Dave Wolverton, aka David Farland, is a fairly well known and accomplished fantasy author. I haven’t read too much of his work, outside his Runelords series, but that alone can provide a study in storytelling.
The first novel has since been retitled The Sum of All Men, but I still think of it with its original title, The Runelords. Chronicling the tale of Prince Gaborn val Orden as he struggles to save his homeland from an invasion, we follow the prince as he discovers that saving his home is only the beginning. There are supernatural forces at work, forces which have malicious intentions for all mankind, and they’ve been corrupting Gaborn’s foe, the southern king Raj Ahten, from what he would have been, a unifier and great friend of Gaborn, into what he is now: a ruthless, enslaving conqueror, and Gaborn’s worst enemy. But such forces are surrounding and protecting Gaborn as well, for he is to be the Earth King, chosen to safeguard humanity through the coming destruction.
There are a number of things about this first novel which fascinated me.
First, there was the magic system. A certain kind of metal, once mined from the earth, could be forged into the shape of certain runes. These runes, representing certain aspects of physical prowess, are used to brand one person, then a second person, transferring that attribute from the first person to the second. These can involve strength, the mental capacity of wit, the beauty of glamor, regenerative healing, the speed of metabolism, etc. The one who gives the attribute is left crippled until the death of the one who received their gift. For instance, one who gives his wits will be left an idiot until either they or the receiver are dead.
It’s a unique system with obvious advantages and drawbacks, but also one which is very easy, if also risky, for a “runelord” to abuse. After all, the only things preventing any lord from stealing, coercing, or bribing such attributes as beauty, intelligence, strength, and speed from a commoner are resources, as the metal in question is not limitless, and one’s own morality. As such, Gaborn and Raj Ahten are polar opposites in this regard. Raj Ahten steals the virtues of his enemies and his own people as well, under threat of painful death, while Gaborn refuses to take any such gifts from his own people with sole exception of those who volunteer with explicit purpose of supporting his fight in their defense. It’s a commoner’s way of warring against people they could never fight.
There are other forms of magic, of course. Based on the elements of earth, fire, water, or wind, certain individuals may be “chosen” by the intelligences behind those elements, becoming priestly figures to wield their power in exchange for their service to it. Gaborn, as the Earth King, is an earth wizard, while Raj Ahten uses fire wizards, Gaborn’s homeland abounds in water wizards, and other kingdoms have sky wizards. For an earth wizard, they are called to protect the children of the earth, be they human or beast – there are beasts who wield much of the magic of elements, much to the surprise of several humans – while fire wizards basically just offer their enemies for their “master” to eat.
There’s also the many creatures of the Runelords universe. One, in particular, are the reavers, who are alluded to in Sum of All Men and appear in vast, unstoppable hordes in succeeding novels. Think really big insectoids capable of stepping on men and swallowing children whole. This species was quite well thought out in many respects, such as how they communicate via subtle scents, even such that the final “scream” of a dying reaver can be taken from said reaver and shoved in the face of its fellows. They also find the surface world to be inhospitable, as they dwell in sulfurous depths underground, so they must always throw sulfurous rocks into lakes and rivers before they can drink the water.
And then, of course, there’s the humans. The people were fascinating, and they often had to make some very difficult choices to further their respective agendas. It was nothing short of tragic when one man, seeking to rob Raj Ahten of his stolen virtues and free those he enslaved, spent an entire night killing men, friends who were grateful for his aid in ending their lives, as well as women, even children, all of them helpless. And this was the lesser evil. So, I found the story useful food for thought as it took me, the reader, through untenable situations and made me consider what choices I would make based on my own morality.
Outside the moral quest, it was the relationships between these people made the story truly feel real to me. Friends, enemies, allies, puppeteers, conquerors, servants, and, of course, there were couples too. Gaborn’s courtship of his betrothed, Iome Sylvarresta, has to be one of my favorite romances ever. It was very rushed, as there was a certain impending invasion to be dealt with, but it was actually believable, how he managed to win her heart so quickly. All he did, really, was promise to be the only sort of man that could possibly be worthy of her love. How much simpler could it be? 😉
Then there’s how so many people on both sides, even the people you barely even have time to notice, are intelligent. Raj Ahten, especially, keeps having to survive cunning enemies who pop out of the ranks of his foes. I’ll always remember how one nameless soldier very nearly killed Raj Ahten with a simple poisoned arrow. They aren’t all saints, of course, but Raj Ahten is established as a dangerous foe for Gaborn to face mostly by everyone else who fails to kill him despite cunning plans and unselfish sacrifices. Yet, for all his power, we know Raj can be defeated, and Gaborn can be the one to do it. It’s an intriguing depiction of the two men who become arch-enemies.
With all of that being said, and with one more emphasis of how Sum of All Men totally sucked me in with Wolverton’s style of storytelling, there are flaws in the series as a whole.
And this is where I emphasize that a great deal of this is my own opinion and bias speaking.
When I finished the first novel, I thought we more or less understood what the overall conflict would be. Gaborn was on one side, Raj Ahten on the other, the deadly reavers would be enemies to both sides, and the supernatural forces behind every side would collide on an overarching level, but affecting and being affected be the lowly mortals in their wars.
This was not the case.
Other elements came into play, which added a great deal of spice to the conflicts, but the true enemy behind Raj Ahten and the reavers was something completely different from anything I expected. Normally, that would have been even better than I thought, but something about it just fell flat for me. There were countless allusions to a greater conflict that spanned all of creation, but while victories were obtained by wits, will, and faith in Sum of All Men, the ultimate victories were due to a number of deus ex machina. And this despite how the “plot twists” and “grand revelations” were getting sorely predictable. When you manage to do both of those at the same time, you have a very confusing mess that has very little thrill to it.
Even more, a major event, when the element of the earth turned away from Gaborn when he violated its will, the eventual reconciliation of the two portrayed the intelligence of earth as… well, as rather pathetic. It used to be something wise and strong, in Sum of All Men, but then it was just… self-absorbed in its grief, and required some time for Gaborn to persuade the intelligence that Gaborn, who had not been guided or taught at all by the element, had only made a simple mistake in ignorance, not turned away and against his master. I read that and thought, “This is the world’s benefactor? Something so easily blinded by grief resulting from imagined offenses?”
Ok, actually I was more like, “The heck is this?!” But you get the idea.
Then there’s how the people of this fantasy world were brought into the heart of a cosmos-spanning conflict, involving the fusing of their world with an alternate world, like putting two alternate realities together with the finesse of an angry toddler. I’m not even sure why, but something about that scenario has always bugged me. Like everyone’s alternate selves ate each other, assuming everyone actually had an alternate self to devour. The people who had been there moments earlier were just… gone.
Perhaps it’s just because I like how unique people are, that suddenly erasing them and rewriting over them just wigs me out. But moving on.
It was like Wolverton had started out with one story in mind, a fantasy story, and let it get so far out of hand that suddenly became something completely different. And somehow nothing was as gripping as Sum of All Men.
Which reminds me of another thing. Runelords was a perfect title for the novel, even for the series (until the saga involving world-fusing where it becomes all but moot, so far as I managed to read). Sum of All Men? Not so much. The “Sum of All Men” makes no appearance anywhere except as some vague concept in the background. The next novel, Brotherhood of the Wolf, was even worse, as the brotherhood in question isn’t formed until the end of the novel, and then we never hear of it again!
One character was sent out to find a legendary warrior from ages past, but that thread never went anywhere, until we suddenly find him in the sequel series, having become a wanderer among the alternate worlds. I also remember how two characters went through hellish ordeals to go into a neighboring nation, which was supposed to have been devastated by Raj Ahten’s machinations but seemed to be doing perfectly fine, twiddling its thumbs, in order to beg for aid against the reavers. An army was sent, but never materialized on the battlefield, with no explanation of what happened to it. Even in Sum of All Men, a creature was created to defend the world, and then it disappeared, and we never see it again either.
In short, there were too many threads just left dangling after being cast out.
I can also think of another pair of characters who had a certain “just because” romance in the first series, and the next series began with certain allusions that the lord had gone insane and murdered his lady. Which, on one hand, was something I disliked and felt the lady could have avoided, but on the other hand, I was kind of, “meh, I wasn’t invested in that relationship anyway, and his madness isn’t surprising anyway.” And then, again, we see and hear nothing of the surviving madman ever again, despite being a potential antagonist in the background.
To summarize: Wolverton got a number of things right in Runelords/Sum of All Men, and there were a number of things he’s gotten right throughout the series as a whole, but somewhere along the way, it somehow drifted, for me, from “gripping” to “meh.” For all the tragedy that I saw happening in later novels, I wasn’t properly invested in the characters anymore. Things would just work out anyway. So, I eventually put down the series. I reread the first few novels every so often, but I lost the motivation to finish the later novels.
Lesson: consistency. Be consistent in the narrative, the characters, the conflict, the threads you cast out, etc.
Always keep your audience enthralled.