Thu
Dec 19 2013 9:00am

Under the Radar: Janny Wurts’ Wars of Light and Shadow

Janny Wurts The Curse of the Mistwraith Wars of Light and ShadowFor this installment of Under The Radar—the biweekly column where we highlight books that have unjustly gone unnoticed—I’m going to stretch our definition a bit by highlighting Janny Wurts, an author who has been, well, definitely not unnoticed, but at least underappreciated by readers and critics alike.

Yes, Wurts has published well over a dozen novels with major publishers over the course of her three decade career, but still, somehow her name rarely comes up whenever someone asks for epic fantasy recommendations.

Since I happen to believe that, once it’s completed, her Wars of Light and Shadow series will be counted among the great enduring classics of epic fantasy, I thought I’d take this opportunity to spread the word a bit.

Part of the problem is probably that, whenever the name Janny Wurts is mentioned in discussions about epic fantasy, the first thing people invariably bring up is the Empire Trilogy, which she co-wrote with Raymond E. Feist as part of Feist’s bestselling and ongoing Riftwar Cycle. All fine and good, but first of all, Wurts has written so much more. Secondly, you’d be surprised at how often her role in the creation of these books is miscategorized, or, thirdly, how often her name isn’t even acknowledged when the books are listed or discussed. At the time I’m writing this, just the first book in the Empire trilogy has over 13,000 ratings on GoodReads alone, more than the nine books that have been published in the Wars of Light and Shadows to date combined.

Janny Wurts has written so much more than those three books that happened to be co-written with a best-selling male author who probably has had more marketing dollars devoted to his works than all but a few female authors working in the genre. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start going on about gender disparity and voices being silenced and so on again (but believe me, this is a textbook case.)

One more data point: doing a quick search here at Tor.com, I could find only five articles that even mentioned Wurts, three in connection with Feist, and the two others were brief references by me. So. Let’s remedy this and talk about some of Janny Wurts other books, shall we?

First and foremost, there’s the Wars of Light and Shadow series, which currently stands at nine novels. Two more novels are in the works and will finish out the series. This is Epic Fantasy with capital E and capital F: the millennia-spanning tale of Paravia, a fantasy universe that, in terms of complexity and scope, rivals almost anything else in the genre, and the tale of Arithon and Lysaer, the two half-brothers whose struggles are tied to the fate of that world.

One of the most remarkable things about this series is that it doesn’t sprawl—it deepens. It doesn’t keep adding plot threads and characters. Instead, it continually adds layers of meaning and complexity to everything, from the history of the world to the background of the major players and factions. Wurts moves the markers from book to book, challenging the reader to reconsider previous assumptions at every turn.

Janny Wurts Warhost of Vastmark Wars of Light and ShadowThis also makes it an insanely difficult set of books to discuss or review. It’s hard to describe exactly why e.g. Warhost of Vastmark, the third book in the series completely blew me away, not because I’m worried about giving away plot details but because part of the joy of reading this series lies in regularly recalibrating your understanding of its mysteries. (I still consider it something of a personal triumph that, over the years, I managed to write individual reviews for each of the nine books in this series without major spoilers and without repeating myself too much. Achievement unlocked!)

It’s impossible to encapsulate what makes this series so wonderful in a few paragraphs. It needs a post, or even better series of posts, all by itself. (It would actually make a great subject for a Tor.com reread, once it’s completed.) The books feature several completely unique modes of magic, all described in language that’s lyrical and precise and quite unlike anything I’d encountered in fantasy before. It covers a fantasy history that spans ages and planets. It features, to get specific about just a few favorite scenes, the single best description of a siege I’ve read in all of fantasy, as well as the single most hair-raising scene of dark magic. Once you’ve read these two scenes, similar ones in other fantasies feel like pale comparisons.

Part of the reason for this is the author’s remarkable prose. Janny Wurts writes in an instantly recognizable and, to be fair, somewhat challenging style—challenging because she uses an unusually broad vocabulary and complex, long sentences and paragraphs to explore every single nuance of meaning. It’s incredible dense prose, something to read slowly, to consider and re-consider carefully. I always have to adjust to Wurts’ style when I pick up one of her books: if your average reading speed is (to pick a random number) one page per minute, expect to spend several minutes per page here. Every word counts. Wurts will spend paragraphs, pages even, exploring one character’s changed perspective on an event, in a way that never feels spun out or repetitive but instead carefully explores every thought.

Janny Wurts To Ride Hell's ChasmAnother great example of this style is To Ride Hell’s Chasm, which is one of my single favorite standalone fantasy novels ever. Princess Anja of the tiny kingdom of Sessalie has gone missing on the eve of her betrothal. The foreign-born former mercenary Mykkael, one of the genre’s unforgettable characters, tries to find her. The novel covers only about five days in the course of its 650 or so pages, but it somehow never feels long-winded because every emotion, every visual detail, every nuance of meaning is hammered down in the richest, most meticulous prose you could hope to find in the genre.

To Ride Hell’s Chasm also is a nice example of another recognizable Janny Wurts hallmark: many of her novels feature something like a false resolution at the halfway point. You’ve got about half of the novel to go, and suddenly it feels like everything is coming together. The tension builds to a climactic peak, but instead of letting up, the author maintains and even raises the suspense until the actual end of the novel. The second half of this book is impossible to put down.

(Interestingly, by the way, Wurts uses the same trick in the Wars of Light and Shadow on multiple levels. This is planned to be an eleven book series, spread over five “arcs”: Arc One is one book, Arc Two is two books, Arc Three is five books, Arc Four is two books again and the final Arc is a single novel. One-two-five-two-one, a neatly symmetrical structure, with each book and each arc somehow having its own midway climax. It’s an impressive edifice, and for good reason considered the author’s opus magnum. It’s a crying shame that through the vagaries of the publishing world some of these books were hard to find in the US for a long time, but at least they’re all available in paperback again now.)

Janny Wurts Master of the WhitestormAnd there’s so much more to goodness to be found in the author’s bibliography. Another personal favorite is Master of Whitestorm, the tale of a former galley slave who becomes somewhat obsessed (to put it mildly) with gathering enough money to build an impregnable fortress. Initially feeling like an old-fashioned episodic adventure fantasy, the novel gradually reveals an underlying thread that explains the main character’s personality. Think Lethal Weapon in a complex fantasy setting. Master of Whitestorm was just recently re-released as an ebook after being out of print for many years.

I haven’t even covered Wurts’ full biography: there’s also the Cycle of Fire trilogy and her debut standalone Sorcerer’s Legacy (all written before Feist invited her to co-write the Empire books, by the way), and a major short story collection called That Way Lies Camelot. (Also, for the fans, there are some new Wars of Light and Shadow stories available on the author’s site.) I haven’t even talked about the fact that Wurts is also an accomplished artist who paints her own covers, and a talented musician.

I hope you’ll pardon my enthusiasm about all of this, but again, this author is so often ignored or miscategorized that it’s become something of a personal mission for me to spread the word. Still, if you won’t take my word for it, listen to Stephen R. Donaldson, who once famously said about Janny Wurts that it “ought to be illegal for one person to have so much talent.”


Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.

26 comments
David Powers
1. hellfudge
I received Curse of the Mistwraith back in, like, Seventh Grade and really enjoyed it. I think it had just come out, we bought it at a grocery store in Gardiner, Maine.
I just recently found out that it was the first in a series, so I'm still trying to find my battered, tattered, duct-taped spined copy of it.
Jason Gruber
2. jmgruber
I picked Curse of the Mistwraith up from a used bookstore called Booklegger. Lost track of the series because it seemed to keep getting longer and the gap between books meant I forgot what was going on, but I might have to pick it back up now that the end is in sight.
Mike G.
3. Mike G.
At least for me, and solely in terms of her solo work at the time the empire books came out, the reason she wasn't appreciated was because her solo writing just did not appeal to me. Not in the least.

Now, maybe that's changed with this new trilogy - I'll have to take a look. But this wasn't about Feist's marketing dollars or name on the cover - when I compared her solo books to the books the 2 of them wrote together, I enjoyed the collaborations and did not enjoy her solo works.

Note that this is in no way a literary criticism - it's just an "I like what I like" thing - which included a whole lot of books by other female authors, so I don't think it's a gender thing. It's a Wurts thing :)
Robert H. Bedford
4. RobB
What would be her most representative novel one should read first?

Which book is the first in the Wars of Light and Shadow? Curse of Mistwrath?
Mike G.
5. Contrarian
There are a couple of problems with Wurts. Neither have anything to do with her gender.
1) As you mentioned in the article her prose is challenging. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. Faulkner wrote challenging prose. But it's harder for people to get into. The layering and language is counter to most her contemporaries. Maybe she was ahead of her time (I don't think she's any more complex than say GRRM, who hit it big after Curse came out).
Whatever the case, when moving from Feist, and Eddings and Brooks (and Anthony) onto her Wars of Light and Shadow, it's a pretty significant change in tone.
2) Spacing of her books. People get frustrated when they have to wait for the next book in a series. I read Curse when it came out (I also read Ships of Merior as a hardback (which included Warhost of Vastmark) and Fugitive Prince. Then there was a 5 year gap between that and Grand Conspiracy. I never finished that book. I'd lost interest, I couldn't recall the previous plot threads and wasn't motivated enough to reread the previous books.

In my mind she's a lot like Tad Williams:
Complex Prose
Layered and nuanced writing
Flies under the radar from most the mainstream authors
Been around for a long time
Keeps publishing books
Has never broken through to acclaim

He's another author that you should consider an article for.
Bob Milne
6. beautyinruins
I really need to catch up with this series - I'm a few books in, and I love it, but just haven't had a chance to finish it off. I think, like jmgruber said above, it's the gap between books that has kept me away. I feel like there's so much to catch up on and refresh, I may just need to sit down and tackle the first few books again before proceeding.
Mike G.
7. Cybersnark
I just recently came across Curse of the Mistwraith (thanks to the public bookshelf in my apartment building), and am now eagerly tracking down all the extant novels in that series.
Bryan Schenk
8. Damplander
I loved the Riftwar books she did very aware even at that time that they were almost exclusively her writing. Of all the Raymond E. Feist books I can honestly say I enjoyed the three written by Wurts the most. I started the Curse of the Mistwraith when it came out and read I believe the first 3 in the series. It is full of deep moving writing and very much worth the effort.

Small spoiler alert! Doesn't give away any specifics but if haven't read Curse of the Mistwraith may want to avoid it!

However I gave up on it in large part due to the main conceit of the curse, which tells you up front the basic problem. You really come to like the 2 main figures and the inability of them to resolve the problems between them which is all due to the curse is just highly depressing/frustrating. I may very well go back and get the rest of the series once the final books come out because then I will have the carrot of a possible pleasant conclusion to the series!

But as stated, I overall love her writing it just got to depressing which is in part due to her great writing she would draw you in make you think good things might happen... and they wouldn't and once this was established it was a bit much to put myself through for another 6 plus books! Put after giving up on Song of Ice and Fire for a similiar reason and then getting back into I may very well be able to finish this series as well.
Mike G.
9. D Ehl
Thank you, sir. I am going to read these books because of you.
Mike G.
10. gjacoby
Wars of Light and Shadow is one of my favorite fantasy series, up there with Ice and Fire and Wheel of Time. I remember having to order the new books from Amazon UK during the gap years when Wurts didn't have an American publisher, because I just couldn't wait indefinitely for the next volume.

However, I've tried several times to buy or loan copies of "Curse of the Mistwraith" for friends, and I've realized that as an opening to the series it doesn't serve Wurts well. In addition to the prose style, which the article mentions, there's another issue: to a new reader the plot and characters read very much like a (well-done) Standard 80s Epic Fantasy.

It's not. But the Fellowship seems at first like Tolkien's wizards, and the Paravians as simple elves, centaurs, and unicorns. Whereas Jordan makes the first couple hundred pages of Eye of the World feel like Tolkien before breaking out, Wurts spends most of the first novel that way.

One of the joys of the series is rereading the previous books, including "Curse", and seeing that the layers and depth had been there all along; you just didn't notice them because you didn't know what to look for. Each time I've reread one of the books, I've spotted something important I missed before. But this means that there's a disconnect between those of us recommending the books and those starting out, because one side sees the book in light of what comes after, and the other sees a (relatively) simple story about brave, bickering princes fighting an Ancient Evil to restore sunlight to a dark world.

At the beginning, the series requires the reader to either be satisfied with that simpler story, or to have trust and patience that those layers are there and will become evident in time.
Mike G.
11. Rudy
I infer from the introductory remarks that lots of people assume that Feist was the lead author on the Empire trilogy. I've always assumed the opposite. His world, her prose. And I know it's probably not that cut and dried. But those three books simply read differently to me. And though I enjoyed the earlier Midkemia books, these three were definitely a cut above. It was because of the Empire trilogy that I bought the first books of the Wars of Light and Shadow (and I'd bet my hat that Wurts was heavily influenced by Dorothy Dunnett).
Peter Czyzewski
12. sebastianelgar
And I just checked the first 2 books Curse of the Mistwraith and The Ships of Merior are currently .99 and 1.99 for kindle e-books
Mike G.
13. LexieGirl
I just was gifted all the books (but the most recent) of her Wars books. I admit I love the Empire trilogy (I seriously, seriously love it) so I was excited for this set...but I'm having some trouble getting into it. It may be I'm too tired from all the work I've been doing...

Also why couldn't this be a re-read without it being completed? A Song of Fire and Ice and the Stormlight Archives--both which won't be completed for years--are being done as re-reads, so certainly this could be?
Mike G.
14. dwndrgn
I lost track of the Wars of Light & Shadow series due to that giant gap as well. I remembered thinking, that can't be over! And then moving on to other things. I adored To Ride Hell's Chasm and am now going to have to look up some of her other books because I had never heard of them and start over with Wars of Light & Shadow too.
Brian R
15. Mayhem
Interesting point by Contrarian about Tad Williams also flying under the radar - that must be a US specific thing.

Both he and her have been HUGE names in UK/Australasian circles for decades. I certainly own pretty much everything either of them has written, and have been collecting them since high school.
I know there was *always* a long waiting list whenever the new Wurtz hit the libraries, the only ones with worse waiting lists were Jordan and originally Eddings.

One other thing you forgot to mention above - not only does she paint her own covers and designs the fonts and the glyphs that break up the chapters, she also does the incredibly intricate maps that are also highly characteristic of her work. And they work on multiple levels - not only are they accurate, legible, and easy to follow - but the worlds themselves are geologically and geographically correct, with deserts in rain shadows, montains in logical locations, and countries that have squiggly borders just because thats how countries evolve. It's a really nice thing to see - so often maps and worlds are more in the lines of the Shannara fantasy maps, where the world is simply a setting, not necessarily possibly a living place.

Master of Whitestorm is probably my favourite of hers on the whole, though I also have a strong fondness for the Cycle of Fire novels, simply because I came to them first.

Oh, and not at all least she also doesn't have any issues writing very strong female characters, which was a very pleasant surprise when I first encountered her work.
Brian R
16. Mayhem
That being said, I do prefer Geoff Taylor's UK covers to the US ones in her older work, mostly because the US market for covers tends to be less stylistically creative than the UK one.
http://www.geofftaylor-artist.com/galleries/cover-art/author/WURTS%20Janny

Although it is noticeable that her rereleased WoLaS books now have her glorious UK cover art embedded in the imagery - I wonder if she finally has the creative permission from the publishers to use landscapes and imagery of more than just a character or two.
Best example - compare the UK and US versions of To Ride Hells Chasm, where she painted both versions.
http://www.paravia.com/JannyWurts/website/Books/ToRideHellsChasm/images/ToRideHellsChasmUS.jpg
http://www.paravia.com/JannyWurts/website/Books/ToRideHellsChasm/images/ToRideHellsChasmBritish.jpg
Cheryl Sanders
17. RestlessSpirit
I have long liked Janny Wurts and picked up The Curse of the Mistwraith after reading the Empire books. I love detailed and difficult books to keep me challenged and the Wars of Light and Shadow have certainly fit the bill. As others have mentioned though, the biggest challenge is the wait between books. I just assumed Ms. Wurts had dropped off the planet until I saw her over on Goodreads and my faith in literary humanity was restored :)
Cheryl Sanders
18. RestlessSpirit
BTW Stefan, thanks for the article. It's nice to see that someone else has an appreciation for an author that people in my real-life circle have never heard of!
Mike G.
19. AO
I very much enjoyed The Empire Trilogy, but have had to really struggle through The Wars of Light and Shadow (I've completed the first two books), though not for the reasons that anyone has yet mentioned.

I really appreciated and have enoyed the the world-building and the plots of both books, but have found the writing and characterization to be extremely simple. Not necessarily in the specific words chosen, but in the way they are used to construct sentences that I would have found too simple for me when I was 10. Ymmv and all that, but it's a definite chore for me to get through these books, at least so far.

I have the next three in the series and will continue on with the third installment sometime in the new year. I remain hopeful that the author can improve her defeciencies (that I consider serious) and improve on her weaknesses and turn this series into one I can appreciate in it's totality, rather than just for some of it's parts.

"Once you’ve read these two scenes, similar ones in other fantasies feel like pale comparisons."

Did either of these that you mentioned ocur in the first two books? If so, then I definitely didn't have the same reaction. If not, then hopefully I'll feel similarly if/when I do get to them. Though for a fantasy siege I have trouble believing anyone could challenge Miles Cameron's Red Knight.
Mike G.
20. Nizlemia
I enjoyed the Empire collabaration far more than any solo Feist or Wurts work. There's some great stuff in that trilogy.

I recall in the 90's in Canada, having a great deal of trouble finding her books. I remember truly enjoying Whitestorm and Mistwraith but I could never locate any others. Of course perhaps I was too lazy to bend over to where the W-authors were shelved on the bottom shelf. Perhaps history would have been different if her name was Janny Aardvark. ;)
Brian R
21. Mayhem
@AO
Though for a fantasy siege I have trouble believing anyone could challenge Miles Cameron's Red Knight.

Hmm. Probably the greatest siege for me still has to be David Gemmell's Legend. Although in a top list would also be the sieges of Capustan & Black Coral in Steven Erikson's Memories of Ice, Glen Cook's siege of Dejagore in Bleak Seasons and the aforementioned siege of Alestron above. And I'm pretty sure there was rather a good one in one of the Redwall books, amusingly enough, but my memory there is hazy.

SF wise, I'm not sure if anything involving a Bolo can be classed as under siege, more "accumulating targets", but there is definitely something ringing a bell there.
Mike G.
22. AO
@Mayhem,

I actually read Legend for the very first time about a month ago. I enjoyed it, and even moreso given when it was published, but imho I didn't enjoy it as much as Red Knight.
Deepali
23. Deepali
Thank you for this post, I used to love wurtz when I was studying, and haven't read her books since cause they were hard to find
I'm goin to check in my library/ buy the ebooks now.
Scott Mayer
24. tiornys
@4 RobB,

As noted in the article, To Ride Hell's Chasm is a standalone that exemplifies her mature prose style. That's the book I recommend to peers as a litmus; if they like it, then I introduce them to Wars of Light and Shadow.

And yes, Curse of the Mistwraith is the first book in that series.
Mike G.
25. Wurtsfan
I just bumbled into this series a few months ago and have loved every bit of the Wars of Light and Shadow. I have not read any of her other books, but am looking forward to the next installment in this series. Thanks for highlighting a writer that I would agree, receives very little notice for what I believe is one of the better fantasy series out there.
Mike G.
26. YES!!
Thank you, Stefan, for drawing attention to the solo works of Wurts. I remember first picking the series up a good 15 years ago and have always been surprised at how little attention the Wars of Light and Shadow books get. Perhaps the early cover art (a style which she loves, but does the casual-judge-a-book-by-its-cover reader no help) failed to draw people in? Or, perhaps as you allude, she got stiffed in a genre sadly known for its sexism? Despite this inattention, she has done, and continues to do, amazing work with this series--a deep and rich epic without, as you say, the sprawl associated with many other multi-multi-text series.

My only real complaint comes with how drawn out the publication schedule has become. Once the series is complete I have no doubt that it will rank amongst the top epic fantasy series... but getting there is seemingly taking a long time (a feeling of frustration well known of late with other series, but still, an author should know better).

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