Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Twixt Heaven And Hell' by Tristan Gregory

The beauty of fantasy is that you just never know what you’re going to get. Even when it sounds like a conventional plot theme, an accomplished author can put a new spin on it and produce something special. I was nervous about this one - a war between Angels and Demons, waged with the help of humans? It sounded trite - but as I read on, it turned into an absorbing study of magic, and an unexpectedly thought-provoking analysis of war.

The central character is Darius, a wizard who has built an elite troop of soldiers around him, a sort of special-ops with magic. There are numerous other characters in his world - his fellow wizards in the city of Bastion, some of his soldiers, and, on the opposing side, the warlord and his sorcerors. And a few angels and demons put in an appearance, too. Although Darius is the main point of view character, several other characters have point of view chapters too, partly to fill in details of events in other places and partly to fill in background. Of course, this also serves to give them more depth. I’m very much a fan of this way of writing which is nicely fluid and works well to keep the action moving. Having a single POV protagonist is very restrictive, and having equal rights always feels artificial to me.

The world-building is rather well done. The field of conflict between the two warring sides seems rather small and empty - a city or two, some fortresses and not much else. But it becomes clear that there’s a reason for this, and there are other settlements and cultures existing around the fringes and beyond the immediate range, and in the past there were more. The history of this war, in fact, is very much a central part of the story and the author draws out the strands of the past very elegantly. And then there’s the magic. The real meat of the story, for me, is the growing realisation (on both sides) that magic is not just a static ability, it can grow and be developed in all sorts of new and ingenious ways. The way that Balkan, for instance, researches and then experiments with new forms of magic, and even a sort of magical technology, is fascinating to watch. Even wizards, it seems, must adapt and change with the times.

Ultimately Darius is forced to face up to the consequences of the current war and its escalation, and decide whether having the angels on your side is sufficient reward for the constant battles and deaths caused by the demon-supported enemy. This is a fascinating train of thought - is it really such a great idea to have angels bringing you healing and other gifts, or are you better off on your own? I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this argument before, or at least not so explicitly. And so, eventually, the story reaches its own answer to the question, or at least sets events in train for it to be discovered (in a future book, presumably). The final conflict is huge, an earth-shattering experience which changes everything. It should be an emotional overload, but somehow it just - isn’t. If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that somehow there isn’t enough emotional engagement with the characters and their respective fates. Even when named characters died, I didn’t feel it. The author sets everything in place and pushes all the right buttons, but for me it simply didn’t work. I don’t know why that should be, it’s a complete mystery to me, and I can only assume it’s just a matter of mood.

I had some minor quibbles along the way. I felt there were too many important new characters introduced late in the day. Sometimes the attempts to humanise characters were a little clunky (the family lives of Balkan and Pendrick in particular). I would also have liked to have Traigan, the enemy warlord, make an appearance at the end, since he had been such an important part of the plot, and I wondered what happened to the thralls at the end. I’m not mad keen on angels and demons in fantasy, since inherently good or evil characters are a bit dull, but in this case the author showed a much more complicated and interesting side of the angels, at least (the demons were - well, just demons, on the whole). But on the plus side, the characters all behaved sensibly and intelligently, and I very much liked the way that Arric (the council leader) and Darius overcame their initial hostility and reached a working accommodation. In fact, the whole story simply oozes intelligence, and easily overcame the modest amount of clunkiness here and there in the writing, or the very small number of typos. An enjoyable and thought-provoking story, notable for the well-developed world-building and constantly evolving magic system. And a map - always extra brownie points for a map. Four stars.

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