Limits of Power by Elizabeth Moon
Limits of Power by Elizabeth Moon (Del Rey, 2013) is the fourth fantasy novel set in the Eight Kingdoms (after Echoes of Betrayal) and it represents an admission failure on my part. I reviewed the second in this series and remember making a mental note to read the next in sequence. Yet now I find myself reading the fourth. Such are the perils of a busy life as a reviewer. I therefore come back in to discover the sad death of Kieri Phelan’s grandmother. This has sent the Elves into a state of shock as their home is now under threat without someone to maintain the taig. As the new king of Lyonya, Kieri has his work cut out to maintain harmony between the Elves and the Humans. Inter-species politics have always been challenging. Arian, his newlywed half-Elven queen, has also lost their first baby which leaves questions about the succession. All of which dramatic introduction brings us to the core of the book.
In a world where different species must try to find a way to co-exist without too much conflict, the expected problems are complicated by the presence or absence of magical powers. If all species were equal in magical ability, the situation would be more manageable. But when there are quite significant differences and, within species, not all have equal talents, the potential for jealousy and rivalry becomes inevitable. In a way, a part of the hope for conflict avoidance will flow from constructive engagement between the species. The fact that humans and elves are able to interbreed should have lessened tensions. Yet the half-breeds have not proved an effective bridge, often finding themselves on the receiving end of prejudice from political enemies on both sides of the divide. In other relationships, only the dragon has sufficient distance to be able to talk with all sides and find trust. That said, an interesting bridgehead has inadvertently been created by a human becoming the leader of one group of gnomes. This accident may prove significant in building trust.
Extremists out to ferment trouble have developed an interesting range of justifications for distinguishing and disparaging magical abilities. Starting with the humans, it’s largely considered unnatural for any member of this group to have any ability at all. Except, historically, there have been human magelords and one group is accepted because their powers are used for healing. This means the humans have to be able to close one eye and see everything except medical skills as deeply evil. This residual magic can be inherently evil, or by reinterpreting moral and religious codes, against the law and so a justification for death. Or it can be an argument rooted in economics. If people can light candles without the use of matches, it puts all the matchmakers out of work, and so on. Then it spreads to political jealousy. Suppose one of your legal systems for dispute resolution is trial by battle, the unexpected winner obviously used undisclosed magical powers to beat the more fancied opponent. Once you start, there’s no end to the ways in which you can reinterpret reality to make magic, real or alleged, seem evil.
Under normal circumstances, this might not be too serious a problem but, as this novel gets under way, magical abilities are suddenly appearing across human lands. Caught up in these political problems, Mikeli Mahieran, the young king of Tsaia, has expelled Beclan Mahieran for displaying the talent. He has now left Tsaia with Dorrin Verrakai. This leaves the young Camwyn Mahieran in an interesting position, being uncertain whether he too might be showing symptoms of magical power. When Arian arrives on a state visit, we get into both species and gender politics with some discussion of the source of magic and the differences between the different schools of magic. Meanwhile, the Dragon drops off ex-sergeant Stammuel on an island where there may just be a threat from pirates and ex-thief Arvid Semminson finds himself adopted as a kind of quartermaster, now trusted as an honest broker to help keep troops provisioned, a curious life for someone now on speaking terms with Gird. Even Arcolin gets a promotion, refuses a kingship and looks for a wife. And then Kieri demonstrates to the Elves that, while he might not have all his grandmother’s powers, he has his own way of interacting with the taig and what lies beneath the Oathstone. Discovering the selani tiles is even more interesting as is the beginning of his power to re-establish the Elvenhome.
Put all this together and this is an interesting but more gentle read. We’re catching up with old friends and watching them move round the landscape, learning more about the powers and their limits as they go. There are occasional one-on-one fights but that’s not really the point of the exercise. This is just moving the broader narrative forward, keeping all the fans happy as their favourite characters are given their moment in the sun. As a final thought, Alured is lurking on the other side of the border. He’s due to make a move in the next book. Until then, there’s one note of sadness and two of joy. Limits of Power is a good contribution to the continuing tale.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.