Very refreshing fantasy book featuring a complex adult main protagonist dealing with his fears and an original, fast-paced story crafted with the trademark rhythm and style of Janny Wurts.
At the beginning of the story both Korendir and Haldeth, the other main character, end up as slave oarsmen in the same nightmarish pirate galley that have captured them, but over the course of the book they evolve very differently. Haldeth, the eldest, reveals his painful experience while Korendir, little more than a teenager, dumbly reacts with voiceless fury to any human stimulus or mistreatment. The two forge a deep friendship and relate with each other, but eventually take very different paths in reaction to their inner demons, and the reader confronts with almost opposite ways of dealing with life and fear. The story unfolds like a reverse spiral, in each episode the reader is confronted with new hints about the past and the motivations of the hero, and as the circles widen some of the mysteries are finally revealed, all the little initial seemingly patternless clues begin to show their importance and Korendir is displayed in all his complexity. His motivations are not easy to guess, but from the beginning, a character so honest, determined, angry, can only be the result of a personal tragedy of epic proportions.
During the first adventures, which are of episodic nature (varied, engaging and further challenging), the enormous talents of Korendir are evident, but it also emerges his sense of fallibility, the darker shadow of fear that chases him. His quest, pursued with stubbornness and integrity, is to build the safest stronghold, an impenetrable fortress able to sunder him from the violence of men and the power of wizards. Towards this end, Korendir relentlessly studies ancient texts of lore and history and begins working as a mercenary, and with his growing reputation, he accepts increasingly burdensome assignments.
Yet, whilst his dream of security is in need of money, what moves him is clearly something deeper, as it is shown in the episode of the wereleopards or of the South Englas princess, and the reader is left to wonder and ponder on the clues. For some time, Korendir continues his mercenary activity, and his sparseness of words, his refusal to justify his actions even when wrongly accused, his superficial impassivity turn him into an unsolvable mystery for those who try to interact with him; but his talent is undeniable, and his services highly sought after even if his mien scares the most daring of employers. Howbeit, Korendir, as quick with the sword as with his wits, and quiet connoisseur of humanity, is not perfect, and his fear of repeating tragedies, his cold manners, give the outer appearance of impenetrability but just below the surface he is conflicted and fragile and his actions are clearly not those of a madman, even if Korendir teeters dangerously close to the precipice.
After the mission in the exotic city of the Sultan, he seems to break, to abandon any reserve, and starts accepting assignments of very different nature and motivation from the previous ones, what moves him seems to change. With pain, the friend Haldeth points out that his behavior "has turned his addition to risk and violence toward murder", and understandably worries that "the violence of his trade has overtaken him" and despairs: "somewhere in your quest for protection you've learned to live just to slaughter". To all outer appearances, Korendir walks the thin edge of insanity, but his inner self starts to unveil after the intense meeting with Ithariel at the pinnacle of his path. The adventure in Tir Amindel marks the beginning of the second part of the story where the hero's past is revealed, and with all the layers, there are many surprises in store for the reader, and Korendir’s reckless actions, his courting death on the brink of madness all resolve in their tragic inevitability. I also liked very much the part where the White Circle takes stage and the mystery of the origins of the hero thickens, branches, and the threads converge as the plots unravels.
The end is intense, and many plot twists are still in for the characters and for the reader, who is involved in a crescendo of emotions in the depth of the events, following Koredir shaping his fate. I personally related to the various characters as I avidly turned page after page and I was very satisfied by the denouement, heartwrenching and full of hope at the same time.
The scenes at sea, in the mountains, in the wilderness are all carefully tended to detail and extreme realism by the artistic hand of the author, who always manages to keep the balance between showing and letting the reader’s mind wander. The various dangers and obstacles, the missions faced by Korendir are fascinating and at times brutal: the battle with the Dathei, the incredible confrontations with the elementals, the game with the witch Anthei...
The wordbuliding is very solid, the world of Aerith and his Eleven Kingdoms are a living element in which the characters move and the magic system is complex and interesting. Ithariel is a disruptive character, of incredible strength, quiet but relentless, also plagued by a tragedy of which she was helpless victim, but she struggles to overcome her fears, too, and only thanks to her Korendir can try to come to terms with his inner fragility.
The writing style is lyrical, poetic and rich. The sheer elegance of the prose adds indefinitely to the story, a style that I have come to love after reading White Storm and To Ride Hell’s Chasm, two very different novels (with the common ground of bravura storytelling, careful worldbuilding and deep character development). It is always a matter of taste of course, but for me it’s a win win.
I highly recommend this book, a classic fantasy of refreshing and original quality, I simply found awesome all the conundrums Korendir solves with wit and knowledge first, fighting prowess second.
Soon, I will start the Light and Shadow series with The Curse of the Mistwraith, I cannot get enough of Janny Wurts’ highly evocative style, carefully layered characters and very original plots! After two fantasy standalones, both quick-paced and with strong adult lead characters I absolutely want to discover the heights and depths of her longer series.
High fantasy at its best, with ageless grace, lyrical authenticity of detail, poignant story and round characters. Look no further.