The Last Ringbearer
Kirill Eskov, 1999, English Translation by Yisroel Markov, 2010
This review will have to be a bit different, since this isn't technically a book. Well, it's a book in Russia, but it can't be legally published here. The Last Ringbearer is an elaborate fan work based on Lord of the Rings.
You might have heard about this last winter, it was in the news for a while. For example, here's Laura Miller's article on Salon. The premise is actually pretty brilliant. First, it takes LOTR as a historical narrative, but not necessarily true. Second, considering how history on Earth is written by the victors, what might the actual events have looked like which inspired the story.
To sum up: there was a war, and like most wars, it was mostly about resources and power, while superficially being about ideology.
There are some flaws in either the writing or the translation. These include some awkward early expository infodumps, some poorly executed breaking of the fourth wall, and some allusions that I think are too heavy-handed.
That said, I really enjoyed reading this. It's exciting, intriguing, and inventive. The main plot follows a Mordorian medic who is given a secret mission after the end of the war, to try to claim a sort of victory despite the decimation of his people.
This is a cross between a scholarly exercise akin to trying to guess who King Arthur might have really been and a straight retelling of Lord of the Rings from an author who does not share Tolkien's romantic view of pastoral life. Parts of it made me think about the scenes in Isengard in the movie, and wonder what else would have been different if instead of a hellscape, it had looked like the workshop of a Da Vinci.
(I tried to find a youtube clip of the very beginning of Hudson Hawk to show you what I mean, but have not been able to.)
I loved the subtle parallels between parts of this story and LOTR, in theme or plotline. On the other hand, occasional winking-at-the-audience asides about how the conquering forces will "spin" this or that event were actually pretty annoying.
I really liked the book once the plot picks up after the lengthy exposition near the start. I started to love the book in the middle, when the story moves to a southern city for a while. If nothing else, this is really good fantasy espionage. There are lots of great original characters, while the versions of the 'normal' characters are a mixed bag, and your opinion will vary based on how much you like them in LOTR.
It doesn't replace LOTR, it isn't trying to. But it is a fascinating piece, and I highly recommend giving it a chance.
4 Stars - A Very Good Book
The English translation of The Last Ringbearer is available for free online.