(HarperCollins Voyager, £17.99, 840 pages, hardback; published
6 August 2001.)
Back in the late nineties, David Zindell wrote a very fine science-fiction
sequence, "A Requiem for Homo Sapiens". These four books (Neverness,
The Broken God, The Wild, and War in Heaven) contained
of the most striking writing, vivid spectacles, memorable characters
and insightful presentations of philosophy and religion seen in SF for
many a year. Zindell, remarkably, managed to turn even the most esoteric
mathematics into lyrical and delightful prose. The Lightstone
is his first venture into Fantasy, and one would have hoped to see an
innovative and exciting piece of work from this highly capable author.
Well, first of all, what's the plot? The ancient world of Ea has passed
through many ages and its history has been dominated by a mystical artifact,
the Lightstone, a holy-grail which holds the promise of world peace
and immortality. This has been found, lost, stolen, seized in battle
and lost all over again down through the ages, and possessing it has
always been the ultimate goal of Ea's home-grown Dark Lord, the evil
immortal Morjin, Father of Lies (does any of this sound familiar to
you? think Silmarils, think Orb of Aldur...).
As the story opens, Ea has reached a critical point, with Morjin on
the rampage across much of the world, and the great King of Alonia calling
for a grand quest to recover the Lightstone, wherever it may be.
Among the thousands of knights and adventurers answering his call comes
Valashu Elahad, seventh son of the King of Mesh. Val, as he's familiarly
called, is of noble lineage and poor prospects. He's a thoroughly nice
young man, well-educated, poetic, generous, genteel. He's a splendid
warrior, but an innate pacifist due to his mysterious empathic ability
which forces him to experience the joys and fears and pains of anyone
he's near (thus, killing people is not easy for him). He was born with
a peculiar lightning bolt scar on his brow, and if there aren't enough
portents in his background already, he starts seeing visions of the
Lightstone just as soon as news of the quest reaches his father's castle.
Well, Val duly sets out towards Alonia. As he does so he begins accumulating
companions in much the same way that lemmings accumulate friends and
relatives before jumping off the top of Scandinavian cliffs. There are
would-be assassins and sinister hunters on his track before very long,
and the evil Morjin is soon doing a torment/seduction routine in his
Is this story formulaic, you ask me? Please! One can just about see
Zindell bending over the 'Great Fantasy Writers Cookbook' mumbling to
himself: "Hmmm... take two teaspoons of Tolkien, add a cupful of Eddings,
three ounces of Jordan and a pinch of Brooks to flavour..." I wish I
could be more positive, but there are too many lost opportunities here,
and too many easy shortcuts. Zindell has made bold gestures in several
directions, and done his damnedest to pull all the stock levers which
the genre provides, but to little positive effect.
He has set out to create an interesting culture of mystic warriors
(Val's Valari people) but given inadequate space to examining their
precepts and methods. He has attempted to create a deep well of history
and legend to backdrop his current story, but it all feels superficial
and swiftly skated over. He has tried to create a world of great cities,
magnificent panoramas and mighty edifices, but at points his simple
ability to visualize and describe seems to have completely failed him
and he falls back on bald declarations such as "it was the most impressive
thing I had ever seen" (where was the editor!).
Then again, the prose is not particularly outstanding, and very frequently
Zindell drops out of scenes and active dialogue in order to simply do
an info-dump to the reader: "She told us very little of how they did
this. She hinted at the power of the great trees to keep strangers away
and at a secret that the Lokilani shared with each other but not with
us..." Reported speech? No rule against it, and Zindell used it to good
effect in his previous work, but this example comes out of the middle
of a scene with the characters all sitting around outdoors chatting
and enjoying a rustic picnic, and it damages the story.
It's as if Zindell couldn't be bothered to do the work to recount the
conversation; worse, it's as if he's forgotten that you can't endow
a summarised report like this with any hint of character or tone. It
doesn't intrigue, it doesn't enthuse, and it can't be made frightening.
When he begins to do the same thing to represent Morjin's night-time
intrusions into Val's dreams the experience comes across as if the character
were saying "the Dark Lord gave me very bad dreams that night,
and it was really awful..."
Sadly one can only say that Zindell has fallen very far short of the
mark he set in his earlier work. The same preoccupations are there;
the struggle of a hero who yearns for peace and embraces pacifism in
a world that denies such possibilities, the grand quest for an object
of divine power through manifold challenges, dangers and marvellous
discoveries... but the execution is tainted by an unhealthy reliance
on too many stock genre motifs and situations, and tainted even more
by its strange echoes of Zindell's previous novels.
In certain ways these 'echoes' are astonishingly strong. Key characters
in The Lightstone are very clearly just re-presentations of others
from "A Requiem for Homo Sapiens"; their appearance, their behaviour,
their speech, their relations to each other, are blatantly similar.
It almost seems that Zindell has only one set of characters at his disposal,
and, lacking the ability to generate wholly new ones simply clothed
his old protagonists in the forms and style of a piece of stereotypical
fantasy. Likewise places, and names from history, and even various orders
of angels all seem to be reflections or re-uses of elements of his earlier
Eventually, the weight of these reflections drives one to ask, is this
truly a fantasy? or is it a piece of SF, actually linked to Zindell's
earlier stories, in which the characters are living on a world that's
fallen into a semi-medieval state? Certainly some of the characters
have mysterious abilities, but are they magical powers? or psychic talents?
One keeps hunting through the historical asides, looking for a solid
answer amidst what might be allusions to "A Requiem to Homo Sapiens",
and ultimately this uncertainty becomes a cause of considerable frustration.
Perhaps Zindell is attempting to make a statement about how easily the
lines between the genres can be blurred. If so, it's too subtle a point
to be worth the damage it does to the reading experience.
At the end, what has Zindell done? Well, he has written a long piece
of highly formulaic fantasy, displaying many of the standard elements
of the genre, but without breathing any fresh life into them, and has
reprised some of the ideas and concerns of his earlier work, but with
nothing like the same level of insight or freshness of language and
The Lightstone is supposed to be only the first volume in a
projected 'cycle' of... how many books? Three, four, five? I don't know.
But if the quality of the writing and the originality of the setting
and plot do not sharply pick up, it will be a long and weary road indeed...
Review by Simeon Shoul.
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