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The Siege of Arrandin: Book One of the Arrandin Trilogy

by Marcus Herniman

(Earthlight, £5.99, 517 pages, paperback; July 1999.)

The Empire of Lautun is having, well, a bad hair day. The Emperor, Rhydden Peacemaker, is a not-particularly-peaceful man. Snide and malicious, he plays nasty little games of favouritism and pays far too much attention to the sinister Archmage cover scanMerrech. Meanwhile, the ancient Aeshtar religions are being persecuted by the brash, arrogant, new Vashta religions. The noble houses have split colourfully over the religious issue, the best of them taking a position opposing the Emperor, while the Council of Magi do their best to hold a principled neutral position...

Just to put the icing on the cake, a hoarde of twenty thousand Easterners come steaming over the horizon and over-run the country around the strategic city of Arrandin.

Oh dear.

In the face of these unwelcome developments, there's nothing for it but that High Councilor Rhysana of the Council of Mages, and her assorted fellow-travellers, must high-tail it to Arrandin, post-haste, and set to work digging out the hidden secrets of its mighty magical defences, fight lethal sorcerous duels with barbarous Eastern wizards and priests, smite the foe hip and thigh and still find time for an occasional cosy evening in front of a nice toasty fire...

Oh, and just in case cut-throat politics and a flamboyantly brutal siege complete with summoned demons, lightning bolts, and the shades of the departed aren't enough to grab our attention, Herniman throws in the odd abduction of key characters, treachery, brings the dead back to life, and periodically threatens the return of The Enemy, the Mighty Demon Captain who was vanquished (but not killed, they never are, are they?) fifteen hundred years before...

So, why is the book so... un-enthralling?

It isn't that Herniman is a bad writer. He handles his prose adequately. And it's not that his plot lacks incident or colour, there's plenty of that.

He makes, I think, three mistakes.

Firstly, this book is overloaded with characters. There are dozens and dozens of them, and they all have ridiculous, hoaky 'exotic' names. After Dhurgaur, and Boldren and Dengriis, and Hrugaar and Salbar, you have to wonder how the Archmage Ellen got her foot in the door!

Regardless, and joking aside, there are just too many of these people, introduced too fast, given no time to really develop a presence in the reader's mind, each with their own magical or martial speciality, and ultimately it all gets tediously confusing trying to recall who's who and what they did last.

Secondly, and worse, the principal characters only rarely come alive. They are, sadly, rather stereotypical. The good are too Good, and the bad are too Bad. Credible, complex characters are rare here, and there is also a lack of vividness, of a clear sense of their physical and emotional experiences.

Thirdly, and worse still, this 'Book One' doesn't feel like a Book One, it feels like a Book Three, or maybe a Book Four. The backstory is massive. It's not just that Herniman wants to bring the reader up to date on the history of the Empire of Lautun, he also feels obliged to bring you up to date on the life-stories of all those characters!

And this, it has to be said, is a complicated Empire and a collection of people with complicated lives. We're just getting to grips with the political squabbles in the Imperial Court of Nobles, with the arguments of the Old and New Priesthoods, with the different Magical Traditions within the Council of Mages, with the politics and cultures and past of this world, when we have to back-track to learn about why Rhysana hates and fears the Archmage Merrech, or find out about Hrugaar's Fay heritage, or ponder why Erkal Dortrean dislikes the Emperor so much... Herniman could have (and maybe should have) written a previous trilogy just to get his readers current with all the ins and outs of prior events.

The Siege of Arrandin is decently written, but poorly structured. The author tries to do far too much with far too many people between one set of covers, and his major characters are only occasionally captivating. There are occasional flickers of interesting dialogue, and the societies he's created could have been compelling, if there were the time to pay adequate attention to their intricacies, but, alas, there wasn't.


Review by Simeon Shoul.


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