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Crown of Renewal by Elizabeth Moon

May 21, 2014 4 comments

Crown of Renewal by Elizabeth Moon

Crown of Renewal by Elizabeth Moon has an interesting moment. One character is approached with the question, “Are you the One?” Her reply is equivocal but she asks who’s asking. The reply is revealing. “I’m one of the ones waiting for the One.” So get your pills ready because this is not at all the book I was expecting which, if you think about it, is either high praise or flat condemnation for failing to provide the expected content (with not much room left in the middle for any other view). This is the fifth and final volume in the Paladin’s Legacy sequence. The chronology is somewhat confusing because the narrative arcs start some three months before the end of Limits of Power. This allows readers to catch up with what was happening to other characters out of sight when the last book was ending. From a strictly technical point of view, this highlights the problems of maintaining continuity with multiple character arcs in a long series. It also emphasises the need for people to have read the earlier books in this series otherwise you stand little chance of understanding what’s going on.

In Lyonya, Kieri and Arian have produced twins which, if nothing else, gives them a family to protect. In Tsaia, Mikeli Mahieran is still trying to decide what to do about the regalia sitting in his treasury, while Camwyn Mahieran worries how he will fit into the scheme of things now that Dorrin Verrakai has taken his brother Beclan off to safety. Arvid Semminson is developing both academically and in magic power. Arcolin is also settling into his new role with the gnomes. So we have the continuing political questions between the elves, the gnomes and the humans, and the emerging problem of how the humans should react to more of their children showing up with mage powers. Up to this point, the largely unseen catalyst for much of the military manoeuvring has been the threat of the forces gathering in the south under the leadership of Alured. So I confess to being all fired up for war. I expected Alured to lead his land and naval groups in a combined assault. The interaction between practical logistics and tactics on one side, and mage powers of varying degrees on the other is always fascinating. Except this is not the primary focus. Indeed, because of an overreach I need not discuss here, Alured unexpectedly finds himself sidelined. Although there is some fighting, it’s very much not the point of the exercise.

Elizabeth Moon

Elizabeth Moon

I suppose the best way to capture the spirit of this book as the final contribution to this particular plot sequence, is that it’s about the characters first, and the situations second. This is not to say the plot dynamics are not exciting or somehow unimportant. Rather it’s about how the individuals react in each situation. So, for example, we do get to see some of the action from Alured’s point of view and, in a sense, he emerges as rather a victim with delusions of grandeur he’s never going to realise. Although he starts off quite dominant in the first major military engagement, that’s only because he has no way of knowing how his most recent misdeed has been repaid. Similarly, Camwyn is seriously injured early on and our time with him is very low key as he slowly heals. This should tell you there’s a rather meditative quality to this book. There are deaths, some more deserved than others. But for all the major plot lines reach points of resolution, this is not the final book that could be written about these characters in this world. In that sense, this is more a historical series which slowly tracks the shifting political situations and relationships between different groups of people. This may be a convenient place to pause for now, but Elizabeth Moon could easily move forward if she wished.

This makes Crown of Renewal slightly difficult to value. It’s clearly high fantasy with epic pretensions but everything is scaled down to a human, elf or gnome level for them to agree or disagree, fight or resolve their problems peacefully. So don’t pick this up if you have not read the preceding books, and don’t expect battles with mages mixing into the combat scenes. The fact many humans have suddenly begun to manifest some powers is relevant to the plot, but not for the purposes of fighting set-piece battles. That’s still done in the tried and trusted way of hacking at each other with swords and anything else to hand. I’m therefore in the positive camp. There’s a real sense of weight to some of the characters. Even those who go through transformative journeys develop or evolve along different but equally important lines. Indeed, the one character who formally identifies himself as an agent of transformation is very discriminating in whom he agrees to help and the ways in which he helps them.

This means Paladin’s Legacy is a series in which people get their just deserts. By this, I’m not suggesting a crude morality tale where the good get better and are rewarded. Rather people are given the chance to make decisions and live with the consequences. Fortunately even those who make mistakes can still advance so long as their motives are reasonable. Complexity and shades of grey are therefore the bones of the plot. Those in leadership roles struggle to fulfill their duties. Leaders must protect those who give their personal loyalty and follow them. Equally they have personal feelings and a natural desire to protect their own families. These duties can sometimes conflict. Those at the bottom of the social heap also survive as best they can, trying to stay neutral in the often chaotic situations around them. If neutrality is impossible, they pick whichever side looks likely to win or try to run away. Curiously even those who run can be shown wise and find their own rewards. Heroism and dependence can be compatible. It can also be right to be compassionate to those felt to be in need yet be unforgiving in punishment if those helped later prove undeserving. No one can know the future and each individual must make the best decisions in the light of information available. So for those who have read the earlier books, Crown of Renewal is understated and, because of that, a rather impressive contribution to the fantasy canon.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For a review of an excellent collection by Elizabeth Moon, see Moon Flights. The others in this series are Kings of the North and Limits of Power.

Limits of Power by Elizabeth Moon

Limits of Power 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.

Elizabeth Moon at home in bookish surroundings

Elizabeth Moon at home in bookish surroundings

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.

For a review of an excellent collection by Elizabeth Moon, see Moon Flights. For other books in this series, see Crown of Renewal and Kings of the North.

Kings of the North by Elizabeth Moon

April 30, 2011 3 comments

When you pitch into creating a world where magic works, there’s an immediate problem for the author. First you have you write a set of rules for the magic to work, and then you have to apply them consistently. There’s nothing more annoying than arbitrariness where, to enable a key player to achieve an objective or escape from danger, a previously unsuspected ability is revealed like a rabbit out of a hat. By this, I’m not talking about remembering a recipe for curing boils as opposed to a love filtre, or suddenly discovering a long-lost spell book. Let’s say we’ve started off with the magic based on the ability to manipulate the energy in the human body, e.g. permitting the creation of fireballs. We need to know how destructive this power is, how far the ball may be projected, whether using it tires the magician so limiting the number of uses per hour, and so on. What we don’t want is for a demon to wander into view and ask a tired magician if she needs some help with the next ball. Unless, that is, a religious or comparable framework has been established to establish the relationship between humans, demons, and any Gods that happen to be around and capable of interfering in the human realm.

Kings of the North by Elizabeth Moon continues the Paladin’s Legacy trilogy which started with Oath of Fealty. Both are set in the world first described in the Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy, but there’s a steady increase in the level of magic. The first trilogy to some extent underplays the practical side of magical abilities. We know the Paladins and God-touched have powers, but the primary focus is on getting things done without having to rely too much on supernatural forces. That’s all changing as the characters we are following learn more about the way magic is woven into the fabric of their world. In this, Elizabeth Moon is avoiding the trap of being authorially omniscient and infodumping to fill in any missing background as we go along. She’s maintaining the points of view, so we learn at the same pace as the characters. This is playing fair with the readers.

Elizabeth Moon pleased to be backed by books

So where are we in story terms? Having been identified as the rightful heir by Paksenarrion, Kieri Phelan is now established as the King Lyonya, a land of humans and elves he is supposed to rule jointly with his grandmother. His personal life is complicated because everyone wants him to marry and produce an heir. Politically, the elves are in stand-off mode and there are troubles with Pargun, the southern neighbour. Dorrin Verrakai continues to make progress as a Duke working for King Mikeli in Tsaia. Having defended the country against the blood magic of her relatives, she’s now trusted to take responsibility for the army and the general defence of the land. Janderlir Arcolin is on military manoeuvres against an enemy that’s looking increasingly well-organised. This is surprising since these mercenaries are supposed to be working for Alured the Black, a mere brigand of possible piratical origin. Worse, the “enemy” seems to be diversifying into economic warfare by undermining the common Guild currency. While Arvid Semminson rather unexpectedly finds himself in the thick of things when he visits Fin Panir but, as always, is well-prepared for all emergencies.

Elizabeth Moon strikes an interesting balance between the political, the military and the magical. There’s a tough-minded practicality to the detail of how to run a kingdom, get a noble’s house and estates up and running, and train, equip and provision an army for real work and not some idle sport. The magic is also increasingly relevant with the different levels of skill on display between both the different races, and the ordinary practitioner and a mage. Finally, the land force called the taig is becoming an issue.

The writing style is pleasing, managing to pack in an amazing amount of detail without getting boring. It’s obvious that an enormous amount of time and energy has been invested in the creation of this world — a fact evidenced by the presence of four earlier novels based in it. This always presents a danger because, if the author becomes too distracted by the delight of adding in yet more facts, it can derail the pacing of the novel. There are one or two times when the action slows, as in the inconvenience to Kieri Phelan occasioned by the unexpected arrival of the two princesses. But, for the most part, the narrative is pushing forward and the factual information does turn out to be useful.

Overall, this is a nicely judged fantasy, continuing the story arcs from the earlier books seamlessly, and contriving to build to an interesting climax where Gitres is more directly involved and we get our first clear view of dragons (note that a dragon from this world also appears in the excellent “Judgment” collected in Moon Flights). This all presages more active Gods, particularly because Achrya is trying to upset the balance of power. It’s also reassuring that some of the supernaturally-talented can be fallible. Too often authors want those with superpowers to be super decision-makers as well, whereas Kings of the North has everyone’s character and motivations nicely under control. In other circumstances this would be high fantasy but, as written, it’s more a “don’t stand there like a lump, if you need to go, dig a latrine” kinda fantasy and all the better for it. I found all this highly enjoyable and recommend it for those who have read at least some of the earlier books. Starting off in the middle of long-running series is never as satisfying.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For a review of an excellent collection by Elizabeth Moon, see Moon Flights. Later books in this series are Crown of Renewal and Limits of Power

Moon Flights by Elizabeth Moon

December 6, 2010 1 comment

Well, here we are in terra incognita again. With the delay between ordering a book and it surfacing as the next book to read, I often forget exactly why I ordered it. Perhaps I saw a review or someone recommended it. Who knows and, truth be told, who cares. It’s all grist to the mill. So this has me looking at a collection called Moon Fights by Elizabeth Moon, (Night Shade Books, 2007). But first, a silly game. Moon Flights? Is that the best the publisher can think of. Is she blue, or have a dark side, are we over her or is there a man on her? Let’s have a shot at doing better next time or make the whole problem go away by ignoring her surname in the title altogether. (PS The jacket artwork by Dave Seeley is not a portrait of the author — it’s supposed to be Ky Vatta. Just keeping you up to speed.)

And thinking about speed, we’re off down the piste with “If Nudity Offends You” — who would have thought living in a trailer park could introduce you to such interesting neighbours. Anyway, this seems to be both good and bad. The prose style is functional with little or no embellishments to lighten the load of the narrative. This places all the carry duties on the quality of the story idea. This seems equivocal. If these neighbours know enough to appreciate that nudity may offend the locals, can jury rig the power supply without incinerating themselves, understand the concept of blackmail, and are in funds, they seem fairly well acclimatised and that makes their departure slightly surprising.

“Gifts” is a coming-of-age story in which youthful awkwardness gives way to a better self-awareness courtesy of a residue of magic in a wooden knife. It has a slight sentimentality about it but avoids excess. A harder-edged version of the same theme crops up in “Accidents Don’t Just Happen — They’re Caused”. Mothers have daughters who grow up to become mothers. In some households, there’s an excess of filial zeal and each new female generation is the social glue holding the kin group together. But equally often, there are strong personalities in play and each new generation is a separate unit, jealously guarding its own. This is a very nicely judged story about a young engineer who has grown up in the shadow of her world-famous mother. When, after years of independence, a mother visits her daughter at work, it’s time for a little plain speaking and bonding (in the engineering sense, of course).

“Politics” is a Heinleinesque story of starship troopers in an opposed landing on a remote planet. David Drake in his Hammer’s Slammers series is my yardstick for this kind of military fiction in which a small group of seasoned warriors are thrown into the melting pot. This skirts round the detail of the action as the story develops, being content to set up the political situation as the context for the landing and then leave it to our hero to explain how it all came out. I suspect it was written as a vignette that might appear in a novel, with the author’s notes as the last paragraph on how to finish the story. But it’s nevertheless enjoyable.

“And Ladies of the Club” is a delightful story of a tax and its unintended consequences. I can’t recall any recent short story in which a lawyer came out looking so good at the end. Professional legal bodies around the world should use this parable as a teaching vehicle. The fun continues in “No Pain, No Gain” which retains the wit of the first if not quite the same level of inventiveness. “Fool’s Gold” sees the joke starting to wear a little thin. Although the idea of a class of female warriors in mediaeval times where magic works is quite amusing, this encounter with dragons is a little laboured. It’s trying to hard too be amusing. That said, the end is pleasing and, in hindsight, saves the piece. “Sweet Charity” completes the foursome and manages to maintain good humour throughout as pirates discover that our ladies don’t pop their corks for anyone so downriver.

“New World Symphony” is another delight, albeit nothing more than a relocation in setting for the old question of the role of an artist in society. Thinking about music? Think Dmitri Shostakovich to understand the complex relationship between greatness as an individual and the fears of a bureaucracy. The supremely gifted are, by their nature, subversive, challenging orthodoxy, pushing on to pastures new and so destablising the current power structures. The boring hacks will always find a place because their art does not threaten the establishment. “Hand to Hand” continues the discussion of the role of music, this time in a society at war. It’s not uncommon to hear the military justify wars by claiming they protect their country’s/world’s cultural heritage, including its music. Yet, for the most part, soldiers are philistines, having no real knowledge of, or interest in, the “arts”. It’s a convenient hypocrisy that this story takes head on. Sad then that I think the story mistakes its target. While it works as a balance between sisters, it fails to reflect the role of the military as the politicians’ arm of enforcement. It’s the elected officials and power brokers who decide when to go to war, and it’s they and their social circle who know and love the “arts”. It’s a class thing and, by and large, the military don’t fit comfortably into whatever passes for the Ruling Class in each society.

“Tradition” is one of these pesky alternate history stories which fail to announce their presence. There’s great power and stimulation in a “what if” story that assumes some change in written history and examines what might have happened. Stories like “Tradition” deliberately change history, but make nothing of it. Although it’s interesting to read a WWI-style naval engagement story, it’s all about the battle, not about the consequences of destroying such a ship at that point in the development of the war. Ms Moon would have been better advised to change all the names and made it straight historical fiction.

It turns out that I’d read “Judgment” before as one of The Dragon Quintet, edited by Marvin Kaye. This is a top-class story of the balance of forces between the Rock Folk, Dragons and the unfortunate humans in-between. I confess to liking my dragons urbane as they walk the world described at length in the Deed of Paksenarrion and Paladin’s Legacy trilogies. “Gravesite Revisited” is a great idea, simply told. When you have a great idea, there’s no need to do anything else. “Welcome to Wheel Days” captures the can-do spirit that all colonists will need if they’re to make a success of “being out there”. Again, it’s success lies in its simplicity. “Say Cheese” completes the run-out with another strong story. This is old-fashioned. I remember stories like this in the 1950s in which the crew of a ship has a problem to solve before they can dock. This is a nice tip-of-the-hat to a respectable idea.

Overall, Moon Flights is a really pleasing collection — well worth the price of admission and, for those of your who worry about these things, still in print as a hardback and a paperback.

For a review of three books in the current Paladin’s Legacy series, see Kings of the North, Limits of Power and Crown of Renewal.

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