I recently burned through all seven books in Christopher Rowley’s Bazil Broketail series. What I liked best? The broad strokes, literally (here is our hero with a sword, there goes the head of the bad guy, flying through the air) as well as metaphorically.
Rowley has mixed and matched a number of genre staples to get his basic premise: Relkin is a dragonboy, in charge of the care of an intelligent fighting wyvern, in the legions of Argonath. The Argonathi are the main bastion left still fighting against the various evils that threaten this fantasy world. The first book is called Bazil Broketail, the name of Relkin’s dragon, but it’s Relkin who is really the main character. He’s an orphan, who is brave, gets into lots of scrapes, and can use his smarts when he needs to (where else have we seen that formula?).
Each of the books wraps up with a climactic fight against some agent of the dark powers. Relkin and Bazil are always the main movers and shakers, despite being lowly members of the 109th Marneri troop.
So, yes, it’s all remarkably unsubtle, but that’s what I like about the series. Rowley pares away any of the extraneous artsy stuff and gets down to the pulpy goodness. Bazil swings his dragonsword, and imps get separated from their heads six at a time. Later books throw a whole wagonload of exotic locales, sexy maidens, dinosaurs, decadent civilizations, sieges, and brave deeds into the series. The key here is that all of these things are entertainingly pulpy, as opposed to being used mechanically or cynically. Rowley really digs into this stuff in a whole-hearted, enthusiastic way.
That said, one of the least subtle bits about the book is the treatment of gender, and this is a bit problematic. Relkin’s world is not-so-secretly run by witches. Think of them as Bene Gesserit when they have to step in and prune the monarchy of undesirable traits, but they are also spies, magic-wielders, military advisors, and more. So far, so good. But layered below is the matter of all those imps that Bazil is busy hewing limb from limb. The evil powers try to abduct as many fertile women as possible, forcibly impregnate them by way of some evil method, and that’s where the army of imps comes from. Trolls are born from mares, and in the later books, there’s a strain of monsters ripped from the wombs of woolly mammoths.
Now I know that woman-in-peril is one of the signifiers that’s used to point out the badness of the bad guys. But this is fairly disturbing stuff. I guess Rowley gets away with it, insofar as he does, because there’s just about every other possible signifier of villainry. There’s kidnapping, barbarian tribes, human sacrifice (used throughout, but most intensely in the third book), plague, and so on, ad nauseum. If other recent fantasy novels are known for being “dark” and “gritty”, Rowley definitely got there first (the first book came out in 1992).
The notion of an ultimate dark lord is often shaky; who is this nasty guy and just why is he doing these things? I like Rowley’s explanation in the first five books: however evil the various antagonists are, they are only smaller pieces of the larger chessboard, the so-called “Sphereboard of Destiny”. In the sixth and seventh books, we get an up-close view of the big bad, and it gets a little unbelievable. Insofar as any of this is unbelievable of course. But it’s the matter of Relkin and Bazil personally defeating the dark lord who has control of twelve worlds and has murdered billions of people. Rowley goes the psychedelic route for the final showdown, marking it as drastically different than the mud-and-blood guts-of-warfare approach of most of the series.
I’ll mention one last unsubtle item: the theme. Relkin and Bazil fight side by side, so there’s friendship and bravery, two themes that have powered everyone from Frodo and Sam to Harry Potter and his buddies to their respective victories. One rather interesting bit about the Bazil Broketail series (or more precisely, a revealing bit) is the starkly Luddite turn in the fourth book. There is a vast expedition to a neighbouring continent, where cannons are under development. The witches explicitly target this burgeoning technology, and then wipe the memories of the successful invading army. Their glimpses of the larger chessboard have revealed many worlds laid waste by the advance of technology, and they are determined to avoid the same fate for their own world. Fantasy worlds always seem to be in stasis – this one is deliberately so.
Rowley has been writing steadily for years now; his latest project, which seems to suit his style, is an illustrated book called Pleasure Model.