Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Tolkien-Pulp: A review of Wytchfire by Michael Meyerhoffer

So I just finished reading/livetweeting Wytchfire by Michael Meyerhoffer.2  I'm not going to lie, when I was googling the book, I was somewhat hesitant, skeptical.  There's this section at any bookstore just labeled "Sci-fi/Fantasy" where all the books seem to be the same, and you kinda feel like not reading them as quickly as possible.  There's a certain ghetto happening here, the Sci-fi/Fantasy ghetto at it's worst.  Sure, there's fantasy out there that gets popular enough to rise above the ghetto, but they seem often few and far between.  It's not a genre people take seriously, mostly because people assume there's no inherent worth.  It probably also has to do with the cultural ostracization of D&D, and all of its trappings, into the "Other" category.  The "Standard D&D universe" has, thanks mostly to Tolkien3, been so thoroughly ingrained in the cultural consciousness that most people can tell you the rules without having actually read a high-fantasy pulp book.
I actually know who all these characters are and what
they're doing.  #Dragonlance.

Everyone knows that Dwarves are stout and beardy, Elves are pretty and magical and live in forests, Knights are noble and always do the right thing, magic comes at a price, and the orphan stableboy turns out to be the long lost heir of the kingdom.  The Undead or Dragons show up to cause problems and the hero saves the day and no one points out that he should probably be dead from all the diseases that would come of fighting shambling undead, or burned to a crisp from Dragon fire.  And that's 1st Wave Tolkien-Pulp.

This persisted for a while until people started subverting those tropes, until 1st Wave Tolkien Pulp became ghettoized even by its target audience.  In came Pratchett and Anthony and Jones, who were masters of subverting the tropes and making things very self aware and funny and that was what people started to read, because a good parody makes the reader feel clever because she4 gets the joke, and slowly but surely Parody killed the Fantasy Pulp Star.  And that was 2nd Wave Tolkien-Pulp.

Most5 of the Tolkien-Pulp on my shelves is 2nd Wave.  It's easier, more accessible, and more fun.  It's been a long time since I've read some good, solid, down to Erathia Earth 1st Wave Tolkien-Pulp.  And that's what Wytchfire is, on the surface, so when I heard Meyerhoffer was looking for readers I did so more out of duty than excitement.

But then I really started reading.

You will never find a greater hive of Scum and Villainy. 
Yes, Wytchfire is 1st Wave Tolkien-Pulp.  The Dwarr6 are stout and Nordic.  The Sylv7 live in forests and are beautiful and haughty.  The main character is a failed student of the Holy Order of Knights on the Lotus Isles8 where they wield Adamunes9 forged with ancient secrets of metalurgy.  It's unapologetically Tolkien-Pulp.  And I loved it.

For one thing, it's not quite straight 1st Wave.  It has major elements of Deconstruction and Reconstruction. Everyone chews Sweetbitter Leaves, which are basically organic toothpaste.  The worries about infection and starvation just as prevalent as worries about robbers and wolves on the road.  Some characters are gay, or have tastes for cross-species prostitution because Dwarr women have larger breasts.  While the book plays the tropes straight, it makes them work.  There was clearly a lot of thought put into this universe, such that I feel I could ask Meyerhoffer a variety of questions about culture, history, customs and lore, and he'd have an answer for me.

Closest aproximation I could get
using a touchpad. 
The characters are strong too, and realistic.  In my last review I talked about how I didn't really believe in Henry Palace's Lawful Goodness.  Here, I do.  Rowen, our Orphan Hero for the evening, failed out of the training to be a Knight of the Lotus in Not!Japan, but he still upholds all the rules and morals of the Order.  It makes sense why he's the most morally upstanding character, but when he risks faltering, and boy, does he risk faltering, you believe it.  Remember how I said the book was a deconstruction?  Yeah, Orphans don't fare well here.  They don't wind up adopted by a kindly blacksmith and taught swordplay, they go to the Dark Quarter to cheat and steal their way to survive the squads of murders and rapists that prowl the Slums of Lyos10 .  After Rowan loses his brother and is barred from being a Knight, he's rapidly headed for rock bottom.  The fact that he could so easily and so believably slide off into villainy makes it all the more heartening when he doesn't.

Other characters get a lot of good complexity too.  The Evil Overlord, Fadarah, of the Shel'ai, is complicated and interesting, and his actions are never quite what you'd expect.  He's a competent leader too, and I think he's at least glanced over the Evil Overlord List.  Other stand-outs are El’rash’lin the mad wizard who has some fun things to say when you first meet him, Jalist Hewn the gay dwarf mercenary who might be one of my favourite characters in the book, Aeko Shingawa the Knight, whose gender does not inform her character in the slightest, only how people perceive her, and lastly Hráthbam.  He's one of the most fun merchants ever.  He also tries, knowing he'll probably die, to kill the Evil Overlord.  He fails, but even the most powerful Shel'ai in all of Ruun thinks he's so badass he lets him walk away.  He's also a riot:
"If you're going to bury me alive, at least give me a drink first!""It is true, our Children often have the vocabulary of Mercenaries.""That's bigger than my Third Wife!" ... "How are the horses?  Did my Third Wife get them too?"
As you can see, the dialogue shines in this book.  There's a lot to quote, and the characters really show through in what they have to say.   Really, some of my favourite sections are the characters having their banter.  That said, other parts are quite good too.  The action scenes are crisply written, for one, and the book spends a long time building up the city that's under siege for the climax, both the good and the bad parts of it.  You could have a lot of fun mapping out the various things that happen at different times and how the characters react to them, and watch as all the pieces assemble into one place to have their plot wrapped up elegantly and smoothly like a well oiled machine.

There's a last part that I want to talk about, but it's going to be rather spoilerific.  If I've convinced you to read, and you want to enjoy the dramatic payoff, stop now.  Here's a cool picture of a Paladin to form a page break.

I like the hat that the artist drew.
The Grand Order of Knights of the Lotus is kinda shit.  We find this out about halfway/two-thirds of the way through the book that the Knights are thoroughly corrupt and almost no one believes or practices the philosophy passed down in The Codex Lotius11 .  They lie and tax everything ever.  My gods, that's one hell of a deconstructive blow, and it comes right out of left field.  Watching the main character struggle with the disillusionment was fantastic, and emotionally wrenching.  Of all the tropes to get subverted to hell and back, I didn't expect it to be the Grand Order of Knights.  That was a masterstroke.

Fiction Rule of Thumb
Figure A

Now, I can't call the book perfect.  I'll direct people's eyes to Figure A and note that if it bothers you when there are a frequency of words spelled wyth apo'straphes and the like, it may alienate you.  I'll admit,  I'm no huge fan, but I could deal.  You get drawn into the world and start to get used to it if you read enough at a time.  (I'm also a sucker for the word "Sylv/Sylvos" to refer to Elves because I'm a die-hard Heroes of Might and Magic fan, but that's just me.)  There's a few spelling/grammar issues in the book as well, but I quickly forgot them and it was never so jarring to make me lose pace.  However, while the above graph is accurate, I do feel the book falls below the line, but then I am somewhat used to words that do not exist, so if that's too much for you, you may not enjoy.  But if you, like me, could do with some troperific High Fantasy, grab this book.  It's only 5 Cranáfi bucks on Kindle, and worth more.  I went for the physical copy, so I could lend it out to people more easily.

Please buy this, I need someone to share my feels with.

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