Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Growing into Fantasy with Carey, Haydon, and Wurts

It's funny what the years can do to your taste in books - and I'm talking about something deeper, something more profound than those books that just don't stand up to being revisited. Instead, I'm talking about those books that you appreciated back in the day, but somehow knew you weren't quite ready to enjoy. Books that linger somewhere in the back of your imagination, biding their time until you're ready to continue with the series.

Kushiel's Chosen, the second book of the Kushiel's Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey, was the first book to really open my eyes to this. I would have been in my 20's when I read Kushiel's Dart, just out of University, and stumbling my way into a career. I remember there being a definite taboo appeal to the story, with the book itself representing something of a game-changer for me at the time. It was a graduation of sorts from the pages of traditional fantasy to something . . . well, more.

It was late last year that I finally got around to reading the second book in the series (prompted by a review copy of the new trade paperback edition), and I was finally ready to appreciate it. This is a series that offers up a blend of fetish and fantasy, spiritualism and sadomasochism, hedonism and heroism. More than that, it is an epic fantasy with the most profound of messages at its heart - "Love as thou wilt.” As powerful and original as I remember the first book being, the second revealed itself to be an even stronger read. In moving beyond that taboo novelty of its sexuality, I was able to appreciate the characters, the politics, the mythology, and the storytelling.

Yes, it's a romantic fantasy, but the political intrigues are as strong as anything you'll find in more traditional fantasies. It's a big, sweeping series, often heavy on both the head and the heart, and one that I found I'd finally grown into. The taboo element is still there, and still permeates the series, but it's become an accent rather than the story's defining element.

That brings me to Prophecy: Child of Earth, the second book in the Symphony of Ages by Elizabeth Haydon. I would have read Rhapsody around the same time as Kushiel's Dart, with that same 20-something mindset, and I had much the same reaction. That first book was a different sort of fantasy yet again, largely a character study of three people, with a prolonged quest through the heart of the world. It wasn't a game changer in quite the same way, but a book that stuck with me. It was a slow read, a slow journey, and a slow burn, but I never forgot the sense of wonder.

In looking for a good paperback fantasy to carry through hikes and vacations this summer, I finally decided it was time to continue with the series (prompted by a review copy of the final book). Despite the years in between, I immediately fell back into the world, with no introductions needed. At the heart of it all, this is a series about love, trust, and acceptance - not that far off, in fact, from Kushiel's Legacy. Where that had the BDSM-themed novelty to carry it forward, however, this is based on a far more traditional (fairy tale, almost) romance between Rhapsody and Ash. The difference is, a relationship that would have had me groaning in impatience back then had me nodding and smiling in appreciation now.

The emotional aspects here some of the strongest parts of this second book, and I was actually anxious to get back to the romance every time Achmed and Grunthor interrupted. That said, I found new meaning in the struggles and sacrifices of all three, and greater appreciation for Jo, the annoying coming-of-age sidekick. I refuse to age, so let's just say I matured enough to appreciate the personal conflicts driving the story across both countries and ages.

In both cases, there was something that I recognized in those first volumes, something that hooked my imagination . . . but also something I knew I wasn't ready for. It's not that I ever made a conscious decision to delay, but something deep inside my brain knew it would be better to wait to continue. It's remarkable to think how much I remembered, and how quickly I connected with Phèdre and Rhapsody again, despite 15 years having passed - but that's also a testament to the storytelling strengths of Carey and Haydon.

Having recognized a trend, I'm thinking that the next series to revisit after an even longer absence will be the Wars of Light and Shadow by Janny Wurts. In this case, I would have been just starting University as I carried The Curse of the Mistwraith from lecture hall to seminar room, but I recall a similar experience. It was a book I appreciated, but it was too far removed from the epic fantasy I was reading at the time to properly enjoy it.

I'm curious to see if my imagination can go three-for-three, giving me back another series that I've always wanted to continue with, especially since personal conflicts were at the heart of this one as well. What I struggled with back then, I suspect will be a hook for me now. As soon as I can snag a copy (I think the paperback aspect is key to reconnecting), The Ships of Merior will be my next maturity tour of the bookshelves . . . although Kushiel's Avatar and Destiny: Child of the Sky are sitting atop the shelves, waiting to step in should I hesitate too long.

Don't get me wrong, I still love kick-ass heroes (and heroines), fearsome monsters, sinister forces of evil, and massive battles upon which the fate of the world depends. Magic and worldbuilding are still massively important to me, and I will always be drawn to stories of sentient weapons, greedy dragons, and capricious gods. What has changed is that I've become more aware of the humanity beneath it all, and far more appreciative of engaging ideas and emotions. Maybe it's age, maybe it's marriage, maybe it's parenthood - who knows - but I find that I can relate to (and sympathize with) characters like Phèdre, Rhapsody, and Arithon better than ever before, and that makes these stories even compelling.

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