SEVEN KINGS is my second novel, and it’s being released in about two weeks (January 15). Accordingly, I’ve been thinking retrospectively about my first novel, SEVEN PRINCES, and I am firmly convinced that SK is a better novel than its predecessor. Considering that the second book in ANY trilogy is usually better than the first, it only makes sense that the third book is often the best of the three–or at least the most satisfying.
This definitely applies to the trilogy of all trilogies, LORD OF THE RINGS. From the first time I read Tolkien’s masterpiece way back in my pre-teen years, I knew that RETURN OF THE KING was inarguably the best and most rewarding of the three books. Succeeding re-reads of the trilogy later in life only confirmed my judgment. And why not? In RETURN we get the culmination of Frodo’s long and perilous quest, the romantic payoff of Aragorn’s saga, the final confrontation with the hordes of Mordor, the death of the Witch-King, the skyborne Nazgul, the Seige of Gondor, and a host of other wonders.
In fact, if you ask me, each book of ANY trilogy has to be better than the one preceding it. Otherwise, why should readers keep going? The narrative must enthrall and compel the reader, all the way to the grand climax of book three. There is no doubt in my mind that The Books of the Shaper series does this. SEVEN PRINCES laid the groundwork, SEVEN KINGS deepens the conflict, and SEVEN SORCERERS (Jan 2014) will bring it all to an earth-shaking climax that will make the entire journey worthwhile. The Big Payoff: That is what the third book of any trilogy must be.
The first book of a series–especially if it is an author’s First Novel–must be good enough to leave a reader wanting more. Otherwise, there is no point to writing the second and third books. Yet not all First Novels are the first volumes of a series. When a fantasy author’s First Novel is a stand-alone book, it has to deliver all the excitement, wonder, and adventure of an entire trilogy. These days fantasy publishers are mainly looking for the next big series, so it’s becoming more and more rare to find a First Novel that is NOT the beginning of a multi-volume epic.
One of my favorite First Novels is THE WHITE ISLE by Darrell Schweitzer. This single-volume epic fantasy is a superb tale of love, death, and sorcery set in a bizarre land of myth and strangeness. Darrell is one of my favorite writers, and he is mostly known as a top-flight short story writer and essayist. He has written hundreds of great short stories, yet only a handful of brilliant novels that expand the boundaries of epic/high fantasy and sword-and-sorcery. A stylist of the highest order, his writing has been compared to Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and Ursula K. Le Guin. He is also widely known as the former longtime editor of WEIRD TALES, for which he won the World Fantasy Award (along with George Scithers).
THE WHITE ISLE was Darrell’s first novel-length work. It first ran as a serial in FANTASTIC STORIES back in 1980. Later Schweitzer revised the story and Owlswick Press published it in a gorgeous hardcover as part of the Weird Tales Library in 1989.
“The wizard towered over him, his long gray beard infinitely mysterious, and it seemed to Evnos that there could be nothing finer to have such a beard, and to practice magic. When Theremderis was not holding court and making the boy sit still with him to receive ambassadors and lords, the wizard dwelt high above everyone else in the Tower of Eagles, so called because of the birds carved in stately procession just beneath its battlements. More than anything else, Evnos wanted to learn what the wizard did up there. One day, he decided to find out.”
–THE WHITE ISLE, Chapter 1: The Prince
THE WHITE ISLE tells the tragic history of Prince Evnos of Iankoros, a man who loved his wife so much that he follows her into the land of death and steals her back from the Death God Rannon. Yet this epic journey is only the first act of the story: Evnos is both knight and wizard, yet his obsession with bringing back his dead love leads to the destruction of his people and his entire kingdom. It is the folly of his all-consuming love that leads Evnos to madness and oblivion, yet his only daughter Amadel, raised in a kingdom of ghosts and ruins, must pay the price for his colossal hubris.
The magic here is deep and infinite; it infuses the world of Evnos and the cosmos that birthed it. There are no other gods left in this world–it has been abandoned by all but the Death God, who stays only to torment the souls of the dead. Schweitzer presents an existence that is inherently unfair, a cosmic jest where humanity exists only to die and serve the whims of the sadistic Rannon. A great world-serpent glides about the edges of the planet, keeping the continents and oceans from sliding into the void. There are books of ancient wisdom, which Evnos studies to learn the arts of sorcery, and there are strange horrors lurking everywhere.
Darrell’s lyrical language is silk-smooth, and he delivers imagery that is fantastic, often breathtaking, as well as horrific and terrifying. Most writers shy away from stories that are so rich in magic. They ration out tidbits of wonder here and there, keeping readers hungry for more. Yet Darrell works with Great Magics, and he is not afraid to spin them in metaphysical, existential, and metaphorical directions. Prince Evnos possesses the power to level kingdoms and defy godlings, yet not the wisdom to see that he uses it only to serve his own obsessions. His power grows as his humanity dwindles, and in the end he is nothing more than a mote of stubborn defiance spitting in the eye of the Great Dark, refusing to obey the dictates of a universe that has been set into the configuration of a nightmare.
Amadel is the living daughter that Evnos’s magic plucks from the corpse of his dead bride. Much like Shakespeare’s Prospero, the tormented wizard-prince raises his child in isolation. Amadel brings to mind the mythic stories of damsels locked in towers awaiting a mighty hero to come along one day and free her from bondage. Yet the entire island of Iankoros, where father and daughter live among the bones of a dead kingdom, is Amadel’s “tower” –and her dread captor is also the father she loves. The irony of her plight only binds her more tightly to her island prison. Yet how can any parent–even a wizard–keep his child from discovering the truths of the greater world? The more Evnos tries to keep Amadel isolated, the more she seeks to escape the dead isle and begin her own life.
THE WHITE ISLE delivers all the mythic adventure, human pathos, and magical grandeur of most fantasy trilogies, but does it in a single slim volume. Darrell’s young imagination was on full overdrive here. After this first novel would come THE SHATTERED GODDESS, followed by his masterful MASK OF THE SORCERER, a book that some have called one of the greatest fantasies ever written. The seeds of MASK’s greatness are all there in THE WHITE ISLE, as is the undercurrent of horror and nightmarish phantasmagoria that is a trademark of Darrell’s fiction.
Another terrific aspect of the book are the illustrations by the great Stephen E. Fabian, who has illustrated a majority of Schweitzer’s works over the years. Every one of ISLE’s 15 chapters begins with a Fabian illustration, and each one is a masterwork of pen-and-ink that perfectly fits the style and tone of the narrative. The Owlswick edition also has a full-color Fabian wrap-around cover. There are few writer/artist combos that can hold up to Schweitzer/Fabian, who achieve a true synergy whenever they work together.
THE WHITE ISLE, like all of Schweitzer’s novels, is a must-read for fantasy fans of any age. Not only is it one of the best First Novels of the 20th Century, it is an under-appreciated classic that reveals a master of the craft at the beginning of his career.
Although the book is sadly out of print, hardcover copies can be found on eBay (directly from Darrell’s own bookstore) for as low as $4.99. For Kindle readers, Wildside Press has released an eBook version for $2.99. At either price, it’s a steal. I recommend the hardcover because it’s such a splendid production–but all that really matters is that you read the book and discover how great it is for yourself.