In the past, we’ve debated the definitions of epic fantasy and sword and sorcery, its social orientation, and what Fantasy Has Done For Us Lately. Well, you know what fantasy has done for me lately? Violette Malan.
In the mists of history—or, well, not actually all that long ago—I scraped up the cash to go to World Fantasy in Calgary. When I was there, I found this book called The Sleeping God, by Violette Malan. And stayed up too late reading it, naturally. This spring, I finally read the fourth, and so far, last published, in a series featuring the same main characters. The Dhulyn and Parno novels, as they’re known, comprise The Sleeping God, The Soldier King, The Storm Witch, and Path of the Sun. And, recently, after Kari Sperring pointed out to me in conversation that she saw Malan’s Dhulyn and Parno novels as natural heirs to the sword and sorcery tradition in the vein of Fritz Leiber, I knew I had to talk about them here.
Because they’re fun. Dhulyn and Parno are Mercenary Brothers, extremely well-trained professional warriors who hold to a stringent honour code. They’re also Partners: lovers, shield-brothers, people who trust each other with more than their lives—but while this is important to their characters, and to the narrative, the books don’t include a love story. It’s a mature, solid partnership. And mature, equal, equitable relationships are rare enough in the fiction I’ve been reading in the last while that I feel obliged to congratulate Malan on this one.
What follows should not be construed as anything like a critical review. Instead, I’m giving in to my baser instincts and indulging in a bit of shameless cheerleading. Since I want more books like these. (Preferably more in the same series, but I’ll settle for something near the same kind.)
The trend in fantasy in recent years has moved ever more towards the noir, the gritty, the grim. Indeed, if one may venture to compare architecture and literature, at times it seems like a kind of literary brutalism, a raw modernist reinterpretation of tradition. But sometimes you don’t want to wade through gut wounds and detailed descriptions of blood, shit, and the horrible things humans do to one another to get to your entertainment. Sometimes, you want implausibly competent, fundamentally decent characters kicking ass and taking names, wandering the world and saving it—while, so they hope, getting paid.
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
—A.E. Housman, “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries”
In all four books, the first one is the only one in which a threat to the world exists. This danger at first irritated me (being tired, then, of O WOES WORLD NEEDS SAVING), but now it strikes me as an apt melding of the genre conversation as fantasy subgenres: The Sleeping God is epic fantasy tied up in a sword and sorcery package. Or possibly S&S tied up in an epic fantasy package, depending on your point of view.
Dhulyn Wolfshead, called the Scholar, and Parno Lionsmane, called the Chanter, accept a commission to deliver the young woman Mar-eMar to her relatives in the city of Imrion. The political climate is disturbed, as a new religious sect are stirring up prejudice against magic-users, who come in four kinds: Finders, Menders, Healers, and Seers. Seers are the rarest of the lot: although Dhulyn herself is a Seer, her talents are erratic and all but useless—and she’s the only Seer she’s met in all her adult life.
Once they reach the city, complications arise. They find themselves in the middle of a conspiracy to overthrow the Tarkin, the ruler of Imrion, and Parno finds the family he’d thought he’d forsworn forever when he joined the Mercenary Brotherhood right in the thick of it—and willing to welcome him back. But the conspirators are being used by an even more sinister force, one that desires the unmaking of the world. And it’s up to Dhulyn and Parno to stop it.
Well-rounded characters both male and female! Derring-do! Heroic (maybe-not-quite) last stands! Come one, come all….
In The Soldier King, our pair of mercenary heroes get into a spot of bother when, after a battle, they accept the surrender of a prisoner who turns out to be more important than he seems. In trouble with their employers for not handing him over as a bargaining piece, Dhulyn and Parno end up embroiled in another attempted coup—with a prince who’d rather be a playwright, and the last surviving daughter of a band of travelling players. Mages! Magic! Amnesia! A supporting female character who happens to be married to another woman!
The Sea Witch sees the pair travelling to a continent on the far side of the world from their normal haunts. Separated, each believes the other to be dead—and meanwhile there’s an ambitious emperor trying to muscle his way out of his treaties with their clients; and a mage from a different time caught in the body of a princess and mucking with the weather. While The Path of the Sun brings back Mar-eMar and one of the secondary characters from The Sleeping God, the scholar Gundaron, and introduces a serial killer, another coup attempt, and alternate universes.
…I’ve been accused of incoherency when it comes to books I truly enjoy (I know, you’re all so very not shocked), but trust me, the alternate universes make sense in context. Excellent adventure sense!
I’ve a very soft spot for sword-and-sorcery, the fantasy of encounter, that features a daring team of implausibly competent, decent people against the world. The Dhulyn and Parno books aren’t perfect (what product of human endeavour is?) but they scratch a good few of my narrative itches in one go.
What do you think?