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Dust and Light by Carol Berg

August 8, 2014 6 comments

Dust And Light by Carol Berg

Dust and Light by Carol Berg (Roc, 2014) (The Sanctuary Duet 1) is set in the same world as the duology of Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone which jointly won the Mythopoeic Award in 2009. In this first-person narrative, we join Lucian de Remeni-Masson as he falls from grace and slowly begins to find his feet again. He’s one of the children of high-status parents who’s never really had to worry about anything. He’s just bumbled happily along, never really feeling under pressure to learn anything or refine his magical skills. There was one minor peccadillo when he went to University. A young girl caught his eye. . . But his father was quick to intervene, smoothed over ruffled feathers, and found him a place where he could draw and paint, working for The PureBlood Registry. His skill, you see, is to use his magic to see the truth of those he draws. Should he see anything too unfortunate, he’s quick to apologise and adjust the picture when he comes back to himself. For the most part, this is a quiet and undemanding role, leaving him plenty of time to enjoy family life.

 

As in most books of this type, this quiet life is rudely shattered when only he and his younger sister avoid being killed when the rest of the family gathers together in another city. To compound the problems, he quickly find his sinecure at the registry terminated and his contract sold for a fraction of its value to Bastien de Caton, who serves the King as the coroner of Palinur. Going from high privilege to the necropolis is, in itself, an almost insupportable blow to his pride. But when he begins to draw the dead, he’s accused of deliberately underperforming to escape the contract. Of course, this accusation outrages the pompous one, who stoutly defends the quality of his work. Except he’s a little surprised at exactly what he’s been able to draw. There seems to be a lot of detail in the uniforms and style of dress that would only be apparent if he were somehow able to commune with the dead.

Carol Berg

Carol Berg

 

The first real sign of trouble comes when he draws a picture of a young girl. The coroner is reluctant to trust the image because it suggests this was a girl of real privilege. Yet, so far as he knows, all the nobility are accounted for. No-one of importance has been reported missing. But when the matter is tested by our hero producing a second drawing, it’s clear this is the drawing of one of the royal bastards. This more formally sets us off on the dual trail. First we have to discover who’s out to wreck the career of our young innocent. Then we have to discover who strangled this girl.

 

For all this is sold as a fantasy novel, it’s really a political thriller. With the death of the old King of Navronne, the two sons embark on a civil war to decide the question of succession. Over the generations, the families who have been lucky enough to develop magical powers sell their allegiance to whoever is rich enough to pay for them. Obviously, the best work for the nobility. Lucian’s father was a cartographer to the old king. One of the royal sons might wonder whether Lucian might be able to find lost treasures. This sets up a certain tension between some of the nobility who might see people like Lucian as a necessity to progress their own interests, while others see them as dangerous. In theory, the magicians preserve their neutrality by keeping to themselves. This is signalled to the world by their habit of going out in public wearing a mask. They are supposed to fly above the rough and tumble of political life. Except, of course, few can live in a society without being ambitious for power and success. This can mean neutrality is inconvenient. Some will take sides. Others like Lucian who was essentially inexperienced and somewhat naive are potentially just canon fodder, liable to be used and discarded as required. So, this is a form of coming-of-age story in which a young man is stripped of his dignity and slowly comes to realise he must start on a journey, both physical and metaphorical, to discover who he is and what powers he’s able to command if he takes them seriously. The result is both a very pleasing mystery in which a murder must be solved, and a nicely balanced political situation as the various factions try to manoeuvre themselves into the best position. Dust and Light is an impressive start to this latest episode in this fantasy world, leaving everything completely in the balance as we wait for the second instalment due in 2015.

 

For reviews of other books by Carol Berg see:
Breath and Bone
The Daemon Prism
Flesh and Spirit
The Soul Mirror
The Spirit Lens.

 

The Daemon Prism by Carol Berg

May 22, 2012 1 comment

The Daemon Prism by Carol Berg (Roc, 2012) is the final volume in the Collegia Magica trilogy and continues some two years after the events in The Soul Mirror with Anne de Vernase still working with Dante to learn how to control her own magical abilities. This is not going as well as it should so, as in the way of all romantic novels, our couple must separate. Yes, it’s that old trick, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” used to mug us before the story has a chance to get going. This leaves the now blind Dante at a loose end and ties Anne up with her worries when she gets back home. Into this convenient lull comes an old soldier with a dream. This proves the trigger to bring Dante’s interests to a focus on what looks to be a form of magical trap, yet one that might just enable him to recover his sight if he manages the situation properly. Since we see all this from Dante’s point of view, the ambivalence of how he should react to this is nicely caught. When a letter comes from his long-estranged brother, Andero, requesting his return to his village where his father is dying, the jaws of the trap begin to close.

Although Dante does take the basic precaution of asking Illario for help, his departure is reckless. Worse, on the way, he discovers a faction of the Temple are out to arrest him. Except there seem to be equally powerful forces offering some level of protection. It’s all confusing as he finally makes it to his village alone having lost Illario on the way, perhaps dead, and his loyal servant sent to warn Anne of danger. This leaves Dante to bond with his brother and, when Temple men are spotted on the trail into the village, they make a run for it. Meanwhile Anne finds the loyal servant’s dead body and assumes the worst. When she’s approached by the leader of the Temple faction out to capture Dante, she sends him away and immediately takes off after Dante.

Carol Berg not quite getting the Star Trek uniform right

Although all this is perfectly competent and hits all the right notes in maintaining Dante’s harassment across unfriendly terrain, there’s a slightly mechanical feel to it all. In part, this is because Dante is rather better as a character to observe in the third person rather than as a monologuing point of view. Frankly I think him better when he’s enigmatic. When you actually see the world from his more elevated magical perspective, it makes everything rather more prosaic. He mostly expects his magic to work and, when he’s not feeling guilty or demoralised, it does. In the first two books, when we have to watch him glower and agonise over who-knows-what, the eventual grudging use of some magic seems all the more impressive. The only feature that saves this book from being completely formulaic is the introduction of Andero as the brother. This is an interesting character who accepts a difficult situation and makes the best of it, actually sacrificing himself at one point to allow his brother to move forward on the quest. He’s a calming presence when all about him seems chaotic.

We then get into a long discussion of what the function of the titular prism might be and how magic first came into the world. Although it’s all quite clever when you look back on it and see the construction of this world and the explanation for how the magic works, it’s actually quite heavy going in the telling. I’m not taking anything away from the obvious care lavished on creating the detailed history and fitting past and present together to produce the climactic battle, but this book would have been immeasurably improved by the subtraction of at least fifty pages. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you want to see how it all turns out but, as might be a safe assumption in all books of a romantic nature, the final cliché is likely to be amor vincit omnia, i.e. Anne saves her man (yet again). Looking back at the trilogy, The Daemon Prism represents a reasonable conclusion with all the obvious loose ends tied up. Indeed, were she so minded, there’s at least one more book left to tell if the publisher chooses to cross Carol Berg’s hand with the appropriate amount of silver. So long as we can see it through Anne’s eyes, it might be sufficiently interesting to continue the story.

As an afterthought, the artwork by Gordon Crabb is particularly wimpy and shows our hero Dante as entirely too nice and not at all as someone who might be mistaken for a real demon. Anyone innocently picking this up might mistake the book as romantic fiction rather than fantasy.

For reviews of other books by Carol Berg, see:
Breath and Bone
Dust and Light
Flesh and Spirit
The Soul Mirror
The Spirit Lens

The Soul Mirror by Carol Berg

Well, with The Soul Mirror by Carol Berg, we’re into the second of the Collegia Magica trilogy and the pace is holding up well. For those who like warnings of future events, the final instalment is titled The Daemon Prism and it’s due in 2012. Since we’ve not ended the second on a cliffhanger, I imagine the wait will not be a great strain although I confess my curiosity has been quite seriously piqued.

In the timescale of the trilogy, four years have passed since the trial of Michel de Vernase who was convicted of treason in absentia at the end of The Spirit Lens and we start with the dramatic news of Lianelle’s death. She was the younger daughter of the traitor Michel. With mother confined in a hospital and son Ambrose held in the Spindle, it falls to older daughter Anne to go to the Collegia de Magica de Seravain to gather what information she can. Upon her return to the family estates, she find Portier de Savin-Duplais waiting for her. She’s summoned to Merona to act as maid of honour to the queen. This brings Anne’s reclusive life to a sudden end and forces her out into the world where she must defend her family’s name and her own life in what proves to be a potentially deadly game.

As in The Spirit Lens, we have a mystery played on the stage of a world on the cusp of Enlightenment. Except, full Enlightenment is not going to be achievable — rationality cannot prevail in the face of real evidence of the irrational. Despite coming to court a confirmed sceptic on the question of magic, she’s soon forced to admit that natural laws can be bent in rather unexpected ways. Being of a practical disposition, she suspends judgement, collecting information from all sources open to her. In this, she proves unexpectedly efficient and she’s soon embroiled in the continuing investigations of Portier and Ilario while fighting off the threatening advances of Mage Dante.

Carol Berg enjoying a rural moment

Following on from my previous review, I’m pleased to report the context for all this manoeuvring grows more clear. It seems the Blood Wars were fought over control of Ixtador. There were two families. The Montdragons may have created Ixtador by mistake or somehow separated it from its usual place in the “supernatural” order. The Gautieri were jealous and wanted to usurp control. In effect, the families were disputing title to what we might call Limbo, a place where the souls of the dead go. But it’s not clear whether the souls can go on from Ixtador to a Heaven, potentially creating a form of Hell for the accumulation of spirits while they are inside it. More generally, from the moment of its creation, magic seems not to have worked quite as well. It’s as if its existence somehow distorted the usual order of things.

From this, you will understand the primary motivation of those now jockeying for power is literally a matter of life and death. The hope or expectation is that, by breaking down the Veil currently separating the living world from what lies beyond, the natural order will be turned on its head and a new form of existence will be created. With such high stakes, Anne must adapt to a new life in court, protect the Queen and work out exactly caused her sister’s death. For it’s this death that forces the conspirators out into the open slightly earlier than they had planned. This is the chance to identify the Adept and avert all danger to the world.

Most of my reaction to this book is positive. I feel it’s rather better than the first. In part, this is because Carol Berg seems more comfortable writing with a woman’s point of view. With The Spirit Lens so strongly favouring Duplais’ point of view, we were caught up in the mind of a somewhat pedantic and inflexible man who was unwillingly dragged into the first phase of the investigation and had to make the best of it. The same set of circumstances beset Anne in this volume, but although she’s also somewhat introverted, she comes over as entirely more sympathetic. Both prove brave and tough minded, and with Ilario slightly less prominent, it’s Anne whose strengths prove the difference between success and failure.

Now that more of the historical and political context is laid out for us to see, the two volumes taken together have a better focus and the essential mystery of who is doing what to whom and why, can take centre stage. I don’t think anyone will fail to identify the key players. This is not a classic mystery with a large cast of characters being whittled down to a hard core of suspects. As we come into this second volume, we’ve eliminated enough of the options so that a few moments thought allow us to point the finger of accusation with some degree of certainty. With everyone unmasked, this leaves us with an extended ritual as the climax to this phase of the adventure, followed by our heroes finding moments of peace. As a final thought the title to this book is quite pleasingly ambiguous given that mirrors never lie about what they show us about ourselves or those we see in the glass.

All in all, The Soul Mirror is a satisfying read and I look forward to the final instalment, The Daemon Prism, to see how it’s all resolved.

For reviews of a duology by Carol Berg, see:
Flesh and Spirit
Breath and Bone
now followed by Dust and Light.

Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg

January 23, 2011 3 comments

Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg is the first of a duology known as The Lighthouse Duet. This is the story of Valen, a man caught up in major political manoeuverings, both temporal and spiritual. As the book starts, he is soon embroiled with a few brave souls who believe their world is entering an end-of-days scenario. They have created an ark of knowledge which they hope will stand untouched if the threatened destructive forces arrive, much like a lighthouse stands against the stormy seas. It will carry the means to rebuild when the danger has passed. Yet this is not a straightforward world. There is a second dimension from which different beings influence the human world. Like the fey in our mythology, time passes at a different rate in their realm, they may kidnap “folk” from the human world, and they may produce changelings who can pass between the worlds. If the end of the human world is coming, perhaps they can help. Unfortunately, there’s also the possibility they may be responsible for the end. So what the humans need is a way of talking to these beings whether to invite their help or to fight back.

 

Thematically, Carol Berg is relying on one of the standard tropes: a man with magical abilities in denial. It all starts with him as a young boy. He has the misfortune to be dyslexic. To hide his disability, he learns to lie and cheat. He becomes a rebellious teen and refuses to follow in his family’s business as a magician. He should train and be pimped to the rich and powerful who can afford to pay for his talents. Instead, he goes walkabout in a perversely Australian sense of the word, i.e. in his late adolescence, he embarks on a nomadic quest. But instead of the usual spiritual purpose, Valen wants to lose himself. So, cloaked in anonymity, he travels the world ending as a mercenary when a war of succession breaks out. Sadly, his campaign does not go as he hopes and the book begins with him seriously wounded. In full retreat, his partner drops him off at the E.R. of a religious organisation notorious for its neutrality. As he heals physically, he also begins to find some peace within himself. Naturally a loner, he has had few companions other than fellow mercenaries. They bond out of self-interest, learning to rely on each other for survival. This kind of self-interested loyalty is not the same as friendship. In this new setting, his rejection of the world and its framework of magic is challenged. In part this is because he is tempted into more real friendships with the monks and some of the lighthouse operators. But his curiosity is piqued when he discovers there has been a recent murder. When a second monk goes missing, this confirms something real to investigate.

 

The central metaphor explored (pun intended) in this book is the nature and function of maps and mapping. There are many different ways of capturing the spatial reality of a world, recognising that this is not just to record physical geography, but also social structures. A map is of no use unless it tells you where something is in relation to other physical markers — after all, you might want to travel there. But it should also tell you how important the place or “thing” is — that helps you decide whether the journey using the mediaeval transport systems of walking and horses, is likely to be worth the effort. Mere humans see only the superficial lines on paper. Those with magical abilities may read deeper meanings into the symbols. The real question is what a dyslexic magician sees when he opens a book of maps. If meaning is denied from conventional symbols, might he see a different way?

 

Valen’s magical talent focuses on understanding landscapes. He is, if you like, sensitive to a locale and its recent history. My reason for the earlier reference to Australian Aborigines is their interest in the songlines, magical paths which cross the land and which you follow by humming the tune or singing the words of the song. So Valen also identifies musical threads that are woven together into each locale’s tapestry of memory. His stay in religious retreat cannot last, of course. He must re-enter the world to find answers to both his own problems and those affecting the people around him.

 

The result is a rather elegant tale. Although the fighting over the succession to the throne is not intended to be original, it gives the story a good centre of gravity. The human world is waiting for some kind of resolution so it can heal and move on. Except the threat of destruction looms over all. This conflict and the more pervading fear of doom are sharpened because of the acceptance of magic into the power structure. Mundane politics cannot ignore magical abilities and so must find a way of controlling the adepts. In this case, it means convincing the magicians to police themselves, forcing them to imprison those who will not toe the party line. Life is tough for a nonconformist like Valen.

 

All is told in a clear and well-structured prose, giving us just enough exposition to explain the context and then moving on with the action. In this case, the blending of fantasy and mystery is well handled. We feel Valen’s interest in working out exactly what is happening and why. At the end, everything is set up nicely for the second and concluding volume called Breath and Bone. It’s enjoyable and well worth reading if you enjoy high-concept fantasy.

 

For the record, the duology of Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone won the Mythopoeic Award in 2009.

 

For reviews of other books by Carol Berg see:
Dust and Light
The Spirit Lens,
The Soul Mirror
The Daemon Prism.

 

The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg

September 16, 2010 1 comment

The marketers are being somewhat provocative by heavily promoting this book as about “. . .a Kingdom on the verge of a grand renaissance, where natural science has supplanted failing sorcery. . .” In our human history, this seems to be rolling up some four or five centuries of struggle in a single sequence of events intended to be a mere trilogy. One of the most interesting stages in the development of any society is when it’s on the cusp between an old order and the new. Quite what we should call this process is not clear. Over time, the early demarcation lines can be between rural and urban, barbarism and civilisation. When changing from one paradigm to the next, we may get a renaissance where the “people” reform their worldview. This is not linear for, as the German concept Weltanschauung explains, we tell ourselves complex stories about the world we inhabit, with different elements of the discourse manipulated for political reasons with varying degrees of success during the period of change.

It should be said this notion of a renaissance or rebirth is not without controversy. Does it imply someone or something always has to die to make way for the new? If so, what is the morality of this displacement of the old? Then does the process affect everyone or is it only the intellectuals who perceive the changes while the masses continue to be downtrodden? And so on. If it is not to be considered a “renaissance”, should it be described as an Age of Enlightenment or of Reason where “rationality” rather than dogma becomes the basis on which to describe or comment on social institutions, responsibilities and practices? Well, not really. An Age of Reason occurs when a sufficient majority of opinion shapers are able to critique the power structure of the old age. Once they recognise the old can be replaced, the debate becomes what the new model will look like. In due course, the way in which this debate is conducted determines whether we move into a more rational age.

However, we should not judge a book by its cover. The author is not responsible for the ignorance of those who write the blurb. Indeed, since science has not supplanted sorcery inside the covers, it’s fairly obvious the blurb writer did not consider it necessary to read the book before deciding how to sell it.

What, then, of the text of The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg? Well, there’s good news and bad. We have an essentially mediaeval society in which an elite group has magical powers. Except, not only was a major war fought over the practice of this magic some two hundred years before our immediate action begins, but the actual ability to use it also seems to have been steadily declining ever since. Now two hundred years is a long time. If this society really was developing the kind of culture that could develop the prism to refract light, the telescope and microscope, and enough understanding of the eye to create spectacle lenses for improving vision, it would also be investigating its own past. The Renaissance in England and more generally in Europe was associated with Shakespeare, Boccaccio and other writers prepared to re-imagine recorded historical events for current “enlightenment” and entertainment. On page 460 a group of travelling players arrives to present a masque — not something more serious. Other than this, the development of this world has nothing to suggest any kind of pervasive intellectual culture. Whatever we have seems restricted to the court.

At large, there is an organised religion. The beliefs point to an oriental style of ancestor worship, but the practices and rituals seem to exist independently of the system permitting practical magic. This is genuinely strange. If, over centuries, a group of people were obviously able to wield powerful supernatural powers, this would have permeated the society. Out of self-defence, people would have allied themselves with the various families, hoping their loyalty would be rewarded with better crops, good health and any other perks a magician might bestow. Yet there is no evidence of this.

Indeed, with our hero a librarian, there is nothing to suggest any real interest in history at all. All that can be said of the Collegia de Magica de Seravain where he works is that it is an institution gracefully slipping into impotent irrelevance. There seems no interest or alarm that the ability to continue the magical traditions of the centuries is in decline. Apart from a policing function to prevent the more dangerous practices, the leaders seem content with an increasingly marginalised role. This is completely incredible. Old and powerful organisations do not simply give up their power and walk quietly into the night. They fight to preserve their influence. Yet there is nothing in this story to suggest that either the organisation responsible for maintaining the religion or the magicians union see any threat in the emergence of rationalism. Everyone seems to be happily coexisting as the benign King gently steers his people away from old superstitions and into a new age. Except, presumably, the trilogy will develop an explanation of the broader context for the current troubles that will show the old families who fought the war are still the real power brokers and, for their own purposes, want to destabilise the kingdom before it goes to far towards rationalism. I wait with interest to see whether Ms Berg manages to rescue herself from the pit she seems to have been digging for herself.

But, if you put aside the structural problems of the world Ms Berg has been building, the actual mystery element of the novel is genuinely entertaining. Although it has elements that are somewhat contrived, the interplay between the three tasked to investigate an attack upon the King and the disappearance of a key noble who was initially charged with the investigation make the journey through the pages enjoyable. The most interesting is the maverick magician our hero picks up to infiltrate the court. The underestimated fop and the witless librarian are not uncommon in “detective” fiction. A powerful mage with a chip on his shoulder and his own agenda is a pleasant change. Through their mutual lack of respect, they manage to provoke each other into insights about what may really be happening. At the end, we have the immediate crimes solved and everything now poised for The Soul Mirror due in 2011.

It’s always difficult with a first person narrative to build in significant exposition to explain what would be self-evident to the narrator. Thus, we must perforce leave the small mountain of questions about the world to be explained in the remaining two books. Which leaves me recommending the book. I was caught up in the story of the investigation which has enough intellectual credibility and have already ordered my copy of the next in the series.

For other reviews of books by Carol Berg, see:
Dust and Light
Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone.
The second and third books in the Collegia Magica trilogy are The Soul Mirror and The Daemon Prism.

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