Thursday, 1 September 2011

Review: 'The Last Stormlord' by Glenda Larke

This is one of those books that bobbed up somewhere while I was idly trawling through Goodreads and discussion groups, so I have no idea who recommended it. Whoever it was - you have my thanks! I loved this book. Right from the first page I was drawn into it and the magic never let go. It is (inevitably) the first part of a trilogy, so plenty more story to go.

The book is set in a desert environment where every aspect of life is governed by the availability or lack of water, and society is divided into those who have it and live comfortably, and those who don't and have to grub around on the margins to survive. Interestingly, there are other parts of the world where water is abundant, but nothing more is revealed about why that should be. Although there are similarities with 'Dune', this is a work of fantasy, so there is magic at work - some people have the ability to sense or move water, and a very few (the stormlord of the title) can draw water from the sea into clouds to create rainstorms where they are needed. Only one stormlord remains, and he is old and sick. His death will plunge the land under his care into crisis.

This background is beautifully created. The author has thought carefully about the possible lifestyles and likely forms of animal life in such a precarious world, and developed them brilliantly. The pedes and ziggers, dayjars and reeves, the multi-level cities with their water-traders and snuggeries - all are believable and evocative. The reader is instantly immersed, with foreign terminolgy scattered about everywhere. Many authors do this just to be cute or clever, but that didn't seem to be the case here. All the terms were either readily understandable (not hard to guess what a pede is) or were soon explained. I liked the dialects for the different regions, too, which were well-defined and credible. Even the swearing had local colour. The names were in keeping, even if often unpronouncable (Taquar? Moiqa? Nealrith?), but this is a bit of a fantasy convention.

The plot is nicely developed. The threat of impending catastrophe should the last stormlord die, and the likely consequences, are laid out right from the start and the tension builds steadily to the inevitable disaster. Everything that happens feels logical , and the motivations of the characters are always understandable. The author has a nice way of disclosing key information, so that the reader works it out just a satisfying moment or two before the reveal, without unnecessary cliff-hangers or overblown drama. The author is also very good about repeating essential details just at the point where it might become puzzling. This makes it really easy to keep track of what's going on and why. And the action just rolls along so that you have to keep turning the pages - that 'just one more chapter' effect.

The main characters are generally complex enough to be interesting. The bad guys are perhaps a little too evil to be credible, but the others are very much drawn in shades of grey. Terelle and Shale have both had difficult childhoods, but the effects of that are not overdone - it gave them depth rather than making them into caricature hero/heroine figures fighting back from adversity. Taquar was interesting, too, and I would have liked to know a little bit more about him. I also liked Kaneth and Ryka - their relationship felt totally believable. The squabbling amongst the various rainlords over how to deal with the situation, and the difficult decisions faced by decent people in impossible situations is beautifully done.

I loved the magic system. The idea of sensing water and moving it about at will is a beguiling one. I find myself looking at clouds now and thinking - if only... The author has devised some very clever applications of it - ways of killing, for instance, or surviving underwater. The water painting is obviously a related form of magic, but is not well developed so far. Presumably it will become more significant in the later books.

One aspect I particularly liked is that Terelle and Shale, while encountering their various difficulties, regularly received help from complete strangers - just normal people behaving decently to fellow human beings. There are too many fantasies around these days which focus unrelievedly on humanity's dark side and it's nice to find a more balanced portrayal.

My only complaint, such as it is, is that the death toll in the final battle was rather high amongst the named characters. The unwashed masses always die in droves, of course, but I like to see most of the significant characters survive, especially as there are still two more volumes to go. But it's a small quibble.

This is not a particularly original book in many ways, but it's good, solid fantasy which I found enjoyable at every level. It has unusually good world-building and an excellent magic system, with a nicely worked plot, believable characters and a down-to-earth writing style which I liked very much. I look forward to reading the rest of the series. Four stars. [First written August 2011]

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