Finally! A good six weeks after setting out on this project, I finally completed Kate Elliott's enormous Crown of Stars series. Seven volumes, over 5,500 pages and a fairly complicated storyline later, I feel like I've run a marathon. Sometimes it was an easy task and sometimes a gruelling one, but overall I feel this series has enough positive aspects to make reading it a worthwhile endeavour.
In the Ruins picks up the storyline from the end of Book 5, The Gathering Storm. The long-foretold cataclysm has come to pass and the continent of Novaria has been devastated by the return of the Ashioi. However, whilst the Ashioi argue amongst themselves about what attitude to take towards humanity, the kingdoms of Wendar and Varre once again fall into bitter infighting whilst their old rivals in the east, particularly the Arethousans, advance their own plans.
In the Ruins (***) is actually the first half of one novel, chopped in half when it got too large to publish in one volume. As a result it is the least self-contained of the seven books in the series, lacking any kind of climax or resolution. Despite this, the established storylines tick along nicely and we start seeing how some of the less-prominent storylines that the series has followed are starting to come together quite nicely for the conclusion. As with the others, the book is published by Orbit in the UK and DAW in the USA.
Crown of Stars is the concluding volume of the Crown of Stars series and is a very interesting book to study. As I said at the start of this reading project, my goal was to assess how it is possible for a huge (more than four volumes) fantasy series to have a really worthwhile and satisfying conclusion, given that so many of the big hitter series remain incomplete, such as Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen or George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Crown of Stars was pretty much the only series of this length I could find that was actually finished.
Crown of Stars delivers a reasonably strong conclusion to the series. Elliott addresses every plot point and storyline raised from the earlier novels and gives a mostly satisfactory resolution to the story, tying everything up but not necessarily very neatly. The world is left a much more murky, dangerous place then we found in King's Dragon and there are hints of greater struggles to come in the future. This is as it should be: the sense of life continuing after you close the page is an important factor in whether a book's conclusion is convincing or not. That said, there are also many plot points left unclear towards the end, and the discovery that Elliott plans to write sequel novels and series (although she has an unrelated new seven-volume series called Crossroads to complete first) is mildly disconcerting. The novel itself ends with a somewhat pointless coda set 50 years after the rest of the series which seems to bring nothing to the story except reinforcing the point that life carries on. I also felt the conclusion to both the Hugh/Liath storyline and the return of the Ashioi were handled very curtly and lacked the sense of drama and tension that thousands of pages of build-up beforehand really deserved.
That said, the character of Alain was handled quite nicely in the conclusion of the series. What or who he is or represents is question Elliott leaves for the reader to work out, and it is satisfying that she trusts the audience enough to work out what should be painfully obvious after reading the last few books in the series.
Crown of Stars (***½) is also available from Orbit and DAW.
Overall, I would say that the Crown of Stars series is needlessly overlong and could have handled having a couple of volumes shaved off from it. It also suffers from the occasional bland turn of phrase, and the characters do seem to engage in a lot of repetitive getting captured, escaping, getting captured again stories, which occasionally has the disconcerting effect of making the reader think he's watching a late 1970s episode of Doctor Who.
On the other hand, I would also say that Crown of Stars features some excellent worldbuilding. Elliott has researched the historical period very well and, for everything she has changed, she's left enough alone that the series actually becomes mildly educational (her realistic use of the hierarchy of medieval power is very satisfying). Many of the characters are intriguing and their storylines worth persevering with (namely Alain and Stronghand), whilst others are a bit flat and tedious (Liath's, mainly).
Among epic fantasy series, there are certainly far worse available, but also ones that are far better. If you are looking for an already-completed, entertaining epic fantasy series, then Crown of Stars is worth a look.
Series rating: ***½
I am currently reading Peter F. Hamilton's The Dreaming Void, which is a most enjoyable and satisfying work, as I have come to expect from him. Expect a review in the coming days.