The mid-1970s was a great time to be a fantasy fan. Maybe not an especially discerning fantasy fan, but there seems to have been an awful lot going on in the field, a field that was growing and becoming more commercially viable. Following the meteoric success of The Lord Of The Rings, loads of publishers liked the look of magical kingdoms and wanted a few slices of it for themselves. Some of it was brilliant and really advanced the genre, but a lot – a lot – was forgettable, badly-written tosh.
And then there’s a weird beast like The Silver Sun, originally published as The Book Of Suns in 1977 and then published “in a slightly different edition” (as they say on the copyright pages) a couple of years later as the middle volume of a trilogy (of what turned out to be five books).
I read all five books over a period of about two years and enjoyed them to varying degrees but it’s the first three books (the other two are called The White Hart and The Sable Moon if you’re interested) that I always go back to because they tell a story that completes itself satisfactorily. And of those three this is the one that I enjoy the most.
It’s the story of Alan and Hal, two young men who find themselves the saviours of an oppressed kingdom. It’s a bog-standard fantasy plot with an evil king, oppressed peasantry, heirs in hiding, outlaws, elves, horses, swords, gems – basically, it’s a novel that owes a very great creative debt to the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. And as that’s a fault with so many other books of this period and genre, getting snarky about it probably is just a bit precious – I don’t have a problem with people reusing ideas and tropes, just with being reminded of them while I’m reading or watching them. And in this novel it is possible to go for long periods of time without that happening.
As an example: the setting struck me at the time (I was 14 when I first read it) as being boldly original and incredibly derivative at the same time: the Isle the characters inhabit is a very obvious analogue of ancient Ireland based very loosely on Celtic mythology, with forest spirits, magical plants, tombs—sorry, barrows – however there’s a few touches that make it feel fresh and new: for instance, the folk of Isle will not enter the forests because of the spirits/ ghosts that inhabit them, but these spirits are revealed to be “mostly harmless” (to quote another five-volume trilogy) due to their power having withered away over time. The concept of old ideas being replaced with new ways of life is writ large in these pages but not in a way that makes the reader enraged or guilty.
Having said that, it’s a near-perfect way to while away a few hours without being too much of a strain. The heroes are sometimes a little too good and earnest (though not in a way that feels out of place in this story) but they are likable and work hard for their ending. The supporting characters are straight from central casting but have enough of their own wrinkles to be interesting enough in their own right. And it is a fabulous story that doesn’t ask much but delivers its return in spades: by the end it is a thoroughly gripping yarn with high stakes and an unrelenting pace. Regardless of the story’s pedigree, you can’t ask for more than that.
You can find out more about Nancy Springer at https://www.nancyspringer.com/