WELL OF DARKNESSA novel by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
(2000, EOS Books)
Sovereign Stone Trilogy, book 1
A Prince and his magus friend delve into Void magic in the hopes of usurping the crown from his older brother.
-- First reading (hardcover)
An excellent read, but the book suffers a little from a lack of originality in some places, and a narrative style that sounds too... narrative, which takes us out of the story for periods.Spoiler review:
After reading several mediocre books, it is a relief to return to these authors, who I consider to be some of the best. Their writing is beautiful and descriptive, and it flows so easily. Best of all are the characters, who are so well drawn, and interesting, even when they are only bit players.
My first complaint comes in the descriptive passages, ironically enough. I am not a fan of sudden changes in perspective from story to history. I would have preferred to get the history of the world from the viewpoint of the characters, instead of the narrator, who turns to the first-person to do this. Fortunately, much of the time, it is written seamlessly into the narrative, and doesn't intrude much.
The tale takes place in three parts, the first of which occurs when the two main characters are nine years old. We get to know Gareth and Prince Dagnarus very well, especially their strengths and weaknesses. By the end of this section, we know that these two are doomed, even though they haven't taken any evil actions at all.
Dagnarus was a creature I loved to hate, at least when he was young. The second son of the King, he knew that he would never likely rule the kingdom of Vinnengael, and he hated his older half-brother for it. He is a spoiled brat, except that he is not really a brat. He is an ignorant, slimy, and devious child, who turns into someone even worse as he gets older. He never learned to read or write, does exactly what he wants when he wants to do it. He ignored every rule and custom in the land, and was never punished for it. Ever.
What he lacked in wisdom, he definitely made up for in intelligence. He was street-smart, probably the smartest man in the kingdom that way. Unfortunately, his lack of wisdom made him lousy at diplomacy, and his lack of patience made him lousy at single combat.
It is telling that we never get a point of view from Dagnarus when he is young. His thoughts were probably so evil that the reader could not empathize with him.
Gareth is the other main character, of equal status to the story, if not the populace. He was brought into the castle as the "whipping-boy" of Dagnarus. Nobody was permitted to touch the Prince (who was considered holy), so Gareth was brought in to bear the punishments that Dagnarus earned, to feel remorseful at the pain he was causing another. It never worked. Dagnarus was too strong-willed, and too uncaring about others.
The first part of the book shows us how the relationship between Gareth and Dagnarus evolved, and how Gareth became 100% loyal to his Prince, even when Dagnarus was obviously turning to evil. Gareth would plead with his Prince not to do the evil deeds, but rarely succeeded, if ever, and always followed Dagnarus into those dark places.
This section also introduced us to the world these two friends inhabit. Filled with humans, elves, dwarves and orks, they are not the species that we know from other tales. I wondered if the authors shouldn't have used different names for the species, however, as few are recognizable from their standard uses. Why give them the same names, then? Are the orks really orc-like in any way to justify the name? Elves hold honor above all, and play subtle political games, which is common enough, but they have an uncommon love for war. Dwarves have beards, but other than that, why call them dwarves? They have no love of jewels, and are wanderers, completely opposite to all other dwarf depictions. A different name wouldn't be out of place here. Only humans are really human-like.
Ignoring the names, I absolutely loved the cultural depictions of all the races. Humans, as I mentioned, differed little from what we usually see. The elves that we got to see also seemed very human, but with that subtle edge that I enjoyed so much. We only really get one example of the dwarves, in the form of Dunner, but I loved the way he doesn't care about Time, or seniority. The way the children guarding the Sovereign Stone couldn't distinguish between a small clan and the capital of the human world was very telling. I thought Dunner's account of being hungry because he missed regularly scheduled dinners was hilarious. Humans do love routine, don't they?
My very favorite culture, however, was the orken one. The way they relied on omens was scary, from a human perspective. It worked really well for them, though, and made their lives very straightforward. There are no doubts to the orks. If the omens point one way, they should go ahead; if not, then don't. The orken Captain of Captains was truly confused when King Tamaros wouldn't kill Dagnarus because of the dangerous omen between them -blood spilled between brothers. His common sense was flawless, too! Either brother could be killed, but the King spent less time and effort on the younger one, so Dagnarus should be the one to die!
The rest of the book takes place ten and more years later. As expected, Dagnarus grows up carefree, embracing the chaos of battle, and secretly plotting to overthrow his brother. He has embraced the dark magic of the Void, with the help of Gareth, who has grown up to be a magus. While Helmos, the Crown Prince, has no heir, and not for lack of trying, Dagnarus has illegitimate sons and daughters all over the city, just because he is dashing and doesn't care about anything or anyone but himself.
Gareth, at this point, became much less interesting as a character, mainly because I've seen him before. In the Darksword Trilogy, Saryon was a peaceful man who became bound to the evilly-inclined Joram and supported him no matter what, hating himself for doing the evil deeds, yet doing them anyway. Joram even lusted after a beautiful daughter of a high-ranking family. Here, Gareth is pretty much indistinguishable from Saryon. He, too, has embraced the Void, and hates himself for it. He knows that by helping Dagnarus, he will destroy the civilization that he knows, and unleash war upon the lands, killing his real hero, Helmos. Yet he willingly helps Dagnarus anyway. He is too weak to be very interesting.
Throughout the book, Dagnarus is never denied anything he wants, until the very last pages. When he sees the elvish Lady Mabreton, he falls instantly in love, and becomes monogamous, too! She is, of course, unhappily married, but like Joram, Dagnarus gets her anyway, usually in the back passages of the castle. I never believe in love at first sight in novels, and this is no exception. Given all that we know about elves by this point, why was Lady Mabreton so much an exception to that culture? I think it would have been more interesting to see a true elf in that situation, especially given that Dagnarus always gets what he wants, in one way or another. Anyway, the two don't seem like they are in love, to me. It sounds more like lust. What do they do together aside from sex? Dagnarus has no real other interests except war. Otherwise, they never see each other.
The human King Tamaros once consulted with the gods and was given the Portals, passageways to faraway lands that he used to promote peace with the elves, dwarves and orks. He also created the Dominion Lords, who were supposed to determine who could go through the Portals. Yet the Dominion Lords really seem more like Jedi Knights, presiding over peace and helping the less fortunate. I don't think we ever heard them otherwise mentioned in relation to the Portals. They are given magical armor that helps in their cause, after they undergo the painful but god-given Transfiguration. I thought Helmos would die from his in part one, thus making Dagnarus into the Crown-Prince. But he survived, for the express purpose of causing civil war by the end.
Helmos, despite what the authors say, wouldn't make a very good king, and it is no wonder that he lasted less than a year. He did not have the strength to be King. If he could not cause his father "pain" by mentioning all of Dagnarus' indiscretions and his knowledge that the Prince practiced Void magic, then he wouldn't have the strength to deal with other matters of rule, either, especially when it came to harming innocents, or hostage takers, etc... How do people expect Tamaros to make wise decisions if he doesn't have all the information he needs to make those decisions?
The other races also get their own Dominion Lords, after the gods give Tamaros the Sovereign Stone, split into four equal parts, which he intends to use to create peace. Gareth, however, discovers that a tool came into being at the same time that can create the antithesis of the Dominion Lords, and he gives the tool to Dagnarus, who created the hideous Vyrkyl.
Dagnarus, for his part, wants to be a Dominion Lord more than anything in the world. He wants to be better than his brother, and the most powerful man in the world. He makes a very logical and clear argument to his father, though Tamaros should know that his son is not the person to fill such a position, regardless. With Gareth's assistance, he passes the Seven Preparations. I thought his compassionate slaying of the soldier was well-done, and the other tests were answered very honestly, and well within his capability. If anything, I would say the process was flawed. In fact, a lot of odd and unusual circumstances happened to put Dagnarus is such a position of power. "Why is evil in the world" is a very poorly worded question, and should have been "give an opinion and discuss why you think evil exists". The Dominion Lords know the correct interpretations of the Seven Trials, and should have known better -the spirit of them and how they were done, and not the words used. I wondered how much Void magic Dagnarus used in the test of strength (I don't believe he did it on his own), and what he sacrificed for it?
Gareth, for his part, sacrificed his health, living life like a plagued man. Yet even at the end, when Dagnarus used his power to command the river to dry up, he didn't appear to sacrifice anything. The Darkness around him was too powerful.
I thought for a while on why the dark Void magic should be so much more powerful than the good magics, why it took four good elements to balance the single dark one. I suppose it is easier to keep a watch over one enemy than four. Also, if each element was to take control of the world for one time, as is required by a Balanced Universe, then it would be better to have four years of good for every one of evil, even if the evil year is nearly unbearable.
The Dark Dominion Lords, the Vyrkyl, were not bound by species, from what I could tell. Given that the Dominion Lords were required to be of the four species, ten of each, maximum, then I wonder why the Vyrkyl were not so limited. It also occurred to me that the number of Vyrkyl should be limited by the number of existing Dominion Lords; as there was only one dwarf and three orcs, Dagnarus should not be able to create forty Vyrkyl.
Dagnarus, promising himself to the Void, becomes a Dominion Lord, Lord of the Void, and takes Valura Mabreton away as he leaves the palace in confusion, his father dead, his brother ruling, with a vow to return and claim the kingship.
The elvish Dominion Lord Mabreton chases after Dagnarus in vengeance, and Valura dies because of it. It surprised me that Dagnarus could take her life energy, as she had already died by the time he drew the Vyrkyl dagger. It also surprised me that Dagnarus had to be killed once for every life energy he seized. It didn't make sense to me -dead is dead, and it is not as if one life is ready in the waiting to take over. His internal organs were sliced open. The other lives shouldn't have any healing power, just the ability to sustain him longer. If Mabreton had cut his head off, instead, would it have grown back?
Regardless, the fight between Mabreton and Dagnarus was the most uninspired of the whole book. I also don't understand how the elves were fooled by the demon Valura. I expect that she was able to change appearance easier than Shakur because she was an elf, but she and Silwith were able to see Shakur for who he was immediately. Why didn't the other elves figure it out about her? As the Vyrkyl were able to slay Dominion Lords, I thought Valura should have been the one to kill Mabreton, to demonstrate that power.
When the Prince does attack Vinnengael, using superior strategic means and a huge force, as well as many Void magic users, he overtakes it easily. The main point was to get the two brothers to face each other, and battle it out over the Sovereign Stone. Gareth intervenes, which nearly kills both brothers, but gives Dagnarus the upper hand. The old man said that the Vyrkyl dagger would only slay appropriate victims, which means that it should not have been able to stab Helmos, no matter Dagnarus' intentions. What changed since then?
I was completely surprised by the ending of this book. I did expect Helmos to die, but did not expect Dagnarus to kill Gareth. Then, as Dagnarus stepped into the Portal of the gods, the whole city of Vinnengael was destroyed! I wonder how much of the Void is also part of the gods. That is the only way I feel that Dagnarus could be permitted to step inside and live. I disagree with his thoughts that even the gods could not kill him totally, because of his extra lives, because that is just plain wrong. The gods could kill him as many times as they wanted to -but they didn't want to, and I wonder why. I expect that's what the next two books will be about.
I am uncertain about whether Dagnarus is actually dead or not. I hope so, because I grew less and less fond of the character as the book went on. I wonder how long the Vyrkyl can survive without their master, if he is dead. They seem to think they are free, but I doubt it.
In the epilog, we get to meet a bahk, which we are told in the note by the authors at the beginning usually battle dragons -and often win, I would expect! The series is named after the Sovereign Stone, so I would be pleasantly surprised if the Stone moved on to other owners, and we learned about them through its powers. However, I doubt that will happen. I am not even sure what powers the Sovereign Stone has. It didn't protect Vinnengael. The humans didn't need it to create Dominion Lords before Tamaros found it, so what does it do?
(There was also a mistake in the epilog, in that the bahk noticed a cave appeared "in for forest", but later thinks that it lived in a desert, and had never seen trees before, except as clubs! Very strange juxtaposition, and should have been easily picked up, unless it is intentional.)
There were a lot of things that I really loved about this book, but they were balanced by some strange moments, or practices that I disagreed with. Not that my opinions should always be followed! However, I think that there should be a logic to the magic, and that was missing sometimes, here.
I also missed the existence of a comedy character, who is lovingly portrayed in most of these authors' books. However, the narration we got was very tongue-in-cheek, especially at the beginning, and especially in relation to the orks, and I loved that. Gareth got most of the whimsical points of view at the beginning, as did his tutor, Evaristo.
This book is turned on its head from most books, in that we get main characters who are bad guys, who bring down a kingdom and start war between the various races -but we, in general, like them, and sympathise with them. Interesting...>
Finally, although I found the cover of the book to be amazingly drawn and moody, the castle depicted there didn't look anything like the one described in the opening pages, with its nearly countless turrets and haphazard construction, which makes it so beautiful.
The book kept my interest for its entire length, though the characters became less interesting as it went on. I could only take so much of Saryon's whining in the last Darksword novel, so I was thankful that we only got a bit of it from Gareth in the latter half of this book. The writing was in general so vivid, and the characters, each and every one of them, had so much depth, that it was a real pleasure to read this book. I will not return to the second book for a little while, but it will be with fondness that I do in time, I'm sure.
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