09 July 2010

Tolkienesque

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I’ve just finished reading a fantasy novel, and unsurprisingly, Across the Face of the World by Russell Kirkpatrick is the first in a trilogy.  I say ‘unsurprisingly’ because fantasy readers will be well aware of the ubiquity of trilogies in the genre.  It seems that one will never do if three can be published instead.  Of course there’s the famous exemplar of the Lord of the Rings trilogy to hark back to, but sometimes you just wish authors could fit all their ideas into a single novel, just like ‘regular’ writers. 

As it happens, I don’t begrudge Kirkpatrick the second and third volumes in this particular trilogy (big of me, I know).  This is mainly due to the fact that I really enjoyed Across the Face of the World, and when I noted that it was released in 2005 I was pleased, because this meant that the remaining volumes in the series had probably already been published.  (They had, in 2005 and 2006).   

I’ve long had a soft spot for the Belgariad, David Eddings’ fantasy series written from 1982 to 1984, that spawned an ever-expanding avalanche of fantasy series set in the same milieu.  While the Belgariad is no literary masterstroke, on discovering them in high school I found the stories were eminently readable and the characterisation, initially at least, was entertaining.  The plot of Kirkpatrick’s book put me in mind of Eddings – a boy and a handful of compatriots light out on a vast journey across fabled lands in pursuit of an elusive goal (in Kirkpatrick’s case, the boy hero Leith’s parents, who have been kidnapped by sinister warriors from the east).  A tried and true theme, and still interesting if it’s done well.    

Aside from Eddings, the book also put me in mind of the Tolkien trilogy, chiefly in its command of an authentically-realised system of languages and its realistic, almost lyrical connection with the landscape of a fantasy world.  Kirkpatrick’s personal and placenames are all spot-on in their Old Norse, Old English and Anglo-Saxon references, and the rich diversity of the landscape he has imagined and mapped in detail are evident as the Company journeys eastwards.

This is probably Kirkpatrick’s trump card, because he is a professional geographer – he lectures at the University of Waikato – and is an experienced cartographer, having worked on a series of atlas projects.  (I later realised that I own one of them).  His command of the natural landscape of Faltha is impressive and seamless, and the traditional hair-raising adventure story-telling is boosted by the realistic environmental descriptions he offers.  As a lover of interesting maps, of the real world or otherwise, it was the maps in the book’s frontispiece that drew me to read the book in the first place. 

SONY DSC [The 16 Kingdoms of Faltha, map © Russell Kirkpatrick]

Aside from the maps, I was also keen on the excellent night-sky cover illustration that appears above, which was spot on.  I look forward to reading the remaining two volumes in the series.  If you’ve already read them, no spoilers please!     

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