GUARDIANS OF THE LOSTA novel by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
(2001, EOS Books)
Sovereign Stone Trilogy, book 2
After the human portion of the Sovereign Stone is found, some unobtrusive people attempt to bring it back where it belongs.
-- First reading (hardcover)
I wasn't too fond of most characters, but the story and writing picked up halfway through, to make the book rather enjoyable.Spoiler review:
When I read Well of Darkness, I was intrigued by the characters, since I didn't really like them, and I didn't believe in the magic, but the story was solid, and the writing was superb. This book was different, in that for most of the book, I didn't care one way or the other about the characters, and the writing was below standards until they decided to enter the world's political stage.
More than half of the book is given to characters that I never warmed to. While I did enjoy the character of Lord Gustav, who found the human portion of the Sovereign Stone, he didn't last long before being killed. The stone was passed into the company of a young Trevinici warrior and two Pecwae, creatures that seem to somewhat resemble Hobbits, though they are powerful in natural magics. Much of the book is spent developing these three, but I found them only mildly interesting, at best.
Fortunately, they are sent on a quest that runs across several nations. We see Dunkarga from Jessan's uncle's point of view, but Jessan and Bashae travel from Trevinici lands into Nimorea and then to the Tromek elven lands. We see a lot more of the human lands in this book than the last.
When Gustav slew the vrykyl that was chasing him, Jessan took the creature's armor and blood knife. Giving the armor to his uncle, he still kept the knife, which drew the other vrykyl to him, and therefore, the stone. Fortunately for the story, although the Sovereign Stone slips through the hands of these creatures of the Void many times, they are all believable. When Jessan's uncle, Ravenstrike, takes the armour to Dunkar to be destroyed by the mages there, he is not relieved of the burden. Dunkar falls to the two hundred year old Dagnarus due to treachery of Void followers, and the Trevinici warriors die fighting, to the man. Ravenstrike survives, however, being caught in a net instead of fighting a "fair" battle. The taan who capture him treat him terribly, but not as bad as the other prisoners, because he was really a great warrior. The other men are chased for sport, and the women are repeatedly raped, in the hopes of bearing half-taan children that can speak both languages. Raven befriends one of these half-taan, who he is later forced to mate (though half-taan are barren). Raven gives us a great view of these new creatures, wholly from the point of view of an honourable human. Until we reached the elven lands, these were the most interesting parts of the book. When another taan army shows up and gives battle, we get to meet a renegade vrykyl taan, which makes Dagnarus' role a little more interesting.
Dagnarus is after the four sections of the Sovereign Stone, which he thinks will make him into a god, or something. I was never truly clear on what he thought it would do for him. In reality, he wants to rule over the world. It seems that he already managed to convince the taan, from a continent on the other side of the planet, that he was worthy of rule. I wondered how strong the Void magic really was, to keep him alive so long, when the other Dominion Lords grew old and died. I never believed in his magical abilities, which makes everything he has claimed to do with that magic unlikely in my eyes. This is unfortunate, because it is central to the book. I also wondered how Dagnarus was able to infiltrate the orks and dwarves with vrykyl, as they are distrustful of magic, especially Void magic. The vrykyl could impersonate these species by just killing one of them, but could they act the part convincingly? I doubt it. Also, from what I recall, the dwarven part of the Stone was guarded by children, and not especially well cared for. In two hundred years, how hard could it be to steal? It should have been the first one he acquired, long ago. Apparently, somebody had the same idea, because by the end of the book, it is stolen, but not by the vrykyl. Incompetent creatures, or poor storytelling.
Shakur, the first vrykyl, masquerades as the High Magus of Dunkar, corrupting the people, and making the fall of the city so much easier. How could he take such a Holy position so readily? Could he say prayers to the gods and (insincere) rituals over and over, without the other magi noticing that his words were not real? I seriously doubt that he could do spells of Earth magic, being of the Void.
Like the last book, there is a single dwarf in this story, but his involvement seems to be rather contrived. He wears a bracelet from the monks of Dragon Mountain, those recorders of world history. The bracelet seems like a poor writer's trick to get Wolfram into the plot. In fact, much of the book feels like the gods playing chess with the characters, manoeuvring people, rather than because of the people's own logical skills and wills. When Wolfram and the Trevinici woman Ranessa finally get to Dragon Mountain, it turns out that she is the child of a dragon, herself. That was a good mystery, which was put to good use when they were attacked by a vrykyl. I thought that she was possibly a god in human form, but that didn't quite fit.
I remember enjoying the elven politics in Well of Darkness, and things picked up the moment we entered the elven lands in this book, as well. I was getting very tired of the human characters, who were nowhere near as interesting as Dagnarus and Gareth from the previous book. The Tromek politics and complex social skills, from the tiered gardens to the timing of meetings, was deliciously complex.
Given how easily the Lady Valura gained access to the Shield, I guess Sylwith was not an ordinary elf, when he instantly recognized her as a creature of the Void when she was transformed. None of the elves in either the last book or this one recognized her as a vrykyl. If even the Nicorean temple guards in human lands could sense the blood knife that Jessan was carrying, shouldn't anybody sufficiently wary sense at least that something evil was about this beautiful elf? She is, after all, much more than a blood knife.
Jessan and Bashae (and the grandmother Pecwae) managed to meet with Damra, an elven Dominion Lord, and gain her help. The story moves very quickly from that point, as Valura fails to gain the elven portion of the Sovereign Stone, which falls into Damra's hands. Now carrying half the Stone, they head for the elven portal, which will take them to the Council of Dominion Lords in New Vinnengael. The battle at the Portal was well-written, and quite enjoyable.
Once through, they meet up with a human lord who passed all the Dominion Lord tests, though refused to become one himself. Named Shadamehr, I wondered if he was this world's version of Fizban (from The Dragonlance Chronicles) or Zifnab (from The Death Gate Cycle). He was perhaps mortally wounded at the end, but his is aloof enough, and condescending to the gods, that he could be related. Anyway, I liked the character quite a bit. His jokes and pranks lifted the book to a higher level of intrigue and, well, fun.
When they reach New Vinnengael, they find out that the King is dead (likely murdered by the vrykyl), and the High Magus has ordered all Dominion Lords to leave, allowing Shadamehr to believe that Shakur has once again disguised himself as High Magus. However, as readers, we know that this is unlikely. I found it more likely that it was the young king who had been taken over, especially when we found out that he was the last person to see the old King. Shakur probably found everything ready for him, anyway, especially in the way the High Magus was so strict and eliminated potential troubles and made "peace" -essentially ignoring all threats.
There was a cool battle between the elves, Shadamehr and the High Magus, after which I'm pretty sure Shadamehr knows that the young King is a vrykyl. The way the High Magus used Earth magic was a telling hint, and he was harmed by the boy when he tried to pick him up. I was just so surprised that Shakur could feign innocence and ignorance and refrain from getting involved in the fight!
While the first book was not too much of a cliff-hangar, in that it had a good conclusion, this book is definitely more of a two-parter. Many things have been left hanging, including the fate of the Pecwae, Shadamehr, and New Vinnengael itself (as a monk has arrived, like one did when old Vinnengael was destroyed). What will be the fate of the Sovereign Stone? We'll have to wait for the conclusion of the series, for that. I guess I'll have to return to the series sooner than I did the last time.
Once again, the narrative of the book was mixed. I still don't like the present tense used for so much of the history and cultural descriptions. It wasn't as well written as in the previous book, either. After just reading a Dragonrider of Pern novel, I wished the authors could have used more of that kind of subtlety to tell their tale, especially recounting history and telling of the events from the last book. Still, the book was more enjoyable than not.
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