The first thing I ever did when I got online in terms of writing was talking about books so I thought it was apt that I start off with a post about what I’m reading.
I spent several years running a book review site and in the years since I left that game I’ve still been a fan and reader of speculative fiction who while not reading every announcement and galley/arc since, I still would wager definitely pay more attention than the average fan or reader, which is a product of both my natural interest and simply that I have the time to do so.
Jenn Lyons’ The Ruin of Kings has buzz that’s rather unusual but I think it speaks to something that I felt growing up a kid reading epic fantasy and I feel is perhaps more true now.
The King or Queen of epic fantasy runs the room.
I liken it to both boxing and hip hop. In boxing there are many champions, many divisions and classes and while often, especially recently, the heavyweight champion lacks a luster, there is prestige to the idea of the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
To this day former champions go anywhere and they are called “champ” by everyone.
The concept involving hip hop also applies. You can have a party or gathering with entertainers featuring the biggest singers in the world, the biggest producers in the world, the biggest groups in the world, and they may be worth more, sell more, have deeper branding and revenue streams, but the biggest fish in the room is understood whoever the undisputed person at the top of the rap mountain. Biggie Smalls entered rooms filled with all of the people above but he held the crown in those rooms in an unnameable but very real way. There is a prestige to that title that differentiates. The King of New York has bars.
Epic Fantasy is the same.
I am somebody who loves where fantasy has expanded and may have had a very (stress very more than anything has ever been stressed) small hand in the early days of internet book coverage of even pulling a couple of people into things we used to try to categorize: new weird, slipstream, steampunk, magic realism, urban fantasy (when it meant China Mieville and Charles de Lint not specifically YA-ish supernatural chick-lit publishing – not that there is anything at all wrong with that either.) Today we continue it with the silliness of grimdark.
I think these things exist purely to make internet lists perpetual. Come back tomorrow for my top 20 Gritpunk novellas list.
While expanding my own definitions of fantasy I was finding some of what would become my favorite books of all time – from the likes of Edward Whittemore, Edward Carey, Jose Saramago, Mark Danielewski and such – but I always was chasing the giant leviathan, the next great epic fantasy. In my lifetime there have been many GREAT epic fantasy series, from the likes of Hobb, Jordan, Rothfuss, and a dozen more, but the two that exist for me as true white whales are George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen.
I love both of them, probably prefer the latter, but it is Martin who currently holds court and is the title holder. His books were beloved and being propped up by fans of fantasy for decades as something that was next and the Game of Thrones HBO show just ascended him to a level that’s unassailable. It brought the eyes he always merited. We sought proof, and it was right there in the pudding.
Robert Jordan was almost certainly more commercially successful in publishing than pre-HBO Martin, who has since passed him by a wide margin but I think even in the early days A Game of Thrones (the novel) felt more like the fantasy book for the coming generation. Indeed, you will find a Robert Jordan blurb on A Game of Thrones.
I think by the time A Storm of Swords, one of the finest novels in fantasy history, was released the argument of Jordan/GRRM was only one to the most devout of WoT fans. There was just something in Martin’s series that seemed perfect in timing with the internet looming and a population of research readers to dig into the rich history, red herrings, and hidden secrets with A Song of Ice and Fire. The upcoming generation had a place to discuss things with the world, they had questions, they built communities for that very purpose, for many of them it became their identities.
George R.R. Martin gave us all something to discuss.
I want to make some differentiations first though. One, young adult and all ages work exists outside of this framework. We all know there are a handful of authors working in this vertical who are crushing sales and is everything to your middleschool-aged child. Like book versions of Undertale, which I’ve spent 5 figures on in merch for one of my nieces over the last couple of years yet still have no idea what it is lol.
I say this because we all know J.K .Rowling is living her best life. There’s also writers like Neil Gaiman who just feel like they’ve navigated their career with more intelligence and thought than anyone in the game.
You know what I mean.
He has that quality of feeling like he always takes the right lane, and we believe him in his sincerity that it is indeed his lane. He has hits in so many verticals and is well loved in all of them at the same time, and just comes off as the champion whom history is going to look back well on.
These two have work that are just going to be beloved to not only the generations they debuted in but hold special places on the most evergreen of bookshelves and digital libraries. These are fantasists of the highest order but they could lose every diehard fan of epic fantasy novels that they may have and not notice it on their bottom line. The knights of summer who never have to go to war.
Kings and Queens come and go though. Their reigns last until somebody fresh and new who learns lessons from them or arrive from outside their domain and topple them. Martin, who had written for a long time before A Song of Ice and Fire in multiple mediums was not where you’d think the next great epic fantasy was going to come from.
I’ve seen many come. The aforementioned Patrick Rothfuss looked to be making a claim with a well received in the right places Name of the Wind but two novels in over 10 years and the last one EIGHT years ago seems to have slowed his claim down though I am heavily anticipating the Lin-Manuel Miranda associated Showtime adaptation.
On a personal and intellectual level combined with my love for fantasy and what drew me to fantasy, as I noted above, my favorite is from Steven Erikson, but that thought doesn’t seem to have quite enough mass inertial behind it to have a claim at the belt. I think it’s the greatest and most fun (an unlikely combo) in epic fantasy and it suffers from a first novel not being stronger than many other series starters and doesn’t reveal a thousandth of what Erikson would go to accomplish in his throwback to modules and role playing that’s post-modern and epic as fuck at the same time. Still, it’s 10 books, it’s done, and it’s genius. I adore it and think about it daily.
There have been others that are entirely worth reading if you have the time as I don’t believe very good should be the victim in the search of perfection for most people.
Perhaps just based on when they were published some felt post-Martin but Martin-lite, like The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, something I’m sure Greg Keyes is most tired of hearing.
Brandon Sanderson got a huge push with what I’d call solid work before getting the keys to The Wheel of Time due to the passing of Jordan. And Brandon made the most of this, recognizing your moment is one of the most grand life skills, and I’m guessing he has a pile of cash and probably looks for real estate and vacations in the same places I do* but, and I maybe I’m alone in this, but even as I know it runs contrary to what I said above about some writers, I feel like there was kind of A LOT of Brandon Sanderson book out there in a very small window of time.
Maybe that’s just how I perceived it.
I guess it’s Cosmere for Sanderson but I have to admit I was confronted with this completely artificial idea of a personal magnum opus and even while I wait, stress the wait part, for the next Rothfuss or GRRM novel it does feel like that these are their grand stories – the one they had to get out to the world. They may at some point surpass them but it, even if it isn’t, feels special and unique to the author.
Now, that’s a lot of preamble to talk about the first three dozen pages of The Ruin of Kings I read.
I travel a lot and I get my mail forwarded to me and I was not expecting to get a copy. I had been generously offered one many, many, months ago but I passed, knowing I was going to buy it whenever it was published so I was shocked to find that it arrived while I was out of town looking at places in midtown NYC.
You know how many pages in I am so I know next to nothing but I can tell you Jenn Lyons has the goods. I’ve seen it already and it’s a too easy of a comparison but I can see why The Name of the Wind comparisons are popular because we begin each with a mystery that will unravel from and within stories. I do there there are rather fundamental differences, even this early, but I will save that for when I review The Ruin of Kings -if that ever happens.
I do think writers in some regard write to teach you how read their writing and with that in mind The Ruin of Kings feels like something The Name of the Wind may have taught many to not only read but want. At least in the fantasy bubble, obviously the tradition of storytellers and framing stories, even multiple ones, is a long one.
Not in the quality of her story because obviously I haven’t finished it but I can already tell Lyons is going to tell it an interesting way. I’m already locked in to all the lore being introduced and while I will admit on the very first page a single sentence took me out almost completely, so much so I wanted to email one of the handful of people I know at Tor and be like WHAT IS THIS before I almost immediately came to the what I feel is a safe assumption that many other people have said something about it already.
I was locked in from there on.
In the very text of her story there is a choice of being able to download a story without permission but there is something about being told it. How it’s told. By the person who owns it.
Jenn Lyons creates a world you can’t wait to explore, there are already multiple characters I want to know everything about, there are already powers that seem unique, and history, both personal and geopolitical, to add to Wikipedia, delivered in a way that feels perfectly reverse engineered in that Lyons knew she had something, and just that in itself was good enough, but she found and added what’s an incredibly engaging narration that gives us that passive yet constant edge and immediacy.
We love our stories, for some of us being a demon that consumes them at the cost of life is not too far off from our own relationships with writers. It’s not far off from people most close to us. Knowing this, I still gladly pass the rock back to Jenn to hear more.
*unrelated and I don’t know exactly where but I’m told Anne Rice lives in my neighborhood. So far, no vampires though.
You can read the beginning of The Ruin of Kings over at Tor.