A short while ago, I wrote about the first three books in Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles. Now I’ve finished the next three, and am currently reading the seventh – book eight isn’t out yet.
The main character (Atticus) is still a druid, still caught up in events he only half-understands, still trying to balance survival with his obligations. He has roughly the same supporting cast of characters too – though some have died and some have changed and some are added in the later books. The series is still recognizably the same, with the same hallmarks – it annoys me slightly when a long series shifts over time, and you end up reading something that should by rights be a new idea. But this series doesn’t do that – if you liked the first three, you’ll like the second. They’re just as tense, just as exciting, and just as filled with druids, dogs, and deities.
What has changed is the nature/flavour of his adversaries. He spent the first three books dealing with Irish and Norse deities, but now he faces new foes and pantheons. In book four he faces Native American skinwalkers, books five and six are focused mostly on the Olympians (both Greek and Roman). I think I’ve mentioned before that it is a neat way of dealing with the power creep: you can’t go up from fighting gods, so you have to go sideways. It does remind me somewhat of this Penny Arcade comic though.
His allies have updated too, somewhat, despite still being roughly the same groups. He still works with the werewolves and witches, though relations have somewhat cooled. His vampire friend is around, though not necessarily fitting that descriptor. He still has an apprentice.
Much of the books focuses on his attempts to train his apprentice (Granauile), making her the only other druid the world has seen for two thousand years. She’s a strongly developed character, with her own personality and even her own chapters. That seems to be quite rare for the genre – you either get lone wolf male wizards, or highly sought-after female beauties with some sort of power. The genre has a distinct split in it, and off-hand, I can’t think of that many that attempt to cross the divide. It isn’t a total swap, of course – Granuaile is not really the same kind of character as Sookie – but the shift from male to female narration in a genre that seems quite divided by that is interesting.
Since book three, when he had various gathered legends explain their motivation for hating Thor, Kevin Hearne has been experimenting more and more with shifts in narration. It started with a group of men sharing stories around a fire, and moves on from there. By the end of book six, swapping narrators is usual, with Granuaile having her own regular chapters. I don’t really care for it – the narrative style is not different enough to make them instantly recognizable, and that kind of thing exposes flaws; it slightly spoilt my enjoyment of The Dresden Files when I realised that Harry wasn’t a strong narrator, that was just what all of Butcher’s characters sounded like inside their heads.
Shifting narrators needs to be done clearly and purposefully – ideally, you should be able to open the book to any page and know instantly who is talking. Hearne isn’t quite there – it is clear at some points, when the difference in narration is obvious (Dwarven rune skalds don’t sound like modern humans), but otherwise there isn’t enough of a difference when there should be. It’s a minor gripe, and something that I can live with, but unless an author is very, very proficient, I’d rather stick with the same point of view.
This is not a series that is shy about killing off characters, even central ones. In book five, my favourite character, and one I understandably felt was totally safe, bit the dust. In books one to three, an awful lot of characters died, but they tended not to be on the protagonist’s side. With the end of book three, that all changed, and Hearne stops pulling punches. It is refreshing, in a way, to see an author actually killing off central characters, but it is also somewhat distressing – I don’t normally read urban fantasy to feel sad. However, any book that makes you feel something strongly is worth reading, even if it slightly lessens the power fantasy.
And The Iron Druid Chronicles are still very definitely a power fantasy – even though he is almost always outnumbered and outgunned, an awful lot of the stuff Atticus gets to do is just incredibly awesome. He fights multiple pantheons of deities. He gets to meet all the most interesting myths and legends, from Herne the Hunter to Zeus himself. It is, I would argue, one of the main draws of almost all urban fantasy at the moment: wish fulfillment. Whether those wishes are about astounding victories, powerful magic, or topless drooling vampires, people are reading urban fantasy to have them briefly granted. Atticus does that – he gets to be the hero, to win over increasingly difficult odds, to be the plucky underdog dictating terms to the arrogant gods. It’s pretty great.
The last thing that seems to need mentioning is comedy. The books have always had a humorous undercurrent to them – dialogue and narration are stuffed with pop culture references. Normally, I hate humour in urban fantasy – it is so rarely done well, and mostly serves as a “look at my nerd-cred!” cry from the author. It clunks, and is irritating. For some unknown reason, however, I’m finding the Iron Druid books increasingly funny – perhaps Hearne has hit his stride with the narration, perhaps I’m close enough to the characters now that I’ll cut them a little slack. Whatever the cause, it is working – Atticus’s dog, Oberon, provides lots of humorous telepathic asides, just enough to make sure that the books aren’t all serious and gloomy. It doesn’t stop the series being tense, it just adds another layer.
As above, I’m currently reading the next book – rather ominously titled Shattered, and I’m enjoying that too. Despite my initial reluctance to read this series, I’m glad I picked it up – it starts off strong, and it stays that way, not losing focus as it continues. I’d definitely recommend it.