Monday, October 5, 2009

Book Review: Fall of Thanes, by Brian Ruckley

Fall of Thanes is the third and final instalment in Scottish writer Brian Ruckley's formidable Godless World trilogy. Set in a low-fantasy medieval world whose forbidding climate and hierarchical clan structure is to a large degree reminiscent of the Scottish highlands. This world is inhabited not only by humans but also by other non-human races, such as the feral, elf-line Kyrinin and the Anain, who seem to be some form of nature elementals. There is no real magic in this world; however, the na'kyrim, who are the mixed-blood offspring of humans and Kyrinin, possess psychic powers akin to magic.

The first book of the trilogy, Winterbirth, sees warriors of the Black Road (the descendants of exiled clans, followers of a very nihilistic religion), invade the lands of the True Bloods, i.e. the clans of their original homeland. The plot focuses on Orisian, next in line to be thane (leader) of a minor True Blood clan, as he is forced to flee his land after it gets invaded by the ruthless Black Road warriors; and on Aeglyss, a young na'kyrim half-breed initially fighting for and then betrayed by the Black Road leaders, who develops immense psychic powers with which he learns to control those around him.

Tome Two, Bloodheir, follows the fate of Orisian and three other young men who have been pushed into the role of clan- and/or war leaders, and are ill prepared for it. The alliances are falling apart: the Black Road warriors fight among themselves as more and more of them become followers of Aeglyss whose power and influence on the Black Road - and the world - is constantly growing; while the True Blood clans' alliance falls apart as the result of old and new grievances born out of centuries old power struggles and the vanity of the clans' rulers.

Fall of Thanes then sees the world literally falling apart: Aeglyss is growing mad and so is the world. The halfbreed's power is now so strong that it perverts the feelings of each and everyone, doing away with all restraints and moral inhibitions so that people turn upon each other and kill for the slightest of reasons, Aeglyss has thus become, in a sense, the embodiment of the spirit of war. Orisian, whose character has been side-stepped largely in the second tome, gradually moves back to centre stage, together with Kanin, the dispossessed Black Road thane; as both move in on Aeglyss in order to kill him and end the spook. The ending is surprising and not the kind often found in fantasy books. The dénouement may be a bit ambiguous, but that is in the nature of these tales: if you create a villain with god-like powers, it is very hard to find a believable way to kill him/her/it off at the end.

Brian Ruckley's trilogy is outstanding for several reasons: its taut description of the ravages visited on civilians and solders by a ruthless war, and its general theme of the all-pervading effects of war as it brings out the worst in most people; the ease with which the author unfolds his bleak world and makes it accessible to the reader; and above all the books' relative brevity and clarity of plot. The page count of each tome is below 500 pages, an unusual feat in the post-Harry-Potter world of fantasy publishing. The number of characters and of sub-plots is reasonable, and the fact that the action takes place within a relatively limited space and time means that Ruckly does not need to have his characters traipsing around the world for a countless number of pages without making real progress. The writing is impeccable: fluid, clear and terse. Ruckley does not waste words, and his descriptions of fight scenes are among some of the best I have recently read. The plotting is mostly very good. There are very few idle passages - those there are appear mostly in the second volume - and the books are basically what you call 'page-turners'. It is, however, the intense, to-the-point descriptions of the horrors of war and the desolation it leaves behind that remain the most memorable of the books' achievements.

The work is not without its flaws: the Kyrinin are too close to the stereotypical 'noble savages' to be truly alien and interesting, and the two Kyrinin characters who accompany Orisian on his quest stay one-dimensional throughout. But these are minor quibbles, and do not take away from the fact that the Godless World trilogy is one of the major new fantasy series of the last years, and Fall of Thanes its more than brilliant conclusion.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Brian Ruckley's website can be found here. An interview with him can be found here.

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