Starting a fantasy series is a tricky business. Not only must the author tackle the usual tasks of character development and world building, but they must also introduce a central story that is sufficiently compelling and developed to lure the reader into returning for the next instalment. Dan Stout’s Titanshade and Angus Macallan’s Gates of Stone take two different approaches to this challenge, and succeed in vastly different ways.
Gates of Stone stars a menagerie of displaced misfits: a self-exiled, rebellious princess; a lovesick spy with a gambling addiction; a prince who watched as invaders razed his home; and a pair of former priests. As Macallan veers from character to character, drawing their disparate storylines inexorably closer, he builds a world tantalizingly close to historical fantasy, with near-analogues of the Indian, Russian, Chinese and Majapahit empires. However, Macallan’s story is pure high fantasy, complete with evil sorcerers, magic swords, heroic journeys with wise old advisers and magic from all the least likely places. Gates of Stone is a Wheel of Time set in Southeast Asia, but the skill of his writing and his exquisitely detailed world more than make up for the occasionally predictable plot, and the novel ends in a near-perfect fashion—an inspiring victory in danger of disintegrating mere moments after the reader closes the book. It is at once a conclusion and a hook, and firmly situates Gates of Stone as an excellent introduction to Macallan’s grand universe.
The self-contained Titanshade, on the other hand, is equal parts fantasy, Western and film noir. Stout is a blunt, no-nonsense writer of blunt, no-nonsense characters who seem written for a young Harrison Ford. Detective Carter is a human detective in an oil boomtown populated by a variety of species, all of which coexist by a mutual agreement that the oil is worth the trouble. But his latest case involving a murdered diplomat turns into a saga of greed, corruption, zealotry and manipulation, not to mention sorcerous constructs, vigilante prostitutes, mad scientists and weaponized body odor. Stout’s magic is intensely visceral, reading as if the most twisted aspects of medieval mythology were real. His story is almost apocalyptic, as the titular city teeters on the edge of environmental destruction. The only flat characters are those at the story’s periphery, and Carter’s core relationships are complex and well realized. And even though the case is solved at the end, the world of Titanshade remains unstable enough to merit further tales.
While Gates of Stone opens a traditional high fantasy sequence in style, kicking off what is clearly a long story arc, Titanshade feels more like an episode of a procedural, with a fully encapsulated narrative woven through with potential season long plots. They are radically different books, but both are well-crafted and compelling beginnings to their respective series.