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Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Curse Of The Mistwraith by Janny Wurts (reviewed by Matthew Higgins)


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OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Janny Wurts is the author of War of Light and Shadow series, and To Ride Hell's Chasm. Her eighteen published titles include a trilogy in audio, a short story collection, as well as the internationally best selling Empire trilogy, co authored with Raymond E. Feist, with works translated into fifteen languages worldwide.

Through her combined talents as a writer/illustrator, Janny has immersed herself in a lifelong ambition: to create a seamless interface between words and pictures that will lead reader and viewer into the imagination. Her lavish use of language invites the mind into a crafted realm of experience, with characters and events woven into a complex tapestry, and drawn with an intensity to inspire active fuel for thought. A self-taught painter, she draws directly from the imagination, creating scenes in a representational style that blurs the edges between dream and reality.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:  This review is one that has been mulling over in my head for a good month now, wondering how one could possibly convey the journey this book took me upon. My words could never possibly hope to compete with the mesmerizingly poetic prose contained within this seminal fantasy tome, but alas it falls upon me to try.
If I could sum my thoughts up in a few sentences it would be, “a monumental achievement in fantasy literature, one which beguiles you into a world doomed to be torn apart by two brothers and their moral quandaries.” In all sincerity, this is the best prose since Shakespeare, and Wurts’ masterpiece has completely changed the game in fantasy. With a slow but steady rise in the booktube community as of recent, now is truly her time to shine and shine bright.
The world of Athera lives in eternal fog, its skies obscured by the malevolent Mistwraith. Only the combined powers of two half-brothers can challenge the Mistwraith’s stranglehold: Arithon, Master of Shadow and Lysaer, Lord of Light.
Arithon and Lysaer will find that they are inescapably bound inside a pattern of events dictated by their own deepest convictions. Yet there is more at stake than one battle with the Mistwraith – as the sorcerers of the Fellowship of Seven know well. For between them the half-brothers hold the balance of the world, its harmony and its future, in their hands.
Now let’s hit the elephant in the room first off, because this book most definitely IS a chonker, and due to its intricately layered prose requires more of the readers attention than  even the average big un. However, Janny is fantastic at weaving you into the fold of her sweet melody, and once you get into the rhythm of her writing, it will feel like any other book. Just don’t try and read anything else at the same time… seriously, it’s impossible! So don’t let the hype around this book’s intricacies push you away, have a little nosey for yourself and I am quite sure that you will find yourself settling in.
With that out the way, let’s talk about what the book is actually about, which as usual will be spoiler free. The main characters of both this novel and the series as a whole are two brothers, Arithon and Lysaer. Born on the splinter world of Dascen Elur, fate throws these brothers into a quest, along with a crew of wizard like figures, to defeat a mysterious force known as the Mistwraith that has overtaken the land of Athera. Little do they know the significance such events will have on the fate of all….
Now you might be forgiven for thinking so far so typical fantasy, of which you really aren’t wrong at a completely surface level. I mean we have pirate kings, dragon like creatures, wizards and witch stand-ins, magic swords, prophecies, you name it and it is probably in there. However, this is more than a mere modern reinvention of the classical, a la John Gwynne or Ryan Cahill (which as a sub-genre in itself is also fantastic!). No dear readers, this is merely the squint of a bird’s eye view of what treasures are contained within. For it is the directions in which Wurts takes such staples of the genre that truly set this beast of a book apart from the rest. Wurts utterly deconstructs every notion readers have about the fantasy genre, flipping and twisting, spiralling ever deeper into further and further layers. This is not to say that any reader should expect a contrary take on everything for the sake of it, for Janny is much more sophisticated than that. Instead she gives a more grounded take on high fantasy, using the tropes to mirror a reflection of real-world society, and the evils that sadly take place.
 I would actually consider this one of the first books to truly surprise me, leading me blindly into the dark on every page, every step taken, every word precisely chosen for the right moment. I mean it’s just incredible to see Wurts’ knack for pacing the journey this book takes you on, every reveal coming in exactly the perfect moment. Whilst the general pace of the book is a fast beginning and end with a more mellow in-between, I found myself entranced by the journey we were taken on. As said, I had no idea where it would go, but I didn’t care, I just wanted to read more!

The characterisation of this book is again a wonder to behold, but one that, as with a lot of Wurts’ style, requires a slight adjustment to. I remember being about 50% in, and Janny was very kindly answering a few of my comments/questions, and I was a little confused about one of the characters personalities due to seemingly conflicting aspects. However dear reader, EVERYTHING happens in this book for a reason.
What is fantastic about this book is the questions it brings to your mind, and I strongly encourage you to write down any burning ones because things will fall into place exactly as Janny intends. It’s very much a methodical layering she writes with, and it’s just left me completely in awe.
For most books, you will have a start point and an ending for a character arc, e.g., character is stubborn and learns to let go. Janny’s characters go far far deeper than any simplistic sense of arc, slowly unravelling the many facets of each character. So, for parts of the book, you may find characters motivations leave a few lingering questions, but rest assured that there is absolutely a reason for this.
So, who are our two princely brothers fated to duel it out?
Arithon S’Ffallen is a dark-haired talented young musician who would like nothing better than to not be confined by the restrictions fate has imposed on him and live out his days as a master bard instead of royalty. He can be a stubborn man, but he also deeply cares for the people.
Lysaer s’Illesid is a charismatic light-haired young prince, whom can be quite arrogant despite an inner cloak of self-doubt, and slightly judgemental, although he has a heart built for justice and the greater good.
The relationship between these brothers, and the turns it takes form the backbone of this novel and the wider series. What happens (which I won’t spoil) truly did break my heart, and Janny is incredible at really getting you to understand these characters inner struggles. It is no spoiler to say that they eventually end up at odds (it’s the premise of the series after all!), but the journey to get there will be one that affects you. As of the end of this book, I am certainly on the side of one brother, although Janny is great at never stigmatising, merely showing all aspects, and so you do find yourself changing your mind as different occurrences and aspects shift your perspective.
Besides the two main brothers, we mostly spend time with a crew of wizards called the fellowship of seven, and within that mostly with a wizard called Asandir, as well as Dakar, also known as the mad prophet. Now, I think Dakar has got a bit of an unfair reputation, so I am here to defend my favourite character! Dakar is the lazy drunkard of the cast, and as such provides the majority of the comedic relief. A lot of people seem to figure him as annoying, boisterous and selfishly oafish, all of which I suppose is true, however I definitely laughed out loud at his antics numerous times!
 Yes, there definitely are comedic moments to this, despite the online rumours that this book is really quite serious and doesn’t quite have any comedy. It’s also not just Dakar, with some comedically obtuse nobles being only one example. In fact, the tonal shifts are something Janny manages extraordinarily well, with one section in particular (my favourite) transitioning from comedic laziness from Dakar to bone chilling foreboding in an instant.
Asandir is most definitely the Gandalf like figure, although this is also shared with Sethvir, another figurehead of the Fellowship of Seven. Asandir is mostly a mysterious figure (as a lot of the fellowship are) whose true motives are not entirely clear. He leads our brothers on their prophesied quest, whilst providing a lot of the worldbuilding for us readers and the princes themselves. Then we have the semi opposites of the fellowship in the Koriathain which is probably best described as similar to the Aes Sedai in Wheel Of Time. We don’t get too much insight into this group in this first book except that they are opposed to the Fellowship and are serving their own interests too. However, we do follow a feisty character called Elaira who is a young apprentice like figure within the Koriathain and it’s very clear she will play a significant role going forwards.
My other favourite character is a young boy named Jieret. I won’t say too much more about him as to do so would perhaps spoil the experience, and this book is certainly one to be read for the experience. I will however try my best to explain WHY he was one of my favourite characters, by speaking a little more on Janny’s style. As one finds out when they enter into Janny’s worlds,  She undeniably understands the human condition. This is a world of nuance and shades of grey, whilst never fully straying into grimdark. Arguably this felt like one of the most realistic fantasy worlds I’ve ever strayed into, nothing was ever fully light or dark, nor in the middle. It simply was.
Janny famously recounts how a piece of the WoLaS series was first constructed whilst watching a documentary on the Battle of Culloden, and hearing the true brutal impact of war, and wanting to depict that in a book. The other part came from wanting to address the tropes of the blonde-haired blue-eyed hero and the dark-haired dark-eyed villain. Again, these tropes weren’t merely switched out, it’s more like Janny is an archaeologist slowly digging away at the layers of topsoil to find the true evidence beneath, each layer bringing more detail to the surface. Altogether we get a deep inspection about the truths of war and what happens when the victor writes the history.
From the worldbuilding to the dialogue, the magic to the characterisation, it’s all built in spiralling layers. This is also true of the series as a whole, which is split into several arcs, the first of which is completed within this initial entry. Books two and three form the second arc, whilst the next five books form the third arc, another two for the fourth arc, and finally one climactic volume which is just in the final stages of editing after nearly 30 years. Janny has described each arc as pulling back a layer, giving the reader further insight into everything taking place as well as everything that has taken place. So, each book has a structure, which each arc as well as the series as a whole mirrors, yet another way Janny has beautifully constructed this epic. Whether you fit with her prose or not, I don’t think anybody could say this series hasn’t been meticulously planned!
To return to this first book, it culminates in the single most beautiful ending I have ever read. Where a lot of authors don’t seem to spend enough time in the aftermath of climactic events, exploring the emotions and turmoil that face the characters, Janny just completely overwhelmed me with how hard this ending hits. If you like a Sanderlanche, this will certainly be one for you! Just so hauntingly perfect an ending, setting up the characters for the sequels whilst also completely drawing this part of the tale to a satisfying close. It is the roles of characters like Jieret, or Halliron the master bard, or Steiven that truly make this world alive and connected through the events that occur and the emotions that flow from them.
 Wow! Spoiler free gushing is hard!! And I am completely gushing here, but it’s because I absolutely cannot do anything else!
Did I have problems with this book? Sure! There were times it got pretty complex in terms of the worldbuilding, it definitely takes time to enter the rhythm of Janny’s prose, at times towards the end I did get a little lost in the action, and the POV shifts definitely keep you on your toes. The ending was beautiful and yet not entirely emotional for me, because a lot of characters important to the climax are only introduced fairly late in the game so we haven’t gotten to make such a connection to them yet. But it was such a richly rewarding experience, one which truly engages all aspects of the reader, that these things did not affect my enjoyment because I was so entranced.
I haven’t even touched on the intricacies of the magic system or worldbuilding, and this review is already long enough! Needless to say, both aspects are meticulously ingrained into this world. We don’t actually get too much information on the magic system in this first book, although it appears to be a very physics and resonancy based system. I believe Janny is a musician, and it definitely shows in both her prose, and the use of both music and resonances within this work.
The worldbuilding is just off the charts in terms of scope, which makes a lot of sense when you understand Janny spent 30 years building the world before she felt ready to start this magnum opus. The inhabitants of Paravia I won’t reveal here as I think it’s a neat little thing to discover, but let’s just say I think you’ll be very surprised, and I definitely want to learn more about what exactly is going on. A lot of the history is provided through little snippets from Asandir, and again Janny writes this pitch perfectly haunting moments that really stick with both the reader, and the characters themselves. Others come from little excerpts at the end of each chapter section, leaving little breadcrumbs for the reader to discover what is occurring in the wider world. I warn you now readers, you fail to take notice of these at your own peril!!
The themes in this book are also part of this incredibly deep dive into the nature of humanity. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a book in the style of Plato, however, it covers some really introspectively philosophical topics. The nature of free will, is the greater good the right thing to do, aspects of colonisation are touched upon, nature vs nurture, and these are just a few! This book gets you thinking in all the best ways, whilst also never miring you in a philosophical conundrum for too long. This is simply how deep this book is, and as such it won’t be for everyone as it does require all of your reading investment into its pages. However, it was certainly worth the reward for myself, learning a lot of new vocabulary, as well as allowing me to reflect on the state of our world and our humanity, which not many fictional books do, or do very well.
Just to touch briefly on the action as well, Janny definitely knows how to ramp things up a notch. There are sections of lull, but as a huge worldbuilding fan it didn’t concern me at all. When Janny promises, she promises big, and she always follows through. It’s just an incredible style Janny writes the action in, although with shifting POVs, and a few military terms (she definitely did her research!) it did get a tad confusing toward the end. It was a very visual style of writing action, which as someone who loves epic battles, but struggles to visualise them a lot, I truly appreciated.
One of the most incredible aspects was how Janny built up suspense by using character traits rather than just using plot devices. Confused? Just have a read and see because it is incredibly difficult to describe! There’s one particularly standout moment where the tension came not from the fact that a character was in danger, but because we knew the character would have to make an impossible choice that would go against their own nature, whatever decision they made. I’ve never encountered it done that way before, and it really gripped me, because the tension then doesn’t come from plot danger, which risks feeling a little plot armoury, but from the aspects of the character themselves. A ground-breaking and utterly original way to make me care for these characters.
Alas, it comes time to draw this epic of a review to a close. What else can be said that hasn’t already been written? Well, quite a lot actually, but there simply isn’t space for that, and I am very eager for all the upcoming discussions taking place in the booktube community to see what comes out of it!
Needless to say, I absolutely ADORED this book on every level. This book has flown completely under the radar for so long, and it is only thanks to stalwart fans such as author Mark Timmony, as well as new converts like Blaise from Under the Radar SFF Books that it was gratefully brought to my attention. With this book not only do you get an experience, but a community, one which Janny herself is part of and it’s such a joyful community to be involved in.
CONCLUSION: If you love a high fantasy series with all the bells and whistles, but are eager for a deeper, more introspective unwinding of unfolding events, this will be the series for you. The most exquisitely written prose in all of fantasy, rich characterisation, immense scope of worldbuilding and magic system. Perhaps best of all, a welcoming community to do the journey with you, what more could a fantasy reader ask for?



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