Every now and then, I realize that we're in a golden age of reading. Or, at least, a golden age of book purchasing. Most recently, this realization was brought to me by the circumstances by which Lawrence Watt-Evans' The Unwilling Warlord reached my grubby little hands.
The Unwilling Warlord is the third volume of Watt-Evans' Ethshar series -- a moderately popular series of surprisingly good light fantasy. Del Rey originally published the Ethshar books, but a while back, they let them fade out of print as the sales presumably declined. Ten years ago, that would have been the end of it; the Ethshar books would have stayed out of print indefinitely, perhaps surfacing occasionally in a burst of reprinting before dropping out of print again.
But it isn't ten years ago any more, and books that sell nicely in quantities too small to interest big publishers aren't doomed to obscurity. The Ethshar books are available in trade paperback editions from Wildside Press, and can be purchased at Amazon just as easily as a book from any big publisher. This seems to be an increasingly popular trend for backlist books from established authors. For instance, I've been frustrated in being unable to recommend Dave Duncan's A Man of His Word series, but it's now available on Amazon in a small-press edition, too. Cool. The only downside to the rise of the small publisher, to my eyes, is the proliferation of hideous cover art/design. Such are the tolerable burdens of a golden age.
But at any rate, I probably should talk about The Unwilling Warlord, eh? So. By volume three of a series, you start to get a pretty good idea of what to expect, and my expectations were nicely fulfilled. As in the first two Ethshar novels, we have a character with little to no magical skill who suddenly finds himself involved with mysterious magical events, and needs to figure out how things work (while, at the same time, dealing with external, non-magical events).
Though these are fantasies, the feel of the plot problems have much in common with hard SF puzzle stories (such as Niven's "Neutron Star"), which I find appealing. Thankfully, Watt-Evans refrains from idiot plotting, which is the fastest way to kill off a puzzle story -- his characters make appropriate connections, come to sensible conclusions, and don't sit around ignoring the obvious just because they've got 200 pages to kill before they can wind things up. The slight downside to this is that plot points get wrapped up quickly, whereupon new plot points are introduced, and the result in a somewhat fragmentary overall story. The Unwilling Warlord is structured in three parts, and it wouldn't have taken too much effort to break those three parts into wholly separate short stories.
At any rate, three books into the Ethshar series, it's still an exemplar of the kind of intelligent light fantasy I really enjoy. Thank goodness for the rise of small presses and new distribution and promotional channels.