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Elves Once Walked With Gods by James Barclay

1/8/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy Elves Once Walked With Gods in the USA - or Buy Elves Once Walked With Gods in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 399 page enlarged paperback. Price: 12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-08502-2.

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'Elves: Once Walked With Gods' is the first book in a new trilogy by British fantasy author James Barclay. It is his tenth novel and returns to the world he created in the seven 'Raven' books. However, he has wound back time by three thousand years, focusing the book on a key event in the earlier history of the Elves.

James Barclay came to widespread attention in the fantasy community a decade ago, when his first book, 'Dawnthief', was published. What might at first have seemed a standard story about a team of misfits saving the world was immediately differentiated from the competition by Barclay's strength at writing fight scenes and his willingness to kill off major characters at regular intervals, features that have continued right through to the present novel.

As the book opens, we see the start of the conflict that will dominate the storyline. This has been building for a decade, ever since Takaar, undisputed leader of the Elves until that point, ran out on them at the height of their greatest battle for millennia. Tens of thousands of elves died because of him. Although many more would have died if he had not run, he is blamed for the slaughter and vilified by many. Takaar's reign provided one thousand years of harmony between the different sub-species or 'threads' of elves who vary widely in their lifespan and skills. Many, however, think that the harmony between elves is an unnatural construct, a political union that is doomed to failure.

This tension is brought to a head when one faction in the elves' main city of Ysundeneth decide to employ human mercenaries, both soldiers and mages, to invade a sacred temple in the surrounding forest. Humans are hated by the elves, who dismiss them as 'blink-lives' due to their much shorter life-spans, yet have no defence against their magic spells. As factional tensions between the threads are ruthlessly exploited by ambitious elven politicians, the elite TaiGethen warrior force led by Katyett, Takaar's former lover, must try to help the mixed-thread police force prevent a descent into civil war and ethnic cleansing across the city. However, when Katyett appeals to the foremost priest in the city to help isolate the opportunists who are working with men to destroy the harmony between threads, she discovers just how deep the conspiracy goes.

Faced with the destruction of all they hold dear, Auum, who is at this time a relatively junior member of the TaiGethen, although he will be familiar to readers of Barclay's 'Legends Of The Raven' series as a later leader of that group, is sent on a desperate quest to find Takaar. The disgraced elf has been living alone in the forest for the past decade and the hope is that he can overcome his past and bring unity back to the elves. When Auum finds Takaar, however, he is a shattered shadow of his former self, who spends half his time talking to an imaginary companion. Can Auum help him recover his sanity and save the elves from all-out war?

I enjoyed many aspects of this book. I'll focus my comments on three in particular: characterisation, action and plotting. Barclay draws his lead characters well, producing rounded, three-dimensional people that stand out from the page. He does this particularly well with the elves, showing us a race that is struggling with deep internal conflicts. For example, although the elves are nominally a peaceful, nature-loving people, they are easily roused into rioting and bloody internecine warfare. At an individual level, Takaar, Katyett and Auum are all shown as honourable but imperfect individuals, struggling to live up to their ideals as their society shatters around them. It is also to Barclay's credit that he shows the human mercenaries and their leader, Garan, in particular to be real people, too, not just cannon-fodder for the fights with the elves.

Those who have read Barclay's previous books will be expecting lots of fight scenes and Barclay does not disappoint. The TaiGethen warriors are superbly trained fighting machines and the speed at which they can move gives them a huge advantage. That's just as well since they are normally hugely outnumbered by their opponents. The fight scenes are wonderfully written, demonstrating both the elves grace and their viciousness at the same time. Of particular note is the elven predilection for using their sharpened fingernails and teeth when no other weapons are available, leading to extremely bloody hand-to-hand fighting which Barclay puts you right in the middle of.

Finally, this book is extremely well-plotted. The story is multi-layered and every time you think you know what's going to happen next, Barclay injects some new plot thread that takes the action in a different direction. I was captivated from beginning to end, and found it very difficult to put the book down.

I have found it hard to identify anything that I didn't like about this book. If I had to be picky, I'd say that it would be useful to have a map at the front of the book. The action takes place over a number of locations in and around the city of Ysundeneth and it can sometimes be tricky to visualise the geography. However, this is a pretty trivial complaint. In any case, I was reading a pre-publication review copy, so it's possible that the published novel may include such a map.

'Elves: Once Walked With Gods' is an exciting and well-written start to what promises to be a thrilling trilogy of novels. James Barclay has provided us with a fully fleshed-out epic tale from the early history of the world of 'The Raven', delivering a fresh perspective on that staple race of fantasy stories, the elves. I can't wait to see what he does with them next.

Patrick Mahon

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