Ossus Library Index Fantasy Index

SERPENT MAGE

A novel by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (1992, Bantam Spectra)
Book 4 of The Death Gate Cycle

The world of water is threatened by gigantic dragon snakes, with which Haplo makes an alliance so he can attack the Sartan Council, which Alfred has just awakened from a long sleep.

 

 

Read January 2nd to 8th, 2010 for the second time  
    To read a book in less than a week these days for me means it really flows, and that I'm not doing much in the evenings! I remembered this being one of the best of the entire series, and although I think it ranks a little below Elven Star, it's really exciting, and very interesting.

Here we get to meet real Sartan. Not just Alfred, who is a very unusual one with a very unusual perspective, nor Zifnab, who is insane. But we finally meet Sartan who behave like Sartan -not only that, but they have been in hibernation sleep for so long that these are the Sartan who broke up the world and created it anew! We meet Samah, who is not a very nice person, but who is exasperated by the fact that, although some of his people knew about a higher power in the universe, they wanted to do nothing against the Patryn threat, which would pretty much guarantee the extermination of the Sartan race.

Samah is a do-er, who wants to act against the forces opposing him. But in doing so, he has really gone insane, too. He is so focused on his point of view, and so afraid of losing his power, that he responds to all threats the same way, and isn't open to the fact that the world has changed. He won't even go out into the worlds to see what they are like.

Alfred, not knowing that he was on Chelestra rather than Arianus, was amazed that he actually found his people to be alive in the catacombs, and so awakened them. I did get tired of him fainting all the time, but did like his emotional journey, finding out that his people weren't the way he supposed them to be. He finds the library that could tell him about the ancient world, but it is forbidden to all. Samah makes excuses for why this was. Haplo says several times that the Sartan can't lie (when thinking of Alfred), but it seems that Samah has managed to do it, or else Alfred is unable to see it because of who he is. Alfred also falls in love with Orla, Samah's wife, who becomes more and more estranged from her husband with his closed mind. I don't know why she quit the council in protest over Alfred's treatment, when she could be of so much help.

The bulk of the story, as usual, comes from the mensch point of view, or Haplo's. The cover is horribly wrong on this book, as Haplo's flying dragonship from Arianus is destroyed in the first few pages, and never reappears. Something slipped through the cracks here. Alake is a human princess, obviously descended from tribal Africans (nobody has ever seen a white human!), while Grundle is a dwarven princess and Devon is an elvish prince. On Chelestra, all three races live in peace, though there had been war in the past. As usual, the Sartan are nowhere to be found, but an ancient evil has awakened. On this world, semi-hollow, semi-sentient islands float in a liquid that should have been water but is instead some sort of fluid that can be breathed, and which renders rune magic inert. This is how Haplo's ship is destroyed -its magic is unraveled by the water, and Haplo floats for perhaps days without drowning. The dragon-snakes are evil incarnate, something that came out of the Sartan-Patryn war long ago, and something completely unexpected. They are what drove the Sartan into the long sleep, waiting for the sun to come back and for Sartan from other worlds to come help -help that never came, of course.

The dragon-snakes terrorize the lands of all three races, and demand the three princesses. The rulers won't allow it, but the three plan to go, anyway -only Devon knocks out his love in order to take her place. I love that, after they rescue Haplo, he makes them all feel stupid, especially Devon, for thinking only of himself -his fiancÚ dies of heartbreak after he leaves.

They are the most interesting group of the three races in any of the first four books in the series, so far, and they are very well characterized. When they get to the dragon-snakes' lair, on an island they they awakened and tortured, Haplo learns that Samah is alive, and plans to unite the three races against the Sartan. He thinks that with seawater, they can defeat the Sartan easily. The three races are ready to leave their lands because the seasun is leaving that area, and the dolphins say the sea is starting to freeze. Although the dolphins have found a nice new place for them to live, Haplo offers them the lands of the Sartan.

The three leaders want to ask the Sartan for leave to live in these lands peacefully, but Haplo wants the Sartan to suffer as his people suffered in the Labyrinth. The dragon-snakes want eternal chaos, gained from the endless battles between Sartan and Patryns. When the fleet of dwarven ships arrives, the Sartan are expecting war, but they allow the three mensch leaders to ask for the lands they want. Their conditions might seem reasonable to the Sartan, but both Alfred and Haplo know that the mensch don't want to be ruled by any other race. The Sartan allowed the other races to believe they were gods, and they act like uncompromising bullies. It's no wonder the mensch walk out on them.

The relationship between Alfred and Haplo deepens here. Haplo was punished by his leader for the lies he reported in Fire Sea, and as a result, lost his dog, his spirit. He then starts out the book stronger in hatred and resolve, and less prone to making emotional judgments, but weakens automatically when he starts interacting with the mensch, especially after finding out Alake is in love with him, and then when he has to rescue Devon from committing suicide after his love killed herself.

I liked Grundle, the practical, no-nonsense dwarf. When she writes her journal, it is often funny in its directness, and about how she doesn't understand human and elvish emotional weaknesses, and how she distrusts magic. The various races are completely different on the three worlds they still exist in, and that's part of what makes this series interesting.

The final confrontation comes not among the Sartan, but on the dragon-snake island, where Haplo has gone to discuss his plan with those who could open a gateway to let water into the Sartan lands. The dragon-snakes don't understand why Haplo should want a quick battle. I don't understand why the dragon-snakes would want the three kids to overhear their plans -they were not lying to develop some strategy; they were telling the truth about entering Death's Gate and spreading chaos into the other worlds.

Alfred shows up, attempting to return Haplo's dog, and certainly doesn't expect to find himself among the dragon-snakes. Samah also shows up, and battles Haplo, capturing him. But then the dragon-snakes attack, and they kill Alake. Haplo wants to go to their help, but Samah doesn't believe he could be compassionate. The Patryns in Samah's time must have been vicious! Alfred, however, frees Haplo from Samah's magical grip, and turns himself into a mighty dragon, the titular Serpent Mage, killing the dragon-snake leader. Everybody escapes, but are sent to the Sartan lands.

While the dragon-snakes regroup to lead an attack, Haplo starts to recover (though the Sartan keep him drenched in seawater), but Alfred and Orla are sentenced to the fate of the other Sartan who disagreed with splitting the world: they are sent into the Labyrinth! Like Haplo, I don't understand why Alfred would allow this, as he is certainly the most powerful Sartan around (except possibly Zifnab), and could probably kill the dragon snakes and destroy Samah at the same time.

There were several inconsistencies in this book, which annoyed me, but not the point of ruining its enjoyment. One was Samah's magical battle with Haplo, when he created a sea creature in the water. The water affected Haplo's magic, but not the sea creature, which should not have been summoned by the rune magic. Alake tells her friends that she knows of rune magic, and the lords who once used it, but her mother, a powerful sorceress, doesn't seem to know anything about it, or doesn't recognize Haplo's runes. The Sartan at one point say the dragon-snakes knocked the sea-sun out of its fixed position, which started freezing various parts of the world, but later, and in the appendix, they state the sea-sun naturally follows this course. If the dragon-Alfred was going to rescue Alake's body like he said he would, when did he do it? The Sartan were going to give it back to her parents. There were others, and they were minor, but I wonder how they came into the story. 

The story ends on a cliff-hanger, leading directly into the next book, The Hand of Chaos, as the dragon-snakes attack, and Samah opens Death's Gate. We have to wait an additional book before we rejoin Alfred. I have no recollection of how the story progresses from this point, except for small bits and pieces.

At this point, we have visited all four worlds, and each of them is very different from the others. This series was brilliantly conceived, and I am thoroughly enjoying each of the books.

 

 

Also read May 30th to June 4th, 1993  
   

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