Feb 18 2010 4:32pm

Light and Clever and Magical: Lawrence Watt Evans Ethshar Books

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.

1. Booksandhorses
As usual Jo has it just right. These books are great. I also started with "A Single Spell" and have been slowly tracking down the other books - haven't managed them all yet. Well worth a read.
Dru O'Higgins
2. bellman
I love these books! Vondish Ambassador comes after Unwilling Warlord. Cosmos isn't doing a paperback of Vondish, it took me forever to find the Wildside trade paperback.
Marcus W
3. toryx
Many years ago I read "A Single Spell" and "The Misenchanted Sword" and I really enjoyed them both. Somehow, however, I never got around to reading the rest. I should remedy that sometime soon.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Did anyone read The Spriggan Mirror when he was doing it as an online subscription novel?
Kate Nepveu
5. katenepveu
I always vaguely class Watt Evans with Dave Duncan, usually when I'm trying to recall why I haven't read more of their books. Generally I decide on "lack of urgency," but I should probably see whether our libraries stock these or acquire a couple for the next time I really need something like this.
james loyd
6. gaijin
I started the Spriggan Mirror online, but got impatient. I decided to wait until it was finished and read it all at once.

The Ethshar books are an excellent series. The various types of magic are clearly differentiated and explained. There are often ways around accepted practices, but always within the established rules of magic. Working with the constraints is much of what makes them so clever and entertaining.

I actually contacted the author once to ask if the warlocks in the Ethshar books were connected to the wizards in his two War Surplus books. He seemed surprised although I found the powers and how they're transferred remarkably similar.
Chuk Goodin
7. Chuk
I read The Spriggan Mirror online. It was fun.

I've liked the Ethshar books for years. I've always thought they would make a good RPG setting too. I like how he plays with the magic, setting up rules for how it works and then exploring them in the story. And you can read most of them out of order, too.

Good idea on giving them to kids, my son's a fantasy fan now, I should give one to him.
David Levinson
8. DemetriosX
I read The Misenchanted Sword first and it was such a breath of fresh air, that I probably remember it as better than it was. Watt-Evans was probably the first Del Rey fantasy author who was able to kick against the Tolkienesque traces that were being imposed at the time. It was subversive and so wonderful to see something that didn't involve a multi-cultural fellowship out to stop the ultimate evil.
David Goldfarb
9. David_Goldfarb
From things LWE has said on rec.arts.sf.written (where he is still active, btw) I'm pretty sure that Ethshar started as an RPG setting, so yes it probably would.

I also subscribed to The Spriggan Mirror online (I kicked in enough that I got a copy of the printed book), and to The Vondish Ambassador as well.

The first few of these (Sword, Spell, Warlord) have interesting structures where there is a really major turning point about halfway through, so that the books seem more like two half-books stitched together. It made me wonder if LWE had trouble with plotting, but then when I read the later ones that are more unified I decided he was probably doing that deliberately as an experiment.

I'm not sure I agree that Black Dagger should be read last; at the very least The Spriggan Mirror should come later. In this, as with most other series, I think publication order is best.
Christopher Turkel
10. Applekey
I was hooked from the get go. When The Misenchanted Sword was published, it got a glowing review in Dragon magazine. I picked it up and I have been reading them ever since.

For about five years I used Ethshar as a RPG. I takes a certain caliber of player to play in that setting. Anyone expecting hack and slash will be let down. Anyway, this was before the invention of the World Wide Web and I had to guess at a lot things, like geography. It was fun while it lasted.

I agree: go with publication order. It makes things flow easier. It's not manditory; my wife read Ithanalin's Restoration without reading any of the others. She had a few questions but had no problem getting into the story and setting.

I read The Spriggan Mirror when it was a serial. It was a great experience and I spread the word by posting about on forums I frequent.

In all, great series, under appreciated and well worth tracking down.
11. Mr Fred
the Ethshar world feels like a setting for an RPG because that's what it originally was, according to an interview with Watt-Evans that I read many years ago.

I enjoyed the first several Ethshar books, up through Unwilling Warlord, but after that, they got too juvenile for me, very Piers Anthony-esqe...
12. Lawrence Watt Evans
I guess The Blood of a Dragon was kind of juvenile, but I didn't think it was an ongoing problem.

I'd be happy to see them republished as YA, but despite recurring talks, no one's ever actually made an offer.

The setting's origin is complicated, and goes back to about 1970, but yes, it was a play-by-mail RPG circa 1980, before any of the novels were written.

I see no one's mentioned that there are Ethshar short stories, as well.

I'm sorry the Cosmos paperback of The Vondish Ambassador was canceled, but it wasn't my fault; the entire Cosmos paperback line was dropped due to the distributor's cash-flow problems.

The eleventh Ethshar novel, The Final Calling, is in the early stages of development (i.e., I've written the first chapter and have a rough outline), and will probably be serialized later this year.
13. wkwillis
This is a good week. I got moved from four working days a week to five, and we're getting another Ethshar novel!
Christopher Turkel
14. Applekey
I believe as long as the serials are successful, LWE will keep doing them. He did mix it up this time as the current serial is "Realms of Light", the sequel to his sci fi novel, "Nightside City".

Personally, I'm hoping to see another Valder novel someday.
james loyd
15. gaijin
"The eleventh Ethshar novel, The Final Calling...will probably be serialized later this year. "
I'm trying very hard not to emit an epic "Squee!" right now. This is especially difficult since the title implies we may finally find out the source of warlockry. Then again, we've been teased before NightofMadness.
Patrick DeLise
17. sunsteel
@10. Applekey I found out about The Misenchanted Sword from that same Dragon magazine review! Been a fan of Ethshar ever since. Watt-Evans wrote some great science fiction too! I am abig fan of his Three Worlds Trilogy!
18. Lawrence Watt Evans
There are fans of the Three Worlds Trilogy?
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
LWE: There certainly are. And my son had just lent his girlfriend Dragon Weather.
Patrick DeLise
20. sunsteel
The Three Worlds Trilogy is great dark fantasy! It was ahead of it's time and the original publisher blew it. The cover art was very misleading.
21. Lawrence Watt Evans
Dragon Weather definitely has fans, who are very much appreciated, but the Three Worlds trilogy (a.k.a. Worlds of Shadow) got an amazingly hostile reception when it was originally published.
Christoper Turkel
22. zizban
Sunsteel: I have the Dragon magazine with that review in it still.

The Three Worlds Trilogy was marketed poorly. When I first saw it in the bookstore I passed on it. Later, when I got online and read what LWE had to say about it, I gave it another chance.

It's good, solid dark fantasy. I enjoyed it.
Marcus W
23. toryx
I love dark fantasy. Now I'm going to have to see if I can find the Three Worlds trilogy.
Patrick DeLise
24. sunsteel
The Three Worlds Trilogy was published strangely by its original publisher. The 1st book was a published as a hardcover , the 2nd book was a trade paperback original and the 3rd book was a mass market paperback original. LWE was this due to change in regime at the publisher? I seem to recall something I read on your website or blog concerning difficultly with the publisher.

Those original book covers did not fit the bleak tone of the series at all! I guess some readers thought they were going to get an Ethshar-like story based on those book covers. Whoops!
25. Lawrence Watt Evans
Del Rey was indeed going through a shake-up at the time -- the series changed editors partway through -- but disappointing sales of the first volume also contributed.

Not that anyone actually gave me any official reasons beyond, "This is how we're doing it."

The timing also left something to be desired; they took so long between volumes that they had to amend the contract.

My impression was that somewhere between signing the contracts and publication, everyone at Del Rey (at least, everyone who was still there) lost interest in the project.

Anyway, that series was why I left Del Rey for Tor, so it wasn't all bad.

The entire trilogy is now available as a single fancy hardcover under the title Worlds of Shadow, published by Wildside Press. Should be available from your online book dealer of choice.
Jonathan Chen
26. jonc
I loved the Three Worlds Trilogy, it was my introduction to LWE's works. I was a bit puzzled by the intro blurb at the back of the paperback which didn't match the contents of the books. However, I was pretty much hooked by then.

When I tried the Esthar books, I was a bit disappointed that they lacked the depth of the Trilogy, but Dragon Weather was a definite hit.
Ben R
27. sphericaltime
Of the Ethshar books listed I've read With a Single Spell, The Misenchanted Sword, and The Spriggan Mirror and liked all of them.

Interestingly the first two really colored my ideas of fantasy for years afterward and the ideas linger still. A character with a single specific ability or tangled in an imperfect life spell can be very interesting.
28. Michael M Jones
I've always loved this series. It's a great deal of fun, and I like how most of the solutions involve brainpower and cleverness over hacking and slashing. Magic creates the problems, magic fixes them, and very rarely does brute force do any major good. These are thinking man's fantasy books, intelligent and fast-paced.

Some friends just got me The Vondish Ambassador for Christmas, and I read it almost immediately. It was nice to revisit some old, friendly territory.

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