Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Ethshar novels

If you haven’t yet read Lawrence Watt-Evans’s Ethshar novels, I recommend them. They were out of print some time ago, but I found most of them in second-hand bookstores, and I’m glad to see that they’re readily available again. The worldbuilding and system of magic are good, but what really distinguishes these books for me are their protagonists and plots. The typical Watt-Evans hero is a likeable Everyman who wants a quiet life, and who solves his problems through wits, common sense and good nature rather than through magical power or because he is Chosen by Destiny.

The first Ethshar novel I read was The Misenchanted Sword, which begins with a scout called Valder losing his way behind enemy lines and coming into possession of a magic sword. The sword attacks one opponent at a time with superhuman skill, but after it defeats one hundred men, it will turn on Valder and strike him down. Oh, and he can’t be killed in any other way, nor will be die naturally (though he’ll grow old and feeble and blind eventually).

At this point, a lot of fantasy novels might have had Valder using his newfound magic artifact to rise in the army’s ranks and kill the enemy commander and win the war and save the kingdom. That was what I expected, but instead Valder became an assassin, albeit a reluctant one who didn’t like killing and wanted to settle down and lead a safe life as an innkeeper – which he did as soon as the war ended. But he could never get rid of the sword, and it was a target for thieves. Worse, it was inextricably bound to his own life.

The novel doesn’t have a grand, gripping, epic plot; instead, Valder’s life is more a series of episodes connected by the sword. And Valder is a pleasant, down-to-earth protagonist, without deep flaws or a dark past or unrequited love or even flippant commentary. But it’s that very normalcy that I like; it’s a breath of fresh calm air in the fantasy genre. I wouldn’t want too much of this, but I have to say, a fantasy novel that can hold my interest without even an antagonist is a pretty good one.

The system of magic in Ethshar is also well-thought-out, and the novel which best highlights this is The Unwilling Warlord. The war in this story is on so small a scale that it would be little more than a scuffle in the Martinverse, but it’s still tense as a group of very underpowered magicians take on an army which far outnumbers them. I like the way Watt-Evans ensures that no warlock will ever get too powerful – the stronger they become, the more attuned they are to a distant, mysterious something called the Aldagamor Source, which finally attracts them to itself like a magnet draws iron filings. They are never seen again. I would love to read a novel about the Source and what it does with all those warlocks.

The Ethshar novels don't need to be read in series to be enjoyed, so I'd urge anyone wanting logical but light-hearted fantasy to dive in.

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