The Nations of the Night: Book Two of the Lightbringer Trilogy by Oliver Johnson (Orbit, £6.99, 493 pages, paperback; published 13 August 1998.)
Stepping into a trilogy via the second book in the sequence is generally not a recommended practice. Within the fantasy field, this is usually problematic, as most authors follow Tolkien's norm, and come up with a story that spans three books, with no specific sense of closure in the story at the end of the first two volumes. If you are lucky, the author will choose an appropriate place to pause, as the good Professor did. If you are truly unlucky, then the author will leave a monstrous cliffhanger and then take umpteen years to complete the next volume. This should be called the David Brin approach.
Somebody out there, however, has been taking notes, for along comes Oliver Johnson's The Nations of the Night, which not only seems to work quite effectively as a story without the first volume, but also seems pretty complete within itself. The heroes are all set to go off on the next phase of their adventures by the end, and while there are one or two strings left dangling to be sorted in the last volume, overall the storyline here is satisfyingly complete.
At the start of The Nations Of The Night, a party of disparate characters plainly fleeing a considerable catastrophe find themselves suddenly transported to a cave in mountains conveniently distant from their original enemies. However, Fate being the vicious bitch she is, they are soon beset by a new set of foes to keep them busy. They must flee the snowstorms of deadly winter, controlled by the Fenris wolf, to seek the hidden land of Lorn. To make matters worse, their surviving enemies from volume one have found their own means of rapid transit, and are close on the heroes' heels.
Oliver Johnson writes with practised facility, and if his characters are not hugely original, they at least do have a certain presence on the page. He plots well, and engaged this reader's attention pretty solidly with his action setpieces. If there is one major fault, it is that there is a difficulty of scale in this book. Journeys which take long days of hard slog at one point get traversed in a single day later on. Mountains high enough to have characters climbing them gasping in the thin air seem somehow compacted at other times. Whereas Tolkien kept a firm grasp of the distance between his various kingdoms, evincing a continent-wide scale, Johnson's sense of distance gives me the feeling that we are dealing with something happening in a place not much bigger than, say, the northern Lake District. It's not serious enough to indelibly mar the book, but does break the spell at times.
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© John D Owen 7 November 1998