December 05, 2004

Lawrence of Ethshar

Time for another old fantasy favorite, "The Lords of Dus", by Lawrence Watt-Evans. I've read plenty of Watt-Evans stuff, mostly books set in Ethshar, like "With a Single Spell" and "The Misenchanted Sword", entertaining and funny little gems. Not slapstick like Pratchett, but warm and humorous.

In "The Lords of Dus", Watt-Evans follows a great barbarian warrior named Gar, who isn't satisfied with the occasional conquest or victory in battle over the puny humans. He wants to know how he can make sure he is remembered forever. Not being the sharpest knife in the drawer, Gar starts taking advice from an Oracle, who sends him off on all kinds of adventures to retrieve various items and/or kill various people. Like the Ethshar books, there is a lot of humor here, and Gar is very three-dimensional.

This was originally a quartet of short books. They are "The Lure of the Basilisk", "The Seven Altars of Dusarra", "The Sword of Bheleu" and "The Book of Silence", all four like the series title fit the dreaded "The (blank) of (blank)" criteria. These have now been collected into a hardback omnibus edition. This story is a little rough around the edges, one of Watt-Evans' first, and I enjoyed his shorter novels more.

In "The Misenchanted Sword", an Ethshar scout behind enemy lines finds an old wizard who gives him a cursed sword. When drawn, the sword cannot be put down until it kills someone. Before it kills someone, the wielder is invincible. After, it turns into an ordinary sword until sheated and unsheathed again. The sword only has 100 kills in it, though. After that, it turns on its master. So the spy is turned into an assassin. Simple enough, but what if the spy gets tired of killing? What happens when the sword gets close to the end? What if the spy loses count? Can the enchantment be broken?

In "With a Single Spell", an apprentice only knows a simple fire spell, and he proceeds to accidentally destroy his master's workshop while trying to pry open a spellbook to learn more. So he runs for it and ends up being recruited into dragon-hunting duty.

These books are not about the fates of kingdoms and empires or about royalty and nobility, but instead about relatively ordinary people in unusual circumstances. Ordinary is a strange term to use for a sword-and-sorcery setting, I know, but there you are. There are a lot of interesting problems here that aren't solved by some improbable miracle or glorious combat against-the-odds but instead of simple ingenuity or unexpected but logical events.

With authors like Tolkien, Donaldson or (going in rough order down the quality scale), Feist, Kurtz, Moorcock, Roberson, Hambly, Eddings, you get the feeling you are reading a world-spanning scholarly history of great events. With Watt-Evans, you feel like you are sitting around a campfire listening to the weathered old guide telling you an amusing story about this strange fella he ran into twenty years ago (I've used that description of Watt-Evans before when I've published reviews online). Both kinds of stories have their merits.

Watt-Evans has written several more stand-alone Ethshar books, with the third being "The Unwilling Warlord" and so on, but I found "Sword" the best, then "Spell" was a small step-down in quality and so on down the line. I know he's gone on to write a trilogy dealing with dragons, but I haven't read it. My son Justin seemed to like them all right when he got them from the library. He hasn't read Watt-Evans' older stuff, though, so he has nothing to compare it to.

Posted by Observer at December 5, 2004 12:04 PM

Comments on entries can only be made in pop-up windows while those entries are still on the main index page. Sorry for the inconvenience this causes, but this blocks about 99.99% of the spam the blog receives.

I like Watt-Evans. He used to post to the rec.arts.books.scifi or whatever that Usenet newsgroup is called, always very reasonable and rational.

It's fun to read a story set in a fantasy world where the events of the character influence the character a bunch but the world little or not at all.

Posted by: Humbaba on December 5, 2004 04:01 PM

Heh, I guess we could just call it "non epic fantasy".

Posted by: Humbaba on December 5, 2004 04:01 PM

Actually, after I wrote my first Watt-Evans review (on, where I used the metaphor of the campfire guide, he wrote to me and told me he really appreciated that, it sounded like just what he wanted to accomplish. I should add that Watt-Evans also wrote one of the worst books I ever read, "Split Heirs", with Esther Friesner. Not funny, very boring.

Posted by: Observer on December 5, 2004 06:19 PM

He's my favourite fantasy author. I have read all Ethshar novels, and in my personal opinion the best is With A Single Spell, the second-best The Spell of the Black Dagger (6th one in series). I think the Ethshar series gain something from book to book, because there are more and more interrelations with previous books and magical issues may go more complicated, as reader know more about magic schools from previous books.

Posted by: TJ on April 17, 2005 02:36 PM