June 16, 2003

The Runelords, by David Farland

This is the first book in a series, and I'm following the usual pattern--each time a new volume comes out, I end up re-reading the whole set. By the time I read the Nth book, I've read the 1st book N times. This was the third time for this particular book, and rather surprisingly I was pleasantly surprised. I liked it the first time I read it; was rather unimpressed the second time; and this time I rather liked it again. I think it's partially because the second time I was rushing through it; this time I took it easy.

The world of The Runelords is based on elemental magic. The world is out of balance; Fire is becoming too powerful, and as a result the insectoid "reavers" are pouring out of the earth and slaying humans right and left. Prince Gaborn val Orden is chosen by the Earth to be the "Earth King"; it's his job to try to preserve a remnant of mankind from the reavers. His success is by no means guaranteed (except by narrative causality...); in similar circumstances, older races have perished.

There's a hitch, of course. Raj Ahten, a king from the lands to the south, is trying to conquer the entire continent. His stated goal is to unite the continent under his rule, to better handle the threat from the reavers. But in fact, he's fallen in love with the destruction and humilation he's causing everywhere he goes; the reavers are secondary. Gaborn must somehow save himself and those he loves from Raj Ahten, while not neglecting the reavers.

That's the overall conflict, but it's obscured by the most unusual characteristic of the world Farland has created. Given a magical branding iron called a forcible and someone who knows how to use it, one can "take an endowment" from another person. That is, one can borrow the other person's wit, or their brawn, or their hearing, or any of a dozen other qualities. It's a permanent loan, lasting until the death of either party. And, naturally, the person who gave the endowment no longer has the use of it. Those who give brawn are to weak to move; those who give metabolism sleep as if drugged; those who give wit become stupid; those who give glamour become ugly.

Farland's taken this simple idea, and worked out all the logical consequences. The noble class--the Runelords--take endowments as a matter of course. It's not uncommon for a King to be more powerful than any of his knights, simply because he's taken more endowments. But every king has counsellors, knights, soldiers, scouts, and so forth who have taken endowments as well. Thus, the central keep in any castle is the Dedicates' Keep, where those who have given endowments live and are cared for. Kill a King's dedicates, and you've hamstrung him.

On first reading, this was the bit that I focussed on. It wasn't until this time around that I realized that although endowments are a central fact in this world, they aren't the point of the story.

This isn't a truly classic high fantasy series, but it's good fun. I'm looking forward to the next book.

Posted by Will Duquette at June 16, 2003 07:05 PM