Book Review: A Sea of Skulls by Vox Day


When Vox Day decided to embark on the goal of writing an epic fantasy series that would rival George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire in terms of scope, character, plot, and quality, many mainstream critics and SF/F afficionados laughed at him. After all, what could Vox Day, a writer whom they considered to be little more than a hack, possibly come up with that could rival the work of a Hugo Award-winning author whose works and ideas have since been adapted into massively successful television and film series?

And when it was made clear that Vox's new epic fantasy series would take place in the same universe, and feature many of the same characters, as his original book in the world of Selenoth, the flawed but promising Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy, well, his critics and enemies practically fell over laughing. After all, the latter book had its good points, but was certainly no competitor to A Game of Thrones.

They stopped laughing in an awfully big hurry when the first book in Vox's new series, Arts of Dark and Light, was released in the form of A Throne of Bones. Suddenly, it became very clear that Vox Day not only has the talent, skill, focus, and dedication to take on George "Rape Rape" Martin and craft a fantasy realm that is just as compelling as that of ASOIAF, he could in fact conceivably do better.

Frantic to latch on to some kind of flaw in the book, most of Vox's critics focused on the fact that the title of his latest opus sounded kind of like GRRM's first book in his series. Beyond that, though, it was hard to fault the tight writing, strong character development, solid plot, intense action, and exceptionally well thought out battle sequences.

That book was, in my opinion, better than the entire Martin saga- even better than A Storm of Swords. And I was not the only one to say so. Suddenly, the entire ASOIAF was looking decidedly old, tired, and flabby- a bit like the author of the saga himself, actually.

Well, if the critics found ATOB a bit difficult to stomach because it proved to be such an effective demonstration of what a (supposedly) less skilled but (definitely) more disciplined writer could do when compared with GRRM's declining powers, they are going to very quickly find that A Sea of Skulls will be an even bigger shock to their worldview.

For with this book, Vox Day has not merely matched George R. R. Martin's fantasy writing skills and output. He has exceeded him, by miles, leaving old Rape Rape wheezing and panting in the dust.

In fact, I am willing to go so far as to argue that, with this book, Vox Day has catapulted himself into the storied and rarefied rank of writers that sits just below The Master himself.

That's right, I went there. I just said that Vox Day has written a book that is nearly as good as J. R. R. Tolkien's work.

Not as good. But not terribly far off, either.

From one fantasy fan to another, praise simply does not come any higher than that.

Vox's accomplishment is made all the more astonishing by the fact that this isn't even the completed book yet. It's less than half of the full work. This book is already far more complex, more layered, and simply bigger in scale and scope than its predecessor. There are far more point-of-view characters, the battle sequences are way bigger, the size of the world that Vox Day is playing with is far greater.

Even in its current abbreviated form, if you printed this book out and dropped it on someone's head from ten feet up, you'd cause brain damage. Yet for all of that, it is lean, taut, and focused.

That did not happen by accident. Vox Day realised very quickly that if he was going to write a book that was in every way bigger and more complex than its predecessor, he would have to be far more disciplined than he had been with his earlier book. That is why it took him so long to write even roughly half of this tome- but the results speak for themselves.

By biting off only what he can chew, being highly structured and disciplined in his approach, and focusing solely on plot, character, story, and world-building, Vox has avoided making all of the mistakes that George R. R. Martin made with his last two ASOIAF books. You won't find any ideological axe-grinding (beyond maybe a lecture delivered by one character to another concerning the decline of the Elvish people). And you sure as hell won't find any Mary Sue protagonists who are just too perfect in every possible way.

The result is so good that it deserves to be called the finest high-fantasy book of its time.

Make no mistake: this now puts Vox Day right below The Master himself in terms of writing- right up there with C. S. Lewis, John C. Wright, and maybe two or three others. And that is an astonishing achievement, given that neither Tolkien nor Vox can rightly be considered first-rate fantasy writers.

One of the interesting things about the comparison between Tolkien and Day is that neither of them are really writers to begin with. Vox Day started out as a musician and a game designer. Vox himself will readily admit that his writing is not as good as Tolkien's- because it isn't. Yet Tolkien was a linguist, whose strong Christian faith and interest in Scandinavian mythology helped him create a fantasy world.

The reason both Tolkien and Day succeeded, where so many dedicated professional authors would have failed, is because they focused on their respective strengths and wrote works of epic fantasy that played to them.

In Vox's case, one key strength is his unusually deep knowledge of wargaming and military tactics. You will not find any ridiculous mounted-cavalry charges into the teeth of entrenched enemy positions made by armoured knights who really should have known a lot better anywhere in these books. Instead, you will find rigourous applications of military tactics and stratagems taken right from the pages of Vegetius and Caesar. You will find aerial assault sequences that might just have been inspired by reading about German Stuka dive-bombing tactics in WWII. You will find the use of artillery in its proper context, modified for the siege weapons of ages past, that actually make sense.

And yet, this book reads like a good fantasy book should- fast, flowing, and extremely hard to put down.

There are, to be sure, some problems with it. There are a few spelling errors here and there, which are annoying, but they are quite sparse. The pacing of some of the sequences is a little uneven, and there is rather a lot more of this new character, Bereth, and a lot less of my personal favourite, Marcus, than I might perhaps like. And my other favourite character from the series, the Lady Caitlys Shadowsong, hardly makes an appearance.

But these are minor quibbles. Overall, the book is superb. This book, like its predecessor, is long on violence but is highly disciplined in the presentation of it; you'll find no scenes thrown in strictly for ham-fisted shock value here. Every scene is carefully constructed and put in the book for a reason. The goal is to build an epic world in which multiple races are involved in a desperate war for survival. The gratuitous sex scenes and orgies of violence that characterise far too many "fantasy" novels of the modern era are quite absent here, and they are not missed at all.

There is even an excellent bit in the last third of the book involving the ancient Elven mage Bessarias which serves as a social commentary upon the decadence and suicidal lack of vision of the Elves, which might as well have been written about real-world Western civilisation. Yet it never comes across as preachy or self-indulgent- not an easy thing to do given the already extremely unconventional nature of the Selenoth universe.

This book is, quite simply, an extraordinary achievement. With it, Vox has separated himself from all of his contemporary rivals and has clearly laid down a marker for everyone else to match- and I personally don't think anyone will be able to do so for years, maybe decades, to come. What he has written here is far more than merely a great book. It is a masterclass of what high fantasy could actually be, if only the authors stopped dicking around with absurd exposition, dreadful characters, stupid side plots, and social-justice finger-wagging, and instead simply got on with the business of writing well.

Didact's Verdict: 5/5, a truly superb work of fiction that catapults Vox Day head and shoulders above any of his peers.

Buy/download A Sea of Skulls here.

Comments

  1. *Grumble Grumble Grumble* SCIENCE FICTION *Grumble Grumble Grumble*

    We need a new Leo Frankowski. The old one is broken.

    ReplyDelete

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