Saturday, 22 February 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Splintered Eye' by H Anthe Davis

How do you follow off-the-scale awesomeness? There’s only one way – with a shed-load more awesomeness, that’s how, with a dollop of awesome sauce on top. I love this series. After ‘The Light of Kerrindryr’s tight focus on Guardian-carrying Cob and his escape from slavery, this time the camera pans back a little to show the devious machinations at the heart of the empire. And there’s a quest! Yay for quests!

I raved about ‘The Light of Kerrindryr’, rating it my second favourite read of 2013, but that always makes me nervous about reading the follow-on. I needn’t have worried. The author’s trademark elegant writing style, vivid visual imagery and endlessly inventive imagination are all present and correct. And the characters come to life in ways that many popular writers could only envy. Cob is still his grumpy self, but he handles his anger-management issues better here as he gradually comes to terms with the Guardian (and pals) lurking inside him. Cob in full-on Guardian mode is still an awe-inspiring, if slightly worrying, sight. But Cob is no longer alone. He has collected possibly the most mismatched group of characters ever seen in fantasy – a wolf shape-shifter, a wraith, a religious warrior, a shadowlander and – well, whatever Dasira is.

And Cob finally gets him a little loving. Not the world’s most earth-shattering romance, perhaps, and I wonder slightly at the lady’s motives, but it’s still nice to see Cob growing up a little and enjoying himself. I would have liked a little more detail of the event itself, because such an important moment in a character’s life justifies some exploration, but that’s just me. The fade-to-black made it feel more perfunctory than perhaps it would have been for Cob.

Of the other characters, I loved Arik the wolf-man, who acts like an excitable puppy around Cob. Even when he’s in human form, the author never lets us forget his wolfish side, so his movements, his thoughts, the scents he’s constantly aware of are all completely animal-like. Fiora the religious warrior-babe is less likeable, to me, because I was never completely convinced that Cob’s welfare was her sole objective. But I have to admit that she’s a handy girl to have at your side in battle, and being able to summon godly power at will is a useful ability.

All the rest of the vast array of characters populating these lands are complex, fully rounded personalities, all with their own agendas – boy, do they have agendas. The political nuances are such that the reader can never be totally sure who is on which side, or (more likely) playing both sides against the middle. And who would have guessed that seemingly out-and-out villains like Kelturin and Enkhaelen could be made so distressingly sympathetic? My heart bled for both of them. For the ultimate in complicated motivations, there is Dasira, a character with a jaw-dropping history. It’s probably perverse of me, but I was half-hoping that Cob’s romantic tendencies would lean that way, because – well, just because. Maybe as well they didn’t.

The author has one habit which is almost unavoidable in a series as epic as this, namely, switching point of view frequently. I hate the Game of Thrones technique of assigning point of view by chapter; there’s nothing more dispiriting than finishing a Tyrion chapter and turning the page to find it’s Catelyn next. Fortunately, here the point of view sections are as long or short as they need to be, and sometimes a character is wheeled on briefly just to reveal a key piece of information. This strategy makes the transitions as painless as is humanly possible, and never disrupts the flow of the story. I found, too, that there was no equivalent of Catelyn, a character who made my heart sink every time she appeared. All the characters here are interesting enough to carry their own sections effortlessly.

If you like your world-building industrial strength, this is the series for you. There are countries, races, religious systems, ecologies, languages – everything worked out to the last decimal place. Magic? Oh, yes, loads of it. Now I don’t pretend for one moment to have followed all the subtleties, but I was never out of my depth, either. There were no more than a couple of places where I didn’t get a reference. Mostly everything was beautifully clear or else (like some of the details of dress and so on) added colour without slowing things down. I never felt the need to take notes to keep up, never had to struggle to remember what happened in the last book, never got distracted by extraneous side-issues. This world always felt completely real, and not merely a sketched-in backdrop for the action.

And what action it is. There is a lot going on in this book, not just with Cob and his disparate band, but in the imperial army, amongst the wraithy-types, and (oh joy!) at the imperial palace, which is weirder than I’d have believed possible. And then there’s the Emperor. No wonder there are some peculiar things afoot in the empire. As with the first book, there are also sequences that are maybe dreams or hallucinations or other states of not-realness, or perhaps not-of-this-worldness. This elision between real and ‘other’ is one of the most fascinating aspects of the story.

There’s a touch of middle-book-itis in some aspects of the story. Iskaen and Rian are not much more than tokens, promises of some wonderful clashes to come (and Rian’s one of my favourite characters, who surely deserves his own spin-off series). Sarovy’s role is modest in this book, which is a slight disappointment to me, as he’s another favourite, with his ultra-strict and unquestioning adherence to the rules. Nevertheless, they still get scenes of unforgettable power. The moment when Sarovy’s ‘specialists’ reveal their true natures is one that will stay with me for a long time.

And this is, ultimately, the author’s greatest strength. It’s not just the amazing world-building or the complex and layered characters or even the plot that sweeps me off my feet. It’s these moments of vividly-drawn images – Kelturin before the Emperor, the battle at the crystal tower, the escape from the blood-red plant-life of Haaraka, Cob in full-on not-really-human mode powering through the wintry landscape, Enkhaelen painstakingly mending bodies, Cob learning to fight, Cob (again) at Enkhaelen’s house. It’s these powerful moments, balancing on the edge between fantasy and a kind of spine-chilling horror, that lift the book way above the average fantasy saga. And if you want layers of meaning, about reality and dreams and truth... that’s all there too.

I don’t often recommend books. Mostly I say: here’s what worked for me, and here’s what didn’t, and you can decide for yourself. But this is a book, or indeed a series, that deserves a wider audience than it’s likely to get. It should be on bestseller lists and winning awards. It should have a horde of excitable fans lovingly compiling Wikis, wearing cosplay antlers and endlessly debating the nuanced differences between airahenes and haelhenes. So just go out and buy it, OK? It’s piking awesome. Five stars.

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