Sunday, December 11, 2005

Fantasy on the High Seas

There's something to be said for formula fiction. While most of it just is what is, and will probably be forgotten in a few years time, a small handful of writers are able to work within a formula and still create something entirely unique. Samuel Delany's Neryona fantasy series, for example. Or the oddly satirical thrillers of Carl Hiassen. Trapped within the constraints of their formula genre, that beat against the walls, stretching them out to include new territory most other writers never considered before.

While my newest read, James M. Ward's Midshipwizard Halcyon Blithe, doesn't stretch up to the same high-end of literature the authors above do, it still manages to create something a little different. At its core, the novel is a coming of age tale for Halcyon Blithe, a young wizard just coming into his own unique abilities. Blithe's innate abilites are well beyond that of most others, making him powerful but a bit arrogant. His training and skill, though, lacks refinement and sometimes causes him some problems. There's also an overarching plot-line involving war between the good guys (the Arcanians) and the Maleen, and evil empire trying to take over the world. The main difference between this book and so many other fantasies is the setting. This one takes place on a boat.

To be specific, it takes place on the Sanguine, an Arcanian battleship with its deck and sails built onto the back of a living, breathing sea dragon. Ward's imagination really comes into play when he mixes realistic nautical details---sails, rigging, battle tactics----with doses of magical support----controlling the wind for sailing, magic shields to protect you during a sword-to-sword melee. A good half of the book is made of training sessions, each one designed to show different aspects of life and warfare on the high seas. While this does carry a little too long, it gives the reader a chance to meet a wide cast of charactes on the Sanguine; from the able bodied Captain all the way down to the newest recruits, the Sanguine is filled with a wide array of distinct personalities. When it becomes clear that one of these personalities is a sabateour who infiltrated the crew, their situation is made all the more dangerous when they enter battle against three Maleen ships. Blithe is ordered to guard a key area of the ship during battle, putting both his safety and that of the entire ship on his using everything he's learned in his recent training to survive. While still a fairly predictable fantasy, the nautical elements make Ward's novel just different enough that readers a little bored with the typical fantasy will find it both familiar and new.


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