During the pandemic’s endless opportunities to walk, I blew through Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” series (on audio) but hesitated on brink of his “The Way of Kings.” Patrick Rothfuss is delivering the goods in his Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy but he’s only two-thirds finished. So, Abercrombie it will be when next I get the epic itch.
The attraction of epics is much the same as those of Patrick O’Brian’s 20 works built around British naval officers Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin: The writers create entire worlds around a few central characters and a long list of recurring friends, lovers, competitors and enemies. “For the past 30 years the greatest novelists writing in English,” asserted playwright David Mamet, “have been genre writers: John le Carré, George Higgins and Patrick O’Brian.” From Mamet, that’s quite a tribute.
Thriller authors, like Daniel Silva and Brad Thor, have legions addicted to their knowledge and storytelling prowess. C.J. Box’s books deliver an understanding of the mountain west not easily available to city folk on the coasts — and an unlikely hero in Joe Pickett. And I inhaled “Ridgeline,” the new historical fiction by Michael Punke (author of “The Revenant”), about an 1866 battle in Wyoming’s Powder River Valley between the Lakota and the U.S. Army.
These writers are terrifyingly prolific — add up their titles and ask yourself, “How do they do it?”
They serve the need for the human imagination to travel far from whatever reality it inhabits day to day.
Nonfiction writers broaden our horizons, too, but their work is both harder and easier to absorb. Three nonfiction books have made it on to my “necessary bookshelf” this year — works that need to be read to understand our age: Niall Ferguson’s “Doom,” Josh Rogin’s “Chaos Under Heaven” and Joby Warrick’s “Red Line” can grip as tightly as any thriller, but the reader has to take mental notes if not actual ones.
These books form the basis of important — and official — conversations in our national politics, and the details matter.
Where does this leave fantasy epics? Their purpose, beyond pure entertainment, is construction of a moral universe different from ours, with different gods and dilemmas; rituals and standards, tests, triumphs and failures. Many of the epic fantasies construct vast archipelagoes of competing regimes that, while hardly as helpful as Aristotle’s “Politics,” still dance around the ancient and central question of what form of government is best. Machiavelli is embedded in these tales, as is Rousseau. Very few Thomas Jeffersons, quite a few Stalins and Maos, and occasionally the attempt at the genuinely heroic.
Mostly they give space to roam far from 2021 — or 1968, when I read Tolkien for the first time. For some (not me), escape means science fiction; others have their own guilty pleasures. But as summer approaches, and if you’ve read everything by Dickens or you are done with Evelyn Waugh, take Douthat’s advice (with his disclaimer about Abercrombie’s grown-up content) and try something completely different.
What can it cost you, save the price of a book and a few hours away from Twitter and Instagram?