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Literature / The Runelords

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Learn to love the greedy as well as the generous. Love the poor as much as the rich. Love the evil man as ardently as the good. And inasmuch as is possible in this life, when you are beset upon, return a blessing for every blow.
— Words of the Earth King and creed of House Orden

David Farland's fantasy epic, pitting man against man, man against monster, and wizard against wizard. Currently the fourth book of a second quadrilogy is in progress.

In the world of the Runelords, mankind has long used the study of runelore to create forcibles, magical branding irons used to transfer endowments of attributes such as strength, stamina, speed, wit, grace, or sight from one man to another. The magic of the Endowments is such that a person can receive an unlimited number, but can only ever give one, once in their life. But once it's given, it's truly given away, not shared, so one who gives his strength becomes too weak to stand, one who gives his sight is struck blind, and one who gives beauty becomes hideous. Runelore has allowed for the creation of soldiers far above what any normal man could ever hope to achieve. Runelords, those lords who have been freely given endowments by their people, are charged to use their abilities in the defense of their people, and the men who gave endowments, called Dedicates, who often can no longer care for themselves. The bond lasts until either the lord or the Dedicate dies.

An endowment can only be given willingly, with "willing" meaning "consenting to the act in the moment it's performed." Unfortunately, not all men are good and virtuous lords, and there are plenty of less-than-ethical ways to obtain that momentary consent, ranging from buying it with gold to beguiling commoners unused to dealing with Runelords with your greatly-enhanced beauty and voice, to taking hostages and demanding an endowment from their loved ones in return for their safety.

The practice of taking a person's attributes for your own is sometimes thought of as inherently evil, and often as a necessary evil (if your enemies have runelords in their armies, you need some of your own or you'd be defenseless against them.) This raises all sorts of fascinating moral questions and dilemmas, and the author doesn't shy away from them.

The Earth King

The first series focuses on the story of Gaborn Val Orden, the prince of Mystarria, wealthiest of the northen countries. A young prince with few endowments to his name but a good, noble heart, he is chosen by the Spirit of the Earth as the Earth King, champion of the Earth Power, and tasked to choose 'a seed of mankind,' and protect that handful of people through the dark times to come.

Meanwhile, in the southern land of Indhopal, the rapacious Wolf Lord Raj Ahten has spent years accruing thousands upon thousands of endowments for himself any way he can, seeking to become the legendary Sum of All Men. His empire stretches across the continent, holding all of the formerly warring southern nations within his grasp, and his gaze is now set upon the north.

But human warlords are hardly the worst threat the world faces, and Raj Ahten could hardly have chosen a worse time to plunge humanity into a divisive, weakening war. From deep within the Underworld, the horrifying monsters called Reavers, ancient enemies of mankind, are beginning to pour out, led by their Scarlet Sorceresses, who have been studying the same Runelore that previously was the only weapon mankind had to defeat the Reavers. It's they, not Raj Ahten, that the Earth Spirit wants Gaborn to protect humankind against, with a warning that just like the ancient Duskin and Toth races have passed into extinction, humankind's time may be up too...

Scions of the Earth

Takes place nine years after the conclusion of the first series, beginning with the death of Gaborn. As the world mourns, his widow, Queen Iome, realizes that their children are now in danger from the leaders of other nations, fearing they may intend to conquer, and from Gaborn's greatest enemy, the Locus called the One True Master of Evil. Following Gaborn's last commands, the queen, their two sons Jaz and Fallion, loyal bodyguard Borenson, and Borenson's wife, the water wizard Myrrima, make a run for it, running to the edge of the world and beyond. But Fallion is not just the son of the Earth King; he has latent powers of his own, and will need to learn to draw upon and control them in order to finish his father's work...

The series provides examples of:

  • Achilles' Heel: All Runelords have one. If the Dedicate who gave you an endowment dies, the endowment goes with them.
    • Also, overdoing it in certain attributes can be detrimental, and on top of that the transmission of attributes can be daisy-chained through "Vectors." Grant an attribute to a Dedicate who's already passing that attribute on, and their Runelord gets everything. Capture a speed Dedicate of a Runelord who's off at the front and you can use that to funnel dozens of people's speed through to that Runelord, burning them out in no time flat.
  • Action Girl: Myrrima starts the first book as a hot farmgirl trying to marry wealthy and ends it hiding under a bed. She takes about two levels of badass per book after that. By Sons of the Oak she's a nigh-unstoppable Lady of War.
  • Alternate Universe: There are a million times a million shadow worlds, each one a subtly different, equally broken reflection of the One True World.
  • Anyone Can Die: Much more prominent in the second quadrilogy. But with Jaz, who didn't see it coming, really?
  • Automaton Horses: Averted, with normal horses often needing rest, feeding, watering, and often losing shoes and becoming lame. Played straight with force horses, horses that have received endowments of strength, stamina, and speed, and thus can go as long as the plot demands.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Zigzagged with Iome in the first book. She is forced to give Raj Ahten an endowment of glamour, but insists on doing it through a vector because she can't summon the required conviction when thinking of the warlord himself. Plotwise, this provides a convenient loophole for restoring the love interest to full beauty without taking out the primary antagonist before his time.
  • Blessed with Suck: Having the speed of ten men means you age ten times faster.
  • Cannibalism Superpower: The Reavers have this.
  • Cast from Calories: This applies to people who receive endowments of metabolism. They gain increased speed and reflexes, at the cost of having to eat more. It's implied to also increase their rate of aging, but this can be counteracted by endowments of stamina, which improve healing acumen.
  • Cosmic Deadline: Unfortunately occurs in The Lair of Bones. It sometimes seems as though an extra book might have been required to cover everything.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: The Earth King, complete with his own holiday in which people hang decorations meant to look like him.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The aptly-named Lady Despair spends a good portion of book #7 trying to persuade a certain human prince to cross it.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Chemoise. Erin Connell.
  • Eat Brain for Memories: Reavers share a racial memory by eating the brains of their dead. At one point, a child eats a Reaver brain and gains the same benefit, providing an insight into their planning and purpose.
  • Elemental Powers: Both the Powers, the sometimes Anthropomorphic Personification of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, and the powers they give to their Wizards.
  • Fauxshadow: The author gives anyone who's ever read The Book of Mormon every reason to believe that Binnesman will end up dying by fire at the hands of either Raj Ahten or his Flameweavers. It ends up not happening.
  • Faux Action Girl: Erin Connell spends most of her action scenes nearly getting killed so Celinor can save her and, quite literally, get into her pants. She dies off-camera between sequels.
  • Fiery Sensuality: Being close to a fire-magician fills people with consuming, destructive lust. This is contrasted with the wholesomeness of the earth element, whose magicians fill people with an urge to procreate.
  • Fighting a Shadow: The One True Master, Shadoath, and Lady/Lord Despair are all incarnations of the same evil being which is basically this universe's Satan. Scathain, the locus who possessed Raj Ahten, is back now too with a Darkling Glory body.
  • Functional Magic: The magic granted by the Powers operates under what seems to be combination of Theurgy and Rule Magic. And they take their magic back if you stop following your end of the bargain.
  • Good Powers, Bad People: Lord Despair in the second Quadrilogy.
  • Good Thing You Can Heal: The most powerful Runelords are constantly, constantly snapping bones and dislocating joints in the casual narrative. They simply shrug it off due to the Healing Factor.
  • Groin Attack: At the end of The Brotherhood of the Wolf, Borenson is attacked and gruesomely castrated by Raj Ahten as punishment for looking upon his wife.
  • Healing Factor: Any Runelord with many endowments of stamina. Raj Ahten is Nigh-Invulnerable, being able to heal from having a knife stuck in his heart and decapitation.
    • It's only natural healing, though, even if sped up by obscene factors in the strongest Runelords. Notably, Raj Ahten's shoulder heals crooked after being crushed, necessitating that surgeons cut into his rapidly-healing flesh a dozen times to re-break and set the bones, after which it still doesn't work quite right.
    • When he finally loses in Lair of Bones he ends up dismembered by vengeful knights. His limbs start to grow back but his body simply doesn't have enough mass to completely regenerate them.
  • Informed Ability: Daylan Hammer, the Sum of All Men, is reputedly a Runelord who received so many endowments that he achieved immortality and retained his abilities even after the death of his Dedicates. When we finally meet him in Worldbinder he seems to be substantially weaker even than Raj Ahten, and he is outclassed physically by the characters on the world he retreated to. He's also been obfuscating about his abilities on purpose. He's actually a Bright One, the Sum of All Men doesn't exist - Raj Ahten's survival after losing his base endowments (i.e. dying) was due to a combination of Fire and a locus.
  • Kill It with Fire: As noted in the description, a lot of the first quadrilogy deals with the ethical implications of the Functional Magic, in particular whether it is right and proper to kill the helpless Dedicates in order to weaken the Runelord they empower, or risk defeat by having to fight the Runelord at his full strength. In the second quadrilogy, Fallion renders the entire debate moot with this trope.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Averted by most knights, but especially Borenson, who spends his entire life beating himself up over the innocent Dedicates he killed to weaken Raj Ahten.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: The Endowment magical system.
  • Merged Reality: Fallion seeks to create this by uniting the Shadow Worlds to recreate to One True World.
  • Mind Screw: In Worldbinder, things start getting weird.
  • Our Wights Are Different: Wights are a type of ghost/mage who are deadly to touch. Myrrima almost dies after touching one.
  • Pheromones: The Reavers 'speak' by pheromone scents (and anti-scents, since they have to erase the previous 'word' before they can say anything else).
  • Power Perversion Potential: Early on, Myrrima hints at this, asking Borenson what other uses an endowment of stamina is good for. A few moments' thought obviously reveals several more, including the horrible realization that the wives of Runelords typically have no physical endowments and thus are dealing with lovers that move, act, and live twice as fast as they do at minimum. That has to suck for someone.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: Endowments can only be achieved by leeching whatever quality you want from someone else.
  • Precursors: The Duskins and the Toth, having played out the same battle thousands of years ago now brewing between mankind and Reaverkind.
  • Red String of Fate: Gaborn experiences a variant of this early in the first book.
  • Required Secondary Powers: Runelords often face the danger of being a Warrior of Unfortunate Proportion. For instance, taking many endowments of strength, but no speed, or no stamina. Being the world's strongest man doesn't help if you can't hit anything, or if getting hit once leaves you crippled, or moving your hand causes your arm to snap off.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: After all the trouble Celinor went through to not end up going crazy and turning evil like his father did in the first series, he ends up getting possessed by a particularly cruel locus, murdering his wife, trying to kill his daughter, and leading a barbarian horde to try to kill Gaborn's family in the second.
  • Shoot the Dog: The first time Aaath Ulber gets in a fight on-camera.
  • Spin-Offspring: Right as Gaborn passes away, his son Fallion is just becoming old enough to take over as the main character.
  • Sucking-In Lines: The method used by Flameweavers to draw heat and light from the air around them to cast spells.
  • Superpowered Evil Side: Aaath Ulber may not exactly be evil, but being merged with a giant elite berserker definitely isn't the best thing that could have happened to Borenson, or to his family for that matter.
  • Take a Third Option: Lady Shadoath is a Runelord of incredible power, and has also enslaved one of Fallion's nakama. Fallion has no endowments. Everyone knows he'll either have to slaugher Shadoath's dedicates, or face certain death at her fully-powered hands. He kills her with fire.
  • Take Me Instead: Lord Despair loves it when people say this.
  • Take Over the World: Not good enough for Despair when there are a million million other worlds still out there.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: Fallion and company don't show up in Chaosbound. At all.
  • The Undead: Utterly bizzare, yet perfectly functional example: Raj Ahten "dies" at the end of the second book. But he's carrying so many endowments that no one even notices, including him; he heals up and goes on his merry way. It's not till the next book that one of his pyromancers points out that there's nothing left of the original man.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Aaath Ulber is a eugenic berserker, bred to use this against the wyrmlings.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: See Well-Intentioned Extremist, below.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Raj Ahten just wants to become the most powerful man in the world, and immortal, so that he can save people from the Reavers.
    • Binnesman points out that what he really wants is the glory that comes from defeating the Reavers.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Old school Wolf Lords took endowments from animals, usually wolves, considering them better than the human equivalent. Conversely, some modern Runelords who take endowments from animals do it feeling it morally superior to taking them from humans.