I'd been looking for heart-warming upbeat fantasy as a counterpoint to the reams of dark fantasy I'd been reading. A post on Reddit's r/fantasy around a similar ask taught me that the community had a term for the opposite of ‘grimdark’ - ‘noble bright’. There were a number of responses citing books that fit the sub-genre, and of the lot, two that interested me were Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor and Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura
I loved the Goblin Emperor - it was everything that was promised, but that's a post for another day. Today, we'll talk about the Books of the Raksura.
Martha Wells is currently famous for her excellent Murderbot diaries series. These novellas have won the Hugo and Nebula and have been among the most entertaining works I've read in the last few years. The Books of the Raksura predate those works. This is a medium-sized series, with five novels and 2 novella/novelette collections. Each of the novels stands well within itself while advancing the overarching plotlines within the world. No cliffhanger endings, no unresolved plots here. Each book ends with a nice crescendo and leaves you fully satisfied. A real rarity in the age of trilogies, tetralogies, and longer.
The Raksura are a race of shapeshifting flying reptiles within a world that is full of sentient races - arboreal, aquatic and aerial. They are apex predators, feared by many and capable of standing toe to toe with just about any creature within the world. They only fear another race called the Fell who are depicted as rapacious ravenous creatures that consume town after town, race after race in their quest to overrun the world.
The Raksura are matrilineal, with the queens being the largest and strongest amongst them, and ruling through respect, power and tradition. The depiction of their world and the Raksuran society is detailed and rich without ever shifting into excess.
The stories follow Moon, an orphaned Raksura consort(a fertile male) who has no idea what he is and has no upbringing in the ways of his race. The first book deals with his entry into the Indigo Cloud court at a very inopportune time. After a somewhat sedate start, it runs at a breakneck pace and covers as much ground in one volume as many do in a trilogy. The plot is detailed, the diplomatic elements intricate, the action sequences surprisingly good, and the ending entirely satisfying. I fell in love with the world and the key characters - Moon, Jade, Stone - and the rich cast of supporting characters.
I wouldn't have classed this book as ‘noble bright’ at first glance; bad things do happen to good people here, but there is something about how the characters are broadly good, well-intentioned, kind and collaborative that makes it fit the sub-genre well. It also helps that heroes and villains are clearly demarcated right from the outset.
I'd recommend this not just for anyone who is tired of the current trend towards dark fantasy, but more broadly for anyone looking for a very well written and unique fantasy series. If you've read the Murderbot diaries, I don't think I need to convince you of how good a writer Martha Wells is. For everyone else, you're really missing out on one of the hottest talents in speculative fiction, so read this right away and thank me later!