Historically, epic fantasy has been rooted in some fairly conservative traditions. Divine right of kings is up there, with various divinely appointed monarchs rushing to and fro in order to smite evil. Rigid class boundaries are another. Then there’s the wholehearted embrace of feudalism for that proper medieval feel, and so on and so forth. Given the genre’s roots in Tolkien and its subsequent codification in the pages of various Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks (and anyone who does not think that D&D has had a profound impact on modern heroic fantasy hasn’t been paying attention), this is hardly a surprise.
On the other hand, Gail Z. Martin’s Dark Haven, the third book in her Chronicles of the Necromancer series, could more properly be called part of a trend toward a sort of liberal epic fantasy. The signifiers are everywhere: more nuanced and positive attitudes toward peasants, a central core of allies prominently united across national, gender, or species line against individuals of ill-will (many of whom seem to take a particular pleasure in mistreating women), and strong and equal power-sharing arrangements between male and female characters.
Of course, this is a volume of a multi-volume fantasy epic, which means there’s no getting away from some of the traditional trappings: kings and queens, alliances by marriage and so forth. But Dark Haven does take time to call attention to where it’s contravening the old tropes, in many places doing so almost too aggressively.
So much for politics; what about the book? The plot is fairly straightforward. Having won back his kingdom from evil magic and evil relatives, King Tris must set about consolidating his rule, getting married, and marching off to war against the unruly nobleman Curane, who’s serving as a stalking horse for the hostile kingdom next door. Meanwhile, Tris’ friend and traveling companion Jonmarc takes up the mantle of ruling Dark Haven, the local Transylvania equivalent wherein an ancient compact between humans and the vampiric vayash maru is being rapidly undermined by parties unknown. And underneath it all, the Flow of magic through the land has been badly disrupted, which promises dire consequences for all and sundry.
With all of that ground to cover, the plot still manages to move quickly. Rather than get bogged down in details or endless back-and-forth dialogues between characters for the sake of argument, Martin keeps things zipping along. Seasons change, characters get married, and armies prep and march off to war. Martin wants her characters to get to the good stuff instead of arguing about it interminably, and as a result the book is free of sections that just feel like filler. She also rarely spends time in setting-related exposition directed at the reader. There are a few places, most notably during the explanation of the annual religious festival, where Martin yields to the temptation to show off the fine details of her world-building, but by and large the exposition comes out through the narrative, and not by bringing it to a screeching halt.
Instead, Martin is interested in her characters, and it’s this approach that will likely make or break the book for most readers. That’s because Martin’s core characters pretty much do everything there is to do to drive the plot along. As enlightened as the novel’s attitude toward the peasantry might be, the cool stuff is reserved for the main characters, to a point where credulity may begin to strain.
Despite the fact that the main characters are all kings and queens and nobles of various flavors, they insist on getting their hands dirty with no backup. They’re the ones who single-handedly win battles, track spy rings, cure peasants, lay ghosts to rest, and otherwise do all of the interesting stuff in the novel, occasionally to the exclusion of logic, common sense, or the fact that kings and queens generally have lots of people ready to do their bidding.
This sort of thinking extends to the moment-by-moment concerns of the plot as well. Everything happens to the main characters at suitably fraught moments. They survive and move on, and when something similar happens to them a few months later, it’s as if the previous event has been forgotten in order to make the new one stand out more. There’s a whole slew of assassinations and assassination attempts at Tris’ castle, none of which seems to result in increased security, an organized hunt for the assassins’ benefactor, or much of anything besides surprise, alarm, and gravely intoned expressions of worry. The powers and plans that are evident in one scene are often gone in the next.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that readers who prefer their fantasy a little grittier and less focused on the charmed few noble characters might find Martin’s approach and social structures simplistic. A royal court such as Tris’, for example, where all of the neighboring powers are repeatedly described as having one, one, spy on hand and in place — drastically underpopulated for espionage — and a prince who tries to crack a domestic terrorist ring single-handedly instead of calling in the troops and spies at his command. This may be heroic, but this prince is not necessarily the sharpest knife in the drawer.
For the type of reader who views plot as a way to get the various characters on stage and interacting; however, Dark Haven will be heavenly. The characters are undeniably strong and distinctive, and as noted previously, they get to show off in interesting ways on a regular basis. Tris in particular spends much of the book using his magic to the utmost, then collapsing immediately afterwards, but most of the cast gets a beauty moment or two in much the same way Geordi, Worf, et alia always got a scene of their own in every ST: TNG film.
Ultimately, a reader’s reaction to Dark Haven will come down to whether the reader prefers the world or the characters to take primacy in their fantasy fiction. Fans of world-building will probably find it lightweight, while fans of characters will be much more engaged. And both, I suspect, would suggest that King Tris keep a pillow handy for the next time he needs to exert himself magically –- just in case.