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The Scar - Maryna Dyachenko,  Serhiy Dyachenko,  Elinor Huntington,  Jonathan Davis Wow. What an unexpectedly great read. I was hoping for some basic fantasy that might be a little bit different since this novel was originally written in Russian. The Scar is indeed basic fantasy — basic, solid fantasy with no great innovations in worldbuilding or ideas, nothing that fantasy readers aren't thoroughly familiar with — but the writing, the descriptive details, and the character arcs that drive the story, are all so deft and evocative that The Scar is like a shiny, perfect apple sitting in a cart full of apples of acceptable but clearly lesser quality.

I would compare The Scar somewhat with Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, not in terms of style or story, as the Dyanchenkos' writing is quite different from Rothfuss's, but in the way it takes a story that's old hat, old school fantasy and still makes it new and interesting. Part of this is the writing, which was particularly delightful since translations are always a bit iffy, but while of course I can't compare it to the original Russian, there was a ton of evocative imagery, descriptive detail, and strong emotions conveyed in prose that pushes this book into something of true literary quality.

The story is mostly about Egert Soll, a brash, philandering swordsman who's basically every jock bully writ large: he steals his friends' girls, he bullies and brags and treats the world as his playground, full of mud puddles that exist to be splashed in other peoples' faces, and he gets away with it because everyone loves him.

Then he kills an innocent student in a duel that's murder in all but name, the ultimate act of jock-on-nerd bullying. He leaves the student's fiancee bereft and heartbroken.

This is all the set up for Egert's oh-so-very-well-deserved smackdown. His comeuppance is delivered by a mysterious mage called the Wanderer, who goads Egert into a duel and inflicts a magical scar on Egert that curses him with cowardice.

While this has the feel of a traditional fairy tale (or perhaps a Russian folk tale), it's Egert's curse that makes the story. Until that point, Egert has been a completely unlikable schmuck, someone you can't wait to see get dirt rubbed in his face. And when he kills Toria's fiancee, you figure he's passed the moral event horizon and you can't possibly feel anything but disgust for him and a desire to see him suffer.

And suffer he does. And pretty soon you are feeling sorry for Egert Soll. The curse soon turns him into a feeble husk of a man, a hollowed-out shell of his former self who can't even take his own life. And as things get worse and worse, a remarkable thing happens: not only does Egert become sympathetic, but he becomes likable. By a cruel and ironic twist of fate, he is brought face to face with Toria again, the fiancee of the student he killed. And Toria, who also feels nothing but disgust for him initially, comes to feel sympathy for him as well.

By the time the fate of their city, and of Toria, hangs on Egert's ability to overcome his curse, you are not just rooting for him, you're cheering for him. The climax is both epic and again resonant of traditional fairy tales: Egert is given very specific instructions as to what he has to do to get out from under his curse, and of course things do not turn out quite the way he expects.

On the surface, this is a swords & sorcery novel, but the sorcery is treated the way sorcery should be, as something vague and mysterious and not usually seen, a plot device rather than a suit of powers. And there are only a few swordfights, and each one serves a very specific and dramatic purpose in the plot.

So, this isn't really a swords & sorcery novel at all, though it has all the trappings. It's a very psychological novel about egotism, courage and cowardice, grief, and redemption. It's a heroic epic and a romance, and a dark Russian fairy tale with shades of Rothfuss, Wolfe, and Dostoevsky. There's some action and a little bit of magic, but the character arcs are more important than the plot arc.

Apparently the Dyanchenkos are very popular fantasy authors in Russia, yet this novel is the first one to be translated into English. I hope more follow. While this book may not appeal to you if you have no interest in traditional fantasy, I highly recommend it for all fantasy readers, and I'd argue that it has a psychological depth that transcends its genre.