Wells, Martha: Wheel of the Infinite

It’s all a question of priorities

I went looking for something by Martha Wells after being invited to take part in a Fantasy Writers Roundtable by Authors on the Web. A group of us were all emailed the same questions and our answers collated. The end result made for fascinating reading in general and in particular, I noted Martha Wells citing Brat Farrah by Josephine Tey and Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers as favourite reads. I’d cited Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise and while my personal favourite Tey book is The Daughter of Time, Brat Farrah runs it a close second.

So let’s take a turn on the Wheel of the Infinite. Our heroine Maskelle is an exiled priestess who serves as Voice of the Adversary, a contrary force in the pantheon of Ancestors that control the magic of this tropical setting far removed from the usual misty medieval fantasy world. There are demons and supernatural powers on all
levels ranging from ravening water spirits to the minor nuisance of a possessed puppet that has a tendency to involve itself in plays where it’s not wanted. Maskelle is travelling with the theatre troupe lumbered with this latter inconvenience as she returns to the Marai, a vast temple complex both part of and separate from the capital Duvalpore, where she must take part in the Hundred Year Rite, to remake the world anew through the Wheel of the Infinite, a mandala drawn in coloured sand that serves as a microcosm of the wider world. As she returns, she finds herself enmeshed once again in the rivalries of those who seek power, both temporal and spiritual for their own baser ends. Some of the reasons for Maskelle’s exile stemmed for her earlier connivings in such games with less than resounding success. Accordingly, she’s an engaging, worldly wise protagonist, flawed and aware of her limitations on the one hand, on the other, capable of robust arrogance, confident in her powers and her right to use them. Only something is awry in the spiritual world and using such powers can attract dark forces. Such darker forces are at work in the secular world as well, as magic is used in the quest for temporal power by different factions. But such magic ties the real world to the unseen infinite and each affects the other. As a result, the Hundred Year Rite is increasingly threatened and that could mean the end of everything.

The nature of power, its use and abuse and the consequences of conflicting priorities are threads woven through a robust narrative with plenty of incident and surprise. The world is drawn with convincing detail and subordinate characters play their parts persuasively. Unfortunately I took some while to get into this book, distracted as I was by recollections of Terry Pratchett’s The Thief of Time. While very different, both books draw on common themes and symbols from Far Eastern mysticism and having read the Pratchett, some developments in this book didn’t strike me with the impact they deserved. I should point out here that Wheel of the Infinite was first published in hardcover in 2000, so there’s absolutely no question of plagiarism here. It’s just one of those unfortunate coincidences of publishing timing. Having said that, the latter half of the book certainly held my attention as the plot unfolded with a series of unexpected twists. I shall go looking for something else by Martha Wells and hope for a similarly well-crafted tale that I can enjoy without the distractions I suffered from here. Don’t let my difficulties put you off giving her work a try as well.

This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.

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