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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

“Wings of Wrath” by C.S. Friedman (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

Official C.S. Friedman Website
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INTRODUCTION: I have been a huge fan of Celia Friedman's fiction since I read the wonderful Coldfire Trilogy published years ago. A dark fantasy with a sf twist, Coldfire is still enjoyable today, though many similar books have been published since then. At the time of its publication, Coldfire was a true breath of fresh air in a stale field, and it helped Ms. Friedman develop a dedicated following.

After some sf, including the science fantasy space opera “In Conquest Born” and the somewhat disappointing “The Wilding”, Ms. Friedman returned to dark fantasy with the Magister Trilogy which began with “Feast of Souls” in 2007, and continued with this year’s “Wings of Wrath”.

I was very excited about “Feast of Souls”, but it took me quite a few tries to get into the novel since the first 100 pages or so lack balance, and the hook found at the beginning of “Black Sun Rising” is missing here. However, after the rocky start, “Feast of Souls” becomes a ‘true’ C.S. Friedman novel—dark and compelling with very well drawn characters—and I was eager for “Wings of Wrath”.

Since “Feast of Souls” has not been covered on Fantasy Book Critic, I will talk a bit about that book. I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum here, but some are inevitable...

SETTING: On an alternate Earth-like world, there are two kinds of magic. Both use “soulfire”, the essence of the human souls, but there is a crucial difference. The witches—which are of both genders—use their own soulfire, so each act of magic costs them part of their lifespan. The more powerful the magic, the more lifespan is consumed, so the rich & powerful better pay well for their services.

The Magisters—which are only men as far as it is known, women being considered ‘too soft’—use other people’s soulfire. Therefore, Magisters are all-powerful and possess indefinitely long lifespans since they can move from one “consort” to another when they drain a mortal. Bound by a set of Laws designed to keep the world habitable, they serve as advisers to the powerful. The morati, as the Magisters call the mortals, have no clue that the Magisters use their soulfire to perform magic, and that is the one paramount secret all Magisters know to keep.

However, the Magisters have no control over who their consorts” are, and for obvious reasons they steer clear of trying to find out. So when Andovan, the son of a powerful king, gets to be the “consort” of some random Magister, and starts suffering from a “wasting” disease that not even the most powerful Magisters seem able to cure, there is trouble. That is the subject of “Feast of Souls”, but hovering over the world is an ancient menace, the Souleaters, dragon-like creatures that live on soulfire and predate the existence of the Magisters.

A thousand years ago, after a terrible war and unimaginable sacrifices, the Souleaters were banished to a region around the North Pole, contained by the magic of the Spears of Wrath, guarded by the Protectorates whose people carry “lyr” in their blood which gives them magical powers to fight the Souleaters if they return. It was hoped that the terrible creatures would go extinct due to the cold and lack of food, but there were humans living there, and somehow the Souleaters survived and are now poised to return and claim what they see as their rightful heritage.

Kamala is the first woman Magister. Not ready to announce her presence to the all-men club for various reasons, including breaking the other most important Magister Law—killing a MagisterKamala is willing to pretend she is a witch and gather sensitive information to bargain with, since that is the one currency the Magisters honor.

Colivar is an old and mysterious Magister, though he does not affect the traditional white beard and long robes of his main rival Ramirus.

Gwynofar is the Queen-mother of The High Kingdom, currently the most powerful human state. She is of pure lyr blood, daughter of a Lord Protector, princess of another Protectorate, mother of quite a few children, and widow of Danton the ruthless and unlamented former king. Gwynofar is a friend—insofar a morati, even of noble lyr blood, can be—of Ramirus, long-time court Magister to her husband.

Rhys is Gwynofar's half-brother, courtesy of an indiscretion by the Lord Protector, so he is only of half-lyr heritage, but he has the indomitable courage of his line and strangely pleasant relations with his “step-mother”.

Salvator Aurelius is a former Penitent monk and current High King. A believer in the one true God; despiser of magic, ancient gods and Magisters; and distrustful of the Protectorates and their claims, Salvator disagrees often with his mother, but has inherited the ruthless rational streak of Danton, so he is amenable to reason for the good of his kingdom.

Siderea—the Witch-Queen, friend, lover, and secret confidant of various Magisters—is the Queen of the minor city state Sankara, but is a major power broker due to her powerful witch skills and her secret Magister connections. However, despite all the Magisters can or are willing to do, her soulfire is running low.

Lastly, Nyuku is a driven man. An inhabitant of the Wrath-contained Polar region, he wants nothing more than to become a companion rider of a Souleater and restore them and their human companions to their place as rulers of the planet...

FORMAT/INFO:Wings of Wrath” stands at 406 pages divided over thirty numbered chapters and a Prologue, and includes a map of The High Kingdom. Narration is in the third-person, mostly in the present of the novel except for Nyuku's flashbacks. There are multiple POVs with the main being Kamala, Rhys, Gwynofar, Salvator, Siderea and Nyuku, while Colivar and Ramirus steal the spotlight whenever they show up. The multiple threads of the novel converge toward the end and the book stands well on its own, with a relatively self-contained tale, while also setting up the next novel in the series.

February 3, 2009 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “Wings of Wrath” via
DAW Books. Cover art provided by John Jude Palencar. The UK version will be published on June 26, 2009 by Orbit Books.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS: While technically a middle book in a trilogy, “Wings of Wrath” reads almost like a standalone and can be enjoyed on its own since the main storyline forms a clear beginning-to-end arc. There are some side threads that will be expanded in the next book, and knowing the back story of “Feast of Souls” enhances the reading experience, but if for some reason you were put off by the first book in the Magister trilogy, try this one since it features C.S. Friedman’s typically superb writing style, dark content and well-drawn characters in a more balanced package...

After her angst-ridden start as a secret Magister, Kamala comes into her own here and is a more likable and interesting character—more confident of her powers and ability to stand on her own with any Magister, including the mysterious Colivar or the imperious Ramirus. However, as befits a “soul-vampire”, it is not wise for any man to get too close to her.

Rhys, a late appearing character in “Feast of Souls”, is the main hero of the novel—brave, noble, a true Guardian trying to do the best for his people. But in true C.S. Friedman fashion, the path of the hero is dark, bloody and unpredictable.

Gwynofar also gets a more central role in this book and her character, which seemed an afterthought in “Feast of Souls”, becomes more and more compelling.

Nyuku and Siderea offer a different version of events from the opposite side, and we see that good and evil is not so simple and clear-cut. Of course, we already knew that there was nothing intrinsically good about the Magisters, so Siderea's conversion is not surprising.

Salvator has a lot of potential as a great character, much more than his father who was set in his ways of power, but we get only glimpses here with hopefully more to come.

Of course Ramirus, and especially Colivar's moments in the book, are highlights and I hope the next volume will delve further into their story.

The main weakness of “Wings of Wrath” resides in the world-building which contains some unconvincing rationalizations for the actions of the Magisters. All-powerful, completely amoral, valuing only their continuing life and comforts, the Magisters nevertheless appear quite meek in front of powerful morati, while making clear that they could squish them with a wink. The so-called Laws used to explain this contradiction are not that well defined and they contain some glaring inconsistencies. For example, there’s Salvator ostensibly refusing the services of any Magister, but when Danton fired Ramirus in “Feast of Souls”, he goes for a while without any Magister and does not get struck down despite being hated by a number of powerful people with Magisters on call. Stuff like this and other similar lapses detract from the enjoyment of the series and I wish the whole concept would have been thought through better. It's true that “Wings of Wrath” deals mostly with the Souleater menace, and the true nature of the Magisters is not a main issue as it was in “Feast of Souls”, but these little details that do not quite add up are annoying.

The other major weakness is that the series has a bit too many POVs for its scope. One of the main reasons for the success of Coldfire was the restriction to Bryce and Tarrant as main characters with the rest as bit players, while here the spread of the story over so many POVs dilutes its impact.

Still, despite the caveats above, “Wings of Wrath” is highly recommended and a must for fans of C.S. Friedman...


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