01/04/2012. Contributed by Pauline Morgan
pub: Gollancz. 1007 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-09734-6.
check out websites:www.tor-forge.com and www.brandonsanderson.com
The line between fantasy and Science Fiction can be very thin. Both can deal with strange societies and alien landscapes, particularly if the SF is set on another planet. Both can produce mundane and familiar plot tropes. At one end of the scale is the ‘mediaeval’ fantasy where the only real difference from our Middle Ages is the funny names and the indiscriminate use of magic. For some readers, this is a happy comfort zone and, as long as it is well written, it can be an entertaining romp. At the other end of the spectrum is the space opera with faster-than-light ships, instant communications and bipedal aliens that all speak English. Again, this unsophisticated adventure can be enjoyable. They are not really that much different except in the trappings that identify it.
Too many fantasy authors spend too little time imagining their worlds and as a consequence they are filled with familiar animals, plants foods and weapons so it is delightful to find one who has spent as much time (or more) creating his fantasy world as a good SF writer does developing their planet. This immediately begs the question, ‘Is this fantasy?’ or is there something deeper and subtler going on.
Sanderson’s world is mostly populated by humans, some races of which have developed unusual characteristics, like extremely long eyebrows, but there is at least one non-human race, the Parshendi. Currently, there is war between the humans of Alethkar and the Parshendi. The battleground is an area known as the Shattered Plains. Here the land is criss-crossed by deep, wide rifts leaving isolated upland plateau. The only way to reach farther plateaus is by the means of temporary bridges. Wandering the deep rifts are many-legged shelled creatures called chasmfiends whose hearts are gemstones. The war is not so much about territory but over the gem-hearts. These crystals power many of the artefacts that make life more comfortable, such as lighting and heating. There is also an element of revenge for the death of the Alethkar king, assassinated at the behest of the Parshendi. Yet the war also seems to be a game played out between the ten Alethkar high princes who score by winning the most gem-hearts. There is a bigger prize, too. Scattered throughout the world are a limited number of suits of armour called Shardplate and swords called Shardblades. The plate gives strength and invulnerability to the wearer and can mend itself when damaged. The blades can shear through rock or steal the life of a man without leaving a mark. They can be won on the battlefield by killing the owner. Rumour suggests that an ordinary foot soldier can become one of the aristocracy by winning one.
This place has other peculiarities that suggest it is leaning more to SF than fantasy. Highly dangerous and ferocious winds sweep the continent at frequent but irregular intervals. These electrical, rock shifting storms are greatly feared but charge the gems which as well as providing light are also used as currency. To survive the storms, plants retract into holes and most native animals have hard carapaces. Only one small corner of the main continent has grass as we would understand it. Outside this area that is protected from the storms by high mountain ranges, local plants seem to have been genetically modified to produce foods palatable for humans.
The story itself has three main threads. Kaladin was a foot soldier. He had been training as a surgeon under his father, but when his younger brother was conscripted he joined up with the intention of trying to protect him. At the start of the novel, he is being transported to the Shattered Plains as a slave. Here he is assigned to a bridge team. Their job is to carry the wooden bridges that the soldiers use for crossing to the scene of the next battle. The life of a bridgeman is usually very short. Another aspect of the strangeness of this world is the spren. These resemble flickers of energy and are associated with different features – a different one for water, fire, wind, pain etc. Normally their presence is fleeting but a windspren appears to attach itself to Kaladin becoming an unseen companion and slowly gains in intelligence by association with him. Kaladin wants to make the lot of his team easier but he is regarded with suspicion, particularly when he first arrives.
Dalinar Kholin is uncle to the young king of Alethkar and one of the High Princes engaged in the war. He is beginning to doubt his own judgement as he has recently begun to have visions when storms hit. He appears to be transported back to another place and a time when the Knights Radiant were the ultimate warriors and the enemy were the Voidbringers. In the centuries that have passed, no-one now knows what kind of creatures these were only that they were eventually vanquished. He believes that the visions are urging him to unite the High Princes so that the Parshendi can be defeated. Their rivalry makes this a seemingly impossible task.
Away from the main action and seemingly only loosely connected is Shallan. Her quest is to persuade Jasnah, who is sister to the king Alethkar, to take her as a ward. Jasnah is a scholar researching the Voidbringers in the library at Kharbranth. This is a society where only women learn to read and it is unseemly for men to do so. Shallan intends to steal Jasnah’s Soulcaster. This is a device that is capable to transmuting one substance into another. Shallan needs it to replace the one that was broken when her father died and was the source of her family’s wealth.
Throughout, the characters and the society are beautifully drawn. The pace is breathless and although the book is long, everything has relevance. There are a number if exquisitely drawn internal illustrations.
This may be marketed as fantasy but it also has many of the trappings that could be expected from a long lost colony planet. As the winner of the 2011 Gemmell Award for best fantasy novel, it well deserves the accolade.
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