THE RUINS OF AMBRAIA novel by Malanie Rawn
(1994, DAW Books)
Exiles Trilogy, book 1
Mage Guardians are slaughtered across Lenfell, as their enemies secretly plot to put the world into their debt for life.
-- First reading (hardcover)
A very exciting middle, with a complicated and confusing first part, and a dull ending.Spoiler review:
This is a story primarily about two groups of mages, who have been enemies in the past, and are going down that road again. It is told from the point of view of four people, Collan, a minstrel, and three sisters, Glenin, Sarra, and Cailet. The most interesting parts, by far, were from Sarra's point of view.
The introduction to these characters takes a strange development, as the first section is told entirely from Collan's point of view, and subsequent sections are told from the sisters' points of view, as the world changes, and as the younger sisters grow up.
Unfortunately, the author had to cram a lot of history into those introductory chapters. The first section deals with Collan, and I thought it could have been almost entirely dropped. There is potential there that we haven't seen resolved yet, and I image that will have to wait until the third book. Collan was made into a slave after his house burned. His mother seems to have been somebody important, but even the reference to her is cryptic. His life as a slave follows his usefulness to his master, Scraller, and shows how ill-treated he was. He becomes afraid of kitchens, because he was forced to run a treadmill that worked the stoves, and once he is discovered by a musician, he is forced to read bad pornographic poetry to his master.
As far as I can tell so far, this section sets up for two moments in the book, and could have easily been dropped from the history of Lenfell. This book was long enough as it was. Showing the life of the characters from beginning to end was not really necessary. One of the moments the section sets up was the one where he is supposed to escape without making a scene, and Sarra tries to buy him. Because of his history of being a slave, he causes a huge commotion. The second is a really nice setup that sets Cailet's plans head over heels, because he is posing as a Council Guard, and goes into a murderous rampage when he sees Scraller, and kills him.
Collan is saved from Scraller, early in his life, by a wizard named Gorynel Desse, who seems to know something about his heritage. But we don't get to learn it just yet.
We then move on to the part of the book where about twenty years make the jump in less than fifty pages. Glenin is whisked away from Ambrai by her father. The city of Ryka is shocked when she takes her father's name, because men have very few rights in this society. Through the course of some very obscure reasoning and hastily written events, we learn about the destruction of Ambrai at her father's hand. Hundreds of Mage Guardians died there, but that is not even close to enough for the First Minister, who controls Glenin's father. She vows from an early age to become First Minister and rule this woman. She begins to learn the crafts of the Malerrisi, the ancient enemies of the Mage Guardians.
Sarra and her mother are saved from the destruction of Ambrai by Desse, again, and Sarra's mother dies giving birth to Cailet once they reach a safe haven. Sarra is whisked away, and adopted by another family, to protect her for the future. She grows up as a rich girl, but with a very firm grounding in what her future will be.
Cailet grows up as a foster daughter to yet another family, and learns a little bit about protection from Malerrisi magic. She also falls deeply in love with her foster brother.
Events start to unfold rather rapidly from there. Once we have leaned about the basic machinations of Ladders (ancient portals operated by magic, which criss-cross the continent, but can be destroyed by fire), society (with the refreshing reversal where men have no rights and take the women's name in everything), family (of which there are so many that dozens of pages were taken to describe the relationships between several of them), and magic, we come across the plot to give the Malerrisi power over the land.
In plain view, magic becomes more and more suspect, and people become more and more afraid of it and the people who wield it. The remote castle where the Malerrisi dwell is "destroyed", and Mage Guardians are killed, first in secret, but then more and more openly. It is a plot of the First Councilor and the Malerrisi to make it appear as if the magic had disappeared, then to release some magically-caged creatures onto the land, and offer then to protect the people, if they allow the Malerrisi to rule them.
Fortunately, Gorynel Desse has seen the plot, and has prepared for it. He placed Wards over Collan (who has no magic, so I am very curious on why he is warded), Sarra (so that her magic and identity is secret, even when confronted by her father), and Cailet (whose magic is stronger than anybody's has been for thousands of years). Finally, the time has come for the First Councilor to be deposed, and for the remaining Mage Guardians to gather. As Sarra goes to Ryka court to claim an inheritance by adoption, instead of Blood, she sends a decoy by boat, while she travels by Ladder and gathers the Mages.
She was spectacular in that role, where she wins people's hearts, and confronts her sister and father, even though they don't know who she is. I could have done without the genealogies of the councilors who voted for and against her, though. I sighed when I saw three or four pages devoted to their families.
On the way home from Ryka, something goes wrong, and she, along with Cailet and her cousins, Alin and Val (two wonderful people whom I was sorry to see die later on), end up in the remains of Ambrai, along with Desse. Through a set of very well-written circumstances, Desse is forced to release Cailet's magic, and he incorporates all the knowledge of several dying people into her mind, including the current leader of the Mage Guardians, the Captal.
And it is from here that the book deteriorates. Cailet is full of doubts, because Desse died during the transfer, and the Captal died before he could give her all of his information. So she withdraws from everybody who knows her, and it only gets worse as time goes on.
She has a great plan to rescue Mages from prison, however, and this was one of the best moments in the book, for the simple reason that it went completely wrong! They dressed up as council guards, and deliver Sarra into prison, but while waiting for darkness in order to spring the prisoners, Scraller comes walking down the street, slave in tow, and Collan pulls his sword and guts the man to pieces, over and over, and over again. But he doesn't know why.
Everybody gets separated. Cailet uses her knowledge to Summon the remaining Mages to Ambrai, while Sarra and Collan wander in the rain. They come to a house filled with warmth and hospitality, and fueled by magic. They are magically clothed while asleep, awaken to warm meals and a warm hearth, but cannot leave until they give up a truth about themselves.
While I liked the idea of this house, I found the passages while they were inside to be too long. Collan gives up a truth, and is allowed to leave, but won't go without Sarra. Unfortunately, Sarra's father takes him away, and plans to use him to get to Cailet (whom he still doesn't know). Sarra leaves when she finally admits that she loves Collan. They have been bickering throughout the entire book, and it was no surprise to me that they fell in love because of it. They kept each other on their toes.
The confrontation between Cailet and the First Councilor is extremely disappointing. Collan is rescued, but Cailet barely does anything at all, because the First Councilor is destroyed by the wraiths of the souls whom she had killed. I accepted that, because I figured Cailet had to spare her magic and strength to fight Glenin, who shows up in Ambrai next.
But Glenin gets past her guards way too easily. Cailet is insistent on converting Glenin from the Dark Side -oops, I mean, her Malerrisi ways. But Glenin sees that she is actually her sister, and Sarra as well. She sees an extraordinary opportunity for breeding powerful allies, and begins subverting Cailet. She magically creates a hollow in Cailet's heart -or was it there to begin with -and fills it with love, contempt, fantasy, and erotica. Cailet believes that she yearns for all of this.
Fortunately for her, her father followed Glenin, and once he sees that Cailet is actually his daughter, he sacrifices himself for her, protecting her from Glenin. He also tells Glenin that the Mages have won the battle, and that the populace has risen up against the government. All the Malerrisi plans have been torn. So Glenin flees back to Malerris Castle, where she will strike from in the next book, I'm sure, using her as-yet-unborn son as her prime general.
Maybe the book should have ended there. I constantly complain that there is never any follow-up to the climax at the end of a book or movie, but now I wonder if I was wrong to want some. Time is compressed again, as a year goes by in such a short number of pages. Events are outlined, but not given much depth. A new government is elected, and Sarra uses Cailet and her Mages as a defence force, much like the Jedi Knights. They realize by the end of it that the Mages should be kept completely separate from the government. Collan and Sarra are married, and they give Cailet some property to start a new Mage Academy.
But Cailet keeps everybody distant. She is still hurt from the inside, and she has physical wounds, too, from what Glenin did to her. She is Captal, but she is not whole. I hope by the next book, she has found herself, because until she does, she will keep making stupid mistakes. I still can't figure out why she wouldn't tell especially Collan and Sarra about Glenin's son, and about her terrible wounds.
The characters were completely flesh and blood, and as heroic as they were fallible. I liked that a lot. The world was also fleshed out considerably. In a book this long, it is no wonder that I grew to enjoy the company of the characters. Though I never really did like Collan.
There were some really neat magical moments, and once again, magic was used here in a completely different way from any other fantasy. That's what keeps fantasy novels fresh, I guess. It prevents a repetitive feeling from series to series.
There was one intriguing reference made by a scholar to Collan a breakfast one day, and that is in reference to people who came to Lenfell from elsewhere. The title of the series, Exiles, also tells me that there is something else here. I expect that Collan is not from Lenfell, and that is why he is Warded so tightly. I expect that the people who were exiled here long ago came because they had magic. It could be that the original settlers were even from another planet. But I guess I will have to wait a while to find that out. I just hope that if it happens, it doesn't do so in the last few pages (I am reminded of the Darksword Trilogy, where the non-magical army invades and takes over the world in what seems like no time, and with very little explanation).
It looks to me that this book was developed in a similar way to Tolkien's Silmarillion. In that, he developed a language, and then a story to show how that language developed as the millennia went by. Here, it seems to me that it started with a genealogy, and then needed a story to develop that idea.
I think the beginning could have been divulged at a more leisurely pace. However, the results of that history, in the middle of the book, resulted in a terrific story. I absolutely adore the name Cailet -I don't know why! It's just too bad that the bookends, with such a complicated start, a disappointing climax, and a dull denouement, couldn't keep pace with the rest.
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