Blending the coming-of-age tropes of the classic quest with a more realistically imperfect world, Robinson creates an immediately accessible fantasy while avoiding a sense of pastiche or staleness. While this collection is closer to young adult than epic fantasy, it has the complexity to engage readers with greater experience of fantasy and life in general.
This book collects Nightblade, Mystic, and Darkfire (the first three books in the Robinson’s Underrealm series), along with a series of essays on the world.
Loren has lived her entire life in a small village. her only escape from her parents abuse are her fantasies of becoming the most famous thief in the world. Until a chance encounter with a fugitive wizard convinces her to make her dreams of heroism a reality – even if the wizard doesn’t want her help. However, the world is filled with people equally as cruel as her parents, but with much more significant goals than marrying their daughter for money and social station. Tangled in another plot before she even understands the one that drew her from her home, Loren discovers that neither thievery nor deeds to inspire legends are the clear and cheerful things the tales made them seem.
Taken at the highest level, this is the classic fantasy tale of a farm hand heading of in search of adventure, complete with the conflict between plain honest peasant-craft and complex political civilisation, noble thieves, and mysterious forces. However, Robinson does not limit himself to the safe discomforts and conflicts of the chosen one trope: the child abuse threaded through the narrative is realistic rather than fairytale; and the violence by many is casual rather than only the evil of the clearly bad or justified defence of the clearly good.
While each of the three books in this collection contains a complete arc, capable of standing on its own, it also leaves threads of the greater plot hanging for later instalments. As such, this box set will reduce reader frustration in addition to any saving over the individual parts.
Loren herself is equally a mix of classic fantasy and gritty realism. Her expectations of life are straight out of a fable: stealing from the deserving, having trusted companions, slipping unseen from shadow to shadow. However, the abuse she has suffered in childhood also manifests in a very plausible ambivalence to threats: she either capitulates without attempting opposition or refuses to accept weakness. Shifting along these two axes from scene to scene, she displays archetypal yet complex reactions, making her – at first – sympathetic if occasionally irritating character. As each betrayal, reversal, and victory, challenges Loren’s view of what is possible and right her responses become more complex. However, Robinson does not fall back on the classic trope of innocence becoming realism; while Loren’s principles bring her difficulties they also bring her strength and respect.
Despite the gritty realism of life as a youth in a feudal world, the plot also contains plenty of lighter moments where Loren’s mix of cunning and naïvety conflict with expectations.
The supporting cast show a similar blend of fantasy trope and nuanced character. Decent humane guards break the law not to avoid injustice but due to specific corruption. Motherly crime lords genuinely care for the cheeky ruffians who steal for them, but also possess decidedly unsavoury habits. Warriors tasked with defeating a genuine evil disagree over suitable methods and acceptable collateral damage.
Unlike some expansive fantasy series, these novels do not require an encyclopaedia or character list to understand. However, the collection does include four appendices containing selected history, timekeeping, fauna, and facsimile documents that explain or expand on events in the novels. As with the appendices to Lord of the Rings (a comparison Robinson actively seeks), these are likely to be of interest to only a subset of readers. However, unlike Tolkien’s offerings, they are pitched more at the lay reader than the academic making that subset the majority.
Overall, I enjoyed this collection greatly. I recommend it to readers looking for fantasy that balances depth with accessibility.
I have read earlier editions of each of the novels. I received a free copy from the publisher with a request for a fair review.