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The Scarlet Tides by David Hair

November 27, 2014 2 comments

The Scarlet Tides

As a metaphor, you could see war as a form of scarlet tide as waves of blood push across the shore towards the land, overwhelming the people. Or if you were already on the sand, you might see an army of soldiers dressed in red as matching the description. The Scarlet Tides by David Hair (Jo Fletcher/Quercus, 2014) is the second book in The Moontide Quartet. This is another of these books that was published in England in 2013, but did not make it to America until 2014. I’m therefore reading this one year after it first appeared and publishing this review almost one year after my review of the first in the tetralogy. Although my memory is very good about some things, I confess considerable haziness when I picked up this latest installment. Although I remembered the first book as very good, I could not remember very much of the detail. That meant the failure of the publisher to include a brief summary of the first book weighed heavily on me. There was not even a hint let alone a brief note explaining who everyone was and how they were related to each other. Yes, there are odd explanatory references as you read the text, but it did take me quite a while to build up any confidence I had worked out who was who, and which side everyone was on — not that people stay on the same side, of course. This memory problem was exacerbated by the sheer number of people referred to and the number of different locations to try fitting into the development of the plot.

However, with that reservation out of the way, I’m able to report this as the best fantasy book of 2014 so far. I was somewhat concerned that the world-building in the first book left quite a lot of the physics of the moon and its effect on the tides somewhat obscure. This does occasionally seek to rectify this omission. Other than that, there’s only one major innovation in this book. We’d already seen that the mages had the power to construct different types of animals. This has included beasts of burden and flying animals with the lifting capacity to carry a human. We now meet a new type which, in effect, draws on the mythology of this alternate Earth for its form. As a result, the primary focus of this book the development of the characters as they struggle to survive and/or advance their agendas. The only time the plot slows down is when it becomes necessary for a new person or group to begin to understand how the system of magic works. So instead of having the “Hogwarts” style of formal academic training we saw in the first book, we have more one-to-one teaching. This is saved from becoming boringly repetitious because, in each instance, the practical teaching is actually a mechanism for creating mutual trust and the possibility of affection, if not love.

David Hair

David Hair

So we advance into the more everyday world of the Crusade as the army makes progress across the desert. As we readers already know, the locals are rather better prepared this time around and it’s interesting to watch exactly how far the army gets before it realises there’s real opposition. To give us an insight into the life for the boots on the ground, we’re allowed Ramon as the point of view and his Ponzi scheme to ramp up the value of his spurious letters of credit by stockpiling the year’s opium crop is a delight. In terms of its breadth and daring, I was reminded of Catch-22 and Milo’s Syndicate which even accepted commissions for American planes to bomb American bases. In one of the geographically significant states, we watch the ebb and flow of Gurvon Gyle’s efforts to deal with the Dorobon family and advance his own plans for power. As for the other groups, the search for the McGuffin accelerates with more people becoming aware of its existence. How it’s lost and then comes back into the possession of one of the good guys is another very pleasing sequence. At some point, later in the series, they will work out what it does and how to persuade it to do it. At this point, no-one has a clue how it might work.

Taking the overview, the pace and quality of the writing makes this one of the best epic fantasies for a long time. It should go without saying that you should not attempt to read this unless you have also read the first in the series, Mage’s Blood. The experience is so much better when you’ve got the whole story straight in your head. If you do not read any other fantasy book this year, ensure you read The Scarlet Tides.

For a review of the first in the series, see Mage’s Blood.

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

Mage’s Blood by David Hair

November 27, 2013 Leave a comment

magesblood-large

Culturally, Mage’s Blood by David Hair (Jo Fletcher/Quercus, 2013) The Moontide Quartet 1, takes us into the high fantasy equivalent of Earth distilled down to the hegemonically inclined Europeans and the states on which the predators would wish to impose colonial or vassal status: for these purposes, simplified down to Arab and Indian nations. In the “West”, the early religion has been displaced by the worship of an individual who’s credited with the development of magical powers in three-hundred of his disciples. Depending on your point of view, you can either see this man as an analogue of Jesus or a peace-loving hippie. Having collected a large group of people we then have the darkly amusing threeway split between the mythology and the facts as recalled by two different people who were there. In the religiously and politically correct version, the entire group was surrounded by an army preparing to slaughter them as fanatics and terrorists. The leader then inspired the core of three-hundred believers who wiped out the armies around them and then went on to create the current empire. The oral history has the leader conducting a drug trial on his unsuspecting followers. Most died or became insane, but a group survived more or less intact. Two factions acquired supernatural powers. One group hewed to the “give peace a chance” philosophy of their leader. The second saw a route to military power and political dominance. The third seemed not to have acquired powers. They separated and have largely avoided fighting each other although the neutrality of the pacifists has been sorely tested by the atrocities perpetrated by the militarists.

In a sense, this might have remained a rather academic dispute, but some of these mages have lived for six-hundred years while discovering they can pass their magical abilities to their children (there’s a further interesting side effect which will make a pleasant surprise when you read it). For plotting purposes, we have the offspring of the whole blood feted as powerful, while the level of achievement declines depending on the ancestry. As in caucasian culture, we have fine distinctions based on half-blood, quadroon, octoroon, and so on. Perhaps the most populist of the fictional explorations of this theme have been in the Harry Potter series where bigotry and active discrimination bedevil relationships between the magicians themselves, and between the magicians and the muggles. Thematically, this book also has a short Hogwarts element where we see young magicians being trained in the different arts.

As world-building, we seem to have a rather interesting situation. On our world, we had a coherent land mass on which our species could begin its evolutionary rise to dominance. Movement of the tectonic plates then slowly produced the current distribution of land about the planet. Obviously, there are oceans stretching several thousand miles between continents. That’s why the human species is widely dispersed. As the configuration of the land changed, so our ancestors moved from one area to another to hunt and gather. It would be interesting to know whether this world followed a similar pattern of geological development given the closer proximity of the moon.

David Hair

David Hair

If the moon is so close and the gravitational force it exerts is strong enough to produce the equivalent of a very low tide which lasts for two years, where does the water go? If it’s being drawn to a different part of the world, do we assume this part of the world is flooded for two years? The moon’s effect cannot be to cause immediate evaporation of the seas. So why does the part of the world we can see not flood at their equivalent period of high tide? Put it this way. The gap between these two continents is only some three-hundred miles and, at one period of time, the water level drops to the point where the mages can build a bridge on the not quite exposed sea bed, you would expect there to be a matching period when the sea inundates the low-lying land on both sides of the sea. Yet there are no dykes as in the Netherlands and no historical records of agriculture being cyclically disrupted by the arrival of large quantities of salt water. Then there’s the mystery of the moon that does not bark in the night. If this moon is so close it can have this effect on the fluid dynamics of the seas, why is the land so stable? I was expecting there to be fairly continuous seismic activity, yet there are no reports of tremors and earthquakes. The latest research suggests seismic activity is more likely in areas where the gravity field is weak. Higher gravity slows the frictional behaviour of the fault lines, i.e. if the area has higher gravity for longer periods of time, the tectonic plates are less likely to slip. So if the moon’s gravitational effect is producing wider variations in the subduction zones, you would expect more instability in some areas.

Ah but, wait a moment. This is high fantasy and so the world-building doesn’t have to match currently scientific thinking. A fantasy author is free to establish his or her own “ground” rules for how stuff like gravity works, particularly if mages can defy gravity to fly carpets and boats. The only things required are that the way the world works is coherently described (if not explained) and the magic system must not be capricious, i.e. it must be subject to predefined rules which produce known strengths and weaknesses. On this basis, I’m pleased to announce this is in the top three fantasy books I’ve read this year. Ignoring all the previous issues, this fantasy has two strengths.

The first is the characterisation. Over the fairly considerable length of the book, we meet a significant cast of characters, but even the relatively minor are given a chance to make their mark. In a sense, this reflects the overall theme of the book which is that, no matter how powerful individual mages may be, the future of the world ultimately depends on the less powerful or, in magical terms, those individuals who have never developed magical powers. Someone always has to do the work or fight in armies when called upon to do so. Hence, we have three major narrative arcs. One features one of the original three-hundred who leads the Peace Faction and foresees the need to produce children. He therefore buys a fertile wife with no magical power. Snatched away from her home, the man she would have married follows to seek revenge. The second shows us three youngsters who get caught up in a political situation because one incautiously speculates that a magical artifact may be hidden in their area. This flirts with YA tropes but just stays on the right side of the line albeit that the “hero” is relatively underpowered and naive. The final arc features two powerful individuals who spy for the dominant militarists. Through them, we get to see the inner working of the empire’s leadership — not a pretty sight.

The second strength is the lack of sentimentality in the plot. Too often fantasy stories deal with simplistic black-and-white characters in replays of mediaeval, Wild West or more modern military scenarios. The good, the bad and, occasionally, the ugly draw weapons appropriate for the level of technology and have-at-it until only the good and, occasionally, the ugly are left standing. In this plot, we have every shade on the way from black to white with expediency shading the response of individuals in each situation. This eschews the tendency of the good to be paradigms of virtue who are always courageous, living their lives according to a higher moral code. The majority in this book are “complicated” with no saints and only one or two irredeemably bad. It’s also refreshing to see even the most powerful come unstuck. This can be because of vanity, paranoia or a blind chance. Wishful thinking and misplaced affection also have their parts to play. In short, this book feels like a slice of real life albeit transposed to a fantasy setting.

Accepting the need for some infodumping to introduce the magic system as we go along, this is a bravura piece of writing and, even though not the most original when it comes to individual plot elements, the overall effect is spectacular. Mage’s Blood is strongly recommended. I see Book Two in The Moontide Quartet is already published in the UK. Hopefully a copy will come my way soon.

For a review of the sequel, see The Scarlet Tides.

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

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