Monday, August 29, 2005

Northern Storm - Juliet E McKenna

Whilst it is not wholly necessary to have read Juliet E McKenna's The Swordsman's Oath in order to understand or enjoy Southern Fire and Northern Storm, there is no doubt that there is an added layer of interest to both of these later books for the reader who is familiar with the 'Tales of Einarinn'.

The novels Southern Fire and Northern Storm take the brief background of The Swordsman's Oath and add colour, depth, life and history in greater measure. They also show the reader the Archipelago from a native's point of view, instead of from an outsider's viewpoint, and this naturally gives the reader a different perspective on many aspects of life in the Archipelago, particularly the hatred of elemental magic that is felt by the Aldabreshin. Indeed one only has to consider the chaos caused by the wizard Azazir (who is regarded as a madman even by his fellow mages) in The Thief's Gamble, to understand that the disrupting influence of elemental magic on the patterns of nature would be abhorrent to the Warlords who read portents in earth, air, fire and water in order to guide the lives of themselves and their people.

The chief protagonist of Southern Fire and Northern Storm is an Aldabreshin Warlord, and Northern Storm opens with Chazen Kheda (formerly Daish Kheda) still struggling to come to terms with his forced assumption of the role of Warlord of the Chazen domain after the abrupt death from food poisoning suffered by Chazen Saril half a year ago.

Kheda is initially engaged in an attempt to round up the last of the barbarian savages who, the year before, had come from somewhere in the southern ocean to wreak havoc with a different sort of elemental magic to that used on the mainland to the north of the Archipelago. Kheda had been forced into an uneasy alliance with the unscrupulous northern mage, Dev (who had briefly appeared in The Swordsman's Oath as an agent of the Archmage). Dev is now acting (with the emphasis on 'acting') as Kheda's personal slave/bodyguard in order to ensure he gets paid for his assistance in getting rid of the savage wizards who had accompanied the southern invaders, and he and Kheda are visiting the pearl beds of the Chazen domain in order to assess what they will have to barter for the materials and goods that they need to continue the rebuilding of the Chazen domain.

Their plans to round up the last of the surviving savages and get back to normal life are abruptly interrupted by the arrival of a dragon created from elemental magic, a beast that has never before been seen in the Archipelago. Kheda thus finds himself and his domain under threat for a second time, and once again he is forced into an uneasy, but necessary, alliance with a northern mage in order to defeat and destroy the dragon. This time, however, the mage is a woman named Velindre (a character who briefly appeared in The Warrior's Bond) whom Dev suggests may know how to deal with the dragon.

Velindre knows that her mentor Otrick knew how to summon an elemental dragon, but he is dead, so she is forced to seek out Azazir (who also has this ability) in order to acquire the necessary magical knowledge to create a dragon of her own. Lest anyone think this mere altruism on the part of Velindre, who knows that if her nature is revealed she will killed to save the Archipelago from her corrupting influence, it should be pointed out that Velindre is still smarting from being passed over for the post of Cloud Mistress (Otrick's position before his death), and she hopes that mastering this magic will force Planir and the wizards on the ruling Council in Hadrumal to acknowledge that they picked the wrong mage for the job.

Northern Storm is an intriguing, even at times exciting, tale that grips the reader from start to finish, and possesses a twist to the tale that has surprised more than one reader. The only qualm I have about the Aldabreshin Compass quartet (and it is a very small one), is that the pattern of the tales seems to be closely following the pattern of the 'Tales of Einarinn': magic-wielding invaders from a previously forgotten/unknown land across the ocean arrive to cause death and destruction. There is a hint at the end of Northern Storm that, as in The Assassin's Edge (the final Tale of Einarinn), the fight will be taken to the invaders in an attempt to curtail their activities. However, the characters and their development, and the way of life that is under threat are sufficiently different and interesting in themselves, and the writing is more than sufficiently good enough, for this similarity to be of small importance in the development of the series.

[This review, in a slightly different form, first appeared on the Alien Online website.]

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