Patrick DeWitt’s western, The Sisters Brothers is, for me, a lighter version of a Cormac McCarthy novel. An acquaintance of mine had it pushed to her as a hilarious, funniest book ever kind of thing and it set her up for immense disappointment. I mean, it is funny but in a dry, dark, taking horrible things seriously kind of way. I can’t remember if the Coen brothers comparison is on the cover of the book (mine was an e-copy) but it’s funny in the Fargo way, not The Big Lebowski.
In any case the story is about a couple of bounty-hunting brothers (whose last name is Sisters, which makes this another addition to the collection of books that cause misreadings of their titles based on imagined apostrophes – my favourite other example being Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End) going down from Oregon to San Francisco to kill a guy. There are shitty horses and merciful decisions and badass gunfighting (badass in the brutal “there ain’t nothing honourable about shooting a man” kind of way), and it definitely fits in the picture of the time painted by Deadwood or Unforgiven.
I liked it, but anyone selling it as a funny book is emphasizing the wrong aspects, I think. It’s a story of brutality and masculinity. And it has a great cover.
I tend to read more science fiction than fantasy, but The Blue Sword is a good example of why I love fantasy too. There’s just a timelessness to a fantasy novel that science fiction can’t really lay claim to. Fiction about the future always has so much of the present embedded in it, but there’s nothing about The Blue Sword that lets you know it was written 30 years ago. The Hero and the Crown is the prequel to this book, but I think I’m glad I read them in internal chronological order rather than publication order.
In The Blue Sword a young woman named Harry who’s living the colonizer’s life in a land far from her home. She’s kidnapped and made a part of the Hillfolk who are trying to eke out an existence while being besieged by not-quite-human magical Northmen and her own people. She becomes the bearer of the titular sword and becomes a legend herself. There’s a sense of inevitability to the story (in a way that George RR Martin would destabilize at every turn if he were writing it) but it’s very beautifully done. It’s not Le Guin-level amazing, and I don’t think it’s as good as The Hero and the Crown, but Harry is a heroine that you can see being emulated in stuff like The Girl of Fire and Thorns and other more contemporary fantasy. I will gladly recommend it far and wide.
Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown is the second book I read for my SFF class week on Epic Fantasy. The thing about his book is how classic the plot is but how well-crafted.
Aerin is the daughter of a king and normally with royal blood she should be good at magic, but she isn’t. Her mother was the king’s second wife and a Northern Witchwoman at that, so Aerin is looked down on at court (not, thankfully by her family). She takes on another rejected member of court, Talat, the King’s former horse, who’d gone lame saving the king in a battle. Together they are kind of badass, but in a very low-key way.
One of the things I love is that she spends three years working in a shed on getting the proportions just right for a fire-proof ointment she’d found a recipe for in a mouldy old book. She doesn’t find the recipe, make it, and then go off slaying dragons; everything takes time.
That playing with time comes up most drastically at the end of the book where she climbs stairs for “an awfully long time” which is probably longer than you think.
Structurally the book builds through her different trials, from quitting hiding herself at court, to being the king’s dragon-killer, to being something far more and then returning to be queen. It’s wonderful and melancholy. There isn’t the sense of oh my isn’t life tough, because she’s just barrelling through making her own decisions and creating a life for herself.
This is what epic fantasy should be. I mean yes, there’s the call to adventure, Joseph Campbell stuff to it, and it’s about leaving home, cutting the apron-strings in the way so much of this genre is, but this is exquisitely well done. Highly recommended