Seven Princes by John R Fultz
When you start off reading a book, one of the first signs all may not be entirely well in the garden of happiness is the naming system. Being old and struggling with a failing memory, I like people’s names to be memorable. When picking up a book titled Seven Princes by John R Fultz, first in the Books of The Shaper (Orbit, 2012), I want names like Prince Hector Elastoplast III and Prince Rocky Gastropod X. If I see Fangodrel, I’m profoundly relived when the others prove to be Tadarus, Vireon, D’zan, Tyro, Lyrilan and Andoses. Those who write fantasy have a habit of picking longer names. Olthacus the Stone and Grodulum the Hammer spring to mind and then are almost immediately slipping away into darkness, saved only by the presence of everyday objects like Stone and Hammer. These give me something I can relate to. But then come the women with Princess Sharadza and her mother Queen Shaira. And given the flood of names at the start of a book with more than 500 pages, whose names do I try to remember? Who among all these exotically named folk will prove to be significant when the final spell is cast and the last fatal hammer blow is struck (having invested effort in Grodulum, I do hope he’ll be the One aka Neo)? It’s a real challenge, I can tell you. I suppose the answer would be to start off a card index system. That way, if I were to come across Count Vilsnoticus in Chapter 10, I could check back to discover he’s the vampire hippopotamus I met briefly in Chapter 3. So in Seven Princes, do I need to remember the names of horses when their riders are killed shortly afterwards? To those not blessed with eidetic memories, such decisions assume major importance. There are linguistic highlights, of course, like a tavern called the Molten Sparrow and we should thank the local gods for the pithily-named Vod even if he does disappear into the Cryptic Sea shortly after we meet him.
From all this, you will understand this is an old-style, high fantasy novel in which sorcerers vie for power against each other in a land where humans and giants have a loose alliance, born of the need to see off the serpents — they are like dragons but without the wings. Both in the way it’s written and in spirit, this is very much a throwback to the early sword and sorcery styles of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Howard with some C L Moore thrown in for female power as our heroes battle the evil enemies that would kill them and enslave the kingdoms they rule. It’s full of talk about past exploits of glory with only a few instances of the need to think before launching into battle. In fact, the political situation is quite interesting as two rulers using sorcery represent the evil axis against the good guys, while the magic-tainted genetic drift of the giants must be overcome if they are to resume population growth. There’s dark magic based on blood rites to summon up shadow demons and a kind of ultramagic that goes beyond mere spells and sees entire worlds as all part of the same system and so capable of manipulation once you get the right point of view.
All these are fairly standard to the high fantasy, sword and sorcery subgenre and, in the right hands, this could have been a rousing adventure story as older tropes are recreated for modern times. Unfortunately, this is rather plodding. It does cover the ground but without any real spark or life. In part, the problem is lack of any sense of humour. Michael Moorcock has a very knowing approach in the Eternal Champion novels. He understands the need to smile at some of the more old-fashioned ideas. This is not to mock them, you understand. But simply to accept that when meat has passed its sell-by date, you need stronger spices in the sauce to hide any potential problems of taste. Then we come to the characterisation. We meet a lot of people and, sometimes, I did remember who they were but, after a while, I gave up caring. I’m not sure whether it’s the writing style or the more general lack of insight, but I failed to connect with these people. It’s all too black and white for my taste. Finally, we come back to the title. This is not simply a story about seven princes. Three women are pivotal, one a princess, one a Queen and the other a free spirit. In my view, this makes the title provocatively sexist and demonstrates an extraordinary lack of modern sensibilities on the part of the publisher. There’s no way a new author should be saddled with such a sexist title.
This is not to deny a good story lurking in the 500 or so pages. It would just have been better at around 300 pages or, if the characterisation was better and there moments of affectionate humour, around 400. This just turns into a trial of strength. I did get to the end and saw some measure of order restored to the universe sufficient to leave us poised for book two in The Shaper trilogy. I can’t honestly say I’m motivated to read the next. But if Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, C L Moore and the others of that period are your thing, Seven Princes will be like a homecoming and you will no doubt love every minute of it.
For a review of the sequel, see Seven Kings.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.