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Holder of Lightning: The Cloudmages #1

by SL Farrell

(DAW, US$6.99 / Canada$9.99, 618 pages, paperback; 2003.)

Three stars.cover scan

S.L. Farrell has a knack for taking common motifs and twisting them into new, often disturbing shapes. This book tackles Celtic folklore, the cost of using of magical artifacts, drug addiction, court intrigue, and dysfunctional family dynamics among others. Perhaps my favorite is the return of magic, of all motifs the most central to this whole series.

The story begins simply enough, with a lost sheep and an unremarkable hill. But Jenna Aoire is not as unremarkable as she seems, and neither is the "pebble" she picks up after retrieving her sheep. It turns out to be Lámh Shábhála, the mightiest of the spellstones and the one capable of reawakening all the others. Soon Jenna learns that being First Holder entails more pain than power ... and it entails a great deal of power.

For the most part, this is a very dark tale. The characters spend more time pursuing survival than happiness, though some of them prefer to chase power. A long string of failures, flawed personalities, obnoxious politics, and magic that is more trouble than it's worth has plagued the world as far back as anyone's history seems to go. Yet woven through all that is a slender thread of hope, a suggestion that even in this disaster-prone land, things can change. Along with the personal and political upheavals, the return of magic brings to life many things of awe and beauty. Is it worth losing your health and happiness to see a herd of storm deer thundering through field and forest? Is it worth trading a sleepy span of history for a sky alive with magical fire and a world where stones can speak? You're the reader; you decide.

Holder of Lightning does a good job of introducing its world, and the world is more of a character than most of the characters, who mainly consist of rather ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. Adapt or die is the order of the day. Oh, and if you thought the Ring of Doom was vicious, imagine if Frodo hadn't been able to leave the benighted thing alone most of the time but was forced to mess with it almost every night. Celtic mavens will love this book, and it's a good read for fantasy fans in general -- especially if you're tired of fantasy lite. Don't miss the interesting appendices at the end of the book; they add a lot to the experience. Recommended.

Review by Elizabeth Barrette.

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