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Kindred and Wings by Philippa Ballantine

October 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Kindred and Wings

To understand this series, you need to imagine a world where reality and chaos interface. As a physical place, this is Conhaero. In a way, it only exists out of sufferance. In other circumstances, it would probably never have existed at all. Having come into existence it could have completely collapsed back into the melting pot from which its constituent elements were drawn. But a bargain was struck which enabled land to form and persist. For all that it frays around the edges with mountains becoming plains and then lakes as random probabilities change the lay of the land, enough of the emerging continent continues in relative stability so that beings may live inside or upon it, and not perish by falling into random holes or being sucked up into the sky. These are the creatures that have their genesis in the formless void. They have come on to the land through their own efforts. They are the kindred of the title. Everything was going along well for them until different races began to arrive through the void. One was the Vaerli. Like the kindred they made a pact, granting them the right to remain on conditions. But they had seers who foretold their downfall. There would be a harrowing. The puzzle the Vaerli had to solve was how to recover after the inevitable fall.

Kindred and Wings by Philippa Ballantine (Pyr, 2013) the second in the Shifted World series finds Finnbarr the Fox (a Manesto-Vaerli hybrid) now riding the dragon Wahirangi as he searches for Ysel, the brother he never knew he had. Talyn (a purebred Vaerli) lost her people and found nothing but pain working for the Caisah, the mortal man who was granted immortality during the process later called the Harrowing. She’s changed employer but still rides Syris, her nykur steed. Now she’s abandoned the process of killing to secure pieces of the puzzle from the Caisah, she has a different mission, this time for the Phage. She acquires a scroll and, according to the Phage, the only way in which it can be destroyed is by the flame of a dragon. Since the only person with a dragon to hand is Finnbarr, this is forcing her to resume her relationship with him. Her ability to edit her memory continues to be fallible and she still finds herself reliving moments with him. Meeting up with him again will be a challenge to her peace of mind. Byre, Talyn’s brother, is still with Pelanor and, having travelled into the past, is now more positively moving forward into the future where he may finally solve the puzzle.

Philippa Ballantine

Philippa Ballantine

Complicating matters further are the plans of Kelanim, the Caisah’s current mistress who’s being manipulated into removing the “curse” of immortality from the man she sleeps with. She hopes, if not truly believes, that as a mortal man, the Caisah will be able to love her. In his present state, he simply sees her as a Mayfly, transitorily passing through his life before dying. As they say in books, this is a tangled web but it represents a metaphor in which to explore a number of all too common human strengths and weaknesses. The problem with people who acquire power is the sense of entitlement it brings. They become defensive, looking for every possible way in which their position can be reinforced without any real sacrifice being necessary on their part. This often goes hand-in-hand with pride. They come to expect deference from others. If necessary, those in a subordinate position are expected to make the sacrifices their “leaders” should make. If one or two whipping boys fail to provide results, an arena full may bring better results. This is how the Caisah has ruled. Not only is he immortal but he also possesses such power, he’s effectively invulnerable as well. Yet there are still those who plot against him. Their treason cannot be tolerated. As a people, the Vaerli seem to have lost their ability to empathise with others. They felt themselves superior to other races and groups. This led to pride in their ability to organise the world according to their wishes.

In all this, there’s an underlying irony. The Vaerli have seers who can see their pride will lead to a fall. The puzzle is whether this is predestined or can be avoided by the exercise of free will at critical moments. If fate is implacable and they must fall, is there a way to recover what has been lost? So the book is set in the form of a quest. Those in the past are looking for a means of redemption, knowing that much, if not all, the future is set on a fixed path. Individuals are also searching for their own identity and a better sense of what their role is to be in the greater scheme of things. For some, it means they will be required to die. For other it offers a chance for salvation.

I found Kindred and Wings slightly slow to get going. It takes a while to establish where everyone is and what they are doing. However, once the basic set-up is complete, we’re off on a well-paced plot to some interesting outcomes, at least one of which was unexpected. This leaves a satisfied smile on my lips. There’s enough intellectual substance to lift the book well above average for a high fantasy with dragons. This is worth pursuing.

For reviews of other books by Philippa Ballantine, see:
Harbinger
Hunter and Fox
Phoenix Rising (written as a team with Tee Morris)
Wrayth

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

Harbinger by Philippa Ballantine

harbinger

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.

Philippa Ballantine

Philippa Ballantine

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.

For reviews of other books by Philippa Ballantine, see:
Hunter and Fox
Kindred and Wings
Phoenix Rising (written as a team with Tee Morris)
Wrayth

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

Wrayth by Philippa Ballantine

December 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Wrayth

Reading Wrayth by Philippa Ballantine (Ace, 2012) A Books of the Order 3, sees me breaking another of my house rules. I usually reject the chance to read any book in the middle of a series. My strong preference is to start at the beginning. That way, the reader can watch the plot develop and, assuming the characters are sufficiently interesting, follow them on their journey to the end. In this case, I’m coming in at book three with book four already announced for next year. My only defence is that, so far, my reading of Philippa Ballantine has produced enjoyment so. . . Anyway, this fantasy all seems to have started in Geist and continued in Spectyr, the two titles giving away the central conceit. Here we have a world in which the spirits of the undead can physically pass through the barrier separating the Otherside — not surprisingly supposed to protect the living — and cause not a little death and destruction. This requires the world to establish a defensive force calling itself the Order of the Eye and Fist — from the name you will understand this is not a religious organisation. There are two branches to the order. The Sensitives identify the incoming nasties and the Actives kill them (which is a neat trick given their undead status). Our heroine is Sorcha Faris. She’s an enigma with a broken past no-one can read and a future no-one wants to tell her about. The other key characters are Merrick Chambers, her partner, and Raed Syndar Rossin, the pretender to the throne. In this book, we’re also concerned with Zofiya, the Emperor’s sister.

What seems slightly odd about this set-up is that, although the defensive force uses words like “deacon” and “abbey”, there doesn’t seem to be an organised religion. In all real-world cultures there’s no evidence of any existence after death, but this world comes with clear proof of “life” after death. No need for faith! This subverts the usual systems based on the worship of ancestors. In Eastern religions, the living can burn paper money to buy goodies for those who went into the afterlife before them and hope this will buy them protection for their interests on Earth. In Western systems, God became human so that, after death, he could be an ancestor for all to worship. However, this is all hypothetical — a quid pro quo without any evidence you will see a return on the real money you spent on the paper replicas of Ferraris to be burned or for the prayers you offer up. If we stay with the Eastern models for evaluating these books, I suppose, we would tend not to respect our grandfather if his geist had just returned from the Otherside and was proposing to eat one of us as a light snack before lunch.

Philippa Ballantine

Philippa Ballantine

As is always the way when holding positions in society means acquiring status and power, the Order has proved corruptible. Some members have seen the geists as the means to acquire real-world power, looking to partner with the spirits rather than destroy them. They are the Order of the Circle of Stars, the old Native Order. Ah well, some things never change. Putting the usual temptations behind us for the moment, this book starts off with Sorcha trapped by her body which refuses to move. This is not a little frustrating because her mind works perfectly. If there’s an upside to this situation, it’s that the body is invulnerable. No assassins or other people bent on mischief can do her harm. Magic can be very convenient when you’re lying flat on your back defenceless. To start us off, people kidnap Sorcha, Merrick is tasked with investigating one of the newly arrived nobles, and Raed continues his problems with his in-house geistlord while investigating the castle of the Shin and the Wrayth. Why take Sorcha? Because she can lead “them” to Raed. Put her in an airship and she can act like a compass. So how will Merrick react to this enforced separation? The young man is no longer so callow. He should strike out on his own to discover why his righteous Order seems so alarmed. But at an early stage he runs into one of the corrupted Order. This represents a real danger and, according to the oath he swore, he’s supposed to deal with that rather than chase after his kidnapped parter. Ah such are the dilemmas authors come up with for their characters. And once the Shin notice Raed is crawling around the tunnels inside their castle, they are not a little upset. Or they are rather delighted because they are running a breeding program and it would be good to see what would come out of his genes. It’s fortuitous the cavalry is flying on its way to rescue him (and his sister).

There’s a slightly slow start as you might expect with the heroine unable to move or speak, and Merrick quickly following her into inactivity as he’s arrested and thrown into an underground jail. But, once the scene is set, we get into some nicely constructed action sequences. There’s a natural flair for adventure on display here. In the best possible sense of the word, the writing is graphic, i.e. you can picture the scene as a character is chased or has to fight to stay free. There’s also a pleasing revelation about Sorcha’s backstory which is elegantly set up as Raed goes exploring. This leaves me with the sense that Wrayth is good but not outstanding. I’m relieved there’s a darker edge to the fantasy. Too often those who write fantasy make their worlds not too unpleasant places in which to live. Philippa Ballantine has this population lined up as food, as hosts in forced breeding programmes, and so on. But some individual aspects of the plot are less than satisfactory. Raed’s transformations, for example, parallel the Hulk (except this guy loses all his clothing) without any hint of where the extra body mass comes from or, in another form, goes to. I live with the idea of werewolves because, for the most part, what we get is a redistribution of the original body’s mass plus hair. I suppose this geistlord is pulling additional matter from, or dumping surplus matter into, the Otherside. Perhaps the explanation is in an earlier book and that points clearly to the problem. I might have enjoyed it more if I had read the first two. I’m coming in as major revelations are being made and the Empire is about to fall. Missing the build-up devalues the experience.

For reviews of other books by Philippa Ballantine, see:
Harbinger
Hunter and Fox
Kindred and Wings
Phoenix Rising (written as a team with Tee Morris)

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

Hunter and Fox by Philippa Ballantine

Hunter and Fox by Philippa Ballantine, A Shifted World Novel (PYR, 2012) introduces us to Talyn the Dark, a bounty hunter for the Caisah of Conhaero, Master of Chaos. She’s one of the few Vaerli to have survived the Harrowing, travelling the Chaosland on Syris, her nykur steed, killing as directed by her Master. Every time she kills, Talyn is paid with a new piece to fit into the Puzzle. She has a brother, Byreniko. The only reason they are both alive is that a minion of the Caisah separated them before they could die. Byre lives as a pariah in the world until he meets the Sofai of Mohl who foresees a quest to the city of Choana in the Great Cleft in Achelon.

In a different part of the land we find Finnbarr the Fox, one of the Manesto tribe, a talespinner who dares tell of the times before the Caisah when the Kindred and the Vaerli ruled the land. When Finn goes to the city of Perilous and Fair to tell his tales to a larger audience, he’s standing in the shadow of the gates leading into the Citadel where the Caisah holds sway and death awaits the uninvited. Fortunately, the Fox has as occasional friend Ysel, a child hidden away from danger, who can warn Finn when he’s at risk. Then there’s Pelanor, a new Blood Witch who must try to kill Talyn. . .

Summaries like this are always potentially misleading because, in the brief recital of facts, all you get is a flavour of the contents. From the opening paragraphs you might conclude this is one of these hack sword and sorcery fantasies in the Robert E Howard mould where a not-very-intelligent barbarian with a big sword, assisted by a thief and supported by a magician, comes good when the chips are down. Let’s face it, Talyn may be female but she’s an unstoppable killer with a sword. Except she emerges as an essentially tragic figure, burdened by the past, the detail of she has chosen to forget, and bound to a Pact with the Caisah she believes will ultimately save the remnants of her race. Taken overall, Hunter and Fox proves to be a fascinating allegory on the nature of identity. As mere humans, we always tell ourselves we’re the sum of all our memories. In theory, we learn from our past. We control our fears by remembering how we’ve kept ourselves safe through the years. Our hopes, dreams and ambitions are shaped by what we remember used to be possible. So we aim to become the best possible version of ourselves. In this allegory, it’s for each person to bring order to the potential chaos of emotions driven by long-held memories.

Philippa Ballantine with her quick-draw candelabra

Yet here’s Talyn who’s deliberately chosen to edit out all the memories that fail to fit her current worldview. She uncritically accepts her bondage to an unaccountable ruler who uses fear and death to control the disparate races who populate the land. If we were to ask about her morality as a killer, she would no doubt reply that if she did not do the work, there would be many others who could take her place. On an individual level, she’s the best person for the work because she’s mercifully quick in dispatching the nominated victims. Taking the broader view, the remnants of her people will be redeemed when she completes the Puzzle and satisfies the terms of the Pact. The sacrifice of a few as the price is morally justified because redemption of the many is the greater good. That such arguments are specious would not occur to her because she’s not the person she used to be. In a different way, Finnbarr cannot be the person he appears to be. No other Manesto has magical powers, yet he can manipulate time and space to talk with Ysel, he knows no fear of Talyn, and he’s protected by the Kindred. In Byreniko we have a man who’s been raised outside his own racial group and so comes to the question of identity with a skewed perspective. His experiences have taught him to be submissive, but perhaps that’s not always the best way. And then there’s Pelanor whose life has been dedicated to the path of becoming a Blood Witch. That’s meant years cloistered away from the world, only knowing what her teachers have chosen to tell her. When she’s sent out into the world, she discovers the world is not as her teachers described.

Philippa Ballantine shows us these four primary characters are pale shadows of the people they could have been and challenges them to see how, if at all, they can adapt and change. The Jesuits used to assert, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Regardless whether this simplistic psychology was ever true, the four characters have been locked into their roles for many years. Talyn has been a willing tool for killing the defenceless, Finn has been spinning his subversive tales from town to town, Byre has been keeping a low profile while on the run, and Pelanor has been monomaniacal in her desire to become a Blood Witch. Since these four and others who become significant as the narrative develops are conscious beings, they should be able to influence their own futures. Yet this may not be practical given the capricious power of the Caisah to call down death on communities with impunity — his personal magic appears to make him invulnerable. So if individual change is possible, it may have to flow from self-sacrifice or the willingness of others to put themselves at risk for the greater good.

Hunter and Fox is a highly entertaining fantasy that tips its hat at the standard fantasy tropes and then exploits them to explore issues of moral accountability in an essentially unpredictable world. It’s not called the Chaosland for nothing. At the interface between the surrounding literal chaos and the emerging land, what’s gently rolling countryside one month may be a mountain range the next. The physical world only exists to the extent chaos can be tamed. It’s the same for the intellectual and emotional landscapes inside each person’s head. As to the language of the book, there are moments of slight archness, particularly in the relationships between Talyn and the women of the Caisah’s court, but the prose is rich and engaging. This leaves only one criticism. That the action stops so abruptly. I was being swept along and. . . a cliffhanger to take us on to the second exciting episode. It feels as if the author wrote a long book and the publisher decided to split it into two. For me, the next episode is a must-read.

The cover illustration by Cynthia Shepperd reminds me of the jacket artwork of Kelly Freas for Laser and other publishing houses during the 1970s, i.e. a striking woman in the foreground and the head of a faintly malevolent male in the background.

For other books by Philippa Ballantine, see:
Harbinger
Kindred and Wings
Wrayth and
Phoenix Rising (with Tee Morris).

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

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