Review: The White Road, Lynn Flewelling

Two things I enjoy in fantasy books: Chicanery.  And political machinations.  Preferably at the same time, like when people use their wits to effect the toppling of regimes or noble houses.  I have no particular books in mind when I mention this, of course, although now that I mention it, I do seem to recall that there is a series of books by one Megan Whalen Turner that possess both of these elements.  IN SPADES.

Two things I tend not to enjoy in fantasy books: Lots of made-up words.  And fuzzy-edged pseudo-mystic religions.  And look, it hurts me to say this more than I can tell you, but Lynn Flewelling’s newest Nightrunners book, The White Road, has fewer of the enjoyable two things, and more of the less enjoyable two.  Moreover, it has a creepy little critter in it.  I don’t like creepy little critters, and I have a hard time believing that any of the characters would like them either, ALEC.

Alec and Seregil are dealing with the fallout from Shadows Return, trying to decide what’s to be done with the creepy little critter made from Alec’s blood.  Alec’s people, a weird and violent branch of the Aurenfaie, are trying to track it down themselves, for what reason we don’t necessarily know; and an old enemy of Seregil’s, Ulan, wants the books that explain how the critter was made, plus of course the critter itself.  Altogether too much focus on the creepy little critter.

As ever, you do not necessarily want to read a very good book (or series of books) of a particular kind, and then read another book with the expectation that it will be similar.  That way madness lies, bloggy friends.  I was going back and forth between reading The White Road and rereading The Thief.  (I know, I just read it.  But I felt like I would appreciate A Conspiracy of Kings more if I read the first three books again; and besides, I felt like reading them over again.)  I do not recommend this as a means of gaining maximum enjoyment from The White Road.

I like the Nightrunner books, and I enjoyed the book that came before this one, but I feel like Alec and Seregil have gotten too far from their roots.  At this point, we are hearing far more about their brilliance in secrecy and spying and crafty escapes than we’re seeing.  They’re spies and thieves!  I yearn to see them doing some successful spying and thieving!  I’m mad for spying and thieving, particularly when they are spying and thieving for political reasons.  Lynn Flewelling, I recall from Traitor’s Moon and the Oracle’s Queen books, manages political machinations very nicely.  You know, where there are questions of succession, and warring factions of nobles, and sneaky dudes born on the wrong side of the blanket, and y’all, the phrase “the wrong side of the blanket” – more of that, please.

In short, Alec and Seregil have spent the last two books being reactive rather than active, and I’m ready for them to make some independent decisions about what they want to be doing.  And I would like those decisions to send them in the direction of bringing down corrupt regimes.  They can do it in Skala if that’s what they’re feeling (probably not, at this point), or they can do it in Bokthersa.  I do not mind either way.  I like the word machinations, and I really cannot have enough opportunities to use it.

If you are a fantasy-lover, what things do you like to see in your fantasy?  Dragons, social allegory, ragtag bands of rebels, tall elves, short elves, gender issues?  And what do you wish the genre has played to death and might consider steering clear of for a while?

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48 thoughts on “Review: The White Road, Lynn Flewelling

  1. One thing I like in fantasy novels is when the author takes something completely mythic – I don’t know, like ogres or flying broomsticks – and twists the concept so that it seems like it could actually happen in the real world. (Like in WISE CHILD, when Wise Child learned to fly, for instance.) (It’s also the thing I love most about Mary Renault’s ancient-Greece novels.)

  2. What I like in fantasy? Doomed princesses that love their country more than their lovers, humble or oppressed folk rising up against their oppressor, and an interesting world filled with interesting people.

    Lynn Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows is on my reading list, and I am looking forward to it- have you read it? What do you think of it?

    Oh, and while we’re on the subject of fantasy naming…

    • It’s good! I am in favor of Lynn Flewelling generally, and I liked the first four books in the series – Luck in the Shadows, Stalking Darkness, Traitor’s Moon, & Shadows Return. All quite good. And I liked her other series as well. This is the first of her books that has really, really not worked for me.

      Just princesses? Can doomed princes love their countries more than their lovers?

  3. Oh my, this sounds like a very strange and disappointing read. I am not familiar with this series, so this is the first exposure to the books that I have had. On the other hand, I do have The Thief in my pile and this is just another confirmation that I need to read it soon! As far as what I like in fantasy…well, it would have to be exceptional world building and interesting and varied characters.

    • Oh, shoot. Well, er, if I’d had a blog when I read the first three books in this series, I’d have written rave reviews of them, so don’t go by this one! Lynn Flewelling is normally a very good writer. She does good worldbuilding!

      Goody, read The Thief! I am looking forward to seeing what you think!

  4. I like what Mumsy said- having a fantasy element explained in real-world fashion, so you can imagine how it might have really occured and then become a legend (blown out of proportion, of course). I also like fantastical creatures describes as real-life beasts as a naturalist would.

    • I do like it when you kind of get the background to how something happened and how it became a legend. Then it’s all stories about stories, and I love those. 🙂

  5. I hate made-up words in fantasy, too! I also hate when they just use letters extraneously. Or use apostrophes. Anne Bishop drove me INSANE with her w’itch thing. Ahh!! Flashbacks!

      • Now that you’ve gone and mentioned it, I’m going to have to read it. (Of course, I’ve been reading Diana Wynne Jones like a madwoman recently anyhow).

        I *hate* pretentious apostrophes and spellings! “Vampyre”, “W’itch”, and any other stupid thing where you spell it in non-standard ways to make it sound more important.

  6. Have you, or Mumsy, read Elizabeth Marie Pope’s marvelous _The Perilous Gard_? Now there is a book I think you would really like.

    • Thanks, Other Jenny, for the recommendation! So many books, so little time…

      Closely Related Jenny, I finished THE BOOK THIEF. Wow.

    • I actually just read that a few weeks ago! And I realize now I forgot to review it. I did like it, although I wasn’t in love with it – I thought it was going to be more Tam-Lin-y than it actually was. She’s written another book, though, hasn’t she, that author?

      • Yeah, the Sherwood Ring, I can bring it saturday. It’s very enjoyable, but it’s also the sort of book that makes you sigh sadly and wish you had read it for the first time as a child. I think you’ll prefer the sherwood ring.

    • I love The Perilous Gard! The Sherwood Ring is good too but it strikes me as more lightweight, maybe because I’m only really invested in one of the multiple romances.

      • really? I was invested in both the ghost ones, and not invested at all in the real one. Which one were you invested in?

  7. Yes, The Perilous Gard is good. (Though not as good as other Tam Lin stories, but I bet you know exactly which impossibly high standard I have in mind.)

    Made up words can look really silly, but I always figure that when an author manages to make them not so, s/he is doing something right. Ursula Le Guin comes to mind. I do like gender issues in my fantasy (have you read any Kij Johnson? Fudoki and The Fox Woman are so brilliant), and political intrigue, and that mix of magic and common sense DWJ does so well. As for what I dislike, epic battles. I think I have yet to find one that doesn’t bore me. And pseudo-medieval worlds where all the power implications of what is basically feudalism are not explored.

    • Yes, epic battles are no fun. It’s far more fun (for me) if the battles happen offscreen, and all I see is the political scheming. That can be boring too, but when it’s done well, I find it absolutely riveting.

  8. Aw, I was hoping Flewelling was back on track. It’s ages since I happily gobbled her first two books and slogged through the third.

    Dragons: No. Then I think of exceptions. But garden variety dragons, big no.
    Social allegory: Yes, but step lightly.
    Ragtag bands of rebels: No! Especially if they are trying to be jolly. I prefer the secretive, deadly earnest, more or less organized kind of rebel.
    Tall elves: yes.
    Short elves: No. Does anyone bother with these? What are dwarves and fairies for, I’d like to know?
    Gender issues: always.

    I’m curious. Are these all things you like? You should post your own answers, Jenny!

    I also like anti-heros, people who want to sleep together and restrain themselves for the cause (I guess the short way of saying that is “sexual tension”), dramatic irony (in moderation), slowly-revealed backstory, logical intelligible systems of magic and aesthetics, anthropology, topography, loaded dialog, grueling escapes/journies, and things that go hopelessly wrong but *don’t* go magically right again and yet the good guys make the best they can of them.

    • I’m with you on anti-heros, and also people who want to sleep together. Logical magic is always exciting– it’s so much more interesting than the “poof, and then it happened because I wanted it to” variety.

    • I love your categories! They kind of make me want to do a series of poll posts asking people what elements they are for and against in various kinds of fiction. Only next time I’ll be more specific. Do you like historical fiction? If yes, do you prefer made-up point of view characters or real ones? Swooshy dresses or fierce armor with historically accurate weaknesses?

      Of your things:

      Dragons: Mostly no.
      Social allegory: Depends on what you mean. I like issues in books to have resonance with issues in real life, but it’s a slippery slope & it’s easy to get preachy.
      Ragtag band of rebels: In theory yes (like on Firefly!), in practice they can be very trying.
      Tall elves: No. Over ’em. Too much like vampires.
      Short elves: Even worse.
      Gender issues: Hells yeah.
      Anti-heroes: Depends on whether they have Their Own Code or not.
      Restraining themselves for the cause: Yes, as long as it’s not a trumped-up excuse for the author to make sexual tension all through the book.
      Dramatic irony: HELL YES. I am like an ancient Greek that way.
      Slowly-revealed backstory: Yes. Especially if it slowly reveals that things that we thought happened by chance did not actually happen by chance.
      Intelligible systems of things: Haven’t thought about it that much but I feel like yes.
      Loaded dialogue: Yes. 😀 Times a million.
      Grueling escapes/journeys: Can make me tired.
      Things that go hopelessly wrong: Again, can make me tired. It really depends on the author.

      • Ah…but I am even more like an ancient Greek for liking it *in moderation*!

        I think this calls for a who reads the most like an an Ancient Greek smackdown post. Or survey post. Or something.

        Your blog is darned fun.

        Why do I get a feeling that maybe you are maybe a wee bit tired just now? Poor Jenny. The first couple weeks of something are always the hardest. Except marriage. Then it is the first year.

      • Hahahaha, I don’t think you can make a case for the ancient Greeks being moderate in their taste for dramatic irony. I would say Oedipus comes pretty close to ODing on dramatic irony.

        Aw, thanks!

        I am a bit tired – the sun comes up so early here, and it is hard for me to sleep late! Why, do my posts say “weariness” to you? :p

      • You said both grueling escape and things that go helplessly wrong could make you tired in fantasy. Which is reasonable, only it seemed telling that it was two in a row, and I was remembering my own many summer employments.

        True. The whole point of Greek drama is that you have to throw moderation out the window sometimes, if you go by Aristotle. Hoist on me own petard!

  9. I don’t know that I object to anything in fantasy except magic that has no rules. There has got to be some kind of consistent world, and enough of its terms have to be spelled out that a reader has some idea of what to expect, given the situation of the characters.

    I’m trying to remember why I was disappointed in the Sword of Shannara books as a teenager. They’re what I think of now when I try to think of what I don’t like in fantasy; mostly it was how derivative they seemed, in the wake of reading Tolkien.

    • Agreed. Not just rules but limits, so the characters have to learn to work within them. I think having rules forces the authors to be more creative about the things they have their characters do, so it’s better all around.

    • I tried reading the Shannara books, and they made me think of that infamous Tolkien chapter about the Council of Elrond… (sorry for what I’m sure must be terrible spelling). It just dragged on and on and never really *grabbed* me and made me want to know more.

  10. I fully endorse Literary Omnivore’s xkcd chart, more and more the older I get. However I really enjoy it when writers use weird actual words for their descriptions: for instance, McKinley talking about alignment in Sunshine. Not that I mean the word is weird, just that the usage in that context is.

    • I love that too! When I first read this comment, I just glanced at it and thought you had said you didn’t enjoy it when they do that. Which would be nuts! Yeah, I love it when an author takes a regular word and makes it special – esp. if they’re making the word sinister. I love sinister things! (But they can’t be too obvious about it or I will swing back the other way and mock them mercilessly.)

  11. Things I do like:
    – Nontraditional dragons (example; the rodent-like dragons in Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown)
    – Princesses who are neither the typical dumb princess, nor the equally-as-typical clever princess, but are rather more balanced, and are good princesses who care for their people. (Or are wicked enough to be villains)
    – Strong women, or girls. I’ve always had a soft spot for the sort of girl-power books that aren’t too forced.
    – Clever people who manage to make something great of themselves despite humble origins, also, anti-heros who rise to the occasion.
    – Mild political intrigue — not the sort where you need charts and diagrams to follow along. (an example of the bad sort would be the Kushiel series with the 10+ page list of characters and alliances).
    – Swords & Sorcery! I love when they dash off on hack-and-slash battles of epic proportions.
    – Romance — and not just sex. I want characters to have feelings for each other, and I want to see it develop. I hate sudden overwhelming moments of hormones.
    – Fate, and characters working against it, or working towards it. (Ex; Tamora Pierce’s Alanna)

    Things I do not like:
    – Deus ex Machina to an extreme– if you have to pull something out of thin air because you wrote yourself into a corner, you need to revise your plot.
    – Stereotypical dumb princesses, or smart princesses without a good reason for them to be that way. Characters that are “clever” and then do dumb things.
    – Awkward sex or violence just for the sake of one or the other. (Or god forbid both at the same time)
    – Unnecessary apostrophes or misspellings to be pretentious (vampyre being the worst offender in my book), or along the same vein, unnecessary made-up words. If it looks like a rabbit, hops like a rabbit, and tastes like a rabbit, call it a damned rabbit, not a quargle.
    – Unnecessarily complicated magic systems or political intrigue– if we don’t need to know the finer details, skip them.
    – People who have obviously never ridden a horse talking about what horses do because they’ve read a lot of books about people on horseback.

    Wow, I’m going to stop this list now. 😄

    • I think about the horse thing a lot! I don’t know anything about horses personally (though I have a few horsey relatives and therefore overheard horsey conversation), but I get a distinct *feeling* that some fantasy writers are getting it right, and some aren’t, and I’m embarrassed for them. Some use them like cars.

      And then there are the ones I know for a fact are horse-bonkers! Namely, fantasy writer Robin McKinley who married fantasy writer Peter Dickinson, and they both took ran a huge stable in England together happily ever after. Their recent books seem to devote just as much time to horse antics and stable routine as characters’ motivations. I can’t say I was pleased.

      • Robin McKinley is likely my most favoritest author ever and I stalk her like a madwoman. (In a non-creepy way, of course). She gets horses right, for sure. Diana Wynne Jones does when she writes horses, as does Tamora Pierce.

        There are a few stories where I kinda went “O_o” about their horse descriptions, but I can’t think of them at the moment. (I had a horse, and while I’m certainly still a neophyte, I know the parts of a horse and when they’re just doing it wrong).

    • Oh, I love stories with fates in them. I said in an earlier comment I’m like the ancient Greeks about dramatic irony – stories with fate and destiny and working against/toward it are nearly always packed with lovely dramatic irony.

      I totally know what you mean about stupid/clever princesses. It annoys me just as much when the princess (or girl heroine of whatever walk of life) is labeled as clever and spunky and nontraditional, but she acts like just as much of an idiot as the “traditional” characters she dislikes. If the author wants me to think a character’s clever, show her doing clever things!

      • I think it was Stephen King who made a comment in his “how to write” book (which all popular writers must apparently come up with at some point or another) about how if you have to use an adjective for a character’s personality, you’re not doing it right.

  12. This post and all comments could be put together for a Intro To/How To/Guide Book for New-to-Fantasy Readers (of which none would read, only true Fantasy Readers would probably ever buy, but still.)
    I have NO IDEA nor will I be thinking about what I like or don’t about fantasy. Just give me a good story with lovable characters, a few dislikable characters and get on with the crazies. I think.

    LOVE the tags.

    and WHERE is Trapunto’s blog?!?!?!? linkback doesn’t work.

  13. I enjoyed this a whole lot more than you did, but I still want a good deal more spying and sneaking and political manoevering in the next one. Like, lots more. I want to know what’s going on with the war, dammit!!!

    I can’t actually think of any fantasy trope that I alwaysalwaysalways dislike. I’ve got a few that I make fun of, like Stupendous and Magical Thingies (SaMTs) and Fantastical Travel Syndrome and Propehcies of Doom, but even those sometimes work for me. It all depends on what the author does with them.

    • I know! I felt like the story I wanted was happening on the edges of the story that Lynn Flewelling was telling. Every time the war was mentioned I perked up my (mental) ears, but nothing ever happened with it! I want Seregil and Alec to be doing war-related reconnaissance, only they’d have to pretend they weren’t because Phoria doesn’t like them, so they’d be working with Klia to organize spies in the Plenimaran court, and, and, and reconnaissance, dude! That’s where my heart’s at.

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