Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"Shaman's Crossing" - Robin Hobb

"Shaman's Crossing" is the first of a stack of new fantasy books I picked up in hope of finding something that didn't stink. While I don't agree with Michael Moorcock on a whole lot of stuff, like him and "new wierd" writers such as China Mieville, I don't have any use for the vast quanity of fantasy being produced these days. I don't want another boring piece of crap with woodsy elves, taciturn dwarves and chaotic orcs dancing across a medieval fairy land. I don't want princesses and druids and witty bards. I want something that hasn't been done to death and indicates at least the barest hint of imagination.

Robin Hobb wrote for years under the name Megan Lindholm (her real name's Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden) with moderate success. Unfortunately at some point she either felt the need or was pushed to restart her career under a new name. Ahh, the vagaries of the book writin' business.

"Shaman's Crossing" is an interesting take on fantasy. There's none of the usual Tolkienesque northern Europe tropes with lordly elves and dour dwarves. Neither is there any of the deliberate oddness of the New Weird with its echoes of Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance.
Instead, there's a sort of American frontier motif being worked. A wounded and weakened kingdom at an appproximately 19th century level of technology is expanding into steppe region sparsely populated by nomadic barbarians. There's old, pagan magic as well as strange alien magic practiced by beings that live beyond the edges of the barbarians' lands.
Set in this world is a conflict between the new elevated battle nobles and the old gentry. The book concerns the adolescence and early schooling of one a battle noble's second son who by tradition is bound to enter the army. Along the way he becomes an inadvertent player in a greater war between his people and the strange magic rising beyond the plains barbarians.
I've never read any of Hobb's books before and I'm not sure her earlier stuff looks that appealing ("Assassin's Apprentice"), but this book was blast of freshness among the stinky waste that is modern fantasy. I like elves and dwarves, but dang, here's proof that there's a lot more going on out there.