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Ships From the West: The Monarchies of God Book Five

by Paul Kearney

(Gollancz, £17.99, 296 pages, hardback, published 5 December 2002. Gollancz, 6.99, 296 pages, paperback edition published 8 May 2003.)

Seventeen years after the end of the bloody Merduk Wars, the continent of Normannia stands on the brink of a brutal and cover scanclimactic conflict. At the heart of the land the Himerian Church has metamophosed into a theological dictatorship, The Second Empire. Here, the mysterious magus, Aruan has taken up the role of Vicar-General of the Inceptine Order, and controls its legions of Knights Militant and horrific army of Werewolves. With a virtual monopoly of magical power, he is set at last to embark on the final conquest of the remaining independent nations.

In opposition to Aruan principally stands Hebrion, in the far west, and Torunna, in the east. Each is ruled by a charismatic warrior king, and each has spent years preparing armies and fleets to meet the coming need, but both are far more dependent on cold steel and gunpowder than magic, and must fight at great distances from each other, with little opportunity to lend effective aid. Their sole new advantage is the unlikely alliance that has blossomed between Torunna and its old enemy, the Merduk realm of Ostrabar.

Within this fraught arena, Kearney deploys his cast of well-established characters, and again displays his striking ability to construct intricate, suspenseful plots and write sharp, compelling battle scenes.

The book is brisk and vivid, and as ever full of surprises and painful reversals. People don't just die in Kearney's novels, they die badly, with a credible but not overwhelming edge of realistic pain and squalor.

Once again, then, we watch as Kings Abeleyn of Hebrion and Corfe of Torunna, the Mage Golophin, the master-mariner Richard Hawkwood, race against time and unpleasant odds to save their world, and their lives (a race they don't all win...).

In choosing to commence this novel seventeen years after the conclusion of the last in the sequence, Kearney has departed from his previous practice, where each novel picked up quickly from where the last took off. The intervening years are reduced to ocassional asides or commentaries, but this is handled deftly, with a careful balance between detail and pace, so that the reader is informed about past developments, without getting bogged down. Certainly there would have been enough incident in the intervening period to merit another novel, but Kearney has made a good job of bridging the gap, and the story does not suffer unduly.

More surprisingly, however, is the fact that the story as a whole draws to a final conclusion by the end of this volume. Only in the last fifty pages or so does this seem inevitable. Prior to that one could clearly see the potential, in a half dozen unresolved situations, for another good sized book, at least! Here then, the story feels not rushed, but certainly compressed. A longer, more suspenseful account of several elements that have been reduced to quick sketches, might well have been written, and would have been doubly satisfying to Kearney's enthusiastic readership.

Regardless of this, the story still satisfies. Kearney's characters are compulsively interesting in their striving, struggling, and (all too often) dying. In places the tale canters briskly along, in others it gallops! As a final verdict one can only say that if the story leaves the reader hungry for more of the same, then the author has done a very fine job indeed.

Review by Simeon Shoul.

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