Monday 24 August 2020

Time of War by Katherine Kerr

First Time Reader:

It is possible - conceivable - that someone making their way through the Deverry Cycle through the first time and who'd enjoyed the blood and thunder of some of the early books might be feeling a little itchy after Time of Omens/Time of Exile. It's not that those two books didn't have moments of violence, but they were far more caught up with the mysticism and Slice of Life. That's not surprising given the titles, right?

Well, Time of War is just as ronseal. It's about a war.

Although, as anyone who has studied the beast knows, war is a long way from just blood and thunder. Kerr doesn't cover the entirety of the beast but Time of War covers a lot of it - the politics, the waiting, the worrying about food, the superstition, the frustration over allies or new weapons. There are some dramatic fight scenes too though, and a good dose of the slightly psychotic Deverrian mindset, so there's some of that blood and thunder too. 

The most unusual feature of this book compared to the rest of the series is the absence of reincarnation-based flashbacks. On the one hand, I miss them, as they are part of what makes Deverry Deverry, but on the other hand I can't deny that the narrative feels more satisfying without them. The ending in particular has a certain bittersweet power to it. However, the majority of people picking this book up will have been through a lot of the series and like Deverry for what it is (although for my fellow heathens out there who'll cheerfully read series out of sequence, this is arguably actually one of the more straightforwards introductions to the series).

The strength of this book, beyond its powerful and wide-ranging plot, is the characterisation. Perhaps this is another area that benefits for more time spent in the present. The blessings and curses that Rhodry's long, tumultous life has offered to his personality are particularly clear here in the uneven way he deals with the ability to act - impulsive and short-sighted when he believes he can, yet wise when he believes he can't. He has the strength to change what can be changed and the serenity to bear what can't be (just about), but the wisdom to tell the difference is not a strong point for him. It's an intriguing contrast with the cold practicality shown by Jill, who comes more into her own here. There's many fine turns from the supporting cast too, particularly Carra and Jahdo, the latter being one of the more engaging child heroes in fantasy's canon for his stubborn loyalty and humbleness.

I've talked about the book's positives. I'd talk about the negatives but I don't really have any. There is nothing glaringly bad or that I'd change here. I try to think of something other reads may dislike, and I don't really have anything other than the fact it feels like a departure from the series as a whole, a more conventional epic fantasy when sat next to the rest of its clan. For me, honestly, it was kind of refreshing. But maybe it won't be for everyone.

This is not to say this is a fantastic book. It does many things well but overall, it doesn't reach brilliance. It's just a very competently executed and enjoyable Epic Fantasy with an unusual accent - nothing less, nothing more.

Second Timer:

The theme of the first arc of the Deverry Cycle is about the dangers of seeking control over, and giving into control of, that which is no rightful business to those concerned.

The second arc feels less coherent on that score. 

By book three of a quartet, a thematic progression or overarching idea should be obvious. I don't really see anything here and that might be part of why I don't think this book touches brilliance. This reviewer would humbly submit that what makes for outstanding stories is multiple good things happening at once - popularity often comes from doing one thing incredibly, but longevity comes from having a blend of skills and building a story's narrative momentum from one moment to the next. Time of War has great narrative momentum in and of itself, but as part of a series, less so. There's a lot of reasons writing advice preaches about economy of cast and one of them is it means you keep coming back to the same character dynamics time and time again, which means there's a natural resonance to the interactions and it's very easy to see how change happens.

That doesn't happen here. The cast and scope of the world is increased by Rhodry's journey into the dwarven homelands and encounter with a dragon - it's good fantasy conceit, but I'm not so sold on it making for an especially good story. 

However, there is one interesting thing we do get with Rhodry meeting the dragon - our Arzosah - and that is a reversal of the situation Rhodry spends most of his life in. Namely, instead of being at the behest of powerful women (either thanks to magical or political clout), the boot is now on the other foot, despite Arzosah being the most powerful of all. Right at the beginning of cycle, we saw that Rhodry was prone to pressing his advantages with the lasses (albeit in a fairly kind and non-icky way). We don't get to see much of how it develops in Time of War, with the best to come here. 

I think in many ways, the best thing to say about Time of War to those who know the series, where I am talking about the little details and how the series develops in the book, is that I like Time of War a great deal as a book but as a series entry I find myself finding fault. Does this belong in the above? Maybe. Maybe not. I don't think it's a problem unless you've read the book a lot and start seeing patterns.

Let's talk a little of the character stuff I mentioned above. Rhodry's gordian knot solution to Lord Matyc was very, very Rhodry. I enjoyed the whole piece of theatre immensely. I'm not entirely sure whether Kerr wants us to agree or disagree with his solution; much is made of the problems it will cause, but it doesn't actually cause any that I can see. It does, however, make a fine contrast to how he deals with his journey northwards away from the war and the purpose he thought he had. In particular, Rhodry's grace in dealing with dwarven xenophobia is a direct sign of his character growth from the first section of the quartet, where he had quite the sulk about an almost identical situation. Which just goes to show the power of economy of cast (even if a lot of the dwarven adventures do not have that).

Jill does get to deal with a fixed milieu though and I think it helps bring out the growth in her character. One of the oddities of Deverry is how it's reversed a traditional structure - centre it around a male character to make the sale, then let all the non-male characters steal the stage. This was Jill's story, but the second series sees him in a supporting role - this is Rhodry's story, sometimes Salamander's or Dalla's or Aderyn's or Dar's or Jahdo's or Carra's story, but rarely Jill's. Until here. Even then, she seems more main supporting character in a lot of touching stories than hero of her own, but that is kind of the point. Having the dweomer is about being a servant; about giving, not taking; about the selfless offer of help. Not that any of this means being a doormat - Jill's chilly, logical, Weatherwaxian approach to being a servant makes that clear.

And between the two of them, a worldview becomes clear - that power should have obligations, that power isn't a reason to take choices from people or to bear their non-harmful choices with less than grace, that those who see only their rights and not their obligations are harmful and the more we look at our rights the more likely we are to forget their obligations. It's a worldview that has been built and shown throughout the entire series.

But is that the theme of the second quartet? Or just Deverry as a whole? Is there an advancement from the first to the second?

With Time of War, I know I enjoy the book. And the deeper I think, the more connection I see. But at just standard surface level thought it feels an odd bird, a black sheep of the family. 

And as someone who has read this series front to back twice, operating with the benefit of a lot of hindsight, I think you can see Time of War as the book where the attempt to turn the story of Jill and her three men into something bigger made it's first giant jump and didn't quite stick the landing.

Friday 7 August 2020

Darian's Tale Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey

Tis the season for warm fuzzy stories it seems. This trilogy - in fact, the last book of it - was my introduction to Mercedes Lackey, thanks to the wonder of second hand book shops. As a kid it enchanted me with its mix of friendship, cool animals, luxury hippie lifestyles, and detailed magical combats. It's received occasional re-reads ever since for exactly those reasons. After enjoying blast through the Mage Storm trilogy, I decided to read some of her stuff and alighted on this.

The fact that Darian's Tale follows Mage Storm in the sprawling Valdemar bibliography isn't why I did so, but it didn't hurt. The location for this trilogy is Valdemar's far northern border in the wake of the carnage caused by the Mage Storms, and the neglect caused by the wars with everyone that occupied earlier trilogies. Our hero is Darian, initially an orphan apprenticed to a failed wizard in a close-minded village that's made its disapproval of Darian's trapper parents and independent mindset clear. However, along comes a war, and Darian proves he's worth more than anyone bargained for, and as a result gets to spend a bunch of time being a super cool dude with the super cool Tayledras.

The Tayledras are most definitely not elves. In fact, they're humans. Tree dwelling, animal loving, innately magical, highly ethical, super beautiful humans who heal the land. So not elves at all, ya get me? Which makes it surprising that me, who loves elves, also likes the Tayledras. Because they're not elves. And their vales, full of tree-houses and beautiful art and magic to keep the weather great, are totally not places I wish to go.

Generally, I don't think of myself as a fan of fantasy for the "gee, wouldn't that be great if it happened to me" escapism. I don't want to go to Middle Earth, I'm not waiting for my Hogwarts letter, and so on. I am a spectator who likes works that wander in and out of reality, sometimes about the story, sometimes about the humanity, maybe sometimes about the myth and magic too. This is one of my exceptions. Yes, I'd have loved to have been adopted by a bunch of not-Elves to go on noble helpful adventures. This is what Lackey is selling. A happy utopian world to escape to for a few wistful hours.

Something that helps that sale - but that might detract from it for others - is the fairly slice of life, personal stakes, nature of the series. The first book, Owlflight, is a fairly conventional coming of age action-adventure, but books 2 and 3 - Owlsight and Owlknight contain large chunks dedicated to everyday life with very few dramatic moments until the big conflict comes up. As I've written about recently, I don't think this always works, but for some it'll definitely increase the escapist, borderline wish fulfilment nature of the books.

If I'm honest, on this latest readthrough, I realised that offering has palled somewhat for me. I'm not really a person who outgrows books but in this case, my idea of good wish fulfilment has changed. And I think that there's not really enough going on here other than that; the Mage Storms has some good things to say about forgiveness, about really trying to be good, tolerance and so on. Darian's Tale has a lot less.

This could still be a good series for a teenager but for most people, I don't think this is a series I'd still recommend unless they really like utopian slice of life fantasy with lots of nature stuff.