Duel of the Doorstoppers: Fantasy Books that Build More than Mental Muscle
When a novel is referred to as a “doorstopper,” it’s often both in humor and in warning. You might grin at the thought of an enormous fantasy epic being used to prop the door open for a fresh breeze…but take heed, otherwise you might tug a shoulder from its socket or crack your back trying to heft one of these dense tomes. Despite the danger, there remains an ongoing love for doorstoppers in genre fiction. It seems especially common in fantasy, where you have entire genealogies and dead languages and ancient wars that must be included, at least in the appendices. Not to mention a cast large enough to fill football stadium seating.
For those willing to invest the time and mental real estate, doorstopper novels offer the chance to discover enormous worlds and get sucked into epic stories that span whole ages. What happens, then, when we take three such piles of pulp and see which one ends up with the crown? (Or, for a more scientific test, we could load them into over-sized slingshots and see which one flies furthest…)
THE RUNDOWN: Set over a span of three days, this story follows several groups who sit on all sides of the battles, watching them fight for glory, for love, for money, and–most of all–for survival. As the name indicates, this novel takes the concept of “heroism” and turns it sideways, on its head, and inside out, while employing Abercrombie’s dark humor and insight into human nature.
THE CONTRAST: Joe Abercrombie employs a rather morbid, often bleak form of humor, twisting even the most upright figures into internally depraved people who coast along on people’s skewed perceptions of who they truly are. Everything is a dark shade of gray, and the only way for anyone to claim they’re in the right is to kill or conquer anyone who would oppose them. His stories are bloody, brutal, and unflinching. Don’t go in looking for happy endings.
THE RUNDOWN: The first in an intended 10-book series, The Way of Kings takes place on the world of Roshar, where giant crabs are beasts of burden, daily storms ravage the surface of the planet, and battles are fought with magical suits of strength-enhancing plate-armor. Readers follow three main characters–Kaladin, Dalinar, and Shallan–as they pursue widely varied destinies in the midst of brewing wars, sparked by political and religious intrigue.
THE CONTRAST: Sanderson is known for creating incredibly unique and varied worlds for his stories to take place within, as well as a growing array of magic systems, each with incredibly detailed rules and uses. The Way of Kings is the founding stone for an ongoing epic series and, as such, mostly leaves readers with questions and open-ended plotlines, rather than resolving anything.
THE RUNDOWN: The second installment in Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Trilogy, The Wise Man’s Fear continues the story of Kvothe, the highly intelligent, highly talented, and often highly foolish boy who continues his education in the way of magic, fighting, science, and the deeper mysteries of love.Following the heights of his success to the pits of hopelessness, Kvothe crosses kingdoms and realities, increasing his legend and growing into a larger-than-life character.
THE CONTRAST: Some claim the Kingkiller Trilogy is just another spin-off of the usual “orphan boy becomes god-king of the world” type plot, but Rothfuss infuses Kvothe with such colorful humanity and the story is told in such an engaging manner that few people will care. The Wise Man’s Fear continues to unravel the truth behind Kvothe’s reputation, showing how stories can take on lives of their own and shape the people we become.
Both The Wise Man’s Fear and The Heroes take place in worlds established through previous works. However, if you want to fully enjoy The Wise Man’s Fear, you need to start with the prequel, The Name of the Wind, otherwise you’ll feel pretty lost. In contrast, The Heroes, while grounded in the same reality found in Abercrombie’s The First Law series and the standalone Best Served Cold, can be enjoyed by itself, without any background. There are some shared characters throughout all of his book, but they’re introduced well enough in each that readers shouldn’t be lost in getting a feel for them.
Between The Heroes and The Way of Kings, the main issue is going to be Abercrombie’s darker style. While his writing is superb and his characters vivid, some readers may be put off by his unceasingly grim outlook, a la George R.R. Martin, where no character is safe and the only rules governing existence are violence and death.
Which puts The Way of Kings at the top of the heap this go-round! If you’re looking for a brand new mythology with fascinating characters and magic, then know this will certainly whet your thirst for the next in the series. Also, since Sanderson has been largely wrapped up in finishing up Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time over the past few years, this first entry into his independent storyline may have gone overlooked by some fantasy readers.
So you might want to hit the gym in preparation for hauling around a few pounds of book for days on end. Or…you know…buy an e-reader or something sensible.
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