I read The Runelords, or at least The Sum of All Men, when I was much younger. I like to revisit books I think I enjoyed when I was younger but don’t remember now. If I like them still, hoorah; if I don’t, then I get to better understand how I have changed over the years. The Sum of All Men falls in the middle of that spectrum: it’s an enjoyable book with intriguing fantasy elements, but the characters and story vary from pedestrian to poor.
Most of the praise for this book will involve the magic system that allows the eponymous runelords to be so runic and lordy, so I guess I’ll be a sheep and follow the herd on this point: this book totally has an original magic system. Instead of casting spells and counting mana, David Farland allows his characters to take “endowments” of attributes from other people through the use of magic runes. Taking an endowment of brawn robs someone of their strength—if you die, they get it back, but if they die, you lose that strength as well. So there’s an interesting, somewhat parasitic relationship going on here. Part of the moral conflict of the book concerns the propriety of accepting endowments from poor people in lieu of payment they can’t make any other way—and then you have the Big Bad, Raj Ahten, who just takes endowments at the tip of a sword and laughs nefariously when he thinks no one is looking.
That’s not the best part of the magic system, though. If Farland had stopped there, it would still be original and interesting. He takes it further, though, and explores some of the natural consequences of taking endowments. For example, if someone gives an endowment of wit (thereby losing theirs), any endowments of wit they receive automatically transfer to the person who got theirs originally—they become vectors. Later, Farland asks what happens when you create a chain of vectors and then have the person at the head of the chain give an endowment to the person at the tail—you get a ring! It’s so unfortunate when authors create interesting worlds or systems of magic but then leave the corners unexplored. That Farland takes full advantage of the rich possibilities of runes and endowments is definitely praise-worthy.
It’s much harder to be impressed with the protagonist, Gaborn Val Orden. He—shockingly, I know—turns out to be a nice guy with only the best of intentions in mind. He doesn’t take endowments, by force or as payment, only instead taking them if they are granted “willingly” out of “loyalty”. I’ve seen some good arguments about how this is a distinction without a difference, and Gaborn is just as culpable in what is essentially a system of slavery as his less scrupulous father or the nasty Raj Ahten. These criticisms are spot on and illustrate how Gaborn’s lack of self-awareness undermine his heroic role. However, I think it’s worth pointing out that most epic fantasy set in a pseudo-medieval world suffers from some level of this problem. How many epic fantasy books are about princes or princesses attempting to win back the throne from an usurper? The feudal system, and absolute monarchies in general, suck and are tantamount to slavery. Yet we’re supposed to cheer for the “rightful rulers” and their heroic pluck anyway. If anything, Farland is just making this cognitive dissonance within the fantasy genre more overt—though, by not subverting it, he doesn’t make the situation any better.
Gaborn is an uninspiring protagonist at best. His heroism is ordained rather than earned (or even particularly innate). I could deal with this, except that Gaborn spends most of this long story not doing anything important. Yeah, he rescues the princess from the tower and (maybe) spurs his father to sacrifice himself for the Greater Good (the greater good!). But The Runelords is not exactly the high-octane adventure you might want from a book of this size. Gaborn spends most of it either riding towards or away from Castle Sylvarresta.
(I’m not even going to touch the whole episode at the beginning where he arranges a marriage between his bodyguard and a hot peasant girl they meet in this foreign kingdom. Sooooo much wrong with that.)
Did I mention Gaborn has a love interest? Gaborn totally has a love interest. Her name is Iome. She’s beautiful, apparently, and more so with endowments of glamour—but then she has to give glamour to Raj Ahten (because he wants to be the fairest of them all!) and becomes super ugly, and this bums her out.
Now, I’m going to cut Iome a little slack here. She isn’t shallow, and I don’t think Farland is being shallow when he writes her lamenting her loss of beauty. Iome is undergoing significant trauma here. Raj Ahten has killed her mom and turned her father into a drooling idiot in front her. And now he’s taken her looks—which, even if not important to her, were a part of her for so long that not having them is weird. It would be like me losing all my hair suddenly: I would get over it, because it isn’t really important whether I have hair or not. But I would be super uncomfortable for the first little while. We don’t have time to see Iome get over it (for reasons I will not get into, spoilers). And we’re told that the endowment also constantly undermines any self-confidence she is trying to regain. Finally, even if Iome is innately not shallow, she has still spent her entire life growing up being told that she is “beautiful” and that her external beauty is linked inextricably to her worth as a person. This narrative, unfortunately present in our society, fucks up girls.
That doesn’t excuse the heavy-handed way in which Farland has Harry Styles—er, I mean, Gaborn—swoop in and proclaim loudly and explicitly that “Baby you light up my world like nobody else … You don’t know you’re beautiful / That’s what makes you beautiful.” Because, yes, what Iome totally needs after having her self-worth quashed by a man by being robbed of her external “beauty” is for another man to validate her and her beauty! Farland could have had Iome rediscover and reaffirm her sense of self-worth herself.
And that’s essentially the disappointing truth about The Sum of All Men and a lot of similar fantasy fiction: it could be so much more subversive, but it isn’t. This doesn’t necessarily make it bad in the same way that The Big Bang Theory’s increasing tendency to make fun of geeks/nerds rather than with geeks/nerds about geek/nerd stereotypes doesn’t make it bad. (I don’t think the show is all that funny anymore, alas, but I can still appreciate the way in which it is constructed and its stories are told.) Nevertheless, by playing most of the tropes straight (even if, as in the case of the magic system, they are played very expertly) Farlands only achieves competent mediocrity rather than innovative excellence.
I can’t say I’m surprised. The blurb on the front cover of this edition is from Terry Brooks, and there’s another on the back from Kevin J. Anderson. Both of these authors share Farland’s comprehensive grasp of the scope and potential for setting in fantasy and science fiction at the expense of shallower characters and predictable stories. The result is the type of book that’s probably an OK read—there are worse novels to be stuck with on an airplane or in a waiting room. But it’s not going to blow your mind.