Thursday, 18 October 2012

Fantasy Review: 'The Black Mausoleum' by Stephen Deas

I was fairly grumpy about the first three volumes of the Memory of the Flames umpteenology, mainly because the author not only killed off virtually every character along the way, and in the most cavalier fashion, but also destroyed most of the infrastructure of his created world. Mind you, it was an exciting ride, without a second’s breathing space between bouts of mayhem and destruction, the dragons were mind-blowingly awesome, and the first chapter of the second book remains one of the best openers I’ve ever read (seriously). And somehow, for some reason, the thing just wormed its way into my mind and wouldn’t let go. So here I am, wondering just where things can go in this post-dragon-apocalypse world.

I wasn’t expecting to see any of the characters from the earlier books, since they’re all dead. Or at least, they’re probably dead, and in the unlikely event they survived, I’m sure the author would kill them off promptly. But actually, there is a survivor (yay!). Kataros is an alchemist, one of those previously in charge of keeping the dragons tame and under control, and now, not surprisingly, blamed for the ensuing catastrophe. Skjorl is an Adamantine Man, a highly trained soldier, manfully determined to fulfil his oath to defend the world from rogue dragons, now free and on the rampage. Siff is unconscious, but has information Kataros thinks is important. I don’t remember whether the two men showed up before, but Kataros spent some time with previous main character Kemir. Until he got killed.

This is a very different book from the first three. The complex social and political structures have been largely swept away, the vast array of squabbling characters has gone too, and even the places are different - they may have the same names, but the elegant towers and courtyards are gone and all that remains is rubble. I did wonder before I started reading just how much world there was left to discover and story to tell after the devastation, but happily the answer is - a great deal. There’s the vast array of interlinked tunnels underground, for a start, some hiding mysterious secrets. There’s the whole history to be uncovered, and the nature of the Silver King of legend. Then there are the strange Taiytakei from overseas - what are they all about? There’s also just a hint of zombie in the background, too. Real or myth? Quite a few myths turn out to have some truth in them here, so who knows. Maybe they’ll be crucial to the plot later on, or maybe the author just wanted to sneak in a zombie reference. Anyway, it’s not long before our hapless trio are knee deep in weirdness.

With such a tight focus on a limited cast, it’s essential that the reader feels some connection with the three main characters. Frankly, I’m not sure that this works, since none of the three is particularly likeable. Actually, that’s not even close - they all turn out to be truly horrible people, with few redeeming characteristics. However, the tension between them is palpable (translation: each of them wants to kill the others, but they also need each other, so there’s quite a lot of hissed abuse and resentful co-operation going on). So there’s plenty of entertainment from watching the interaction and waiting for one of them to snap. Plus, there’s enough interest in the dragons and the backstory and the alchemist’s powers and Siff’s history to keep the pages turning. I loved some of the imaginative touches - the glowing tunnel walls, the golems in the door, the floating castle... There’s obviously a whole heap more about the Silver King, the Taiytakei and the hole in the realm of the dead to be revealed in future books, but these snippets are tantalising.

And, as always, there’s plenty of action. The struggle to survive and to adjust to the new world order form the backdrop here, where dragons rule the world once more and humans scuttle about in the dark trying to avoid being squashed or burned or eaten (and not just by the dragons), and it’s an interesting thought: what do you do when your function in life is gone? Once you were essential and respected and had a sensible lifetime career ahead of you, and now you’re worse than useless, you’ve failed so completely that the world has changed for ever. Do you get cynical and bitter and do whatever you have to do to make life bearable, or do you keep on doing what you’ve always done, clinging to the old ways for as long as possible? Or do you look for revenge? This is certainly a more thought-provoking book than its predecessors, but it’s a fairly grim tale, with limited humour and without the zest which made the earlier books so much fun.

If this paints a fairly depressing picture, it really isn’t. I quickly got swept up in the quest to find something - anything - to combat the overwhelming power of the dragons, and even the treks across the desert wastes, on the brink of starvation, never seemed dreary or dull. This was helped by the short chapters and the rapid jumps from one character and location to another, including time-hopping to fill in the how-we-got-here backstory, something I normally hate but which is very effective here. An aside: the points of view are tightly in character; Skjorl, who never swerves from his highly trained Adamantine Man viewpoint, always refers to his companions as the shit-eater and the alchemist, even internally, whereas Jasaan, less dogmatic, talks about outsiders and gets to know the dragon-riders by name. This is terrific detail.

There’s a great deal revealed here about the alchemists and their strange blood magic, which is all good stuff, and there’s a nice twist at the end which is perfectly logical and I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. The whole end section is awesome, actually. It still feels, however, as if there’s a great deal more magic out there still to be revealed, as if we’re just paddling around in the shallows of what’s really going on in this world. The Taiytakei seem to be the key to it, somehow, and hopefully we’ll see more of them in future books. The goings on in the realm of the dead are interesting, too. I very much like the idea that there’s a fixed number of dragons in the world, and when one dies, it’s reincarnated in an egg somewhere.

A few minor grumbles: the author still hasn’t come up with a truly sympathetic character, the devastated world is implausibly empty of indigenous wildlife (what do snappers eat when they can’t get humans, for instance?) and we don’t see nearly enough of the dragons (but the awesome cover image almost compensates for that). But none of that matters. For me this book worked much better than the previous three. It doesn’t quite have the outrageous hell-bent-on-self-destruction air, or the wild physicality of all the dragon-riding and amazing sex (occasionally at the same time), nor the hordes of scheming and double-crossing dragon kings, queens and speakers. It’s a more serious and down-beat book altogether.

However, the restraint involved in following a small number of characters on a single, clearly-defined ‘quest’ (for want of a better word) creates, I feel, a much more intimate, closely-woven story, which really explores the characters and some of the underlying themes to greater depth. This is a tautly-plotted action-packed story, with perfect pacing and a terrific blend of character-driven incident and convincing world-building, a totally enjoyable read that I raced through in a couple of days because I just didn’t want to put it down. A good four stars.


  1. Thanks for a really quite detailed review - is Kataros really that horrible? :-)

    1. I didn't like her much, no. But you do horrible characters so well... :-)