The Abhorsen (Old Kingdom) Trilogy: Sabriel; Lirael, Daughter of the Clayr; Abhorsen. By Garth Nix. Eos. $9.99 each.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit. By Nahoko Uehashi. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.
The Noble Warriors, Book Three: Noman. By William Nicholson. Harcourt. $17.
The Sharing Knife, Volume Three: Passage. By Lois McMaster Bujold. Eos. $25.95.
DarkGlass Mountain, Book Two: The Twisted Citadel. By Sara Douglass. Eos. $25.95.
The best fantasy adventures being written today seem to be those for younger readers – a situation different from the past, when fantasists from Edgar Allan Poe to Lord Dunsany to J.R.R. Tolkien created their greatest works for adults. Perhaps because so much of modern fantasy involves self-discovery rather than grand issues of war and peace, real and unreal worlds, and other themes of old, top-notch modern fantasy appeals especially to preteens and teenagers. Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy is one of the best series of this type in recent years. Now available in handsome oversize-paperback editions with color-coordinated covers, the series opened with Sabriel in 1995, followed by Lirael in 2001 and Abhorsen in 2003. This is a tale of wonder and wonders – more of them than usual, even in fantasy. Sabriel focuses on its title character, who is daughter of Terciel, the Abhorsen – a sort of sorcerer who puts to death the living dead that are raised by necromancers in the magic-pervaded Old Kingdom. After Terciel goes missing as a new evil rises, Sabriel searches for him, accompanied by a fascinating white cat called Mogget who is actually a magical construct of dubious loyalty. The two find the mysterious character Touchstone on their harrowing journey, eventually locate Terciel, and learn of Sabriel’s own destiny. In Lirael, set 14 and 19 years later, Sabriel and Touchstone have married; they rule the Old Kingdom, to the extent that it can be ruled. The title character is of the Clayr, who live in the Old Kingdom, but she looks different from them and does not fit in. The book is about her destiny, which involves her discovery that although she cannot see possible futures (as the Clayr can), she is a Remembrancer, with different but highly potent powers: she is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting. In Abhorsen the plot threads are neatly tied together in a battle against the Ninth Bright Shiner, the most evil entity of all. Revelations abound here – including Mogget’s true identity – and the eventual victory of good is not without cost. Despite the many outré trappings, Nix’s works have a sense of reality about them, with characters whose feelings seem genuine and about whom readers come to care deeply. It is ultimately this, not the exotic settings and events, that makes the trilogy so successful.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit succeeds admirably, too, although in a somewhat different way. This is the first Moribito book published in the United States, but Nahoko Uehashi has 10 of them available in Japan. It is the merging of Eastern settings and Western fantasy traditions that makes this handsomely produced, beautifully illustrated book such a pleasure to read. The dramatic wraparound cover, showing a woman warrior carrying an unconscious boy while evading attackers, as a bridge collapses in the background, gives an idea of the drama and intensity that Uehashi brings to the story -- which seems like a fine candidate for animé and is in fact expected to become a TV series. The protagonist, Balsa, is a protector of the weak, be they children or adults, on a quest to redeem her own life after eight people die for her sake. A martial-arts expert who is also adept with the short spear, she must guard the Second Prince, Chagum, who has been chosen as the sprit guardian, Moribito, to deliver the egg of the Water Spirit to a distant sea in order to prevent a devastating drought. Mythic and family issues develop throughout the book, as Balsa and Chagum must flee both an egg-eating monster and the prince’s own father. The intertwining of adventure with echoes of the past makes for a fast-paced and exciting read.
William Nicholson’s Noble Warriors trilogy is not quite at this level, although Noman brings it to a fine conclusion. The book alone deserves a (++++) rating; the complete series is a solid (+++). The themes of the first two books, Seeker and Jango, permeate this third one, with friendship, love and loyalty all tested repeatedly as the three friends – Seeker, Morning Star and the Wildman – fulfill their destinies and move in some unexpected directions. The powerful Nomana have scattered, and their island of Nom is gone, setting the three protagonists on different and uncomfortable roads as they seek love, spiritual belief, war – whatever their individual but intertwined destinies require. The introduction in this third volume of a young boy preaching joy and peace is crucial to the plot, as belief seekers flock to the Joy Boy, with Morning Star and the Wildman among them. But not Seeker, who has been tasked with a violent quest indeed: to kill the last of the Old Ones. “All you can do is kill!” screams one character at Seeker. “You kill all beauty, all hope, all love!” But Seeker proves this by no means true, as he moves toward – as another character puts it – “in the end, faith!” The intermingling of good and evil, the uncertainty of divining which is which, leads to a surprisingly philosophical confrontation with a character called, not so surprisingly, Hope. The underlying spiritual-religious message of the book is perhaps a little strong, but less so than the overtly religious one of, for example, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and the conclusion (of the book and trilogy) is satisfyingly upbeat.
Somehow, when it comes to fantasy adventures for adults, the elements that make the genre work for younger readers seem a little stale, even when assembled by a writer as skilled as Lois McMaster Bujold. Although her Sharing Knife trilogy deserves a (+++) rating, and its conclusion in Passage is satisfying, not even the mixture of sorcery with romance is quite enough to turn the work into a must-read, or even really-ought-to-read. The story begun in Beguilement and continued in Legacy develops in mostly expected ways in Passage, as Fawn Bluefield of the farmers and Dag Redwing Hickory of the soldier-sorcerers try to leave the enmity of their families behind and make a new life for themselves. Fawn and Dag pick up followers, from Fawn’s brother to a farmer boy and a riverboat captain, and must face bandits and bigotry – as well as magical challenges – as they and their group head for the sea. The journey-to-understanding theme is a well-worn one, although Bujold’s style makes it more pleasant than most: “He rather regretted not being able to spell out D + F in quivering feather shafts. He could imagine them spelling a trailing sort of argh! maybe, if he squinted a lot, which was almost as good.” But there is nothing especially unusual or unexpected about this Passage, in which challenges are faced, bigotries encountered, and new levels of understanding attained. The characters are more than types, but not always much more; the lines of demarcation between good and evil are generally clear; and the eventual new beginning in “the wide green world” is quite inevitable. Fawn and Dag’s journey, however well told, is one that adult readers have surely taken before, and will surely have many opportunities to take again.
One such opportunity is available in The Twisted Citadel, the second of Sara Douglass’ DarkGlass Mountain books and another novel deserving a (+++) rating.. Douglass is not as well-known a writer as Bujold, but she is a highly talented one and a favorite in her native Australia. She writes big books: The Twisted Citadel, even in comparatively small type, runs 552 pages (and its predecessor, The Serpent’s Bride, ran 637). Douglass uses the space not for character development but for intricacy, creating plots that twist and turn on themselves, involve large numbers of characters, and are most intelligible to readers who have read such earlier Douglass works as The Wayfarer Redemption, Threshold and Beyond the Hanging Wall (since some characters from the earlier books reappear in the new series). The protagonists of The Twisted Citadel have names with the typical resonance of heroic fantasy: Ishbel Brunelle, priestess of the Serpent Coil; Isaiah, Tyrant of Isembaard; and Maximilian, Lord of Elcho Falling. Their prime enemy is the dark god Kanubai, who escaped from prison in the previous book. War is imminent; there are alliances and groups of uncertain loyalty; and there are the usual heroic (and anti-heroic) machinations common to adult fantasy novels. Douglass writes well enough so that it is easy to be swept up into her world. But it is hard to escape the feeling of having visited that world, or others a great like it, many times already – not only in Douglass’ own works but also in fantasies by other hands.