Adventure with a glint of magic and a steely edge
This is an unapologetic fantasy tale that enthusiastically embraces all the finest elements of the form. To (mis)quote The Princess Bride, we have fighting, torture, true love, hate, revenge, beasts of all natures and descriptions, pain, death, chases, escapes, lies, truth, passion, magic. If this is your kind of thing you’re in for a real treat.
If it’s not, bear with me, unless some bias against the heroic really cripples your ability to judge a book on its merits. This tale is much more than rote swords and sorcery. Nicholls’ terse and forceful descriptions and his flair for dialogue imbue the world and the story with an ineffable realism. More than that, he manages to simultaneously treat the characteristic themes of the genre with respect while at the same time testing them to find new facets and angles.
We find ourselves in Bhealfa, much-conquered land effectively ruled by the Empire of Gath Tampoor while its own prince Melyobar indulges his insane obsession with both evading and somehow capturing Death. For the Gath Tampoorians, Bhealfa is now a useful source of spear-fodder for its battles with the rival Empire of Rintarah who had held Bhealfa until some twenty years ago. Unsurprisingly plenty of Bhealfans take a dim view of all this but their options are somewhat limited by the magic that pervades their lives so completely its glare can blot out the stars in the night sky above a city. Fantasy writing often skirts the awkward question of why doesn’t magic just rule the world and have done; here it does rule, or rather, its many manifestations are potent tools in the hands of those who do. As well as easing daily life with cures and conveniences and entertainment for the unthinking masses, magic enables surveillance and repression at every level. Big Brother is watching through scrying bowls and crystal balls.
Truth is what the powers that be decree it will be, irrespective of the facts. The stateless fraternities of Paladins can be relied on to enforce this truth, always provided they are paid enough. Unassuming captain in the Council for Internal Security, Serrah Ardacris comes up hard against this unpalatable reality when the well-connected fool she has foisted on her troop gets himself killed on a mission and she is required to take the blame lest word get out that the families of the Elders are in fact no better than anyone else.
While Serrah languishes in prison, we are introduced to the youthful Kutch Pirathon, magician’s apprentice, fourth level going on fifth and unlikely to go much further on account of his master having been recently hanged by paladins for practicing unlicenced magic. This is not good news for his visitor Reeth Caldason, famous swordsman or murderous outlaw depending on your outlook, and born of a long subjected and scorned minority within Bhealfa. Reeth had been rather hoping Kutch’s master could help him with a dangerous magical afflication. Mutual need for some new magician brings these two together and further inclines them to listen to Dulian Karr who turns up to pay his respects to the dead wizard. Karr, it transpires, has links to a complex web of people with magical, martial and political interests who all share a desire to see Bhealfa free, and as it happens, Serrah Ardacris as well.
There’s an artifact involved, this is a fantasy tale after all, but as the story gathers momentum, the scene is set for something far more creative than generic hero and boyish sidekick starting some illogical and unlikely peasants’ revolt. Not that they’d get much chance to try, for reasons that become clear as the story unfolds. Bhealfa’s prince may be an extremely dangerous fool but both Rintarahian and Gath Tampoorian authorities are far from the dim-witted tyrants of cliché. The problems of those that would defy them or who would simply like to opt out of the whole mess are made very real. And as well as all the other obstacles in their path, there’s Zerreis prowling to the north, barbarian warlord who styles himself The Man Who Fell From The Sun, an increasing concern to the powers that rule both Empires.
The break points in a trilogy are always problematic so I’m pleased to find this volume concludes with a solid sense of everything arrived in its place and poised for the next act, rather than some frustrating cliff hanger or the vague uncertainty of too many threads left dangling. I look forward to the second installment, confident that it will both satisfy and confound my expectations.
This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.