It’s rare to find a film as famous, yet universally hated, as 1999′s The Phantom Menace. Even now, the mere mention of the film is enough to attract derision from critics and something akin to pure hate from fans of the original Star Wars trilogy. Why has it attracted so much criticism, and is this justified? Can anything good be said about Star Wars: Episode One? Well, since I always like to at least start my posts by saying something positive, let’s look at ‘The Light Side’. First off there was the trailer, which seemed to promise everything that we ever craved from a new Star Wars film (it’s a shame they had to blow it by adding 132 minutes of padding!). Then there are the backdrops – the grandeur of Theed and the Art Deco wonder of Coruscant. There is the CGI in the first journey to the underwater city – a fine fantasy moment that is truly breathtaking. On a girly note, there is Queen Amidala’s geisha get-up and a range of nice frocks. Lastly, two words: Darth Maul. Unfortunately, we now have to look at ‘The Dark Side’.
Ursula K Le Guin is, quite simply, one of the greatest fantasists of our age, as well as a distinguished writer of science fiction, realist fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Among her many honours are a National Book Award, the World Fantasy Award, five Hugo Awards, five Nebula Awards, the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize and the Harold D Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Although she has published over eighty short stories, two collections of essays, ten books for children, several volumes of poetry and sixteen novels, what she remains most famous for are her tales of the world of Earthsea. A fictional realm originally created by Le Guin for her short story The Word of Unbinding, published in 1964, Earthsea became the setting for a further six books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea, first published in 1968, and continuing with The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. Iconic, original and deeply moving, the Earthsea novels have enthralled generations of fans – many of whom, it is worth saying, would not normally have been drawn to fantasy in the first place. Le Guin’s world also inspired two TV films, one of which is perhaps best forgotten while the other is a little known animated gem. The woman and the story behind one of the best loved worlds in fantasy are both almost as interesting as anything which occurred in the Earthsea novels.
The Trickster is an unpredictable and irrepressible figure found in stories all over the world. A paradox, the Trickster can be both heroic and villainous, funny yet dark, and wily but vain. Sometimes called the Lord of Misrule, the Trickster is a crosser of boundaries, a violator of rules and an agent of change. The Trickster can be male or female, human or animal, mortal or god – Coyote, Anansi, Brer Rabbit, Pan, Hanuman, and Loki are all characters who demonstrate that such figures are staples of mythology. The Trickster lives in between realities, bound by his own code of ethics but indifferent to outside laws. He riddles, tricks and slips through cracks. He feels compelled to subvert the old order to craft new possibilities – after all, for every rule, there is someone who cannot abide it. Many may despise the Trickster, for he is an outlaw to some, but others desire him, for he still possesses a rebel charm and the romance of the damned. However, as the old tales show, you underestimate this seemingly loveable rogue at your peril. The Lord of Misrule can be dark and deadly to encounter and even the most gentle brush with him is likely to leave your life turned upside down. Alan Garner once memorably described the Trickster in the following terms ‘the advocate of uncertainty… a boundary for chaos… the shadow that shapes the light’. This provides as good a definition as any of the elusive, enigmatic anti-hero that is a recurring motif in almost every nation’s myths, legends and fairy tales.
These are interesting, and in many ways perilous, times for the fantasy genre. The last decade or so has seen the passing of many of the biggest names in fantasy fiction: David Gemmell, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Holdstock, Robert Jordan and Poul Anderson. At the same time, many of the most popular fantasy series have either ended or are approaching their conclusions: The Deverry Sequence, The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire and even Harry Potter. It is strange to note that, at a time when it is seemingly harder than ever before for new fantasy authors to get published, there actually seem to be fewer bestselling sagas out there for an increasingly bereft audience of readers to follow. Now more than ever beleaguered fantasy fans are crying out for a new name in the field, an inheritor of the likes of Robert Jordan and George R R Martin. In any discussion on this subject, there is one name that keeps on coming up again and again: Brandon Sanderson. In many ways Sanderson is more than just the ‘next big thing’, because he has already achieved a level of success and popularity (not always the same thing) which other authors can only dream of. His debut Mistborn novels have been critically lauded, his work in completing The Wheel of Time saga after Jordan’s death has been universally praised and his latest series, The Stormlight Archive, already looks to be the defining fantasy sequence of this decade. The question that has to be asked is whether Sanderson really is as good as his publishers and fans would have the rest of us believe.
Elizabeth Haydon’s novels are lyrical, literate and captivating, though not as well known as they should be. The Symphony of Ages is written as a history in which the eras of time in the universe are recounted in seven distinct ages. The debut trilogy, Rhapsody, Prophecy and Destiny, and the subsequent sequels, are set at the end of the Fifth Age, the age of Schism, and the beginning of the Sixth Age, the Age of Twilight. A giant tree stands at each of the locations, known as the birthplaces of Time, where the five primordial elements – air, fire, water, earth and ether – first appeared in the world. The oldest of these World Trees is Sagia, which grows on the island of Serendair, the birthplace of ether. It is through the interconnected roots of Sagia that three people, all half-breeds, running from different pursuers, escape the cataclysm that destroys the island and find themselves on the other side of the world sixteen centuries later. So begins an epic, world- and time-spanning tale, which somehow still manages to maintain an intimate focus on the main characters whom we follow through struggle and heartache to their ultimate destiny.