2014 High Fantasy Challenge Wrap-Up

Last year I set myself a High Fantasy Challenge, wherein I chose 10 high fantasy books that I’d been meaning to read for a while. It was straight after an abysmal year of reading only three high fantasy novels. So, how did I do, in the end?

  • I managed to read six and a half books from the list.
  • (One of them turned out not to exactly be high fantasy, but we won’t get into that.)
  • The three books that I didn’t get to were the ones that I was the least excited about.
  • I also read one sequel for a book on the list.

One thing I noticed was that at the end of the year this list started to feel a bit stifling. I really wanted to read the sequel to Ship of Magic, but I felt like I should pick up a book from this list instead. And, because of that, I ended up reading neither.

The books I read (click for reviews)

The Name of the Wind Prince of Thorns The Last Wish Ship of Magic The Last Unicorn The King of Elflands Daughter

I’m in the middle of The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.

The books I didn’t get to

The Well of Ascension The Blade Itself Furies of Calderon

Books read outside the list

The Wise Man's Fear
The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle #2) by Patrick Rothfuss

I really liked The Name of the Wind, so I had to start reading the sequel right after finishing it! So now I’m caught up with this trilogy, since the final book hasn’t been released yet. I also read three high fantasy short stories – the Tales of Dunk and Egg by George R.R. Martin.

So, that is 7,5 high fantasy novels & 3 short stories read in the year 2014. I think that is a good, but not great, step up from the three of 2013.


The King of Elfland’s Daughter Review (2014 High Fantasy Challenge 6/10)

The King of Elflands Daughter
The King of Elfland’s Daughter

By: Lord Dunsany
First published in 1924
Book 6/10 of my 2014 High Fantasy Challenge

The poetic style and sweeping grandeur of The King of Elfland’s Daughter has made it one of the most beloved fantasy novels of our time, a masterpiece that influenced some of the greatest contemporary fantasists. The heartbreaking story of a marriage between a mortal man and an elf princess is a masterful tapestry of the fairy tale following the “happily ever after.”

It’s time to finally write this review of the last book that I managed to read for my 2014 High Fantasy Challenge. I picked this book up because I felt it was time for a fantasy classic for a change. While this book is a classic that one doesn’t hear talked about very often, it is known among fantasy authors to this day. It was published in the twenties, and Lord Dunsany’s work influenced both Lovecraft and Tolkien. Neil Gaiman has written the introduction to this particular edition, so clearly his influence is still alive and well.

When I started reading the book, I was expecting it to be a story of a prince’s adventures on his way to the elf princess who he was planning to marry. Now, even you can see that I hadn’t read the back cover text very closely, for it’s said right there that this is a story of what happens after the “happily ever after”. The prince gets his elf princess at the very beginning of the book, and the rest of the story follows the struggles of an elf trying to fit in the human world, of her husband trying to understand his wife, and also of their half-human, half-elf son living between these two worlds.

One thing that can be said about The King of Elfland’s Daughter is that it is a very lyrical novel. “The poetic style and sweeping grandeur” of the back cover blurb are very much present. In the introduction, Neil Gaiman says that “his words sing, like those of a poet who got drunk on the prose of the King James Bible, and who has still not yet become sober.” This is a very accurate description.

At first I found the long sentences to be beautiful and charming, but I have to admit that later on they started to get on my nerves. Lord Dunsany is great at descriptions, great at the craft of writing, but there were times when the story was less than compelling, when the descriptive language became a slog to read through. The atmosphere feels more important than the characters. I have to say, though, that I was very captivated by the elf princess’s struggles to understand human habits.

To continue quoting from others, Jo Walton talks about Lord Dunsany’s writing style in this Tor.com article:
“His acknowledged masterpiece novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, is probably best described as good but odd. He isn’t at his best writing characters, which gets peculiar at novel length. What he could do, what he did better than anyone, was to take poetic images and airy tissues of imagination and weight them down at the corners with perfect details to craft a net to catch dreams in. It’s not surprising he couldn’t make this work for whole novels, when as far as I know, nobody else has ever quite made it work in prose. If it is prose. It’s some of the most poetic prose ever written, quite enough to get anyone drunk on words.”

I have no doubt that Lord Dunsany’s prose works better in smaller chunks, and I might yet look into some of his short stories. For now, I have to say that while I was enchanted by the book in the beginning, I grew a bit tired of the enchantment during the length of the novel.

3 out of 5 stars.

The Last Unicorn Review (2014 High Fantasy Challenge 5/10)

The Last Unicorn
The Last Unicorn

By: Peter S. Beagle
First published in 1968
Book 5/10 of my 2014 High Fantasy Challenge

A unicorn leans that she might be the last of her kind left in the world, and leaves her forest to find out what happened to the others.

I’ve been having a hard time writing this review, so I guess it will be a short one. I started reading the book in the beginning of August, then paused for a week or so while I took part in a read-a-thon. That pause definitely took me out of the world a bit. Also, the place where I paused in the book marked a big shift in the story. While in the first half of the book, the narrator had mostly been the unicorn, in the second half the narrating duties were left more to her human companions. And I wasn’t as interested or enchanted by the magician Schmendrick’s or the believer Molly Grue’s points of view as I was in the unicorn’s. I understand why, in that part of the book, we could no longer spend as much time in the unicorn’s head, but I still missed it.

One thing I have to say about this book is that the writing is gorgeous. It is absolutely enchanting, and evokes this feeling of being inside a fairytale. I bet this book would sound just lovely when read aloud. That sense of magic is most prevalent with the unicorn as the POV character.

Unlike perhaps many of you, I didn’t see the animated movie when I was a kid. I’ve only seen the movie once as an adult, so I didn’t have that lovely sense of childhood nostalgia at the back of my head when I was reading it. The main reason that my rating isn’t higher is probably still because of that pause in the middle, and so is mostly my own fault.

3 out of 5 stars.

Next up in the challenge
I’m officially halfway through the challenge now! So, I’m a bit behind, since I only have three months left. I am currently half-way through The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany, and hope to finish it soon.

Ship of Magic Review (2014 High Fantasy Challenge 4/10)

Ship of Magic
Ship of Magic

(The Liveship Traders #1)
By: Robin Hobb
First published in 1998
Book 4/10 of my 2014 High Fantasy Challenge

Description from GoodReads:
Bingtown is a hub of exotic trade and home to a merchant nobility famed for its liveships – rare vessels carved from wizardwood, which ripens magically into sentient awareness. The fortunes of one of Bingtown’s oldest families rest on the newly awakened liveship Vivacia.

For Althea Vestrit, the ship is her rightful legacy unjustly denied her – a legacy she will risk anything to reclaim. For Althea’s young nephew Wintrow, wrenched from his religious studies and forced to serve aboard the ship, Vivacia is a life sentence.

I really loved Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, so I was excited to start the Liveship Traders, a series that takes place in the same world, but follows mostly different characters.

Ship of Magic definitely reads like the first third of a longer story. In this book, the pieces are set, the backstories are told, and all the groundwork is laid for what will happen next. There isn’t really a finishing point; the book cuts off at the end and everything will be continued in the next one. All of this setting up means that the pace of the book is a bit slow – there are a lot of character moments, but it’s quite easy on the action. There were some times when I felt a bit bogged down, especially with the scenes dealing with people back in Bingtown.

I enjoyed the book, but didn’t form as strong a connection to the characters as I did with the other trilogies I mentioned above. Character work is where Hobb is very strong, so I can predict a lot more emotional reaction from myself in the later books, when I’ve grown more into these new characters. There were definitely times when I realized it had been a while since I’ve read a Hobb book. I would be all: “This is the part where he will win those guys over to his side!”, only to have the character fail. Yeah, the protagonists always have a hard time in Robin Hobb’s books!

The concept of sentient wood was very interesting, and really helped bring a unique feel to the world. The whole concept took a while to get used to, but I soon found myself liking all the sentient wood characters! I’m very interested in what will happen to both of the more major liveship characters: Vivacia and Paragon. Out of the human characters, I most like to follow Wintrow and Althea. I do also have a penchant for Amber, for reasons. That isn’t to say that the rest of the characters, like Althea’s mother Ronica, aren’t interesting, but I admit I would have much rather been reading for example about Wintrow than Ronica, and Althea than Kennit.

I will definitely continue on with the trilogy; it would not do to leave the story unfinished! In fact, I already bought the second book. I won’t be starting it immediately, which means I didn’t absolutely love the book and the ending didn’t leave me on the edge of my seat. I can see myself picking it up after a month or two, though, to find out what happens to Wintrow, Althea, and the liveships. I’m also very intrigued to learn more about the Rain Wilds!

Despite the slow pace, I was won over by the world-building, solid writing, and intriguing liveship characters. I’m rounding my 3.5 star rating up to 4 out of 5 stars.

Next up in the challenge
I might pick up The Lies of Locke Lamora, or, if I don’t feel like starting another series, I might go with the stand-alone fantasy classic, The Last Unicorn.

The Last Wish Review (2014 High Fantasy Challenge 3/10)

The Last Wish
The Last Wish

(The Witcher #1)
By: Andrzej Sapkowski
First published in 1993
Book 3/10 of my 2014 High Fantasy Challenge

Geralt was always going to stand out, with his white hair and piercing eyes, his cynicism and lack of respect for authority… but he is far more than just a striking-looking man. He’s a witcher; his sorcerous powers, enhanced by elixirs and long training, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the vile friends that ravage the land. But first appearances are often deceptive. Not everything monstrous-looking is evil, and not everything fair is good… and in every fairy tale, there is a grain of truth.

The Witcher is a Polish fantasy book series that has had two successful computer games based off of it, with a third one on the way. I haven’t played the games myself, but I do have some basic knowledge about them. So when I started reading The Last Wish I knew that the main character was a white-haired Witcher (basically, a monster hunter) called Geralt of Rivia. This first book is a collection of interwoven short stories based on fairy tales.

I went in expecting monster-hunting adventures in the sword & sorcery vein, and that is pretty much what I got. I was surprised, though, because I enjoyed them a lot more than I thought I would! The book was a page-turner for me: the writing was just very easy to read, and I breezed through every short story. They were all in all pretty straightforward stories, but the added fairy tale elements definitely upped the interest level for me. I recognized Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast, with some interesting plot twists. The rest incorporated some well known fairy tale elements, but I couldn’t pin down any particular one.

While there wasn’t a particular story that really stood out to me as a favorite, I had fun reading all of them but one. My least favorite was the title story, The Last Wish. The plot advancement wasn’t as good as in the other stories, and I didn’t find the relationship between Geralt and Yennefer to be written that well. It was a bit too melodramatic at times for my taste, and some turns of phrase made me roll my eyes.

The biggest problem I had with the book was its problematic depiction of women. It pretty much played straight the old sword & sorcery tropes of women as either monsters or priestesses. I except to find that short of stuff in older sword & sorcery books, but it was a bit jarring in a newer book.

Overall, I found The Last Wish an easy read, and Geralt is an interesting character to follow. I’d recommend the book if you feel like reading old-schoolish sword & sorcery with a bit of a modern twist. I give the book 4 out of 5 stars.

Next up in the challenge
I’ve already finished Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb, so a review of that will follow.

Prince of Thorns Review (2014 High Fantasy Challenge 2/10)

Prince of Thorns
Prince of Thorns

(The Broken Empire #1)
By: Mark Lawrence
First published in 2011
Book 2/10 of my 2014 High Fantasy Challenge

When he was nine, he watched as his mother and brother were killed before him. At thirteen, he led a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By fifteen, he intends to be king…

It’s time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what’s rightfully his. Since the day he hung pinned on the thorns of a briar patch and watched Count Renar’s men slaughter his mother and young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him – and he has nothing left to lose. But treachery awaits him in his father’s castle. Treachery and dark magic. No matter how fierce his will, can one young man conquer enemies with power beyond his imagining?

Prince of Thorns is part of the grimdark fantasy subgenre that’s raised it’s head more in the 21st century. The genre is characterized by bleakness and violence, and often the main characters are either antiheroes or not heroes at all, but right bastards. This book is the first proper grimdark novel I’ve read, and the atmosphere definitely matches the genre title. The book also turned out not to exactly be high fantasy, but I’ll count it towards my challenge goal nevertheless.

I have to say that I wasn’t enamored. I was interested, but not invested – interested in what was going to happen and what the deal with Jorg was, but not invested in the characters or the world. I could easily put the book down for a couple of days. Everything and everyone was just so unpleasant that I felt no emotional connection with the story. I can see what Lawrence was going for – a sort of fantasy version of A Clockwork Orange, raising questions of morals with an immoral main character – but A Clockwork Orange handled the theme better. There were some clear parallels linking the two books, especially in their final chapters (quoted below).

Prince of Thorns:

“Then he goes back to his wooden soldier, making him march, running him here and there, charging at shadows. […] I was like [that] little wooden soldier, running in wild and meaningless circles. […] When enough days stand between you and the person you were, you’re strangers. Maybe that’s what being a grown up is.”

A Clockwork Orange:

“Youth must go, ah yes. But youth is only being… like one of these malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets… made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and off it itties, like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being one of these malenky machines.”

Essentially, there were no characters except for Jorg, which was perhaps one of the main reasons I couldn’t really connect with the book. I mean, there was his band of brigands, but none of them were fleshed out enough to be regarded as solid characters by themselves, with Makin and the Nuban coming closest. No, the book was very strictly about Jorg, the main character with absolutely no moral compass. That, of course, made it hard to be interested in the book when it came to the characters.

Perhaps I was a bit hyped up as regards to the twists of this novel – mentions about “pieces beginning to fall into place” in reviews, but I didn’t really find the plot points very surprising. I mean, all of the clues were there quite clearly, from pretty early on. Perhaps I just had the wrong expectations. I have to say, though, that the plot was intriguing enough to keep me reading even while I wasn’t that interested in what happened to the characters. The theme and plot level was definitely stronger than the characterization.

Prince of Thorns was a bit disappointing continuation of my 2014 High Fantasy Challenge, especially after loving The Name of the Wind so much. Still, I might read the rest of the trilogy. Someone on GoodReads gave the first book two stars (with pretty much the same issues that I had), but gave the second book four stars. So, I’ll give the second book a chance, but I’m not in any hurry to do so. I give Prince of Thorns 2 out of 5 stars.

Next up in the challenge
I’ve already read The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, since it was May’s book of the month at the SciFi and Fantasy Book Club over at GoodReads. Review to follow soon.

The Name of the Wind Review (2014 High Fantasy Challenge 1/10)

The Name of the Wind
The Name of the Wind

(The Kingkiller Chronicle #1)
By: Patrick Rothfuss
First published in 2007
Book 1/10 of my 2014 High Fantasy Challenge

The most notorious wizard the world has ever seen, famed dragon-slayer, feared swordsman, his tale is part myth, part hearsay, part wild speculation… but Kvothe himself has vanished, taking the truth behind the flamboyant rumours with him. The world has settled without him, without a catalyst to bring change and innovation, into a quieter, darker, more dangerous place. But his story still lives. And, for the first time, Kvothe is going to tell it…

Okay, I stayed up until 3 A.M. to finish this book, so it’s safe to say I liked it. In fact, I loved it. The characters were interesting and the story just whisked me away. Even though The Name of the Wind is a hefty book at over 600 pages, the writing style isn’t heavy at all; in fact, it’s very effortless to read. Rothfuss doesn’t go for long descriptions, and he writes a lot of dialogue.

The book was certainly very different from what I expected! I was expecting the legendary adventures of a fully grown hero. Instead, the story starts with Kvothe’s childhood, and goes through his teenage years, delving into how some of the legends about him got started. This storytelling style reminds me of classics – the way that Jane Eyre starts with the main character as a little kid, or the way The Count of Monte-Cristo spans a long period of time. It was unexpected, but it’s something that I really love with classics. It helps to separate the book from other fantasy books, while also being a great way to make the reader emotionally invested. When we learn what is important to the character early on, later developments pack more of a punch. For example, we quite quickly learn that Kvothe loves music, so everything pertaining to music, be it happy or tragic events, had a stronger impact on me later on. I got so emotional over some scenes that wouldn’t have been as touching if there wasn’t such a strong history of the character to back it up.

The characters were very interesting. I liked how Kvothe differed from the usual “hero” type by being willing to lie and cheat to get ahead. Still, there weren’t many times when these unethical actions felt unjustified to me – most of the time I was on Kvothe’s side.

Other memorable characters include Master Elodin and Bast. The bit crazy, happy-go-lucky, yet very intelligent Elodin, a master at the magic University Kvothe attends, had some of my favourite lines in the book, and might even have been my favourite character! The mysterious and protective Bast was very intriguing, and while we didn’t learn much about him in this book, I hope the next one delves more into where he came from and how he met Kvothe. I also had a penchant for Master Elxa Dal, who is described as looking like the archetypal wizard villain with his lean face and trimmed dark beard, but who is in fact a quite fair, if strict teacher. I just kept imagining him looking like Jafar, one of my favourite Disney characters, which was a lot of fun for me!

For most of the book, I was captivated by the story, but there was one side plot that didn’t quite work for me. It only lasted for about 50 or so pages near the end. I think it sidetracked the plot a bit and could have been dealt with quicker. It definitely slowed my reading down by taking me out of the story, because I just wasn’t that interested. As fast as that side plot was done, though, I was eager to read on, and back to loving everything.

The Name of the Wind was a great start to my 2014 High Fantasy Challenge, and I give it 5 out of 5 stars. I can definitely see myself rereading this in the future.

Favourite Quote
“Noble’s sons are one of nature’s great destructive forces, like floods or tornadoes. When you’re struck with one of these catastrophes, the only thing an average man can do is grit his teeth and try to minimise the damage.”

Next up in the challenge
So, as I’m already caught in the Kingkiller Chronicle net, I think I’ll just continue to the second novel in the series. The next book on my challenge list can wait for a while more – it isn’t like I’m straying from my chosen high fantasy path by reading The Wise Man’s Fear. After that, I’m done with this world for a while (since the third book isn’t out yet), and perhaps will feel more ready to move on.

(Also, welcome to the 100th post on this blog! I just had to mention it.)