Harbinger by Philippa Ballantine
Harbinger by Philppa Ballantine (Ace, 2013) Books of the Order 4 deals with the continuing problems in the Empire of Arkaym. Put simply, what we might consider the boundary line between the worlds of the living and the dead have partially broken down. Individual spirits and more powerful elemental beings have either managed to pass through the barrier or to gain an influence in the human realms. Standing against them is an essentially practical Order of Deacons. Although they have adopted vocabulary suggesting the practice of a faith, the need to be able to exorcise spirits is considered more important than what they might believe while fighting to protect of the people. This is intended as the final book in the series (for now) and, as is required in such books, all the interested parties have to arrive in the same place at the same time for the debate on whether the big and destructive supernatural beasties should be allowed into the human world.
What makes this slightly better than the average fantasy novel is the rather equivocal nature of the different characters and their motivation for wanting to prevent the most dangerous of the supernatural beings from entering Arkaym. Sorcha Faris and Raed Syndar Rossin are, for different reasons, significantly flawed. Although Merrick Chambers seems to have his heart in the right place, there’s the question of his blood line and whether that has any significance. Fensena is a relatively low level Geistlord who’s been over in the human realm for some time. Then there’s the pretty much human Zolfiya. She’s the sister of the nutty Emperor Kaleva. And finally, there’s Derodak, the big mover and shaker who’s engineering the breakthrough in the arrogant belief he’ll be able to control the outcome. This is inherently more interesting than the usual fare of brave magicians or reasonably heroic humans defending their realm against attack. This Empire has humans fit for slaughter with only a few beings capable of standing against the enemy. But when you’re not sure the source of their powers will ultimately be helpful, there’s a pleasing edge to the proceedings.
That said on the positive side, there’s a problem to bring down the quality of the series. One of the reasons I enjoy books which have a system of magic in place, is the chance to watch the author work through the rule book. What’s the source of the power? How does it work? What are its strengths and weaknesses? How many different applications does it have? There’s no better test of an author’s world-building creative powers than a well-developed and coherent sword and sorcery plot. Perhaps one word of qualification. Given the airships and other “machinery” powered by the weirstones, it’s verging on sword, steampunk and sorcery. Indeed, this focuses our attention on the problem. I was waiting for some explanation of the relationship between the Tinkers and the Deacons. Although there’s a throw-away line explaining where the weirstones came from and the motive for their arrival, there’s nothing to explain what process the different people go through to achieve the given effects. All we have are a list of the runes and a note of their “power”. Perhaps the source of the “power” is like manna lying gratuitously in the environment just waiting for someone with the right runes to come along and say the magic words. Or is it a more physical energy field? Is it perhaps drawing supernatural energy from the “other” side? It’s deeply frustrating that there’s no effort made to explain how it all works. We’re simply presented with people and creatures doing magical things on a take-or-leave-it basis. So, for example, when “were” creatures transform into human or vice versa, where does the additional body mass come from or go to? I know it looks good on a page when a human man can change into a “lion” (both on land and at sea) but this is virtually an instantaneous event. One minute wimpy man, next roaring beast of impressive size and occasional underwater abilities.
As a final word, there’s a romantic element as different pairings emerge but Harbinger manages to avoid the excesses of sentimentality that can afflict the fantasy field. It’s good way of finishing off this series with the door left open for more if the publishers make the right commercial noises.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.