Chalk this one up to word-of-mouth (well, social-media mostly-Twitter) marketing, but I purchased an entire trilogy from this fellow Harry Connolly, someone I’d not heard of before, over the past couple weeks. I saw the series billed as “fantasy adventure without the dull bits” and “non-grimdark” and at that point I perked right up because, lemme tell ya, I’m more than done with the grimdark in current fantasy novels nowadays.
(Joe Abercrombie’s first trilogy was “hurled with great force,” in the Dorothy Parker parlance.)
So. “The Way Into Chaos,” “The Way Into Magic,” and “The Way Into Darkness” make up a single, self-contained, it-begins-and-it-ends story. No plot hooks dangle for interminable sequels, what you read is what you get. It’s not that Mr. Connolly couldn’t write more in this world, but there’s no sense of urgency to have this happen. And I’m okay with that. It’s nice to get a complete story with no dangly bits hanging on at the end.
Which isn’t to say some plot threads aren’t dropped along the way, but… well. Let’s get to the upsides:
- Two radically different POV protagonists: Tyr Tejohn Treygar and Cazia Freewell are situated at polar opposites of the sociopolitical spectrum at the start of the series. One is a grumpy old male soldier in a leadership position, and the other is a frustrated young female magic-user who’s essentially a political hostage in the royal palace. I’ve seen reviews that get down on the POV-switching technique in the books, but that doesn’t bother me at all, and really, seeing both of these characters change and adapt and grow over the course of events is quite rewarding. Starting in places of privilege, having all of that torn away, and then rebuilding new roles for themselves in a world turned upside-down, all of this makes for good character drama.
- Heroine addiction: By the way, if the knowledge that you’ll spend half the series inside the head of a 15-year-old girl bothers you, well… too bad, you’re missing out if you decide to pass on this read. Tejohn Treygar is easier to “get” for a guy like me reading a series like this. We’re well-fed in this genre on “heroic soldiers who risk every last breath on the noble act” thing. On the flipside… watching a teenaged girl try to get her head around how profoundly the world has changed from what she thought she knew, and how hard she has to work to establish meaningful friendships, and all the hard life lessons a youngster has to pick up even when the world hasn’t been turned upside down? If by the end of the series you don’t love Cazia Freewell… I don’t know what to tell you, man. Yes, she starts out petulant and annoying. She doesn’t stay there. Not hardly.
- Clever worldbuilding: The societies we meet along the way are interesting, varied, and make sense based on their varying circumstances. The more we learn about where folks came from and how they’re dealing with things, the better we appreciate just how spectacularly buggered this world really is.
- The ball keeps rolling: If you want a breathless pace of adventure, this is your next book series to pick up. Mr. Connolly wastes no time getting the plot rolling and keeping people in motion from place to place, conflict to resolution to new conflict. Boredom is not an option for our protagonists. Too many lives are at stake, so they’ve gotta keep going.
- A collection of great set-pieces: This is going to sound like strange praise, but I would really, really love to see this series done up as an animated TV show, something like “Avatar: The Last Airbender” where each “book” is a season of 20-or-so episodes. Pitched battles! Daring and narrow escapes! Treachery! Unusual creatures! Danger all ’round! It’d be brilliant, I tell you.
- I thought we were boned but in fact we’re supremely boned: We, the readers, start out with very little to go on and not much in the way of familiar settings or tropes. (This is not a Tolkien-derived fantasy world. No such luck, reader!) As the books progress, the more that’s unveiled about the nature of The Way and magic in general and the world’s current and new inhabitants, the more you realize that wow, things are stupendously buggered up in this place. The series of revelations is impressive, and well handled. It’s a joy and a terror to learn more and more about the world these characters and races inhabit.
- Ivy: Just, Ivy. Trust me on this one. As I sent to Mr. Connolly via Twitter a couple weeks ago, “I’m midway through book 2, and I’d gleefully read The Adventures Of Ivy, Who Should Be Listened To At All Times.”
So, what didn’t work quite as well? Because I hesitate to say there’s anything actually wrong or broken about the series, but a few things left me tilting my head a bit…
- Ignore the blurb: So, for some reason, the promotional text plays up the role of the Prince in restoring order to the chaos that’s been made of the realm he was meant to inherit. Uh, spoiler alert, he’s essentially inconsequential but for the emotional and logistical impetus he delivers to the real primary characters. Everything works out for the best, mind you. But still. Sloppy blurbing there. (Probably not the author’s fault, one supposes.)
- That went surprisingly well: Let’s be clear, the body count in this series is considerable, on the page and “off screen” as it were. In fact, one hesitates to support the notion that the books aren’t actually “grimdark” to some extent. (Sigh.) However, the set-pieces I mentioned above are quite self-contained in that once the battle or escape-attempt or negotiation is under way, the results are rather tidy. Sometimes we come back to a place one of our heroes has visited before, but rarely is there a problem due to the manner of their previous departure. Each plot beat is… self-contained, in a strange way. It’s like, “Well, that happened, and we shall never speak of it again.” (Here is another reason why I think this would make a great animated series, actually.) Not every encounter is like this, but enough that I certainly noticed it as I went through the books.
- Thank you for taking the convenient exit strategy: One death in particular had me shaking my head, mainly because it’s staggeringly convenient for one of our heroes not to have to deal directly with that character any further. Problem is, it really felt like they should have been made to deal with said character directly. There’s a bit of “we only have so many pages left to go in this thing” feeling to it, unfortunately.
- Urgent (urgent urgent urgent) emergency: Because there’s a war on and a spreading catastrophe which occupies our heroes’ every waking moment, the pacing of the story doesn’t give us much breathing room. Yes, it’s a rip-roaring yarn and definitely a fun read, but it might have benefited from some of the “boring bits” so notably eschewed. A change of pace, a change of tone, might have helped the overall feel of the thing. Note that this is the most subjective criticism of all, right here: Your mileage may (and probably will) vary. The series does say right on the tin what kind of story you’re getting into, so I’m not directly criticizing it for sticking to its guns! I’m merely stating a preference, on this one.
There’s one other quibble, but I can’t get into it at all without really spoiling the ending. It’s not facepalm-worthy, just more of a “huh, ooookay” bit.
Should you buy and read “The Great Way”? Well. If you want to read an innovative fantasy adventure yarn wherein two wildly different personalities doggedly pursue the salvation of humanity in the face of overwhelming odds, I can certainly recommend doing so, keeping in mind the caveats I’ve detailed here. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss twenty bucks goodbye. What more could you want?
I’m keenly interested to see what Mr. Connolly does next in this line of work.