1.06.2004

random overlooked books

There are a lot of great books that slip through the cracks, never read by enough people, never receiving the acclaim that they deserve. Likewise, there are many books that DO achieve that acclaim, yet are never read. Books like, for instance, the following oddball list.

Kalimantaan by CS Godshalk. Listed as a New York Times Notable Book, this was recommended to me by one of my friends, and I was not disappointed. In fact, I was rather startled by its quality.

For a first novel, Kalimantaan is an impressive accomplishment. Godshalk has woven a dense and deliberate tale that begins in letters that slowly reveals its star and creepy anti-hero, Gideon Barr, who has gone to the wild land of 1850s Borneo. Barr, an English explorer, has managed to carve an empire from the jungle, dealing in spices and opium and young boys and other unpleasantries.

This is a slow, languorous tale that revels in lush historical detail, while simultaneously building a convincing portrait of Barr as a complex individual driven to accomplishment and unwilling to allow anything to stand in his way. Yet Barr is also utterly human, as revealed through the narrative switch to Barr's young English cousin/wife, Amelia.

Godshalk's novel took twenty years to write, and it shows in every sentence. Her attention to wordplay shines in each carefully-constructed phrase, building her world, detail by detail, into a convincing portrait of a truly foreign creation that is at once exotic and deeply disturbing. Kalimantaan is Conradian in its scope and style, evoking Nostromo and Lord Jim in equal measure.

Like Gideon Barr, Edgar Drake is an Englishman in an exotic land; this time, it's Burma in 1886, and the novel is The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason.

There the similarity ends, as The Piano Tuner examines the exotic through sultry prose and a lulling quietude that evokes Drake's love of Burma and music.

Sent to tune a marvellous Erard piano owned by Burma's Surgeon-Major Carroll, Drake manages to stay long after his mission is complete as he is swept up in the machinations of Carroll, who plans to make peace between the British and the natives. Guided by the beautiful and mysterious Khin Myo, Drake comes to appreciate the wild beauty of the land and its people, believing that ultimately, music can be the bridge to peace.

Mason's story is less accomplished than Godshalk's epic tale, yet his prose is compellingly lush and Edgar Drake is a mild-mannered, introspective hero that is both complex and appealing. And while Mason's story displays many of the problems associated with firstnovelitis, he is still willing to tackle ambitious themes, and manages to pull it off. More importantly, his writing style is sharp and well-honed rather than amateurish; Mason is certainly an author to follow.

Epic fantasy is a field that is dominated by amateurish, workaday prose; in fact, this is one reason I am so less-than-thrilled with the subgenre. Epic fantasy is a form of transportation, ostensibly about taking the reader to other worlds. Sadly, much of it is hackish and rudimentary, with few standouts. Robert Jordan, one of the field's bestsellers, writes prose that scintillates about as much as a charcoal briquette. Terry Goodkind, another 'luminary' of the epic fantasy crowd, writes almost as well as a ninth-grader.

There are epic fantasists that can write, however, and unfortunately they're the ones that aren't bestsellers, aren't as quickly identified.

John Marco has grown into one of my favorite epic fantasists though the past few years. Author of the Tyrants and Kings series (The Jackal of Nar, The Grand Design and The Saints of the Sword), Marco has steadily honed his writing skills to the accomplished level on display in his recent The Eyes of God and The Devil's Armor.

Marco takes the traditional elements of epic fantasy and weaves them in a new light, bringing life to the tropes that others treat as ye olde standbys. Drawing upon a vast canvas of mythologies and legend, his latest series is a complex tale of armies and kingdoms, magic and beauty. It is filled with tragedy, and Marco's writing is at its best when describing the horror of battle and its gruesome, heart-wrenching aftermath. His characters are people we care about, drawn in larger-than-life detail while still grounded in grimy human detail. And through it all, his clear yet basely-poetic language draws us onward.

John Marco deserves more attention than he gets. You should read his work if you have the slightest interest in seeing what epic fantasy can accomplish.


discuss this post at our messageboard