And so on to the final part of the 'Watergivers/Stormlords' trilogy. At this point, I'm sufficiently invested in the characters and their world to care deeply about what happens to them. I have no expectations, going in, as to where the story will end up. The obvious possibility is a simple return to the status quo - Shale and Terelle will succeed in finding a new source of water-power (whether from the mysterious Khromatis or elsewhere) and everyone will settle down to rebuild the Scarpen cities with water supply assured.
But there are other potential outcomes too. It may be that the stormlord approach will fail utterly, and there will be a return to the time of random rain and everyone will have to adjust to a new, more flexible, way of life. But there is also the question of why there is a problem with rain in the Quartern at all, given that elsewhere water is plentiful. So it may be that some way will be found to change the climate entirely. This will still require a lot of adjustment, but it might be a better long-term solution. So the author could go in any one of a number of different directions, all with satisfying and emotionally resonant endings.
There are some implausibilities creeping into the plot, the convenient secrecy of the Alabasters, for instance. And Shale's propensity for rushing off to deal personally with whatever crisis is going on makes for an exciting ride, and is consistent with his personality and age (he's still a teenager, after all), but it isn't very sensible, given that he's the only stormlord left in existence. And I have to agree with the (several) characters who pointed out to him that going off to talk to his hostile brother in his own camp, and almost unaccompanied, is a seriously stupid thing to do.
And then there's Bice and his motley collection of sons. The bad guys have been a little too openly evil right from the start, but at least the likes of Taquar and Laisa have a certain charm. Bice, however, has none, and I find it difficult to accept a character who is so instantly aggressive and murderous. I like my villains to have at least a little personality. Besides, the obvious response to Terelle turning up out of the blue in Khromatis is to disbelieve her story entirely. She can't become Pinnacle unless she is accepted as the rightful heir, yet Bice never questions her ancestry.
Somehow this book seems a little more uneven than the previous two. Minor skirmishes early on become unexpectedly fraught, while other situations which should have been hazardous or difficult pass off unexpectedly easily, almost frivolously. The acquisition of new stormlords passes almost without comment, even though all indications are that the Khromatis will be highly unwilling to help out, and one of them, at least, is taken forcibly. Virtually nothing is said about whether their powers are even suitable (I recall just one casual comment), even though this is a crucial factor in the entire trilogy. Some aspects of the plot, and some minor characters, are dealt with in an almost perfunctory way. There were a number of places, too, where I lost track of who was speaking and had to reread carefully to work it out. This happens occasionally in every book, but it seemed a lot more frequent here than in the previous two. And there were quite a few small typos towards the end, as if the author was rushed.
I also felt there were some loose ends left dangling. I half expected Bice to make a reappearance, for instance, and I was surprised we never heard how Jade learned of what happened to her two sons. Much was made of keeping this from her, so I would have expected the point to be resolved. Nor did we ever find out how Khromatis coped with the loss of the rightful heir. Again, much was made earlier of the point that the position of Pinnacle was inherited and there could be no other option. And we never did find out exactly why the Quartern had so little rain when seemingly other parts of the world were generously supplied. I suppose it was just a climatic shift, but it would have been nice to know if this was natural or man-induced or magical, at the least.
But, niggles aside, the major plot points were resolved in suitably dramatic and satisfying ways (some twists I saw coming, but others were a complete surprise). The final confrontation with Ravard was particularly poignant, encompassing both tragedy and humanity. I didn't foresee Shale's final decision, but it made sense. The last chapter felt slightly rushed, though - not much more than a quick summary of where everyone ended up, almost as an afterthought.
Overall, this is a nice example of what fantasy should be. Larke's world-building is excellent, and while the level of detail is no more than in many other books, she is quite brilliant at keeping the reader fully immersed. She is a painter with words, using just a few brushstrokes here and there to sketch in the background in the most economical way. She uses a few simple tricks ('ye be going...' or 't'see...') to suggest the dialects of the White Quarter and the Gibber Quarter, and even the multitude of swearwords (sunfried, sandbrain, pedeshit...) constantly reinforce the hot, arid nature of the Quartern and its sheer differentness. It's great fun to visit Khromatis in this book, and encounter natural rain (and even snow!) from the perspective of the water-starved Quartern folk. The plot rattles along nicely, building slowly but inexorably to the major confrontations, which are not always resolved by brute force. In addition, the main characters are likeable, but with enough quirks to make them interesting, the magic system is both simple and powerful (and creates numerous entertaining and original ways of fighting and overcoming obstacles), and the plot derives almost entirely from the situation. Only the slightly over-the-top evilness of the bad guys detracts, and mostly there is enough depth to make them believable.
I always like a book that makes me think, and there's plenty here to ponder - the origins of religion, for instance, or the nature of prejudice (each of the regions has its own set - Scarpen folk are scathing about dark-skinned 'Gibber grubbers', but perfectly accepting of sexual preferences), or the necessity for killing, even in time of war, and whether you would ever sacrifice the life of your own child for the greater good. Then there is the matter of family loyalty and how far it should stretch. And perhaps the largest question of this book, set in a land of severe water shortages - how to distribute what resources you have, and whether it's better to build vulnerable cities or try to live more simply in harmony with the landscape. Cleverly, Larke never beats the reader over the head with her own views. Rather she allows her characters to put forward the alternate positions, so that, for example, when two infants are (separately) held as hostages, their fathers take different stands on whether to try to preserve the child's life, whatever the cost. All in all, this is very elegantly done.
I have to say that it's a long time since I've enjoyed a fantasy trilogy this much. Often they start well, but bog down in overly complicated plot developments, or the characters fail to develop believably, and more often than not they concentrate on the action scenes or the grand confrontation in book 3 to the detriment of everything else. Larke avoids these pitfalls, and adds a layer of subtlety, and a spare, clean writing style, which make every chapter a joy to read. I don't often give 5 star reviews, and by itself this book would perhaps just fall short, but the overall quality of the series deserves it.