Ethshar is a fantasy world with a very high level of magic. The Ethshar books are each short, small scale fantasy stories, generally about people with no desire to be heroic. They’re funny, but without slapping you on the back with the humour, they’re fast reads, and if I could bake a sponge cake this light I’d call myself a cook. What they do really well is take one magical idea and ring the changes on it. They’re charming and cheering. I’ve been saying for years that they ought to be republished as YA, because my son went through them as fast as he could turn the pages when he was about ten.
You should start with The Misenchanted Sword, which is about Valder, a scout who has lost his army and is trying to get back to it. A wizard he meets gives him an enchanted sword, and he spends the rest of the book trying to cope with it. However, I started with With a Single Spell, which is about Tobas, a wizard’s apprentice whose wizard dies when he’s only mastered one spell, leaving him to make his own way in the world as best he can with nothing but the ability to set things on fire. I think either of these make a fine introduction to the world and the way it works. All the books stand alone, though there are some repeating characters.
One of the things Watt Evans is doing here is gently puncturing some standard fantasy tropes. In a series that begins during a war, it’s refreshing to see the war ended and the political landscape rewritten afterwards. I really like how there are three cities called Ethshar, Ethshar of the Sands, Ethshar of the Spices and Ethshar of the Rocks. There’s also a running joke about characters called Keldar—it’s like Paul was in my generation or Jenny in the one after, one in every class. I’ve always thought Ethshar would make a wonderful setting for a roleplaying campaign. What the books do is to take one magical proposition that’s often a given in fantasy and very entertainingly examine everything that could possibly go wrong with it.
The others are The Unwilling Warlord, The Blood of a Dragon, The Spriggan Mirror, (definitely should be read after With a Single Spell) The Vondish Ambassador, Ithanalin’s Restoration, Night of Madness, Taking Flight, The Spell of the Black Dagger (takes place later than all the others and should probably be read last.)
Most of the series is in print, from small presses Cosmos and Wildside, with bonus short stories. They’re not world-shatteringly wonderful, they’re not the best thing Watt Evans has ever done, but they’re fast fun fantasy and just right to curl up with on a cold winter evening.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.