consumes the close of the book and appreciate Leiber’s wordsmithing, which takes simple scenes such as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser debating which should pay for their drinks, and makes it magical:

The Mouser dug into his pouch to pay, but Fafhrd protested vehemently. In the end they tossed coin for it, and Fafhrd won and with great satisfaction clinked out his silver smerduks on the stained and dented counter, also marked with an infinitude of mug circles, as if it had once been the desk of a mad geometer.

Nehwoh is a grim, gritty world, but Leiber’s description oftentimes lifts it to unparalleled heights as an alternative to Tolkien’s high fantasy. If you enjoy today’s fantasy bestsellers, it’s worthwhile to look back at the world and characters who laid the foundation.

This review first appeared at Fantasy-Faction.com here: http://fantasy-faction.com/2014/swords-and-deviltry-by-fritz-leiber