At first glance, this is a very traditional fantasy story about a magic ring which slips away from its evil owner at a critical moment, and finds its way into the hands of the most unlikely person imaginable. There’s a benign wizard acting as mentor and guide, there’s an evil wizard spreading darkness over the land, with the help of some evil minions, and there’s a collection of good guys uniting to defeat evil. You might think you’ve read something with a plot not a million miles from this one before. But not so fast; this book is proof of the theory that even the oldest and most overworked tale can be infused with new life in the hands of a good storyteller.
The plot isn’t really as unoriginal as I made out. Tabitha is the teenage girl who ends up with the magic ring, but she uses it to sing the Lifesong, the music that (somehow) triggers or even transcends the magic in this world. Ashley is an apprentice Lifegifter (or mage) who finds himself with the convenient ability to read thoughts. Garyll is the Swordmaster (chief warrior and law enforcer), and also love interest for Tabitha. The Riddler is the good wizard, there to help Tabitha. Kirjath Arkell is one of the minions. And although there are good guys and bad guys, things aren’t at all as clearcut as is usual in this type of fantasy.
The worldbuilding has been quite carefully done. The setting, Eyri, is rather small, being no more than two to three days riding from one side to the other, but there’s a reason behind that, and hopefully a later installment will see the story expand into the outside world. One grumble: there is a point where some of these external places are mentioned, with a string of incomprehensible names like Lûk and Jho-down and lots more, in the worst kind of infodump. Fortunately this is brief. The setting is the usual pre-industrial-revolution affair - a rather idyllic and twee collection of villages filled with more or less honest, upright citizens. The author has made efforts to avoid the standard generic fantasy template for his settlements, so each one has some distinguishing characteristic. Russel, for instance, is an artists’ colony, with houses built on stilts. While these distinctions seem a little artificial, it’s better than every place being the same as all the others.
The magic system is very nice. There are three ‘axes’ of magic: the axis of darkness and light, that of energy and matter, and that of order and chaos. I liked the way that it’s necessary to keep the opposing forces in balance, which leads to some very elegant methods of keeping the heroine and the villain apart until the right moment. The Lightgifters (mages who use the magic of light to heal and uplift the spirits) call upon sprites to power their spells, which are charged each morning by a communal song. There are also Darkcasters, who control a dark equivalent to sprites, known as motes, and spread gloom and despair. This all works rather nicely.
The characters fall neatly onto the good or bad side of the equation, and although sometimes it’s not immediately clear which side a character is on, ultimately it’s a black or white distinction, there really aren’t too many shades of grey here. What’s even more depressing is that so many of the characters are quite passive. Tabitha and Ashley, the two youngest, are essentially pushed around by circumstance and the machinations of other characters, and when it appears as if they might drift into the wrong place or make a mistake, someone more competent comes along to rescue them. If that fails, then they just happen to realise what they ought to do - Tabitha by way of her magic ring, and Ashley by virtue of his oh-so-convenient ability to hear thoughts, although not all thoughts, you understand, just certain key thoughts. Even Garyll the Swordmaster with his named sword (Felltang, since you ask) who strides around fearlessly as the epitome of well-honed manly virtue, imparts backbone into his weaker subordinates, and accosts the bad guys in stern brook-no-nonsense tones, is pushed here and there by the schemes and devices of others. Meanwhile Kirjath the evil minion and his boss the Big Bad are running rings round everyone, and the Riddler - well, OK, the Riddler is actually interesting. He has a certain complexity, for a start, and isn’t a straightforwardly good or bad character, although he does tend to turn up at crucial moments to rescue poor Tabitha from yet another tricky situation.
The romance - no, on second thoughts, don’t get me started on the romance. Putting Garyll of the Manly Virtues together with Tabitha the Meek and throwing in a few burning glances and shivering touches does not a romance make. I’d rather an author skip that part of the story altogether than make such a ham-fisted effort, especially since a large part of it is just about motivation. Tabitha’s in danger, so Garyll must ride heroically to her rescue or Sacrifice All for her sake. But there is one interesting aspect in the apparent equating of sex with the dark side. The good guys go for romantic dinners and in moments of excitement hold hands or exchange chaste kisses. Even thinking about sex pushes them over to the dark side (apparently). Then they make very questionable decisions because they’re in love. The bad guys, on the other hand, indulge in wildly passionate sex while casting spells of extraordinary power (which sounds like a lot more fun, actually). But maybe I’m just overthinking this.
I liked the writing style, and although there are a lot of point of view characters, the author uses them to good effect to drive the story forward. I enjoyed the little 'riddle' at the start of every chapter, too. But this is a huge book. I’m a fast reader but it took me forever to get through it. In a sense, this is a strong point, because the story is detailed enough to sustain it, and there's very little filler. There are a few places where scenes dragged on a bit too long, and some questionable motivations, where the plot was pushing characters along, but most of it felt necessary. Nevertheless, I found myself tiring of it more than once, especially during the more horrifically graphic torture scenes or the multitude of depressing oh-no-the-bad-guys-are-too-powerful moments.
There was one major irritant to me and that was Tabitha’s complete inability to work out what she needed to do. I wouldn’t say she was stupid, exactly, just very, very slow on the uptake. Even when the Riddler led her step by step, she never seemed to make the necessary jump until it was blindingly obvious. It was quite painful sometimes. I enjoy a story where the author drops enough clues for the reader to work things out a moment or two before the protagonist does, but not when it happens ten chapters before and I find myself muttering: ‘Come on, it’s so obvious!’. I wanted to slap her upside the head sometimes.
The ending was suitably dramatic, and the last few chapters flew by with all the usual swings and reversals, one or two not terribly surprising reveals, and a satisfying, if slightly overwrought, conclusion at both the overarching plot level and the human level. For those who like a straightforward traditional fantasy, with clearcut heroes and villains, a battle between good and evil, and a young innocent discovering amazing powers, this is an excellent example. It's very well written, with a large cast of characters who are well drawn and memorable, and a clever and elegant magic system (and bonus points for the very ingenious use of mathematical principles; any author combining magic with möbius bands has my vote). I found it just a little too predictable for my taste, and I look for a bit more complexity in my characters, but that's personal preference, and the solid ending and neat magic system make it a good four stars.