Though you don't tend to see him or his work as heavily hyped as many other fantasists, David Farland (a.k.a. Dave Wolverton) has, with his Runelords saga, built himself a dedicated fan base and critical reputation that has gone so far as to land him a feature film deal before Robert Jordan got one. I enjoyed The Runelords (titled The Sum of All Men in the UK) quite a lot. Expecting another routine exercise in VLFN formula surfing, what I got was a novel boasting more than enough originality to set itself apart from the pack. While The Runelords has its share of first-volume nitpicks — it gets off to a rocky start, takes a while for its narrative intricacies to unravel — it bodes well for Farland's career prospects in the long term.
Farland's saga has, at its core, an interesting and original concept of magic that does almost all of his story's thematic heavy lifting. A practice of "endowments" allows one person to bestow a particular physical attribute — metabolism, wit, stamina, glamour, etc. — upon another person. The endowment lasts until one member of the pair dies. If the person endowed dies, the so-called dedicate regains the trait he gave away; if the dedicate dies, the recipient loses the endowment. Endowments may only be given willingly by the dedicate; they can never be forced. While a recipient may become literally superhuman with multiple endowments, they take their toll on flesh and blood; a man with one endowment of metabolism, for example, ages twice as fast as other men.
This is a magical concept that can, to put it mildly, become a moral and ethical hornet's nest. To his considerable credit, Farland has thought of this, and much of The Runelords deals with the troubling moral implications of endowments and how the various characters confront them. It's a common conceit of juvenile fantasies for one to desire superpowers; the entire comic book superhero genre is rooted in exploiting this fantasy, after all. But in a world where it is literally possible to become superhuman, where would the little guy stand? As Farland demonstrates, regardless of how benevolent one might be, a superhuman in a world of mere humans would always be ruler and never the ruled. And even with the free will prerequisite in place, the practice of endowments in Farland's world has so much room for abuse that, in the end, it's a form of magic that stands to benefit evil men much more than moral ones. It's not often you see fantasy novels deal with these kinds of issues in anything more than the most superficial of ways; in Farland's story, consequences are everything.
The story is set in the Kingdoms of Rofehavan. Gaborn Val Orden, son and heir of the southern kingdom of Mystarria, has traveled north to Heredon to woo Iome, the princess of Castle Sylvarresta. Gaborn, like other Rofehavan rulers and rulers-to-be, is one of the Runelords, specially trained in the history of the land and the magic behind endowments. (It's an alarming process having them done, much like cattle branding, using a tool called a "forcible" made from a magical "blood metal".) Runelords are followed everywhere they go by characters called Days, whose task is to document every detail of their lives — which leads some to wonder if these silent observers have some creepy hidden agenda.
But Gaborn's plans are overtaken by events. Rumors of an invasion of Rofehavan by the despotic Raj Ahten, from the southern Kingdoms of Indhopal, prove anything but exaggerated.
Raj Ahten is a man who has taken endowments about as far as they can go, possessing literally thousands of them. Immediately Farland explores the interesting loopholes in the magical system he has created. Endowments can only be given willingly, but all a sufficiently evil and resourceful man needs is one or two willingly given endowments of glamour in order to persuade more and more people to keep giving and giving. Barring that, the free will requirement can be further bent by the use of "vectors": a conquered foe who still resists giving his own endowments can be threatened into acting as a vector, taking endowments from others that then get channeled to the conqueror. Also, for those of you wondering why it is that, with thousands of endowments of, say, metabolism, Raj Ahten doesn't drop dead as a hammer, he counterbalances those with other endowments, such as stamina. You can literally stick a knife in his heart (one character does), and watch the wound close up as you pull it out.
It is Ahten's goal to become (literally as well as figuratively) the Sum of All Men, a title bestowed upon only one other figure in history, and rule the world. At a certain point, Ahten believes, his power will become so great that he won't even need endowments any more, and will reach some transcendent state, almost like a fantasy version of posthumanism. Arriving earlier than anticipated in Heredon, Ahten (being loaded with glamour endowments among everything else) conquers Castle Sylvarresta without a single arrow being fired; King Sylvarresta's men eagerly swing open the gates for him. Gaborn slips out the back way to travel south to warn his father about the invasion.
Another source of conflict in the novel is introduced, between the man-made magic of the Runelords, and the natural, earth magic practiced by the Earth Wardens. One of these, an advisor to King Sylvarresta named Binnesman, tells Gaborn a thing or two about his destiny (which is where the novel falls prey to cliché). He also warns the prince that Ahten's invasion is a deeper threat than anyone realizes. The Reavers, an ancient evil magic race only held in check by earth magic, are breaking free of their bonds, and Ahten's imperial hubris threatens to distract everyone from fighting the real enemy, the consequences of which could be apocalyptic.
As you can see, there's quite a lot of plot going on here. Perhaps it's more than is wise, but say what you will, at least The Runelords isn't one of those VLFN's that's got three times as many pages as it has story. Farland, despite the abundance of plot, plot, and more plot (you wouldn't believe how much I left out of the preceding synopsis), keeps the football moving up the field with impressive skill. His prose is straightforward, unencumbered by stylistic indulgences. In fact it's so easy and accessible the book often seems middlebrow; Farland has a bad habit of disdaining subtext when it would work well, preferring to have all his characters' emotions right there on the surface. But if he's guilty of being more focused on his story than its telling at times, at least Farland is focused. The Runelords leaves you confident he'll get better at the whole shebang in later volumes.
The Runelords is a most admirable and successful attempt at creating a fresh thinking-person's epic fantasy. Readers understandably skeptical of digging into another brick-sized fantasy paperback from Tor with a Darrell Sweet cover will likely find themselves pleasantly surprised with what Farland has done here.
Followed by Brotherhood of the Wolf.