In the Empire of Fantasy, there are many duchies, kingdoms, republics, city states, freeports and shires. Even the field of epic fantasy, a large chunk of that aforementioned Empire, has a number of subdivisions one can make, based on the particular style of the epic fantasy. Readers who go deep into epic fantasy can tease out the essential differences between Robin Hobb’s style of fantasy to Kate Elliott, or George R R Martin, or Robert Jordan. As these authors have produced novels and created fans, they have in effect helped guide schools of thought within Epic Fantasy.
Marc Turner’s Chronicle of the Exile series, starting with When the Heavens Fall and continuing through The Dragon Hunters, falls within a school of fantasy that I attribute and associate most with the works of Steven Erikson in his Malazan universe. Malazan fantasy is distinguishable from the main run of epic fantasy in several ways. Malazan fantasy is extremely interested in deep time, and characters who can sometimes bridge that time. There are events in the Malazan universe that have occurred one hundred thousand years before the novels which influence and affect the present in real and inescapable ways. Elrond’s words to Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring when he says he says “I was there, Gandalf, three thousand years ago…”, that is the feel of time and ancientness that Malazan fantasy tries to invoke. Malazan fantasy also is very interested in a panoply of races, and beings, some of whom approach or actually are divine in nature. In the Malazan universe, there are Gods, near-Gods, ascendants, and failed gods, making a hierarchy of beings, races, and powers all with agendas, long standing interests, and rivalries. Finally, Malazan fantasy features eldritch and unusual magic systems, often having different types and paradigms of magic in conflict pitted against each other. Sometimes these magicians are well aware of their counterparts, and sometimes, magicians clash where both sides of the conflict are rather surprised what the other can bring to bear. Even if there are plenty of characters who wouldn’t touch magic if you paid them for it, their world and worldview is one where there is lots of magic around, of differing kinds, and all very dangerous.
When the Heavens Fall, then, hits all the beats of Malazan-type fantasy. With characters ranging from a Prince of a beleaguered Kingdom to a group led by an esoteric warrior whose organization is underappreciated by his Emperor, to a mysterious necromancer wandering east, and more, the novel slowly draws all of these characters and storylines toward a center, toward a Macguffin of not inconsiderable power, an artifact that should be in the hands of the God of Death. Loose in the world…it’s a fount of necromancy and dark magic that cannot be ignored. The treks across the landscape as the characters move toward it do allow the author to reveal that deep time of the world, and rather than being a virgin country explored for the first time, his world is indeed an old one, with the ghosts of the past, physical and otherwise, a very real layering on history, and as it turns out, present events. The novel does conclude with a number of set piece confrontations between various characters, as they finally all meet in the center. The author does an excellent job of setting up the stakes, goals and varying motivations of these characters when they do conflict and act against each other in a direct manner. The author also, with the varying points of view, does an excellent job of showing how some of our viewpoint characters look from “the outside” when they appear in another character’s viewpoint. The idea that characters often look very differently to others than to themselves is an idea that the author works very well.
The Dragon Hunters, the second novel in the sequence, takes a slightly different tack. Aside from one conceit, the action in The Dragon Hunters takes place over a compressed period of time, and takes place in one city and one other major location, rather than the treks across the map found in When the Heavens Fall. We move our action to the east, to the city of Olaire, a port town run by powerful elemental mages, whose political-economic control of the Sabian Sea is a point of friction, and opportunity. Every year, a Dragon (basically a sea-serpent sort of creature) is allowed past barriers into the Sabian Sea for a hunt, as a show of power, and as entertainment. That hunt provides the spark and opportunity for a number of competing forces to take advantage of such an event to advance agendas small and large alike.
And yet, for all of that large-scale plotting, Olaire is firmly the center of the novel. A city which has districts that are slowly drowning, it is a city of contrasts of power, wealth and comfort. The focus on Olaire gives a mean streets feel to The Dragon Hunters, an interesting contrast to its predecessor. The Dragon Hunters, too, by having that urban focus, cleverly gives us a much more extended vertical list of characters and points of view than the previous novel. Here, we do have Imerle, the emira of the Storm Council, a position of power comparable to When the Heavens Fall’s Prince Ebon, but we also get major characters like Kempis, a leader of a small batch of watchmen who is keenly aware that he soon is swimming in waters filled with predators much bigger and more dangerous than himself. The politics and jockeying between Imerle and her rivals, and those who would disrupt the annual hunt also gets to be joined with a mystery, and that only reinforces the difference in tone.
Like the first novel, though, The Dragon Hunters continues to develop elements that I have grown to demand in my Epic Fantasy today. Women as characters and agency? Check. Diversity in characters, and interrogation of some of the premises of fantasy worlds? Check. Deep worldbuilding, character development, and excellent action beats? Check. There is a set piece toward the end of the novel that would be terrible for me to spoil, but provides an excellent payoff, just as When the Heavens Fall does. The author, based on a data sample of two, appears to like the 30-car pileup of characters and agendas at the end of his novels, and yet those confrontations always have more than just a “punching in the face” level of stakes.
There are hints in The Dragon Hunters, even more than When the Heavens Fall, that Turner’s world is on the precipice of change and problems from an external threat. The Chronicle of the Exile is a nebulous title for the series, but in this second book, there are the first hints of what that series title might mean. The two books together are a very promising entry into Malazan-type fantasy. The third book, Red Tide, is coming in September 2016. I look forward to the unfolding of events, the development of characters and themes, and the march of history in his invented world.