Thursday, January 25, 2024

Seven Kennings Trilogy and the Power of Story

With the publication of the final volume of the Seven Kennings trilogy, we read back through the series and consider the three books as a whole.

At a book event Hearne did in Minnesota in early November, he remarked that before his popular Iron Druid series took off, the first book he wrote for submission was a prototype version of A Plague of Giants. While that book was on submission, for fun, he wrote Hounded, and so the Atticus stories took off. That early version of A Plague of Giants, he confessed, was ultimately not good--only the tiniest fraction of it made it into the new novel when he set to writing it.

But now that he has written the entire trilogy, what has he accomplished, and what was his ambition? His ambition, it is clear to me upon reading and completing this trilogy, is to have written an epic fantasy trilogy that at it’s heart is about how epic fantasy stories are told, and the consequences and power of telling that story.

A Plague of Giants begins with the following words:

"When we encounter a voice that moves us on an emotional level, by turns wringing tears from our eyes and plucking laughs from our bellies, there is an ineffable quality to its power: all we know is that we like listening to it and want to hear more."

Right at the start, we find that this novel, and this trilogy is about the telling of story. A bard with the power of a Kenning, in particular the magical ability to project his voice, begins to tell the war-weary city of the war that they themselves are suffering privation under.  We are in medias res of the Giant’s War, and the bard, we soon learn, has been sent to tell the story of the Giants War and prepare the populace for what is to come next.

But it’s not a simple linear narrative. This is not a simple recitation of facts. The bard has collected and (with his flawless memory) organized a raft of stories from, ultimately, twenty or so points of view. This sounds absolutely unwieldy and unsustainable and it is a high wire act that Hearne works at through the books. Hearne manages it by telling the stories of these characters through the bard in a narratively interesting and engaging order, which is not a straight up order by dates. And by having the bard tell the stories, we can use present day events in Pelemyn itself as a breather and a buffer from the stories he tells. 

What’s more, this ambitious three volume out of order narrative drives plot right up to the “present”, when Fintan the bard announces that, fifty days in, he has caught them all up. That is all well and good, but the way that Fintan has told his story, the order he has taken, has in itself frustrated and driven to action the bard’s putative partner, Dervan the historian, to actions himself in that aforementioned present day narrative. The ordering of the tales is itself a layer that drives some of the action itself. 

At the end of A Curse of Krakens, Hearne gives his game away. He gives a complete order of all the events in the three books by date and reference to the “Day” Fintan tells the story or incident, and it really shows just how much of a high wire act that Hearne has been doing across three volumes in order to tell the story in the order that gives the most narrative impact. Even if, as he is driven to action, Dervan is frustrated by the out of chronological order of events that are spun out of the bard and says so. 

So the three novels are in a dialogue with history (and having the present day MCs (until the actual war fleet and strike back against the Giants) be a storytelling bard and a historian is an incredibly interesting and rich choice by Hearne. The three novels as a throughline in the present allows the author to explore the differences, the important differences between telling and ordering events for a history (which Dervan has been commissioned to write) versus the ordering of events and narratives and stories of people to tell an epic fantasy story. 

I am reminded of a favorite quote of mine from the author Roberto Calasso, who wrote a ouroboros sort of mythological book in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony:

Stories never live alone; They are the branches of a family that we have to trace back, and forward.”

The choices in transitions and when to break off from a character are disguised as Fintan wanting to tell different stories to different days to a populace suffering deprivation, and seeking distraction by any means. That is the Holmesian version of why he switches characters when he does in the narrative (usually two or three characters get a POV in a particular “day”) But in the Doyleist view. The reason why Hearne does it is to give the story tension, to add suspense and mystery. It frustrates Dervan and I think, too, in a Doyleist vein, it is a tip of the cap from Hearne to the reader as to why we have to break and the order that things are told, time and again, Dervan, as our primary POV in the present, shows his own frustration and reactions whenever things break.  As an example, in A Blight of Blackwings, when Gondel Vedd makes a stunning discovery and makes a resolution that clearly was not fulfilled, but then, to show a thematic change rather than following up immediately, the bard switches to Abbinava. 

Part of all of this narrative switching and telling tales and trying to untangle them is the theme of espionage that goes through most of the volumes. From the get go, although his help is appreciated, Fintan is seen by the government of Pelemyn as a possible spy, and Dervan is recruited to, while overtly, to write down the bard’s tales as history, but really to be a spy (much to his own chagrin, he protests throughout the series that he is not a spy and does not want to be).  That tension is ramped up when we start to learn, as the series progresses, is that the Bone Giants have spies in the various kingdoms, and baffling their intelligence gathering and untangling those networks, becomes an important plot both in the stories Fintan tells as well as our reluctant spy, Dervan, who winds up getting caught by same. 

Readers of NOAF may recall that Hearne’s book is not the only book this year that deals with the power and narrative power, and importance, and implications of story. R.R Virdi’s The First Binding, first in a series [my review here] , has a storyteller protagonist, and the narrative unfolds in a present that is broken by long passages showing us the storyteller’s past, but those past events are told in such a way and manner as to reflect and look upon the present. Virdi has ambition equal to Hearne’s in that he is investigating narrative in a way that, in its way, is deeper than Hearne in looking at the narrativeology of stories in a somewhat more structured and deliberate manner. Virdi does use this instead of a raft of points of view and so we get a more focused epic story  But Virdi’s use of a magic-infused storyteller and Hearne’s use of a magic-infused storyteller shows readers that sure, fighters, mages and even clerics can be cool, but so can bards. Don’t count out the power of a bard. 

I want to talk about formats, and their reading experience, and this goes again to something that Hearne said in the aforementioned event in Minnesota. He said that his sales of print and ebooks were decreasing over time, but his audio sales were not only strong, but actively growing. He gave all credit for this to one of his narrators, Luke Daniels (the other for the Seven Kennings trilogy is Xe Sands). I consumed these books in both ebook and audio form and tried to switch back and forth between the audible app and the ebook. This only worked sporadically according to plan and sometimes I needed to forward one to catch up with the other, and other times it seemed to pick up the change and offered the update.  

I have mixed feelings about the three potential formats here, there are strengths to the print that the ebook mitigates, somewhat, and the audiobook has, but the reverse applies as well. Hearne, in addition to writing, also did the entrancing maps of the series, showing an eye for cartography as well as writing. These come across best in the hardcovers, less well in the paperbacks, even more frustrating in the ebooks, and of course do not exist in the audiobook at all, really, aside from the “accompanying PDFs” (which in the end are even more inconvenient than the ebook in looking at the maps and other associated matter). 

So while this consideration alone might drive one toward the print books, there is a reason to consider the reverse. This is a story which is mostly narrated by a bard. This is a story, a work that, to my reading and opinion, hits its cylinders best when Fintan is telling the stories of twenty characters.  (I feel the last portion of the story, which are diary and journal entries of the expedition, is somewhat weaker because of the huge strength of Fintan as narrator). And hearing Daniels and Xands voice the characters as Fintan is doing so is an experience that at points is positively revelatory. They understand the material, they love the material and that appreciation comes through. I think, then, that for its disadvantages as noted above, the audiobooks are, for me, the definitive version of these epic tales.

In the end, Hearne, in three volumes, has laid a marker down on using the long form epic fantasy trilogy to explore the nature of story, how they are told, who tells those stories and what that all means. There is a joy and power to stories, that is made clear right on the first page of the trilogy, as a bard is sent to a city under deprivation, to tell stories to inform, and distract an audience that has already been through a lot, and more sacrifice is yet required. Stories inform us, educate us, enlighten us, lift us up, and ultimately, give us hope. There is much else to unpack in this series, so much that Hearne has to say, but for the reader or potential reader, I urge you: quaerendo invenietis: Seek and you shall discover.



Hearne, Kevin, A Plague of Giants, [Del Rey, 2017]

Hearne, Kevin, A Blight of Blackwings, [Del Rey, 2020]

Hearne, Kevin, A Curse of Krakens, [Del Rey, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.