Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
There was a time when the fantasy genre didn't just exist to entertain, but sometimes aspired to a higher level of artfulness. The Shadow of the Torturer is such a book. Set in a far distant future, when Earth's sun is fading and human society has lost much of its technological aptitude, Wolfe's novel has a haunting, elegiac quality. It's written in a voice reminiscent of 19th century writers like Poe or Dickens, which adds to the melancholy beauty. Fortunately for the squeamish, though torture is part of the story, it's not described in much detail.
In terms of plot, The Shadow of the Torturer isn't a complex novel. The protagonist grows up under the protection of a strange, cloistered society, learns a few things about the outside world, betrays his guardians, and is thrown out to seek his own fortune -- familiar fantasy stuff. But what sets the book apart from standard swords-and-sorcery fare is the richness of its language and the great imagination in its details; the difference is like comparing a fine oil painting to a crude computer graphic rendering. It has subtlety that forces the reader to pay attention. Wolfe messes with time and space, contemplates philosophical ideas, writes long exchanges whose import isn't immediately clear, and relies on the audience to make sense of the strange, slightly dreamlike events that unfold in the story, rather than spelling out how they're connected.
Without a doubt, this is a book that will absorb some readers and alienate others. Wolfe's ornate, college-level English, though not difficult, is not for everyone. Nor will everyone relate to the protagonist's detached, clinical voice. Basically, if you're looking for a light, Harry Potter-style book with instantly charismatic characters, you're better off going elsewhere. But, for readers who appreciate sophisticated writing and atmospheric, textured imaginary worlds, this is a great read.
If you're looking for entertaining, competently-written escapist fantasy, you could do worse than the Warded Man. As might be expected in a book where bestial demons rise out of the ground every night to terrorize human beings protected by fragile magic wards, there's not a whole lot of subtlety to either the characters or the writing, but I found the story engrossing nonetheless. Brett confidently draws the reader into the fine details of his three protagonists' lives, gradually adding twists and internal conflicts as they grow from childhood, and I found myself staying awake "just one more chapter". The world reminded me a bit of Stephen King's The Wizard and the Glass, with its part medieval, part Wild West, and part post-apocalypse setting, though the mix here leans more towards the former.
Yeah, the book has its flaws. The prose can be adverb-heavy, the side characters are a little exaggerated, and the demons themselves have all the personality of monsters from the computer game DOOM. (On a side note, some readers have also complained about the rape scenes, but I didn't find the author's choice to include them objectionable -- I thought they fit in with the harshness of the novel's world.)
But, overall, I found The Warded Man an enjoyable read and got sucked into the book's world. I liked the conflicted central characters and the portrayal of human society in uneasy coexistence with an ever-present (if mindless) supernatural threat. Usually, I don't mention the audiobook experience, but, in this case, the narrator, whose voice was perfect for this kind of tale, probably added something. Give it a shot. I immediately downloaded the sequel upon finishing.
I can see why Neil Gaiman felt that Fritz Leiber deserved to have some of his work brought to the attention of 21st century readers in audio form. This book is a delight, a mix of classic swords-and-sorcery adventure, sardonic, dark fairytale, and imaginative world creation, with a little tales-of-ribaldry kinkyness thrown in. While it's fifth in a series, I don’t see any reason you can’t start here. The hairy barbarian Fafhrd and the small, quick-witted Gray Mouser are two instantly familiar roguish heroes, no introduction required beyond the first chapter, and Lieber quickly pulled me into their world with his deliciously visual, textured descriptions and playful, literate command of language. Fans of Jack Vance will find his style familiar, though it’s less absurdist.
The story here has Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser low on cash, and compelled to take a commission guarding a grain barge for the amusingly decadent ruler of the impressive, seedy city of Lankhmar. Once out to sea, they learn that their convoy is also carrying a not particularly innocent maiden and her collection of preternaturally intelligent rats. Soon, things go amiss, and our heroes find themselves headed, by separate routes, back to Lankhmar, which is now having some serious rat problems. Any not just any rats, but ones that seem to be more and more humanlike, and to be coming from somewhere under the city. I won’t spoil what happens next, but before all is said and done, there will be duels, ill-advised romances, spying in magical disguise, battles, grotesque sorcerers, strange creatures, otherworldly travelers, and a few mildly naughty scenes.
IMO, this is fantasy that’s a happy medium between the grimness of Howard / ponderousness of Tolkien and the silliness of Vance, pulpy but actually creative. It’s not hard to to see the influence Leiber had on more modern writers in the genre, from Terry Pratchett to David Eddings to China Mieville (particularly the weird romance) to Neil Gaiman himself. Audiobook narrator Jonathan Davis does a fine job as usual, his calm, arch style a great fit for Leiber’s writing (though his scene switches are a little abrupt).