01/11/2008. Contributed by Sue Stewart
pub: Gollancz. 296 page small hardback. Price: £17.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-575-06575-3 296 page paperback. Price: £ 6.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-575-07400-0.
check out website: www.orionbooks.co.uk
I was curious to see whether this, the fifth and final book in 'The Monarchies Of God' series could work as a stand alone novel. I can't count the number of times that I've rejected a book just because it was second or third in a series that I hadn't begun, so I've always had a nagging doubt that I might be depriving myself of wonderful things. I consoled myself with the thought that I probably wasn't.
I'm going to have to tell Paul Kearney that he's robbed me of my consolation. This book stands alone, no problem whatsoever.
It begins a little before the eponymous ships appear, carrying a threat that the Monarchies have never faced before: a new race of men under the control of an evil arch-mage. The Monarchies are not united, so they not only have to react to the new threat, they have to maintain their own precarious balance of power. Consequently, fantasy elements and realistic political considerations combine to make a very exciting read. I was aware of a rich back-story, but never felt hampered by not knowing what must have happened in the first four books - references to them are very neatly interwoven.
I do have quibbles, though. One is the questionable tradition of portraying the feared Other as black, even if those others are the result of genetic meddling on a vast scale. I know the tradition goes back generations and it's also a staple of Jungian psychology but it still bothers me. Having said that, it's largely a multi-cultural society that's under threat so I am willing to pass over it fairly quickly.
Another quibble is that although there are surprises and pathos aplenty, some of the characters are a tad under-developed, especially the women. There's a plucky young princess, a sultry seductress, a stern ice queen and so on and often they behave just as you'd expect, losing their appeal and their strength once they reach a certain age'. The men, of course, even the underdeveloped ones, hardly ever do. Occasionally, there are hints of emotional depth, though to be fair it's usually by the characters' steadfast refusal to plumb them.
You can tell that these quibbles weren't enough to put me off but these are still common issues in any genre and I have to wonder why. Especially when a writer like Kearney, who's obviously capable of dealing with the subtleties of power relations, doesn't seem to have thought about this aspect of them much. Not that he hasn't put tons of thought into this and I suppose that there will always be certain things that move a writer more than others. For Kearney, those things seem to be the details of world-building, sea-faring and soldiering.
These make it a ripping yarn, packed to the gunwales with splendid language. Phrases like, 'Small ships...lateen rigged and bluff bowed', 'I see braces on her flying loose' and my favourite, '...and two eighteen-pounder culverins bowsed up snug to their ports forward' are much too good to pass over. They give a terrific flavour of maritime life, even if you don't have the foggiest idea of what they actually mean. Before you all drag out your pirate hats and start saying 'Arr!' though, let me emphasise that this is not just a tale of salty sea-dogs. There is plenty of action among the landlubbers, too, with an atmosphere that reminded me of the more sombre elements of 'Lord Of The Rings' if it had cannon, field guns and arquebusiers, not to mention realistic descriptions of what it's like to face them.
In short, if you want deep and fervent explorations of the subtle workings of the human psyche, this is probably not the book for you. If you're in the mood for thrilling fantasy action in a framework of convincing historical detail, this book delivers. By the boatload.
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