Monday, 16 April 2012

Review: 'Harbingers of Mortality' by Steve Thomas

I enjoyed the first in the 'Histories of Atreus' series, 'An Exercise in Futility', although it was a little dry. This one, however, is anything but, starting with a bang and going on in great style. Unusually for a fantasy series, this one starts many decades after the previous one, so it features a completely different set of characters and problems. It's not even necessary to have read the first book, as the essential details are explained in passing as the story develops.

The first book had a fairly limited view of the created world, but this one opens things out nicely to show us more of the world itself. The real focus, however, is not so much the geography or the political arrangements, but the different applications of magic. The use of magically imbued sand, seithsand or seidrium, to power spells through runes, is here seen in a formalised approach, through years of study at the Academy. In contrast, the Paiktur have an innate ability to live on the sand and use that for magic in an untrained and primitive way. And the elves are born with a fixed amount of magical capability, which has to be used sparingly because they die when it is used up.

The Paiktur have an unusual way of life. They live in Thelluk, magically created villages where a single adult male defends his harem of females and their children. Male children are turfed out to live alone in the desert when they reach adulthood, until they are mature and powerful enough to challenge another male for control of a Thelluk. If they succeed, they generally then kill the children. This is a type of society seen in many primate species, and also in lions, but not so often in human cultures, for although powerful individuals sometimes acquire a harem, infanticide is generally frowned upon (maybe because harems are traditionally passed from father to son rather than acquired by conquest). It's an intriguing idea to find in a fantasy novel, and the author quite correctly points out that where all the adults have magical power, the combined magic of the females will always win out over a single male, however strong, so really they have the final say in which male takes control of the Thelluk.

The characters are a lively bunch, with very distinct personalities. The best part of the book, for me, was when the motley group of Jeshu the assassin, Vunrata the mage, Gandahar the magically enhanced but mute knight, and Krinpet the not-quite-all-there bouncy young man were on their journey. The wildly different foursome sparked off each other very entertainingly and the humour flowed nicely (I love it when a book makes me laugh out loud). Once they split up, however, much of the humour was lost, and the other characters were a bit less interesting. I did like the ogre, though.

The magic in this book is getting very powerful. In 'Exercise', it seemed quite controlled, a bit difficult to master, but limited in application, but here everyone seems to be able to do anything they want, and the only difference is in the source of the power, whether it requires an external source or is in some way innate. I'm not a big fan of anything-goes magical power. It always seems too much like deus ex machina, somehow - a character gets into trouble, and poof, with one bound they're free (or invisible or transformed or tossing enemies aside or whatever it is). Although mostly the magic is constrained by needing seithsand to power it, once powered up they can seemingly do whatever they like. The distinction between having god-like powers and actually being a god is a bit too subtle for me.

The plot quickly got convoluted. I have to confess to finding it confusing at times. Once the main characters began to split up into subgroups and reform, and people kept disappearing and turning up at crucial moments later, it got hard to follow. The trick of hopping about in time to fill in missing details didn't help, either, and it seemed like a rather clunky technique to reveal something about one or two characters (and parts of the reveals were obvious anyway). Fortunately events were dramatic enough to keep me turning the pages, although the ending seemed a little flat, somehow. There was never sufficient emotional engagement with any of the characters or with the objectives of the plot to create the necessary tension. Sometimes it even seemed as if the characters themselves didn't much care about the deaths of their comrades, although perhaps that was just because of their slightly distant personalities. The final battle in the mine seemed curiously devoid of any focus - or, to put it another way, I wasn't at all clear who I was supposed to be rooting for, since all the characters involved had been point-of-view characters at one time or another, and none of them were obviously hero or villain at this point.

Unfortunately, although this is an enjoyable read and starts very well, it then loses its way a little from the midpoint onwards. The initial sharply defined characters and objectives - the elf looking to extend her magical capabilities with the Paiktur, and the mismatched four trying to track her down - starts to sprawl into less clearcut plotlines - the sulky goddess, the troubles at the mine, the rebellious local leader, the fight contests. All of it is perfectly logical, but it seems to be more an exploration of ideas about the effects of magic and the nature of civilisation than about telling a compelling story. The epilogue serves to tidy things up a little, although I'm not sure that it really qualifies as a happy ending, especially given what was done to the Paiktur. There is some good, detailed world-building, nice characterisation and an interesting, if not entirely believable magic system, and the humour is welcome, but the choppy later sections and the flatness of the climax keep it to three stars.

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