Fantasy Review Barn
I read ‘Dreams of Darkness Rising’ more than a year ago, and much admired the strong characterisation, detailed world-building and truly epic plot. Since then the book has been picked up by a publisher, the title has been shortened to ‘Darkness Rising’ and the projected trilogy has been chopped up into six smaller volumes. The book I read has now been republished as Book 1: Chained and Book2: Quest. This new book is Book 3: Secrets. The disadvantage of this is that with a book of this type, with many characters following several different plotlines over a complex world, the challenge of reminding the reader of the key points of the previous books becomes an increasingly onerous task for books 3, 4, 5 and 6. The author manages it rather elegantly in this book, but even so there are a lot of threads to pick up and many references in the early chapters whizzed straight over my head.
The world-building is industrial-strength here. There are entire continents filled with races and cultures and belief systems and architectural quirks and geography, and all of them distinct and memorable. It all feels completely real, and the throwaway references to wars and battles and so forth add depth. I like the way, too, that the author tosses out cultural references: "Cliffstead. Tough place - you'll like it. More fights than a Thetorian wedding." I love this sort of colour in a book. As before, there’s a medley of interesting races - goblins, ogres, giants, lizardmen, griffin, mini-dragon flying reptile thingies used as beasts of burden... and (yay!) one dragon.
The greatest strength here is in the characters. Most fantasy works struggle to muster two or three fully rounded characters, but here there are enough to satisfy even the most demanding reader. Who could not feel for Emelia, with her alter-ego Emebaka, inextricably bound to the evil Vildor? Or enjoy the extrovert Hunor and the deep Jem? Even Orla, the Eerian knight, who was a bit of an idiot at times in the last book, gets some serious backstory here which makes her much more human. And Marthir the shape-shifting druid is fascinating. There are several points where various characters have key points filled in with flashbacks, and although this is a slightly clunky device, the storytelling is good enough to carry it off.
The plot is, perhaps, somewhat less successful. Various groups of characters are off on their own missions - alright, let’s call them quests. The crystals that enhance magic I could see the point of, but it wasn’t always clear to me quite what the other groups were up to. Aldred, in particular, kept getting distracted by side issues. And what is the point of Torm? He appears only briefly in this book, although presumably he will be more significant later. Then there are some political machinations. A princess from somewhere who’s marrying someone from - well, somewhere else. The lizardmen doing a deal with - um, someone or other. This is always the problem with full-blown epic fantasy - the epicness involves a lot of complication that’s hard to keep track of without taking notes. Or maybe that's just me. Fortunately there was plenty of action to keep things bubbling along, and enough time for some romantic interludes as well, albeit slightly contrived. And even - uh-oh, love triangle ahoy!
This would be fine - multiple quests work well in a series as complex as this - but this book felt as if it lacked some overall objective. Obviously there is the ultimate aim of getting all the crystals and defeating the Big Bad and saving the world, and so on, but I would have liked to see some clearly-defined and compelling story that gives structure to this book, rather than struggling to survive a series of hostile encounters and simply moving a few paces forward along the path to the final confrontation. A lot happens and there’s forward progress, but it feels like a small part of the big story rather than a story in its own right. Of course, this is the same middle book problem that all series suffer from. The numerous points of view and the frequent change of location makes things a bit choppy, but again that’s an effect of the epic platform. The writing style is elegant, and my only grumble is with the author’s habit of not using names much of the time. Almost every time I came across ‘the Thetorian’ or ‘the wild-mage’ or 'the tracker' or whatever, I had to stop and work out who was being referred to. It's a shame that the story has been split into so many parts. It seems to me that this sort of expansive tale, which meanders across continents, needs the space found in larger books to really shine. There's a reason why 800 page books are common in epic fantasy.
Despite these minor grumbles, when it comes to the crunch everything gels beautifully and the ending is totally satisfying in a no-holds-barred, mages-hurling-thunderbolts sort of way. I’m not generally a huge fan of this sort of full-on magic battle, where hordes of nameless minions are splattered about in a multitude of gory ways, while our heroes (and heroines, of course) survive the mayhem with barely a scratch, and everyone is improbably muscular and awesomely talented with an array of weaponry, but I have to admit it’s great fun, if a bit cartoonish. And Aldred’s little escapade, in particular, was hugely entertaining - a bit of humour goes a long way to lighten the tone. This book had smatterings of humour right the way through, arising naturally from the personalities of the characters, but there were also more serious moments, and the swamps of Ssinthor gave the whole story a whole extra layer of atmosphere.
This is a wonderfully inventive story, with great characters, brilliant world-building and non-stop action. Yes, it’s confusing sometimes, but that’s a reflection of the complexity within and my own inability to keep up, and not at all a criticism. There’s plenty of detail on the website, for those who want to get into the nuts and bolts of the author’s world, and there are good maps and a dramatis personae at the front of the book. I would have preferred a shorter list of just the significant characters, but that's just me. This is an enjoyable continuation to the series, and highly recommended for fans of ambitious multi-threaded fantasy.
So why have I only given it three stars? I found that I just wasn’t that invested in either the characters or their objectives. The attempt to rebuild a prism of power by tracking down its component crystals is, frankly, a fairly ho-hum sort of exercise. It gives an artificial structure to the books (this one was the yellow crystal), but chasing round after a magical gizmo isn’t the most original premise ever. And while I liked the characters, and they’re nicely drawn with their quirks and mannerisms, they rarely had the space to breathe between the constant outbreaks of mayhem. When there was a pause, it turned into a slightly clunky romantic interlude. There were only a few events that truly moved me - Marthir becoming a druid, Orla befriending the slave and the death of Hunor’s friend. These incidents brought real emotional depth to the characters, and I hope future books in the series will have a slightly less frenetic pace and more of these unforgettable moments.