Children of the Serpent Gate:
Book Three of The Tears of Artamon
(Bantam Books, £7.99, 747 pages, paperback, first published 2005,
this edition published 7 September 2006.)
this last act of the saga that began with Lord of Snow and Shadows,
the Rossiyan Empire stands at a crucial moment in its history. Science
and reason have begun to displace an older magical way of the looking
at the world. But the release of the Drakhaoul, demonic (or angelic)
beings who can take possession of human hosts, threatens to plunge the
empire into a new dark age. Also threatening to turn the clock back
is the Francian Commanderie -- a military order of religious fanatics
that effectively controls King Enguerrand of Francia. I have already
said it in reviews of the earlier volumes but it bears repeating that
the world Ash has created is a refreshing change from the stock medieval
settings of so much post-Tolkien fantasy.
In this third act of the drama, Ash continues to work with multiple
points of view. By doing this she succeeds in creating a much richer
narrative than would have been possible with the omniscient narrator
of traditional fantasy. However, the resultant complexity does threaten
to overwhelm the narrative flow at times.
Among the several viewpoint characters that Ash has used over the course
of the trilogy two stood out for me in this volume: Gavril and Kiukiu.
As I read through Children of the Serpent Gate I was struck by
how these characters seemed to represent two complementary aspects of
the narrative action. Gavril's story takes place entirely within the
physical world of Rossiya. Meanwhile Kiukiu, as befits her role as shaman,
becomes the protagonist of a parallel story unfolding on a spiritual
realm. While Gavril struggles with the Drakhaoul on the physical level,
she is working to release the spirits of a number of children who were
sacrificed to open a gate to the realm of the Drakhaoul.
Ash has commented that there are no Dark Lords in this fantasy trilogy.
In my review of the previous volume, I suggested that while this might
be true, the Tielen court alchemist Kaspar Linnaius seemed to be a Rasputin-like
figure. However that assessment was premature. In this volume, we see
another more sympathetic side of Linnaius. In contrast to the black-and-white
characterization of so much contemporary fantasy, Ash has very effectively
painted all her characters -- even the apparent villains -- in various
shades of grey.
While the characterization is satisfyingly complex, there is also plenty
to satisfy lovers of action: sea battles, sword fights, daring escapes,
arcane encounters. Indeed, there is perhaps too much action towards
the end of the novel as the various strands of the narrative come rushing
together to create a climactic conclusion.
In summary, this is a very satisfying conclusion to a refreshingly
different take on the fantasy trilogy. Sarah Ash is definitely a writer
to keep an eye on.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: