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The Aquasilva Trilogy

by Anselm Audley

I: Heresy

(Earthlight, £10.00, 405 pages, trade paperback; published June 2001. Mass market paperback, £6.99, 503 pages, published 7 May 2002.)

II: Inquisition

(Earthlight, £10.00, 400 pages, trade paperback, published 7 May 2002. Earthlight, £6.99, 550 pages, paperback, this edition published 22 April 2003.)

II: Crusade

(Earthlight, £10.99,449 pages, trade paperback, published 22 April 2003.)

Cathan's ascension from adopted son of the Count of Lepidor to cover scanglobal mover and shaker begins when extensive iron ore deposits are found under his home island. The sea journey to the trading port of Taneth, to help his father negotiate the shipping contract, is the start of a far longer odyssey -- three books longer, as it happens -- that pits him against the Domain, the theocratic masters of the planet Aquasilva, and against the brutal Thetian Emperor Orosius.

Comparisons between the Aquasilva trilogy and Dune are not unwarranted; Aquasilva tends more towards fantasy than SF, but there's the same casual mix of magic and technology in the story of a young man's self-discovery. The Domain, ruling through manipulation as much as open religious zealotry, maintains its hold over the watery planet through sole control of the SkyEyes, ancient satellites that are linked in some way to Aquasilva's violent storms, and through the use of Fire magic. (You might think Water magic would be more obvious for a planet whose surface is mostly composed of the stuff, but Water magic is heretical, as are Earth magic, Wind magic, Light magic, Shadow magic, and possibly one or two other forms of magic they haven't discovered yet.) The primary form of transport is the manta, a ray-like form of submersible that comes equipped with holographic technology and pulse weaponry. The trilogy has much of the generic feel, if not the specific atmosphere, of Herbert's masterwork.

However, Aquasilva, unlike Dune, is the debut work of a 21-year-old student, and I hope no one will accuse me of entertaining ol' green-eye when I say that it shows. The trilogy shows marks of brilliance, of banality and of talent as yet unhoned, talent that I hope Audley will develop in future novels.

Book I of this trilogy takes our young hero from self-doubting adolescence to capable manhood through the time-honoured medium of magic, as Cathan is shipped off in secret to an academy for Shadow mages, one of several heretical centres of resistance to the Domain. It's the all-too-common staple of the heroic fantasy trilogy for the protagonist to turn out, to everyone's surprise, to be exactly the right person for the job of messiah. I like to think of it as the "As Luck Would Have It" syndrome. Here, not only does Cathan turn out, As Luck Would Have It, to be one of the most powerful natural mages ever, but so does one of his fellow trainee mages, who also turns out, As Luck Would Have It, to be related to Cathan. And they're both long-lost Thetian royalty. It's pretty much a given that something of the sort would happen as soon as you learn that Cathan is adopted, and Audley telegraphs most of his revelations fairly early on in the book. He also succumbs to the urge to over-explain things in Book I. "'Escount' was the title given to a Count's heir," Cathan tells us on page 29. By this time, we've already seen the word in context at least a dozen times and been able to work out what it means for ourselves, and this is but one of many such narrative asides. On the one hand, you might find that it lends the story a certain exotic feel, by treating mundane and alien concepts alike as needing explanation; on the other, you might find it slightly annoying. Yet within a few chapters Audley has shrugged this habit off -- the quality of his writing improves measurably in the space of less than half a novel. It's flashes of promise like this that give you hope for an illustrious future for the author.

Cathan, and his mage-school chums Palatine, Ravenna and the rest are likeable enough in Heresy, but I was far more intrigued by the character of Sarhaddon, a Domain novice a little older than Cathan. They start the book as fellow-travellers and friends, with Sarhaddon a provincial moderate making his way to the big city/island to undergo the next stage of his religious training, but you just know their paths will cross again, and by then Cathan will be a paid-up heretic and Sarhaddon a fully-fledged Domain agent. The climax of this first volume is little more than a dry run for the fireworks I expected would follow.

cover scanSaid fireworks turn up in Book II. Cathan and Palatine, having secured Lepidor against the Domain, now go a-wandering with Ravenna to help her find her own personal As-Luck-Would-Have-It, and to track down the fabled submersible that will give them control over the SkyEyes. Along the way they run into Sarhaddon, who is now rather more a force to be reckoned with, and the malicious Orosius. These encounters, for me, were the highlights of the book, because sadly by then I'd stopped caring about what happened to the protagonists. Perhaps the novelty wore off after the rather rushed dramatic denouement of Heresy, but wear off it did. Long sequences of political intrigue and trade negotiations, here and in Heresy, make a change from long sequences of quests and swordfights in other fantasy series -- and add a certain element of realism -- but by the end of Inquisition they're starting to wear a bit thin. All in all, I felt the storyline had started to outstay its welcome, and it chunters along towards a lacklustre ending.

Rather than picking up where Inquisition left off, Book III -- Crusade -- jumps forward to find Cathan and Ravenna in hiding. cover scanIt soon jolts ahead three more years; this volume took its time settling down. Cathan, in best fantasy tradition, has run away from his responsibilities, and now those responsibilities catch up with him again. Our heroes discover connections between the various forms of magic that turn the old notions of heresy on their head -- unfortunately, this is double heresy to the old guard, and now the Domain and the heretical academies are after them, along with Aquasilva's political leaders who still don't care to have rogue royalty on the loose.

I found it hard to salvage my interest in Cathan and his cohorts after Inquisition, but on the plus side I found the plot of Crusade rather more interesting than that of its predecessor. There's a few more twists, not all of them signalled in advance, and the series ends on a muted note that leaves the future of Aquasilva in doubt. This could just be a route into further sequels, but I prefer to think of it as a pleasing defiance of reader expectations in a series that could have benefited from more of the same. Too many of the trilogy's 1200 pages were spent treading ground overly familiar to genre readers.

All in all, Aquasilva is a promising start from Audley, and bodes well for his authorial future, but there's still plenty of work to be done if he's to rise among the ranks of the fantasy greats.


Review by John Toon.


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