I was very critical of the author’s debut work, ‘Elantris’, feeling that although it had an awesome magic system, the characters were cardboard and the plot mostly flat. This one is not simply better, it’s in a different league altogether. Another awesome magic system, plus well-developed characters and plot - and it’s funny! OK, it’s a little ponderous at times, but lots of extra brownie points for humour. There are some similarities - the princess uprooted from home, the all too human gods and the action largely takes place in a single location. And there’s a depth to it, a thoughtfulness, which I never found in ‘Elantris’.
This one focuses on four main characters. Not one but two of them are in fact princesses uprooted from home - two sisters, one of whom, Vivenna, was trained almost from birth to marry the mysterious god-king of the neighbouring realm, and the other, Siri, who is, at the last minute, sent in her place. Then there’s the flippant Lightsong, one of the pantheon of ‘returned’ gods. And the mysterious Vasher, a disreputable character with a sentient sword (ooh, I love talking weaponry!). In addition, there are also some wise-cracking mercenaries, various gods, priests and minions, and the god-king himself.
The plot is largely about the political machinations surrounding the god-king and a threatened war against the homeland of the two princesses, but the real depth to the book comes from the subtly different religions they follow. The questions of faith and who you trust and what you actually believe underpin the whole story, together with the theme that nothing is ever quite what it seems. Who is really good and who is evil? Who has real power, and who merely has the illusion of it? As the two princesses gradually adapt to their changed circumstances, they learn that everything they believed about themselves and the world may be wrong.
The magic system is hugely complicated and yet it all makes sense. It’s not as elegant, perhaps, as the air-writing system seen in Elantris, and it has a few contrivances that - surprise! - turn out to be essential for the plot, but on the whole it fulfils everything I expect of it: a few basic rules which can be adapted in a myriad different and ingenious ways. This results in a delightful surprise round every corner - someone gets into trouble, and the magic (called Breath here) is used to devise a way out. It never feels like a cheat, because the rules are laid out ahead of time. Not everyone likes this kind of magic system, admittedly, preferring the mystery of a more fluid type of magic, but I love those moments where it comes into play and you think: oh, of course, so obvious. Much better, to my mind, than those wait-what? moments where the wizard waves his staff to invoke some hitherto unsuspected spell.
I was drawn into this right from the first page, and it just got better. There are some very slightly saggy moments in the middle where I was thinking: not another Lightsong-being-daft chapter (there was a little too much of Lightsong, for my money), but then there's a terrific twist which turns everything upside down and after that the pace never let up. OK, the climax was a tad melodramatic, and the ending marginally implausible, and the big with-one-bound-they-were-free moment was one that was flagged up almost from the beginning, but nevertheless this was a terrific read with a tightly woven plot with reveals and reverses and unexpected outcomes all the way through. I loved it. Five stars.