W.J. Maryson is one of the heavyweights in of Dutch fantasy. Before publishing this book in 2002, he had already written a fantasy series in six parts called Meestermagiër (litteraly: Master Magician) which did quite well in the Netherlands and has been translated in German (and probably a few other languages). Despite my efforts to get better acquainted with Dutch speculative fiction, my experience with Maryson's work is limited to one short piece published in the collection Time Out, for which he also did the cover art. The reason I read this book is not so much to fill the shameful gap in my library but rather the fact that it has been published in English in August under the title The Towers of Romander (just this once I'll include the Amazon link). The American market in particular is very hard to penetrate for foreign language authors. Translated short fiction appears regularly, there are magazines and websites that focus on work form non-Anglophone nations, but full novels, now that is a challenge. To my knowledge, Maryson is the only Dutch fantasy author to manage this feat in recent years. A remarkable achievement.
Note that I have read the Dutch edition. The English version has been translated by Lia Belt, a professional translator who has, among others, translated books by Raymond E. Feist and Patrick Rothfuss into Dutch. Rothfuss had some very nice things to say about her and even invited her to a signing he did in Amsterdam a while back. Belt is one of those translators who does not object to changing names of people and places when she feels the original meaning is lost, words gain a meaning the author did not intend to put there or if they accidentally mean something silly in Dutch. It is entirely possible the English version of this book contains altered names so if you see something that looks unfamiliar that is why. I also had to guess the proper English translation of some of the concepts in the book.
De torens van Romander is the first book of a trilogy set on an ocean world. A realm of far-flung, storm-beaten islands, a lot of them inhabited by culturally district groups of people. On Loh, one of the larger islands a young man by the name of Lethe grows up somewhat isolated from the other boys and girls his age. Loh is renowned for its magicians (referred to as Mysters in the book). Everybody on the island has at least some magical capability. Except Lethe. After years of trying to master some sort of magic his teachers have concluded there is no magical talent in him whatsoever. He is the Unmagician.
Not everybody seems to think Lethe is without talent however. The Myster Matei has been researching the forbidden colourless magic. A form of magic that last manifested itself nine millennia ago and has the potential to destroy the world. Such dangerous knowledge has been suppressed ever since the last Myster to study it, died as a result of his curiosity. Matei is not about to let knowledge that could save the world disappear. Especially when the first signs of a new outbreak have been spotted on a remote island in the far north of the world. He convinced his colleagues to allow him to continue his research but resistance within the ranks of Mysters is fierce. Matei knows he has to work quickly to stay ahead of the opposition. He begins to gather his companions on his quest to unravel the mysteries of colourless magic. The first one is Lethe, whom he suspects has a talent that will prove decisive in dealing with the crisis.
Being a speculative fiction author in the Netherlands is no ticket do fame and fortune. The market is not large enough to support full time fantasy authors unless they sell big abroad, so not many writers manage an even semi-professional approach to writing. On top of that they have to compete in a market that is flooded with translations of mostly English language works and manage to sell their works on a market dominated by two large publishers with a distinct preference for the faster-paced, traditional epic fantasy. Comparatively little science fiction is published and the urban fantasy plague that currently floods the American market is a lot less noticeable here. Maryson has managed to overcome all those obstacles. Part of this is no doubt that he writes the 'right' kind of fantasy for the market but his writing also displays an undeniable quality that is rarely seen in Dutch fantasy. The author effortlessly switches between the more direct language of Lethe's day to day activities and a more poetic style for flashbacks, dreams and the point of view of non-human entities. It feels like the work of an author who is confident in his ability to write a good story.
This first book in the Unmagician trilogy is quite a fast read. The pacing and structure of the story reminded me a bit of Raymond E. Feist's early books. Most of the scenes make their point efficiently, not burdening the reader with too much background material or deviations in the form of lots of secondary characters. The book is the first of a trilogy so obviously Maryson is going to leave us hanging in some of his story lines. Taking that into account I was not really impressed with the climax of the book. My perception may have been influenced by the fact that Maryson specifically picked this book to be translated. I have no idea if there is going to be a translation for the other two, so I guess I expected the book to offer a bit more closure. Maryson finds natural points to end this first book in all of the major story lines but only one is really concluded. He carries a lot over to the second book.
What struck me most about the story is how little we actually learn about the main character. Matei believes he has a special talent and recognizes Lethe's potential, which means there probably were Unmagicians before him. If so, the reader is not told. Lethe finds out a little bit about his talent but for most of the story he is just a bright and unusually observant boy. There is no conscious attempt to discover or develop his talent. Then is the mystery of Lethe's father and the fancy sword he's left his son. We learn he is curious about his father but when he is confronted with a man who might know more about his he doesn't press the issue. Lethe is shy, lacks confidence. Not entirely illogical given the fact that he was almost an outcast for part of his life but towards the end of the book a little more initiative in exploring his past and talent would have suited him. At the end of the book we only see the barest outline of the man he no doubt must become to face the threat of colourless magic.
Despite these quibbles and preconceptions on my part De Torens van Romander is a very promising start to the trilogy. Maryson has set his story in an interesting world, lots of nautical terms and themes in the novel. It makes me wonder if this is a theme that connects more of Maryson's work. The short story in Time Out also had an oceanic environment as setting. I was impressed in particular by the technical skill Maryson displays in his writing. For the English language readers I must admit I am a bit worried readers will be frustrated by the rather open ending of the book. It is not often that a book manages to draw me in yet leave me with so many questions when I finished it. I certainly hope to be able to report news on translations of the other two parts. For the Dutch language readers, fans of epic fantasy will enjoy this book. Be sure to have the second volume on hand, you'll want to dive right in.
Title: De torens van Romander
Author: W.J. Maryson
Publisher: Uitgeverij M
First published: 2002