In support of that last statement, here is one of my favorite excerpts from Farlander, two sentences that in many ways express the saga’s overriding theme: “Do not judge a man for the path that he follows. Unless you have walked each and every step in the same direction, you cannot tell another where he is headed, nor what he leaves behind.”
Although the main storyline revolves around a “black-skinned old man” named Ash, a 62-year old assassin who embarks on what will surely be his final mission of retribution, Stands a Shadow introduces readers to a handful of wildly intriguing characters: including Bahn, a lieutenant of the Khosian Red Guards who leaves behind his family to fight the Mannian invaders; Curl, a 17-year old prostitute who joins the resistance and finds her true calling; and Bull, an imprisoned and quite possibly insane murderer that was once the “greatest fighter in all of Khos” who is reluctantly released from his dungeon cell to fight against the Empire.
The characters make this series what it is – and the way in which Buchanan uses his cast of characters but to not only advance the storyline but to also widen its scope and intensify its thematic punch is just magnificent. Very few novelists can do this without significantly detracting from the narrative flow: Harry Turtledove, Ken Scholes, Steven Erickson, GRRM, etc.
I’ve read a few less-than-stellar reviews of Stands a Shadow that just make me scratch my head. Because Buchanan included flying warships, the Kirkus review described it as having “a few steampunk overtones” – which is patently ridiculous! – and added that there was “stirring combat.” But then the PW review declares just the opposite – that the novel was “more concerned with the movements of military forces and portraying a complex world than with action.”
Both of these reviews, in my humble opinion, are way off the mark. Buchanan’s The Heart of the World is in no way military fantasy and certainly has nothing to do with steampunk – it’s epic fantasy with a storyline that happens to include a grand-scale conflict in the realm. It’s not about the war – it’s about the people affected by it.
There is such a double standard when it comes to epic fantasy sagas. Some readers – and reviewers, it seems – want every installment to include nonstop action, a well-defined and easily digested storyline, bombshell revelations and climactic conclusions – a bigger bang for the buck, according to the Kirkus review. But that’s not how epic fantasy is structured. It’s so unfair to judge a second or third book in an epic fantasy series to a standalone fantasy – Stands a Shadow is part of a much larger story. Readers who want instant gratification should look elsewhere – and should probably not read epic fantasy at all – but readers looking for some character-driven literary escapism that they can savor should most definitely read Buchanan’s The Heart of the World novels.
“Ash’s instincts took over. For a time his attention was focused so intensely on what he did that no part of him was aware of his own self in the midst of the carnage. He knew no fear, nor conscience, nor even spite, as he moved freely without distinctions of mind and body and blade in a performance of one, weaving their patterns as he ducked and darted and killed…”
The bottom line is this: Buchanan’s saga, I believe, is one of the best – and most underrated – fantasy sagas on the shelves.
But Stands a Shadow is just one of a virtual cornucopia of epic fantasy releases to be published this holiday season. Here are some more noteworthy novels that have already or are about to hit the bookshelves just in time for the holidays…
Last year, when Salvatore released Gauntlgrym – the first installment of his Neverwinter trilogy – he began a new era in the life of his signature character, Drizzt Do'Urden. The beloved Companions of the Hall are gone and Drizzt is truly alone for the first time in almost a hundred years. Now, in Salvatore's latest, the contemplative drow – shockingly – begins to lose his sense of self and starts to doubt his own morality... a "must read" for anyone who considers themselves a Drizzt fan.
I've been waiting for this novel, the third and last installment of Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy (after The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms), since last year. Jemisin is one of fantasy's brightest new voices – her debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, was nominated for the Nebula, the Hugo, and the World Fantasy Award! This one is next on my "to read" list and I can't wait!
Sanderson is just a master at grand-scale storytelling. His debut novel, Elantris, remains one of my all-time time fantasy novels. In his newest, The Alloy of Law, Sanderson returns to the realm of his wildly popular Mistborn saga (Mistborn, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages).This storyline takes place 300 years after the events of the original Mistborn trilogy.
The story behind this one is great – Sullivan self-published this saga in ebook format and it just exploded. Because of its phenomenal popularity, Orbit Books is no releasing the entire series. The second and third books, Rise of Empire and Heir of Novron, will be released in December and January.
This is a standalone novel from the author who brought us the First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings). Set in that same realm, this brutal fantasy shows precisely why Abercrombie has amassed nothing short of a cult following of readers. Fans of authors like Erickson and GRRM who have yet to experience Abercrombie, should do so asap!
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
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