An Appreciation of the Works of Janny Wurts

Destiny’s Conflict, the tenth and penultimate novel in Janny Wurts’ stunning Wars of Light and Shadows series, has just been released, making this an excellent time to take a look at the career of one of the great (and, in my opinion, most under-appreciated) novelists working in fantasy. Wurts has published nearly 20 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 discussed.

So. Let’s talk about some of Janny Wurts other books, shall we?

First and foremost, there’s the Wars of Light and Shadow series, which began in 1993 with The Curse of the Mistwraith and, with the recent release of Destiny’s Conflict, currently stands at ten novels. (Only the grand finale, Song of the Mysteries, is still forthcoming, which is a bit stunning to consider for those of us who’ve been following the series for years.) 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.

This 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 the nine books before Destiny’s Conflict without major spoilers and without repeating myself too much.)

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’ve encountered in the genre. 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 incredibly 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.

Another great example of this writing style is To Ride Hell’s Chasm, which may be my single favorite standalone fantasy novel 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 is also 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. As mentioned, 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 (and forthcoming) Arc will be 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 they’re all available again now, with shiny new covers to boot, making my ongoing mission to get more people to read them considerably easier.

And 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.

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. 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.”

A previous version of this post was originally published in December 2013.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. His (sadly neglected) website is Far Beyond Reality.

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