Friday, March 04, 2005

The Runelords Review

I have certain qualms when reading anything of the fantasy/sci-fi genre, similiar to the views I espouse regarding of modern-day action movies, and why I think GRRM is the best thing since the invention of literary hero-slaying and regicide. The following review will spell out more clearly those biases that I employ.

Dave Wolverton (AKA "David Farland" when penning fantasy novels) is a talented writer, no question. The first thing which drew me to his Runelord series is the balance of magic. I consider the balance of magic to be a crucial element in any fantasy writing. The balance of magic is what allows me to suspend disbelief, and to comfortably enjoy a fabricated tale. The moment that the magical elements become an unaccountable system, the careful balance is thrown off, and my frustration at the series grows proportional to the disbelief unsuspended.

The Runelords universe of magic employs two different and distinct spheres of magic. The first and far more commonly employed magic is a system by which the natural endowments of people can be transfered to another individual, at the cost of the person who gives the endowment. A person may transfer his strength to his lord becoming a "dedicate", which in turn the lord will take care of this person, who may not have the strength to move about any more.

The transfer of one's endowment, be it their wit, sight, voice, olfactory, strength, metabolism, etc is accomplished by the use of magical crucibles, marked with a particular rune, which when applied first to the donor, will extract or channel that endowment. The crucible, glowing with the endowment is branded either directly to the recipient, or to someone who indirectly serves as the conduit for the recipient.

This magic system is a pretty sensible one; one person will grow in abilities, but at the same time, someone else has given up those abilities. It is a check-and-balance system, as no one person can increase their abilities, without some cost attributed elsewhere in the system. It's also a more realistic magic system, i.e. it doesn't let people teleport, shoot fireballs, fly, or generally do things which are outside of normal human abilities. However a person can move and heal faster if their metabolism is increased. The system of endowments also leads to interesting ethical dillemmas which are explored in the plot.

The second, more-encompassing magical system are the elemental magics, which unlike the other type, are powerful, abnormal magical abilites which are created ex nihilo, and therefore are mostly unaccountable, and presumingly undepletable resources. It is the type of magic where the earth lends you the ability to quake it at will, or for a river to be diverted, fireballs to be emitted from fingertips, and wind to batter the enemy. The only check-and-balance on this magic system is that the person has to follow the will of the anthropomorphized "element" in order to wield it. It is a non-nuetral value system; elemental magics are categorized as being objectively good or evil.

I have two main objections to this series. One is the slow story timeline. The series' timeline progresses at a rate of a day or so per book. Granted this isn't Ulysses, it's unrealistic, unnatural and doesn't make sense to carry so much detail "per day" in these books. The other thing which I found bothersome to is the moral qualms the main character doesn't stop quibbling about. Yes, it's fine to have ethical questions every now and then; but it's unreasonable to bore the reader with ethical dillemmas of varying degrees every page or so. Let the damn protaganist make some choices, damned be the consequences, like most people in the world. Otherwise, the character is too fake and therefore the reader unable to relate to a character who painstakingly questions every action and decision.

Otherwise this series is pretty good, and merits 4 of 5 stars.

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