Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, August 21, 2017

Monday, August 21, 2017: Maximum Shelf: A Plague of Giants

Del Rey Books: A Plague of Giants (Seven Kennings #1) by Kevin Hearne

Del Rey Books: A Plague of Giants (Seven Kennings #1) by Kevin Hearne

Del Rey Books: A Plague of Giants (Seven Kennings #1) by Kevin Hearne

Del Rey Books: A Plague of Giants (Seven Kennings #1) by Kevin Hearne

A Plague of Giants

by Kevin Hearne

A Plague of Giants is a novel of epic proportions: with 11 point-of-view characters spread across several countries in the process of being invaded by giants, it might be an understatement to say there's a lot going on here. But in the masterful hands of Kevin Hearne (the Iron Druid Chronicles; Heir to the Jedi), these myriad storylines form a cohesive whole, an epic fantasy in which every last string is carefully woven into an impressive, absorbing story.

Hearne has chosen an unusual structure for A Plague of Giants. The entire narrative is framed as a bard's recollection of recent events, a series of happenings that has resulted in a land marred by war, sadness and refugees. Wrapped around that framing is the written account of the Bard's telling, as recorded by Dervan, a historian and out-of-work professor.

What is most impressive about Hearne's double-framing is the way the bard's performance intertwines with the present-day stories of the bard and his historian, moving steadily toward the ending the bard--and therefore Hearne--has promised to reach by the culmination of this planned series: the arrival of two defensive armies to seek out and attack the army of the Bone Giants.

But Fintan the Bard is not just any storyteller, and he's not out to tell just any story. As a Raelach bard, Fintan is gifted with the Third Kenning, a kind of magical power that grants him perfect memory and perfect recollection--as well as the ability to take on the physical form of those whose story he tells. Thus, over the course of his telling, Fintan embodies--in both look and voice--the point-of-view characters whose experiences make up A Plague of Giants.

As these 11 stories unfold, merging and diverging and blending and overlapping in ways both clever and surprising, the skill of Hearne's worldbuilding becomes apparent. In addition to mastering distinct voices and perspectives for each point-of-view character, Hearne brings to life a series of foreign, imagined countries, rich with their own cultures, traditions, religions, rituals and even clothing. Within these countries are specific kinds of magic known as "kenning," each tied to a country and unmistakably linked to the natural world. Raelachs (such as Fintan) are privy to the Third Kenning, which is of the earth. The Brynt kenning is of the water, allowing its people to sluice through and control the oceans. The Fornish commune with trees and plants, the Kaurians with air, the Hathrim with fire.

These kennings become crucial in the wars that unfold across the pages of Hearne's well-imagined landscape, as these countries, loosely banded together by an ancient treaty, face invasion by the two separate armies of attacking giants.

A Plague of Giants is a spectacular work of epic fantasy for its world building, the many voices it contains and its ability to weave the stories of everyday people facing commonplace challenges within an ambitious cast of secondary characters. As Hearne's carefully plotted story ebbs and flows in Fintan's regalings, readers are treated not only to the events that led the bard to his telling, but to the trials and tribulations of ordinary folk: a widow searching for new employment; a son worried about coming out to his parents; a husband who feels cast aside by his partner's dedication to his work. Further embedded within these tales is a drumming of suffering and defeat, of the very real-life impact of invading armies and battles and hurried magic on individuals and the ones they love.

"It's strange," says Fintan while dining out one day, "Looking out this window, you'd never think there was anything wrong with the world.... You'd forget people are absolutely miserable starting ten lengths behind us.... Well, my duty [is] to make sure people look through plenty of windows."

Fintan does just that, both for the imagined audience listening to his tale and the very real audience who will read Hearne's accounting of it.

It takes some time for A Plague of Giants to build--in no small part because of its massive scope and the encyclopedic amount of information that must be relayed for this imagined world make sense. The early pages feel much like the opening moves of games like chess or Risk: armies amass, battle plans are laid, a few actions have unintended consequences. But once the players are in place and their context understood, Hearne hurtles forward toward a conclusion that is at once satisfying and yet manages to leave much to be resolved in the planned-for books two and three. A Plague of Giants is a roller coaster, a whirlwind and an absolute delight, and will leave fans of epic fantasy hungry for the next installment in the Seven Kennings series. --Kerry McHugh

Del Rey, $28.99, hardcover, 640p., 9780345548603, October 17, 2017

Del Rey Books: A Plague of Giants (Seven Kennings #1) by Kevin Hearne

Kevin Hearne: Writing an Epic for the Modern World

 photo: Amy Ryland

Kevin Hearne is the author of the Iron Druid Chronicles series, which includes Hounded and Besieged, as well as Heir to the Jedi, a Star Wars novel. His newest novel, A Plague of Giants, is the first in an epic fantasy series. Hearne lives in Colorado with his wife, son and much-loved dogs, and enjoys hugging trees, comic books, whiskey, beer and tacos.

This book is told in such a unique way, with Fintan the Bard inhabiting the stories of so many different characters. What drew you to writing in this style? Was it challenging?

Oh, heck yes, it was very challenging, but it was a mountain I wanted to climb ever since my days as a high school English teacher. I taught The Iliad and The Odyssey to kids and was always fascinated by the idea that Homer and bards like him used to entertain people for weeks at a time--extended engagements where they would essentially sing for their supper. And people would come back, night after night, to hear the next part of the serial soap opera, and then they would talk about it afterward the way we talk about television shows around the water cooler. Those epics were the pop culture of the ancient world.

I wanted to replicate that experience in prose form for modern readers, and it took me about 10 years and a lot of failure before I figured out how to structure it properly. The finished book has 11 different first-person points of view in a story that jumps back and forth in time with not just one frame, but two. That's not the kind of structure you naturally go to as a writer; you have to try simpler ideas and crash hard before you realize that sometimes complexity is precisely what you need.

How on earth did you keep this all straight in your head while writing?

I have written books on the fly in the past, but for something like this, I had to outline and keep notes on characters. I used Scrivener for this project, which allowed me to create folders for each character episode and frame and then rearrange them at will, a far more efficient process than scrolling, highlighting, copying and pasting. So when my editorial letter came back and I realized I needed to cut out two points of view (my first draft had 13!) and rearrange the rest, Scrivener made that possible. It also allowed me to keep notes on characters and color-code narrative arcs.

Many of the point-of-view characters emphasize the major ways that everyday lives changed because of the war(s) with giants, and the myriad ways individuals kept going--or didn't--as a means of survival after losing loved ones.

So many epics focus on the heroic deeds of chosen farm boys, crusty veteran soldiers or reluctant antiheroes overcoming the great shadowy evil, and rarely do we see the aftermath or consequences of the wars they fight: refugees driven to the edge of death by starvation and overwhelming grief for those they've lost. Those people have struggles and stories that bear examination beyond a cut scene in a movie to tug at the heartstrings, and they don't exist merely to make a hero feel something, either. So that's one reason I have so many intertwined stories: I didn't want this to be about an individual or even an individual culture, but about how our lives and actions can ripple and have unforeseen consequences for other people we may never even meet. 

I'm also fascinated by the different ways people honor and grieve for the dead: some have rituals in their culture that help them deal with death and move on productively, others can handle it fine as individuals, while some have a really rough time letting go, and one way or another, those people wind up damaging folks they're close to.

Another constant across points of view was the idea of sacrificing oneself for a greater cause.

I'm generally impressed by people who dedicate their lives to serving others--folks who would rather give than take, preserve rather than consume, or even die so others may live. But I'm also interested in what motivates such people: if you look a bit, there's usually something at least a little self-serving about their service, and there's a spectrum there from true altruism to cynical manipulation of public perception--that is, awareness that they're doing something for selfish reasons but pretending to be charitable. I think every point on that spectrum is interesting.

It's clear as Fintan's telling unfolds that the audience listening has particular favorite characters. Do you have a favorite? Do you expect readers to have a favorite (that may differ from the audience's)?

Can I say yes to all of that? I think we all inevitably have favorites in a large cast of characters--it's a natural thing--but I love it when folks have different ones and when their favorites shift as the story progresses. And, of course, it's the characters who aren't current favorites who make the others look great by comparison.

A Plague of Giants is the first in a planned series; can you talk a bit about what's to come?

Yes, there will be two more. I think the bard says at the outset he has about 40 to 45 days before Raelech and Fornish armies arrive to launch a counterattack, and he'll tell his tale until then. A Plague of Giants gives us the first 19 days. The second book will give us a similar number of days, and then, in the final volume, the bard's story catches up to the present, the reinforcements arrive, and they sail into the unknown against the Bone Giants.

Your website now has a ton of goodies for fans of the Iron Druid series; can readers of the Seven Kennings series expect similar information?

Certainly, if something like that comes up! I'll be doing new maps for both the second and third books so I think most everything will be included, but if there is supplementary material to distribute, I'd definitely put it on the Goodies page.

Your bio says you are a fan of "comic books, whiskey, beer, tacos, fresh air, clean energy, and friendly people," so it seems it would be a missed opportunity not to ask after your favorite comic books, whiskey, beer, and tacos of the moment.

My favorite comic series is Chew--it's run its course now but it made me laugh in every issue. For whiskey, I'd have to say my current favorite is Yellow Spot, a 12-year-old pot still Irish whiskey, but that is subject to change as I keep trying new stuff. Beer! Craft lagers and pilsners are what I favor most, stuff with a crisp flavor and not so heavily carbonated like the mass-produced stuff. Right now I'm impressed with the Ace Hill Pilsner out of Toronto. Tacos--oh my goodness. Get thee to Tacos, Tequila and Whiskey in either Denver or Phoenix. They make the best tacos I've ever had. --Kerry McHugh

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