Sunday, January 17, 2010

Review - Elfsorrow

by James Barclay
Gollancz, 2008
Copy provided by my wallet

ISBN: 978-0-57508-2-779

I just finished Elfsorrow this evening. It certainly got me out of the doldrums from having finished Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. It also left me heart-broken. Don't bother looking for clarification on that point, it would involve spoiling the tale for you.

Blurb: The rivalry between the four colleges of magic has brought misery and war to Balaia. But through it all the Elves have lived their ancient, secret lives. From their homeland in the southern continent of Calaius they have watched human dynasties come and go, aloof and untouched. Until now. Suddenly, elves are dying in their thousands, seemingly struck down at random.

The elven mage Ilkar is uniquely placed to find the cause of this plague and put an end to it. For Ilkar is one of The Raven: a tiny mercenary band of warriors and mages, bound together by a vow stronger than blood. Over many years their prowess has become legendary. But even heroes, like elves, are mortal...

In summarizing the tale, The Raven are, once more, placed amidst a difficult challenge, under the most crucial of circumstances. An ancient elven temple is desecrated, inhibiting the natural harmony of existence intrinsic to the elven world. As a result, elves begin dying in huge numbers. Numerous factions, some familiar from previous tales and some completely new, struggle for their various interests, with The Raven trapped in the middle.

What I liked: First, there is tons of action. With these stories, Barclay usually does offer a fair amount of action. Elfsorrow ups the ante considerably, however.

The view into the elven world, in general, and the character Ilkar, specifically, was a hook that kept the pace of reading moving well.

The southern continent of Calaius, ancient home of the elven race, appears to be one massive rainforest. The rainforest is a forbidding environment. The weather is relentless and the various species of flora and fauna are merciless. With the specter of predation, poison or infection lingering behind every shadow, survival is challenging under the best of circumstances.

The rainforest is policed by different groups of elven warrior-priests. One such group, the Al-Arynaar, is composed of dedicates whose calling is to defend the temple. The policing of the rainforest is performed by free ranging groups. These are the TaiGethen and the ClawBound. The TaiGethen are individual cells of three elves, one of which is the cell's leader. They seem a mix between Special Forces and Shao-lin monks. The ClawBound are singular elves who are telepathically linked with a single black panther from the forest. The death of either in this pairing seems to be fatal for both.

The reader is treated to a visit in the home village of Ilkar. There, we find that Ilkar, as an elf, may have shirked a duty his culture expected of him. We discover a bit of backstory concerning his parents and what members of his family still survive. In all fairness, Ilkar always seemed to be a cardboard character there to fill a necessary role. By the end of Elfsorrow, I'll never be able to dismiss, or forget, Ilkar again.

Picking some nits: You know, I still don't like Erienne or Denser all that much. So much of the suffering, death and destruction on Balaia, and Calaius for that matter, is directly traceable to Denser and/or Erienne. Each has been so self absorbed from the very first, that I'm stunned they seem to suffer so little guilt while bemoaning their own pain and heartache.

Furthermore, I 'get' that we're supposed to dislike the Black Wings, particularly Selik. However, the man has a point. Granted, like any would-be megalomanic, he uses a legitimate point to further illegitimate ends. It still doesn't address the carnage, suffering and destruction brought upon the 'little people' of the world.

Clearly, one would eventually expect to have some attempt at a regulatory, or governing body, imposed upon the colleges of magic. It seems implausible, because of another glaring implausibility: there is no central, political authority. Whether it is a monarchy, an empire, a republic, or what have you, one would expect a central, governing entity. The complete absence of one in the Raven stories has always been a point that stretched credibility, to what degree each reader must judge for themselves.

Overall: I loved this book and fully expected to go straight into Shadowheart. As a result of the ending to this book, I can't do it. The end involves some heart break and so I'm moving on to Daniel Abraham. I'll be reading my SFBC, two-book omnibus copy, titled Shadow & Betrayal. This comprises the first two stories in The Long Price quartet.

Verdict: Highly recommended.


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