Monday, November 29, 2010

The Chronicles of the Raven

I never wrote about the three books of James Barclay's The Chronicles of the Raven back when I first read them earlier this year. 

That's a shame, because Dawnthief, Noonshade, and Nightchild really are excellent fantasy novels.

This is the sort of stuff I would have loved beyond all recognition when I first discovered fantasy as a teenager.  It works as something of a bridge of the more simpler and safer quest fantasies of the 1980's (the stuff readers of my generation grew up on) and the nastier, more violent stuff written by Joe Abercrombie and Matthew Stover.  Yes, there is enough room and time in the fantasy genre to drive several buses through that gap, and surely other writers have played and are playing in that gap, but Barclay's work here demonstrates how a traditional quest fantasy can be told, feel modern, and yet stand firmly in the tradition of those novels which came before.

Barclay writes,
Dawnthief came from a personal frustration with the pace, style and character matter of other fantasy novels I’d read and has its roots in role playing. I wanted my principal characters to already be the best at what they did and not the classic ‘stable boy becomes hero/king’ types. Having The Raven as mercenaries introduces a moral greyness which means readers can’t assume they’ll always do the ‘right’ thing.

The aim is to entertain readers and for me, the ideal reaction on reading Dawnthief would be ‘bloody good read that, think I’ll buy Noonshade‘ (as opposed to ‘crumbs what a fascinating insight into the human psyche, think I’ll go for a lie down’).
He succeeded.  Dawnthief, and the subsequent novels, are a bloody good read. 

"The Raven" is a mercenary company loyal only to each other and the job, but circumstances has them fighting to save their world.  It's not quite as cliche as it sounds, but this is part of where the bridge lies.  The Chronicles of the Raven has its roots in the traditions of quest fantasies, but that moral ambiguity is important.  These are men (and an elf) fighting for the right thing, but not necessarily all for the right reasons.  The action is quite a bit more stark and in-your-face than in those earlier fantasies.  Ass is kicked and there are questions regarding the true safety of the heroes that don't exist in the fantasies of the 1980's and the early 1990's.  

The reason I continue to bring up a decade some twenty years in the past is that, admittedly, The Chronicles of the Raven is an answer to the books of that decade.  The conversation Barclay is having is not so much with his contemporaries or even those writers who began publishing in the 1990's, and the tone of that conversation is evident in the three novels.  It is important to note that Dawnthief was originally published in the UK in 1999.  It is less a novel of the last ten years as it is the ten years prior to that.

The obvious contemporary comparison here is Joe Abercrombie and readers won't taste the dirt on their teeth with Barclay as they will with Abercrombie.  That's neither a bad thing nor a good thing.  It's just a thing and why I consider The Chronicles of the Raven to be something of a "bridge" between two styles of quest-fantasy storytelling. Readers who cut their teeth on David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Tad Williams, and Raymond Feist, and who are still looking for a good fantasy in that tradition with just a bit of an edge to it will love James Barclay.  Readers digging on the newer fantasy writers on the scene will find Barclay a touch lighter than some of the new stuff, but should still find themselves pulled away by a well told story. 

The bottom line here is that The Chronicles of the Raven is, as James Barclay hoped, a "bloody good read".  Having finished these books early in 2010, I have recently received copies of the first two books of the next series Legends of the Raven.  Seeing those new books on my shelf has me itching to delve back into the world of Balaia.  It's good stuff, y'all.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic review! I'm going to have to check out this series. You got me all excited...

Joe said...

It's good fun! :) Receiving Elfsorrow and ShadowHeart really set me off on getting back into Barclay.

Chad Hull said...

I've have been on the fence about Barclay since I first came across his name. I think you pushed me over the edge into the, "Go read his books" side of things.

Joe said...

If you at all like the epic / quest fantasies, you should love these.