As a reader over 40, I have a certain responsibility to gripe about modern fantasy. To point out how things were better in my day, complain how “kids today” just don’t appreciate good writing, and dismiss current trends as crass commercialism. It’s a thankless job, but it’s been handed down to me by countless generations of grumpy old readers, and I take it seriously.
It ain’t easy, either. For one thing, I have to ignore a lot of really excellent work by Jeff VanderMeer, Neil Gaiman, Howard Andrew Jones, James Enge, John Fultz, and dozens of others, just to have any kind of credibility at all. And when a trend comes along that I really like, I have to shut the hell up about it. And trust me when I tell you, it’s hard for me to shut the hell up about anything.
For example: when I was a kid, fantasy novels went out of print all the time. If you missed ’em, too bad for you — that was the price you paid for not getting hip to the best writers fast enough. You had to sit around and listen to all your friends talk about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, nodding along and gritting your teeth. (At least, that’s what I imagine it would have been like, if I’d had friends).
Not any more. These days when a popular paperback dies, it just returns months later in a new, improved format, like Gandalf the White. Or the Priceline Negotiator.
Case in point: Aliette de Bodard’s Acatl novels. The first, Servant of the Underworld, published in paperback by Angry Robot in October 2010, was a fascinating murder mystery set in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, where the end of the world is kept at bay only by the magic of human sacrifice.
When a priestess disappears from a blood-drenched room, High Priest of the Dead Acatl is tasked with discovering her fate, sifting through clues in a sprawling metropolis where the gods mingle with mortals in the streets and blood sacrifices are an everyday occurrence.
Impressive stuff. The novel made a genuine splash — John Scalzi called it “Fascinating stuff, about fascinating stuff,” and Elizabeth Bear said it was “a riveting story of murder, magic and sibling rivalry.”
The sequel, Harbinger of the Storm (January 2011), found Acatl investigating the macabre discovery of a high-ranking nobleman torn to pieces by a mysterious invocation in the palace, and the third novel, Master of the House of Darts (October 2011) upped the ante even further with the coronation war for the new Emperor ending in failure, yielding a mere forty prisoners of war, far too few sacrifices to ensure the favor of the gods.
What we have here are the opening volumes in what’s sure to be a splendid career for Aliette de Bodard. Of course, you’d naturally expect her to toil a few more years in the trenches first, working long hours and watching her early novels go out of print, before gradually earning true acclaim and well-deserved fame as a fantasy superstar. At that point, her early works would triumphantly return to print, in attractive permanent editions, to be celebrated by an adoring public.
I don’t need to tell you that this career path was good enough for J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard, and really, it should be good enough for anybody. Tolkien even lived long enough to see his novels gradually become popular, the lucky sod.
Well, you know where this is going. With absolutely no regard for tradition De Bodard and her publisher, Angry Robot, have skipped the starving-artist phase entirely and jumped right to the fantasy superstar stage, putting out an attractive omnibus edition of all three Acatl novels, Obsidian & Blood.
It’s getting superstar acclaim, too (possibly because the industry is confused and doesn’t know how else to treat great-looking permanent editions, but that’s neither here nor there). And to rub salt into the wound, they didn’t even bother to wait until the original editions were out of print. It’s like they don’t understand how fantasy works.
Obviously, this leaves me conflicted. On the one hand, I love these Angry Robot omnibus editions, and have ever since I found a copy of Tim Waggoner’s The Nekropolis Archives. They are universally gorgeous, handsomely-designed and sturdy, and also very attractively priced. As trends go, it’s one I heartily approve of.
And just as obviously, it makes things difficult for a determined genre curmudgeon. It’s hard to convince people the industry’s headed to hell in a handbasket when both writers and publishers are trying — and succeeding at — daring new things.
It’s hard to be a curmudgeon today. The industry just ain’t what it used to be. Things were much easier in my day, let me tell you.
But if it’s all the same to you, let me tell you tomorrow. Because tonight, I’m curling up with a great book.
Obsidian & Blood was published in June by Angry Robot. It is 896 pages and priced at $15.99 in trade paperback, and $9.99 for the digital edition.
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