These days, fantasy novels seem to be all about realism. Or at least, semi-realism. Magic is pushed to the fringes, and only happens in rare cases. The focus is on gritty, relatable characters in a vaguely noir-ish world. Whether in epic fantasy or urban fantasy, there's been a bit more restraint lately in terms of throwing around other-worldly elements.
So it's a pleasure to read an unabashed over-the-top fantasy epic like John R. Fultz's Seven Princes, in which totally batshit stuff happens every few pages and the wonders aren't rationed at all. Fultz writes at a frenetic pace, as if worried he'll run out of pages before he throws in all the cool stuff he's thought up. It's kind of amazing. Spoilers ahead...
Seven Princes is definitely not a new masterpiece of the fantasy genre, or a challenger to George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie. What Seven Princes does have to offer, though, is breakneck pacing and nonstop insanity. Every few pages, foxes are turning into naked ladies or giants are going off to talk to the mermaid queen, or a long-lost race of blue giants is randomly discovered, or evil dark spirits are destroying entire kingdoms. It's epic with a capital EPIC.
For all that, the plot is fairly simple - it just has a million subplots. Basically, there's an ancient evil sorcerer named Ellathym, who shows up at the kingdom of Yaskatha and demands the throne. The King of Yaskatha has him put to death, but then he comes back again, and once again demands the throne. This goes on for a bit, until it turns into a zombie rampage that kills the King and almost everybody else. The surviving prince of Yaskatha, D'Zan, flees and vows to regain his throne. Meanwhile, the sexy sorceress Ianthe plots to take over most of the rest of the world, with Ellathym's help.
So it's up to D'Zan and six other young princes, from various countries, to put a stop to Ellathym and Ianthe –- except that one of the seven princes turns out to be evil.
The evil prince turns out to be secretly the grandson of Ianthe, the evil sorceress, and he learns to share a love of blood-drinking and mayhem with her. She's constantly turning into a white panther and laying waste to cities, while her grandson has quasi-incestuous thoughts about her. (Edited to add: And the evil prince contacts his grandma by smoking magical crack, and then drinking human blood.) The twisted grandma-grandson relationship is probably the best part of the book.
But it's all good fun. Like I said, the pacing is really where this book stands out. You never have to wait for the other shoe to drop. If it's hinted that somebody's going to turn evil, they finish turning evil within 10 pages. If a young princess starts learning to be a sorcerer, she'll be a pretty decent sorcerer within 10 pages. If someone sets out for a far-off kingdom, they'll be there pretty soon. If someone starts learning to wield a massive greatsword from scratch, they'll be pretty good at it in a couple chapters. There's a determined rejection of the epic fantasy ethos of deferred gratification. The whole book contains about 10 books' worth of story ideas and plot twists, in under 500 pages.
And Fultz's writing creates some entertaining mental images, like when the young half-giant prince Vireon goes chasing the white fox (that turns into a naked lady) through the wilderness and into the tundra, on foot:
Vireon followed, snowflakes steaming against his hot skin. He ran through the frosty morning, ignorant of the cold. Shirtless he had come into the forest, and his buckskin leggings and boots were soaked with the night's rain. His slick black mane swirled behind his head as he crowned the hill and sprinted down its back. The white fox already mounted another hill up ahead. A thin layer of snow had covered the autumn colors of the forest floor. The Uyga still grew here, but there were many other, smaller varieties of tree. The undergrowth was thicker here, and often he jumped a cluster of white-leaf fern or a knot of tall skyweed. He ran north, into the cold lands where summer only ever visited briefly before fleeing southward.
You sort of wish Frazetta was still alive, just so he could illustrate some scenes from this book. By the end of the book, when the white fox is turning to flame and taking on the evil panther lady, you're fully on board.
This is the first book of a four-book series, and Fultz packs in a lot of mythos here - he's a disciple of the great Darrell Schweitzer, and you can see echoes of The Shattered Goddess in his world-building and writing. There are lots of prophetic dreams and ghosts and weird spiritual experiences, and most of the sorcerers in the story turn out to be ancient beings of great power, or their descendants.
And there's lots of stuff, woven in among all the giants and zombies and crazy mayhem, about the importance of storytelling and myth-making. One of the princes, Lyrilan, is obsessed with being a storyteller and writing down the epic events of this story for future generations because — as he explains painstakingly — that's the only way we can achieve real immortality or meaning that lasts beyond our own lives.
And meanwhile, when the princess Sharadza learns sorcery from the old Iardu the Shaper, there's some nice stuff about the patterns that shape the world. Sharadza has to learn, first to forget who she is and later to impose her will and identity on stuff. Iardu and Sharadza, in the midst of all the fantasy heroics, are the only ones who see war as an elemental force that, once unleashed, creates nothing but misery.
So all in all, you should definitely check out Seven Princes, if:
1) You need a break from fantasy that tries to keep one foot on the ground
2) You want an old-school fantasy epic about the battle between good and evil,
3) You want a fast page-turner where fantastical weirdness bursts out of every other page.