Dennis McKiernan's recommended reading order: The Dragonstone, Voyage of the Fox Rider, Into the Forge, Into the Fire, Tales of Mithgar, The Dark Tide, Shadows of Doom, The Darkest Day, Trek to Kraggen-Cor, The Brega Path, The Eye of the Hunter, Silver Wolf, Black Falcon.
This is a high fantasy series, and one of my favorites. Dennis McKiernan has written several different series as well as stand alone books, all based in the mythical land of Mithgar, populated by Humans, Elves, Warrows, Dwarves, Gods, Hidden Ones, and your typical assortment of bad guys. Although each series can stand alone, characters recur from series to series and book to book, but no single character dominates the entire series of books, even though a trilogy or duology may be based upon a single character or group.
I really like these books, and the quality of the series doesn't degrade as is typical with many extended series. The order that the books were written is not the chronological order of the stories, and although the author suggests that you read them in order, in my opinion you can start at almost any point and read whatever you want, as long as you maintain order within a series. I would highly recommend any of these books to anyone who enjoys fantasy.
The Iron Tower Trilogy tells the tale of the Winter War, Mordru's final attempt to gain control of Mithgar and bring Gryphon back into the world.
The story is told from the point of view of Tipperton Underbank, whose journals were the basis for the tale. (I love the fact that Dennis McKiernan has "sources" for these stories, and sometimes goes into detail about the scholarship of those sources.) Tip has joined the Thornwalkers, a group whose job is to guard the Bosky from intruders--initially wolves, but it's quickly learned that Vulgs have invaded the thorn ring and are attacking lone families.
Tipperton's squad includes Danner who grew up with Tip, and his commander is Patrel. It is these three whose stories we follow through the winter war, and the struggles in the Bosky.
One thing that I particularly like about Dennis McKiernan is that his war and his battles tend to be gruesome and unpleasant--he attempts to make them realistic rather than gloss over the details like many authors. I also like how he mentions other details, like how difficult riding or marching for long stretches can be. Although these are often comments made in passing, I like the fact that he has considered the fact that an inexperienced rider can't just jump on horseback (or ponyback) and ride across the country.
It's such details that express to me the amount of thought he put into his stories, and I appreciate it.
Something that I really like about these books is he does a good job with his female characters, and by that I mean he doesn't write any shirking violets. His damsels in distress may shed tears over their situation, but then they'll wipe their eyes and set about figuring out how to save themselves. There are other male authors that can write strong female characters (Steven Brust and David Eddings come immediately to mind) but Dennis McKiernan seems to have as many female leads as he does male leads, which is far more rare (Charles de Lint comes to mind here, but he writes a different type of fantasy.) Not that I mind male leads, but given the choice between a book about a male hero and a book about a female hero, I'd rather read about women.
These are the first Mithgar books, and as such, he goes into a lot of details describing the Volgs and Rucks and Holks, as well as the land, more so than in other books. Not that he doesn't describe things in other books, it's just that the descriptions are more subtle. Regardless, if you're already familiar with Mithgar, these are sections you can quickly skim through, since you'll already know these details.
On advantage of his early books is that there are no sex scenes--it isn't even referred to. I'm sure Dennis McKiernan is trying to a nice job if it, but jeesh, I just cringe whenever I read those bits. I wish he'd just leave them out entirely, or at least let us assume what the characters are doing when he tells us they've gone off by themselves.
As always, I loved Dennis McKiernan's characters. Tipperton and Patrel and Danner and Marilee are wonderful--especially Danner. It is interesting to note, however, how much the elves have changed throughout the series. Although Gildor is fine, the rest of the elves don't seem to have the depth that they do in other stories. But as the Warrows are the center of this story, that's not too much of a problem.
I love the covers of these books--I think they're fantastic. They're dark, with only a tiny splash of color. Mainly, I love the trees and creatures that writhe outside the front cover image, and the back cover text. You don't notice them at first, but when you look closely at the cover you realize that the patterns are in fact creatures hidden in a dark wood. Mercedes Lackey's Last Herald Mage trilogy has the same type of thing, and I love it there as well. The cover looks like the artist took a lot of time and effort to get things right--both the creatures described within as well as the tone of the book.
I love these covers so much that if I came across other books with a similar style cover, I'd buy them in a heart beat. However, I haven't come across any other books with similar styled covers, which is too bad. And unfortunately, unless you can find all three books used, you'll have to stick with The Iron Tower Omnibus, which is okay, but I prefer the covers to the individual books.
The Eye of the Hunter (1992)
If I remember correctly, this is the second Dennis McKiernan book I read-- the first novel. (The first book was the short story collection Tales of Mithgar.)
In The Eye of the Hunter, the Lastborn Firstborns Gwilly and Faeril, join with Riatha and Aravan to fulfill the oath to destroy the Baron Stoke, who killed Riatha's brother, and Gwilly and Faeril's ancestors.
The first half of the book moves back and forth through time, from the past to the present, telling the histories of different characters, including the histories of Aravan and Riatha. Faeril also quotes from Petal's journal, the medium through which the hunt for Stoke was passed from one generation of Warrows to the next. The jumps, which had the potential to be confusing, worked well in this book, as Dennis McKiernan does a good job of keeping things straight. One thing he does is give the date at the head of each chapter, which allows you to keep track of whether you are in the past and the present, as well as note how much time has passed in the present.
This may be my favorite Mithgar book, and having read the other books in the series makes it even more enjoyable, as I already know about Aravan's past love, the destruction of Rwn, the War of the Ban, and the Winter War--all histories referred to in the book. (Interestingly enough, except for the Winter War, those were all stories that Dennis McKiernan had not yet written when The Eye of the Hunter was published [he also refers to stories that still have not been written and probably never will be.])
I love Dennis McKiernan's characters and writing, and although sometimes gives way more detail than I want, it's not a serious problem. The issue with too much detail is that it's fine at the beginning of the story, but as the tale continues and the story gets good, I want to know what happens NOW and I don't care what the surroundings look like. So the fault is probably my own lack of patience.
Although this is one of the first Mithgar books I read, I would still recommend reading some of other Mithgar books, set earlier in the timeline, such as The Dragonstone, The Voyage of the Fox Hunter, and the Iron Tower trilogy first, just because I think that knowing the history of the characters make this story more enjoyable, although that history certainly isn't necessary.
Voyage of the Fox Rider (1993)
Dennis McKiernan is another author I appreciate for his ability to write duologies and single book fantasies. Of course as the Mithgar books all have the same setting, and contain recurring characters, I suppose that gives him the luxury of being able to continue in a known world, yet I do not believe that you need to have read any other books to appreciate this book. For the most part (excluding the very last Mithgar book) I believe that you can enter the story at any point and be comfortable.
Which is, I think, a fantastic skill, and one that I wish more fantasy authors had.
Of course, at 588 pages, Voyage of the Fox Rider is long enough that it could probably be split into two books, but it is just a single book. And that counts for a lot.
Voyage of the Fox Rider features Jinnarin, a Fox Rider and one of the elusive Hidden Ones. Jinnarin seeks the aid of Alamar the Mage in finding her mate Farrix, who has not returned from his journey to seek out strange plumes in the aurora.
For those who are familiar with the Mithgar series, this book also tells some of the history of Aravan the Elf, builder and owner of the fantastic ship Eroean, a ship unlike any other sailing the seas.
I also like the discussion between Jinnarin and Alamar about the nature of evil that continues through the story. This series tends not to look in depth at the evil characters, so it is easy to describe their actions as pure evil, so this on going discussion serves to give a little more depth to the bad characters. Not that the series requires it, but it's a nice little addition.
I like this book. It covers an interesting point in the history of Mithgar. In the Mithgar timeline, this is the second book in the history, although it was written well into the series. The War of the Ban has not yet occurred, so the creatures of evil may still freely roam during the day, and mages are still common on Mithgar. If you were looking to start the series, this would be a fine place to start, but then the series was written so that there are plenty of places to start.
The Dragonstone (1996)
This is a good book, but not my favorite Mithgar books. Unlike other books set in Mithgar, there are few appearances by characters from other books: Aravan is mentioned in passing, the great dragons make an appearance, and Vanidar accompanies Arin for awhile, but mostly the characters in this book appear only in these books. Which makes this an ideal Mithgar book with which to start into the series.
In The Dragonstone, Dara Arin has terrible visions of chaos and war centered on a green stone. As the war seemed to rage all over Mithgar, and involved even the dragons, she knew that this was a vision of the future she was seeing, not one of the past, thus she seeks the aid of mages to determine how she can turn keep this terrible vision from becoming true. In this quest she will be joined by those determined by prophecy, but no others, lest her quest fail.
Of particular interest to me, the debate that threaded through this book was of free will versus predestination. Do we have free will or is all we do predestined by God(s)?
One of the things I find frustrating is Dennis McKiernan's need to give the book a happily ever after ending, with most everyone finding their true love. With the on going discussion of free will and predestination, it almost seems as if he has come down on the side of predestination, with those who fulfilled their tasks receiving the reward of true love. Which I suppose is okay, but I found it annoying, since I could see what was going to happen.
But despite the requisite happy ending, it is a good book, and I recommend it to anyone who is already reading the Mithgar series, or is interested in beginning the Mithgar books.
Hel's Crucible Duology
Into the Forge (1997)
The first book in the Hel's Crucible duology. Tipperton is awakened by sounds of battle outside his door, and thus is drawn into what is to become one of Mithgar's great battles of good versus evil, as Gryphon seeks to dominate not just Neddra, but Mithgar and all its people.
This duology tells the story of the War of the Ban, the war that relegates the creatures of Gryphon to the night, making the light of the sun deadly. As the Ban plays a large part in the majority of the Mithgar books, it's good to get the history of the war.
As always, I enjoyed Dennis McKiernan's writing and his characters, although I could really do without the romantic bits. He tries to make them nice and short and sweet, but... jeesh. Just stop. Please. As this is the war of the ban, there is fighting from the very first chapter, and death and destruction.
The running theme for this book was consequences and secondarily, the nature of God. As is obvious when considered, all actions have consequences, but he considers also unintended consequences, and the innocent actions that can lead to dilemma and even catastrophe. But we cannot be frozen into immobility by wondering whether our every small action could lead to unexpected disaster. More interesting, although not discussed as much, is the nature of God, and what makes a being a God. We have authority and power over our pets, but does that make us gods? It's an interesting point to consider.
One thing I love about this book is the cover. The scene depicted is from the first chapter and the artist got the details exactly right, down to the scar in the man's forehead. Because the scene is in the first chapter, it's not giving away anything that happens later in the book, which I really like. Either give me a somewhat generic scene with the main characters (Mercedes Lackey's Tamara and Kethry books are good for this) or depict a scene at the start of the book, so you're not wondering 1) who or what the artist was depicting or 2) when on earth you are going to get to the scene on the cover.
If you like Mithgar, this is a book you'll want to read. Is this the place to start if you haven't read a Mithgar book before? Maybe not. What made this book so interesting to me was that it was telling the history of a major even that is mentioned time and again in the series. You might prefer to start the series at Eye of the Hunter or Tales of Mithgar.
Into the Fire (1998)
The conclusion to the story started in Into the Forge, Phais, Loric, Tipperton, and Beau leave Mineholt North to continue Tip's quest to take the coin to Agron. War continues to rage as Gryphon seeks to dominate Mithgar and all its inhabitants.
This book is the conclusion to a long story--that of the War of the Ban. Years pass as war is waged throughout Mithgar, although the tale focuses only upon Tipperton and Beau and their experiences. I like the fact that the tale is a long one and a slow one. Often books that tell tales of war are told as having taken place in impossibly short times--especially as how the heroes are traveling on horseback. The pacing of the story varies between long periods of waiting and travel, and the frenzy of battle. Something that seems far more reasonable.
Obviously you won't want to start with this book, as it is the second of two. I would recommend either the writing order of the stories, or the timeline order as a starting point, although The Dragonstone and Tales of Mithgar are not a bad introduction to Mithgar.
If you like Mithgar, you will not want to miss this series. It gives the history of the Ban, as well as several events that are mentioned throughout the series.
Silver Wolf, Black Falcon (2000)
This is the final book in Dennis McKiernan's Mithgar series, where all the loose ends are tied up. We follow the journal of Bair, the impossible child, borne of Riatha and Urus. The reeds speak of Bair as the one to find the silver sword, to be borne on the dawn, and to herald a coming time of war and chaos. In his tasks, Bair travels with Aravan, who has appeared in many of Dennis McKiernan's volumes, including Eye of the Hunter and Voyage of the Fox Rider
As a conclusion, I found the story very satisfying. We learn the answers to many of the questions that have been floating around, but not all, which I like since we don't learn all the answers to our questions in life.
I really liked the dragons in this story. I thought that Dennis McKiernan did a good job making them alien, while still making you feel compassion for their situation. And I loved how their dilemma was resolved--that may well be my favorite part of the book. I found it absolutely perfect.
Interestingly, as much as I like the story and the conclusion, this is not my favorite Mithgar book. It's good, but I don't find it great, and I didn't find it as gripping as other books in the series, although it is certainly worth re-reading.
Part of the problem may be that great events are occurring all over Mithgar, but we learn only the barest of details (otherwise this book would be far longer than it's 534 pages). These details are interesting, but because we only get a hint of what is happening, the mental speculation that comes from these bare details is distracting, and drew my attention from the main story.
And as usual, I hated the sex scenes. The only good thing about them is that they are brief. But as this has been an issue through most of the books, it didn't come as a surprise, and can be pretty easily ignored.
If you have read the Mithgar books, then reading this book is a must. If you want to read the Mithgar books, this is not the place to start, this is the place to end. And it is a good ending. But start elsewhere, like Voyage of the Fox Rider or Tales of Mithgar. It'll be worth your wait.
Red Slippers (2004)
This compilation of short stories should be the final Mithgar book. As Dennis McKiernan says in the beginning, there were some loose ends that he wanted to go back and tie up, or explain, or stories that were mentioned in passing that he wanted to mention in greater detail.
For this collection he follows the same convention that he used in Tales of Mithgar, in that these are not really short stories per se, but rather a collection of tales woven together around the central theme of sitting around a fire telling stories. Some of the stories reach back into the history of Mithgar, others continue forward from the end of Silver Wolf, Black Falcon.
As nice as it was to revisit some of the characters, I think I prefer Tales of Mithgar as a short story collection, but it's possible that this collection will grow on me over time. I now want to go back and reread all the Mithgar books, and then finish by rereading this book, which might help, since everything would be fresh in my mind.