Juliet McKenna, The Tales of Einarinn.
Paradox: even though some of my favourites writers and series are fantasy, I prefer scifi. Most of the time, to me, fantasy is just piling up cliché upon cliché. But when Charlie Stross invited Juliet McKenna to write for his blog, precisely against those clichés (1), I thought that her books deserved my attention. And I was right...
The Tales of Einarinn are set on a world whose main continent has suffered from a terrible political and civilian upheaval, a real chaos that fractured a unified empire into many smaller kingdoms and during which the practice of magic was lost. Another way to practice magic has since developped. But suddenly, mysterious fair headed strangers appear: they master the ancient form of magic and seem determined to gather antiques, using violence.
The series uses a first person narrator which alternates from novel to novel: in the first volume, that narrator is Livak, a thief and a professional gambler who gets caught despite herself in the quest led by the wizards of Hadrumal to gather these antiques before the dangerous strangers do.
The first volume is one of McKenna's first novels. Sadly, it shows sometimes: the pace can lose its momentum in the middle of the novel. But as the series progresses, the writing style of the author gains in confidence and the whole series ends up being delightful to read.
The characters have a D&D feel to them. But even if at first sight they are a bit of a cliché (2), they end up being unique and genuine thanks to the dialogues and the way they develop throughout the series. Far from the usual exiled princes and other out of the ordinary warriors, it's also quite enjoyable that the main characters are more or less normal people, caught in the middle of a magical war, with all its consequences from which McKenna doesn't shy away.
The nature of the plot makes the ending of the series a bit predictable. But the world is extremely rich: there isn't just one continent, one dominant culture, one race. The following series (The Aldabreshin Compass, The Lescari Revolution and The Hadrumal Crisis) explore the others regions of this world with even more depth and even if I've liked a lot Tales of Einarinn, I actually prefer the following three which I've loved reading.
So it's a series that I really recommend, precisely because it is a tremendous introduction to the three following series that really raise the bar. Sadly, it seems McKenna won't come back to this world (3), but she has given us four great series and some short stories, all highly enjoyable.
The writer's website and her Twitter account.
(1) Please note that the linked article has spoilers for the following series, The Aldabreshin Compass.
(2) Diana Wynne Jones readers will recognize the gay mage trope from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland but happily none of McKenna's characters are defined by their sexuality only. And well, let's face it, it's hard to find an epic & heroic fantasy novel that escapes The Tough Guide to Fantasyland tropes! (#DianaWynneJonesPwnedFantasy)
(3) Update: October 2016: You can check her latest fantasy stories on her website: Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom. I haven't read it yet but intend to soon.
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