Thursday, 12 January 2012
‘Seven Princes’ – John R. Fultz (Orbit)
You see, what I’m really after reading more of this year is fantasy whether it’s epic, high, weird, sword and sorcery or whatever; it’s where I started out in the genre and it’s way past time that I paid it a visit again. The other side of this reading pattern is that I really want to enjoy whatever I pick up; this year is about to get very interesting (three working days left and then my job ends, nothing else to go to as yet) and I’m not ashamed to say that if I’m not picking specific comfort reads then I’m certainly looking for a little comfort from a genre that hasn’t let me down yet.
With this in mind, internet murmurings seemed to suggest that John R. Fultz’ ‘Seven Princes’ might be a good book to pick up next. Heroes, villains and a large bucket load of monsters were what was on offer and that was just what I was after. Was it any good though? I’m not saying that ‘Seven Princes’ wasn’t without its issues but there’s no question of my not picking up the sequel (whenever that comes out).
In one night of blood and terror, a sorcerer out of pre-history slaughters the King of Yaskatha and his entire court. The only survivor is Prince D’zan and if the sorcerer Elhathym has his way that won’t be for much longer... Prince D’zan is on the run then but hopefully not for too long as he has his eye firmly fixed on reclaiming the throne that once belonged to his father. This will take some doing though and nothing less than a grand alliance of the other city states will achieve this. Such an alliance will be difficult to achieve and, all the while, Elhathym and his own allies are on the move...
The fate of an entire land will fall upon the heads of D’zan and six other princes. Pride will drive them on but also treachery and a desire for revenge...
‘Seven Princes’ kicks off Fultz’ ‘Books of the Shaper’ series but it is suitably epic in its own right at the same time. More on that in a bit. What we’re looking at here is a story that’s at least ninety five percent self contained with that remaining five percent getting things ready for book two. This is the kind of book that I like to read and Fultz baits the hook (for book two) with the re-emergence of a threat that I’d enjoyed finding out more about over the course of the book.
This ‘re-emergence’ though is symptomatic of an issue that plagued the book and perhaps made my own reading experience a little less enjoyable than it could have been. To be blunt, things were a little too predictable for my liking. I’m not talking about the climatic scenes either. Although the outcome may have been assured there, the way it was arrived at made for compelling reading. You know the hero is going to win but Fultz really gets you thinking about just how that’s going to happen. That's where the excitement lies.
No, what got me was what not only the reliance on certain fantasy tropes (did certain princes and princesses/goddesses really have to be paired off so easily?) but an underlying feeling that maybe things weren’t as dangerous as they were being made out to be. There’s a fine line between true heroism and a hero that’s basically invulnerable, Fultz is guilty (every now and then) and stepping over that line and coming up with invulnerable superheroes and powerful wizards who save the day all too easily. That’s where I started to wonder if the stakes were as high as they were being made out to be; surely they couldn’t be if someone could just turn up and set things straight.
Having said that though, I kept reading all the way through. I couldn’t stop in fact.
John R. Fultz has basically written a sprawling, epic, Technicolor fantasy that’s reminiscent of much older pulp fantasies (I’m thinking Conan and what little of Karl Edward Wagner that I have read) and makes for a gripping read. You may think that the ending is assured but you can’t escape the feeling that Fultz’ world is a nasty, brutal world where life can be distressingly short for the supporting cast (a supporting cast of thousands, you don’t get a lot more epic than that). People here can die all too easily and Fultz isn’t afraid to sacrifice entire cities to get his point across. You get the feeling, while reading, that you’re wading through blood but the heroes that you follow make that gory trek more than worthwhile, especially when they go up against any number of monsters that Fultz throws into their path. Sea serpents, wyrms and zombies; we’re talking seriously old school stuff here that Ray Harryhausen would have loved to have got his hands on. And it all works, Fultz’ enthusiasm for his creation drives the plot along at just the speed that it needs to; breakneck but never choppy.
Fultz’ characters are also well worth taking the time to get to know. Their aims may be simple (not one dimensional) but Fultz takes us right inside their heads and engages with us through their vitality and life. Fultz also proves that he is capable of going that little bit deeper with the character of Iardu making the reader initially feel a little disdain but then compassion as you realise the enormity of the task he has set himself. I really want to find out what happens next to all of these people, even if I’m not surprised by the end.
I think I wanted to be shocked and surprised, a little more than I was, but ‘Seven Princes’ remains a rollercoaster ride that I didn’t want to get off at the end. When that ride starts up again, you can guarantee that I’ll be in the queue waiting for more.
Nine out of Ten