Friday, 22 June 2007

King's Dragon & Prince of Dogs by Kate Elliott

These days, trilogies are so 1980s. To be a big-hitter in the fantasy league it seems you have to write a series of at least seven massive volumes, if not considerably more. However, writing a story that extends to many thousands of pages is an immense, complicated undertaking, and it seem very few writers who attempt it succeed in either maintaining quality all the way throughout, or if they do then usually it's with a few detours along the way and delays adding many years onto the release cycle of the series.

As a result, few of the 'long series' began back in the 1990s are as yet complete: The Malazan Book of the Fallen and A Song of Ice and Fire still have more installments to come, whilst both Harry Potter and The Wheel of Time's final volumes are finally in sight, but still not available yet. The only series from this period that comes to mind that is already complete, and thus ripe for assessement of the long-series-form as a way of telling a fantasy story, is Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series, which consists of seven books starting with King's Dragon, originally published in 1997.

Elliott (the pen-name of American writer Alis A. Ramussen) sensibly starts things off on a small scale with the opening book in the series. The setting is the continent of Novaria, a fantasised version of Europe in the early medieval period. The opening volume takes place in the unified kingdoms of Wendar and Varre (Germanic states by other names), which through dynastic marriage are now ruled jointly by King Henry. However, his elder half-sister Sabella plots rebellion against him and mobilises the Varren nobles to war. At the same time, the savage nonhuman Eika are heavily raiding the northern coast of the kingdom and besieging the city of Gent, and King Henry's court is involved in intrigue as Henry plots to make his bastard son Sanglant (the result of a union between Henry and an Aoi or elf woman in his youth), his heir, to the displeasure of his eldest legitimate daughter Sapentia.

This opening novel follows three principal characters. Alain is a foundling, raised by his foster-family and promised to the Church. However, the destruction of the local monastary by Eika raiders sets Alain on a new path as his destiny intersects with that of Count Lavastine, who coincidentally once had a bastard son sent to be raised by freeholding family, a decision he now regrets. Readers may groan at this cliche and it is rather predictable in this opening volume. However, Elliott cleverly subverts this expectation in later volumes in the series.

The second POV character is Liath, a beautiful young woman who has spent much of her life on the run with her father, fleeing from unseen, unknown enemies who desire her father's immense knowledge of astrological magic. Unfortunately, whilst they evade their shadowy pursuers they run into the unwelcome attentions of Frater Hugh, a churchman with a hunger for knowledge, and for Liath.

The third POV, and the most interesting, is that of Rosvita, a churchwoman constructing an elaborate history of the Wendish peoples for the King's aged mother. Her role in the storyline is initially merely to give us a look at the inner workings of King Henry's court, but later she assumes a more proactive role.

This is a busy opening novel, with Alain and Liath both having quite active lives and the plotline twists and turns unexpectedly around them, whilst dynastic struggles ensure elsewhere. The general feeling of the book is a lighter, somewhat less accomplished (but not unenjoyably so) version of A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. The political intrigue is simplistic by comparison to GRRM's masterpiece, but still more interesting than a lot of other fantasy writers attempt in their novels.

Elliott's biggest success is in her worldbuilding. Like GRRM, she has constructed a fantasy version that is so close to real medieval history at times you ponder why she didn't just write a historical novel, but the changes to real history are nevertheless interesting, such as the equally male-and-female-controlled Church. Like Robert Jordan before her, Elliott has gone to some difficulties to create an equal-opportunities fantasy world where men and women are equals and, like Jordan, she broadly succeeds, although you can poke holes in some of her reasoning as to how this came about. She also captures the fact that in the early Medieval period (the setting seems comparable to the 8th-10th centuries or so) battles were won and lost by small armies consisting of just a couple of thousand troops, and also that society was built on rising hierarchal tiers that were extremely difficult to bypass. Elliott also builds interesting characters and makes you care about them, particularly Alain, Rosvita and some of the secondary characters like Margrave Villam and Prince Sanglant.

There are some substantial flaws, however. It's incredibly difficult to like Liath because she spends pretty much every chapter moaning and whining about her circumstances, but is utterly unable to take action to change those circumstances. Her chronic inability to trust anyone and her inabilty to tell her few friends about the secrets that haunt her makes her a wearying character to read, and her cruel tormenting by Hugh inspires only pity, not respect or true sympathy. The fact that she has to be rescued from every situation by someone else eventually makes her an even more tedious character. Similarly, there are some irritating repetitions of phrase and a certain blandness in some parts of the writing that let the overall story down.

That said, Elliott manages to intrigue you with events in this first volume and the cliffhanger ending does make you want to pick up the second book, which I suppose was the main objective all along

King's Dragon (***) is published by Orbit in the UK and DAW in the USA.

Please note that the review for the second book entails spoiling certain plot elements from the first book.

Prince of Dogs picks up shortly after the first book ends. The Battle of Kassel has seen the defeat of Sabella's rebellion. Alain has been proclaimed heir to Count Lavastine, and now learns the way of rulership. Liath is now a King's Eagle, a trusted messenger, but her heart is torn by the death of Prince Sanglant in the Fall of Gent to the Eika. With King Henry's army badly mauled at Kassel, he has to entrust another to create a force and retake Gent. However, Prince Sanglant yet lives as the captive and plaything of the Eika warlord, Bloodheart, and Bloodheart's fifth son, who has forged an unusual connection with Alain, must return to the Eika homeland to raise a new force, but plots against his father along the way. Finally, rumblings come from the east that after a lengthy period of quiet, the Quman tribes of the marchlands are once again raiding and causing trouble.

Prince of Dogs sees the smaller story that was contained within King's Dragon explode outwards in all directions, with the addition of several new POV characters including the captive Prince Sanglant and Anna, a young girl who escapes the Fall of Gent with her brother to face an uncertain future in a refugee camp, whilst Biscop Antonia, a key villain in the first book, also has a few POV cameos. The political intrigue of the book is ramped up following the events of the first volume, as is the action quotient as the Eika's ravaging of the countryside around Gent is described, along with the campaign to retake the city. There is also a nice convergence of plotlines, as Alain and Liath meet for the first time and Rosvita moves more towards opposing the villainous and increasingly influential Hugh. Mercifully, although there are some more Liath/Hugh scenes, these are not as irritating as in the first volume as events conspire to seperate Liath from Hugh for most of the book. However, the fact that once again she is powerless to help herself and relies on others to protect her makes her a difficult character to admire.

Elliott's writing is stronger and more confident in this second novel, and the worldbuilding deepens (although the fact that half the locations mentioned in the book aren't on the accompanying map is irritating). It's still impossible to see what the overall plotline of the series is meant to be, however. The metaphysical aspects of the story, such as the role of astrology, magic and the Aoi in the narrative, is still very unclear, which makes it all the more irritating when these elements are referred to without explanation. Nevertheless, those explanations do come in time, and these sequences are more satisfying on a re-read.

Prince of Dogs (***½) continues the narrative begun in the first book and expands upon it, introducing new characters and situations whilst thankfully reducing those elements which weakened the opening volume. The book is again available from Orbit in the UK and DAW in the USA. Incidentally, the US edition has one of the most spectacularly awful covers I've ever seen grace a fantasy novel.

The author has a webpage here. Orson Scott Card has an interesting and highly enthusiastic overview of the series here, although beware that he does spoil one of the overriding mysteries of the series.

The subsequent volumes in the series are entitled The Burning Stone, Child of Flame, The Gathering Storm, In the Ruins and Crown of Stars, and I will be reading and reviewing them all over the forthcoming weeks, although I will take a break to tackle Ian Cameron Esslemont's Night of Knives along the way.


Maltaran said...

I read the first three (maybe four, can't remember) of these books many years ago, having got them from the library. Based on this review, I may try and find them again, and finish the series. I recall that the Eika prince and his link to Alain is used as a strategic device by both sides in the war.

Adam Whitehead said...

Yep, Lavastine employs it quite cleverly in the attack of Gent. I'm trying to work out how the Eika fit into the overall scheme of things. They play a big role in the first two books and then go off to conquer Alba (aka England). No idea what their role in the story is after that.

RobB said...

I read the first four (or five?) myself and was waiting for them all to be available in paperback. I liked them quite a bit, but then i go and start the Malazan books.

Yes, the covers on the US books are not nearly as nice as the UK covers, which is not uncommon.

Aidan said...

This is terrific.

I've often looked at Elliot's books on the shelf at the bookstore and considered picking them up. I'll be sure to follow your reviews as your read them and let that ultimately decide whether they're worth my time!

Great reviews.

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