Book of the Week: Runelords

My interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy started with J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring. I discovered this book and scarcely put it down. It had such an impact on me that it is actually the first concrete memory in life I have. It was my Room 3 Spanish Class. I presumably had begun reading the book earlier, and discovered that by holding my head in a certain way, I could aggravate my stuffy nose (terrible allergies get worse during the Santa Ana Winds season in Los Angeles). At this point, declaring myself unwell, I went to the front office, and asked if they could call my parents to pick me up from school. I knew my parents wouldn’t be off from work until they could pick me up when school ended anyway, but that wasn’t important.

I was free.

I sank into one of the cushioned chairs, glanced around, made my pest pitiful stuffed nose snort, and pulled out my Bible. Pretty soon, I was 12 pages into the mines of Moria, and knee deep in orcs. An orc-chieftain (not a cave troll) had just skewered poor Mr. Frodo, and as I am prone to do when I simply cannot bear the awesomeness of a book any longer, I put my book down, looked up, and thought: ‘woah’. Looking down at my book had put more pressure on my belabored sinuses, and my mind, wracked with worry for Frodo’s safety, must have wrought my face into a most terrible frown. Not a moment too soon. You see, two girls had also sought out the air-conditioned, non-teacher supervised front office as well, but for frolicking and playing. My home-room teacher of two years ago (and presumably theirs of the time) had wandered in, and, noticing the contrast between my horrible countenance and their active game, immediately sent them to class, and notified them that going to the front office was for those who were actually sick. Sorry, Mr. Norton, but I was just as conniving as they, just with more sedentary guilty pleasures. If it is any consolation, I have yet to use Spanish in my life, and fantasy has shaped my thoughts.

But the point of this story is not the confession of my 13 year old sins, but my emotions at the time. I had, for a time, become Frodo. I felt his excitement at stabbing an orc, his revulsion at the blood running down his arm, his pride at Boromir’s praise, and his bolstered confidence. It is, in my mind, that point at which Frodo begins to become the architect of his own actions, as opposed to an Aeneas, swept about by the winds of fate. This was the one joy of Frodo’s actions I could not engage with. I was Samwise Gamgee, along for the ride, feeling its ups and downs, but not an agent myself. Of course, this was not enough to stop my reading, and to this date, I estimate that I have read well over 300 books in the twin genres of science fiction and fantasy, and many more short stories.

Years later, when one of my favorite book series was made into a roleplaying game, I picked up the book. I had, at the time, played in one star wars roleplaying game, and found it an odd activity, but this was robert Jordan we were talking about. It wasn’t until college when I realized what I had missed the point entirely. Roleplaying, with its twin aspects of world-building and character building (and portrayal), was the meat of fantasy. It was not like the other games I had played, where the point was to win. It was about reality, a different reality, and how to portray it. As a player, it was the act of putting yourself in the head of another person, in different scenarios than you would ever face, and walking your way through them. As a GM (GameMaster), it was the act of watching a world unfold in your mind. From my inspirations: Tolkein’s worldbuilding and language crafting, and the world and character building of roleplaying, it is easy how I came to see writing as again an interest. I had quelled that in 6th or 7th grade, but it returned.

This brings me to the central point of my thoughts. Large swathes of fantasy, especially sword and sorcery, can be summed up as: this was my awesome D&D campaign from levels 1-20. That joining does not interest me (he says, having placed Jerome into multiple campaigns, and having extracted elements of those campaign back with him). But the reverse joining, the making of fantasy into a roleplaying setting, is one that occasionally has merit. The Wheel of Time roleplaying game, for all its problems, had a good idea. All characters in that universe are fleshed out: there are hardly any nameless characters. This may be frustrating for a reader, but for a roleplayer, it is practically an invitation. Several other books I have read have prompted that reaction, but none so strongly as Runelords, by David Farland.

David Farland is one of the few authors to write numerous, good books both in science fiction and fantasy. He writes under the name David Wolverton in Science Fiction, and worked on Starcraft: Brood War (the lurkers are his addition, based on the reavers from his Runelords books). His universe, as much of fantasy does, draws upon a feudal culture. But his feudal culture is one of necessity. Magic, in his universe, includes forcibles, powerful runes which can give one person’s power (strength, grace, wit, beauty, etc…). This leaves one man empowered, and the other weakened, nearly bereft of that faculty. If the vassal is killed, the runelord loses his gifted power. If the runelord is killed, the power returns to the vassal. With this, David Farland has taken the feudal societal structure and literally injected it with his magic. The Runelord protects his vassals because they are the source of his power, and the vassals give to the Runelord because he protects them, from other nations, or from the deadly Reavers: giant insect-like creatures.

Science-fiction has many definitions, but one of the finer ones states that science fiction is a story that rests on a technology that is necessary for the story. Take the Time Machine out of HG Wells, or the crazy science out of Frankenstein, and there is no story. David Farland has done this in fantasy, and created a spectacularly interesting setting. I give the first book of his series, The Runelords, 5-stars, with a strong endorsement of the next 3 books in the series.


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