Winterbirth - Brian Ruckley
Winter is coming. A half-forgotten menace in the North is rising again, overlooked and underestimated by the power-hungry lords of the South, whose only goal is to increase their holdings and do away with their local rivals... if you are finding all this suspiciously familiar, you're not the only one, but stick with it. While Winterbirth uses the same basic template that's currently popular among epic fantasy authors (Martin, Bakker, Abercrombie...), he makes a damn fine job of it, and it's much less cliché'd than you'd expect. This is the first volume of a gritty low-fantasy trilogy, set in a dark world of clan rivalry and inter-species war, and there's plenty here to enjoy.
The various clans ("Bloods") are the lesser successors to the kingdoms of yesteryear, which were diminished in a series of apocalyptic wars. One of the weakest of these is the Lannis Blood, charged with defending the northern passes against the return of the fanatical Black Road cultists, banished northwards a century and a half ago (in the prologue). No-one seriously expects the Black Road to return, so their bloody attack on the Lannis strongholds takes the town by surprise and leaves the ruling family decimated. Orisian, the Thane's nephew, barely escapes the massacre and is forced to flee for his life, seeking help from the dangerous and unpredictable woodwights, and from the half-breeds whose mixed blood gives them access to strange powers. And, among the enemies, there is Aeglyss, another half-breed whose powers are the strongest anyone's seen in several generations, but who is twisted from childhood trauma and has the potential for devastating harm...
Ruckley writes with a rather dry competence; it took a little while to get into the story, as we are dropped, Erikson-style, right into the middle of events with strange jargon and few signposts. However, once you figure out what's going on and who all the characters are, it's a pretty good read; the pace is fast, the worldbuilding is solid and he doesn't shy away from a complex background - all the sides, good, bad and neutral, seem to be warring amongst themselves just as much as they are fighting each other. Of the recent books that are similar, this is probably closest in tone to Bakker's Prince of Nothing series (with Aeglyss taking the Kellhus role), though more accessibly written; there are also hints of Tolkien in the landscape, as the characters pass through the ruins of older, greater civilisations. He's done a good job with the elves, too - the woodwights may superficially resemble Legolas with their forest-dwelling arrow-shooting ways, but there's nothing Orlando Bloom-like in their stone-faced savagery and inter-clan warfare.
2006 was a good year for debuts, and Ruckley's book stands up well in some tough company. There's nothing massively original here, but the world is very well realised and the story is interestingly dark, and seems to be heading for darker places still. The next part is called Bloodheir and will be out sometime next year; it's definitely one I'll be picking up.