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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"Darkland" by Liz Williams

Buy "Darkland" HERE via PanMacmillan

Being the daughter of a Gothic novelist and part-time conjuror, not to mention having a background in History and Philosophy of Science, has obviously blessed British SF/fantasy author Liz Williams with a tremendous imagination and talented writing abilities. While “Darkland” is my first exposure to the author, Liz Williams has also written “The Ghost Sister” and “Empire Of Bones”, both of which were nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, the Inspector Chen series, which I hope to check out at some point, the Arthur C. Clarke-shortlisted “Banner of Souls”, and various other novels & short stories.

Marketed mainly as science fiction, “Darkland” is an interesting combination of various themes, concepts and genres. For starters, the story is set in a “far-distant future”, where mankind has long left Earth to colonize numerous other planets with the narrative divided between two characters: a first-person view of Vali Hallsdottir, Skald assassin/operative, and the third-person view of Ruan. With Vali’s accounting we’re briefly introduced to the Muslim-influenced planet Nhem, where women are treated as nothing more than animals or property, as well as her home world of Muspell where we get to visit the Skald's base of operations and get a taste of the treacherous continent Darkland. For Ruan, readers are taken back to the planet of Mondhile, or Monde D’Isle, which was first introduced in Ms. Williams’ debut “The Ghost Sister” and is a much more archaic world where genetically altered humans live in harmony with their primal sides. Through events that I won’t detail, the two characters converge on Mondhile and mayhem, revenge and awakening ensues.

As mentioned above, there’s a lot of intriguing elements in play throughout “Darkland”. For instance, while set in a futuristic timeline, technological advancements are noticeably restrained. Sure, you have space ships, pulse guns, map implants, tabulas that translate languages and various other little gizmos, but for the most part, it’s nothing on the scale of most SF that I’ve read. In contrast, Mondhile could almost be described as a fantasy setting, with clan villages, people using bows & arrows, and just an overall medieval vibe. Still, while outlandish scientific principles may be lacking, Ms. Williams more than makes up for it by creating imaginative & terrifying ecosytems like the one found on Mondhile, a trait that I would liken to the estimable Neal Asher. In addition, a host of other fascinating concepts comprise “Darklands” including the Seith (a sort of psychic awareness or sixth sense that the Skald use), the ability to turn on/off a creature’s self-awareness, and the Vitki, a genetically altered race of enigmatic beings who consider them selves superior to humans and utilize their own form of seith. As far as themes, sex is prominently depicted, in a much harsher light though, as well as women’s roles, which range wildly from the restricted Nhemish and female-dominated Skald, to Vitki who see women as nothing more than breeders and the Mondhaiths who exist on more equal terms with their men as hunters & warriors.

Of course, having all the best ideas in the world wouldn’t matter if the author is unable to piece everything together into a coherent and entertaining story. Fortunately, Liz Williams accomplishes this with flying colors. Not only does she deftly manage the contrasting point of views with excellent command, her prose as a whole is lush and refined. Characterization is solid for the most part with the tougher-than-she-looks, haunted-by-demons Vali getting the bulk of the development including relevant flashbacks, though I would have liked to see further exploration of such interesting secondary players as Frey or Gemaley, and I also thought that certain relationships between characters felt rushed. Overall though, Ms. Williams’ writing is polished and kept me engaged through out the book, and should appeal to fans of Jack Vance & Ursula K. Le Guin, a couple of the author’s notable influences.

In short, I greatly enjoyed “Darkland”. I thought it was an intelligent, well-crafted work of fiction containing elements of science fiction and fantasy that is as much about entertaining the reader with pulse-pounding action and thrills as it is about challenging the reader’s perceptions with provocative concepts. About the only thing I didn’t like was that the book concluded with an obvious cliffhanger ending that will be picked up in a future novel. Fortunately, I have that said novel in hand, and look forward to continuing Vali’s adventures in “Bloodmind”, which I hope to review shortly. In the meantime, I’d recommend picking up “Darkland” and any other Liz Williams novel that you can find. While I haven’t read any of her other works, from the research that I’ve done, it seems like Ms. Williams does a great job of exploring different ideas/themes with each of her books, and for the most part is positively reviewed…

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