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Through the Darkness


Rulers of the Darkness

by Harry Turtledove

(Through the Darkness: Earthlight, £6.99, 514 pages, paperback, published 2002. Rulers of the Darkness: Earthlight, £6.99, 691 pages, paperback, published 6 October 2003.)

cover scanThe continent of Derlavai is in tumult. Algarve is well on its way to establishing a new empire, and having conquered Forthweg, Grelz, Valmiera and all other neighbouring countries, it turns its eye to Unkerlant. Stalled by the native resistance, the Algarvians have taken to slaughtering Kaunians, the continent's former imperialists and current scapegoats, to fuel the destructive magic they need to press onwards. While the Unkerlanters, driven by the insane King Swemmel, defend their land against the Algarvian army, the denizens of the outlying countries and islands play both ends against the middle. Global war, and global devastation, seems inevitable; but in a southerly island nation, work is underway on the spell that could provide the ultimate deterrent -- or destroy the world.

In other words, as the back cover blurb for Rulers makes overly explicit, it's the Second World War in Fantasyland.

Like the Worldwar and Colonisation series before it, the Darkness series is not so much a genre work as a military romance with genre trappings. The key fantastic element here is that, instead of mechanical guns and artillery, the various proponents use explosive bursts of magic; so, for rifles the soldiers carry enchanted sticks, and in place of grenades they throw ensorcelled eggs. I feel this works a lot better as a basic concept than did the central premise of Worldwar and Colonisation -- reptilian aliens invade the Earth during the First World War, but in order to maintain enough of a stalemate to sustain several very large books, their military technology (several decades behind the propulsion technology that has given them interplanetary travel) can only extend to percussive weaponry. Here at least the fantastic concept is universally applied, and this does wonders for the fiction's cohesion and believability.

I'm not sure, however, what to make of a book whose author feels it necessary to provide six pages of "Dramatis Personae". The obvious implication is that I'll forget who they all are unless I'm reminded, but is this because as characters they're forgettable, or because there's just too damned many of them? In truth it's a bit of both. The multiplicity of viewpoint characters in the Darkness novels, as in other Turtledove sagas, is their strength and their weakness: rather than the more partisan picture one might get from a story with only one or two narrative voices, these books offer the reader an all-round composite image of the situation through the eyes of officers, footsoldiers and civilians of each culture involved; however, this admirable effort to present "the whole picture" is offset somewhat by the resultant narrative inconsistency. Turtledove hasn't pared down his cast list to a handful of clear protagonists, and so I found myself doing just that, as it were, on his behalf. Without a doubt the most easily skimmed sections are those that feature the manoeuvres of the cover scanvarious armies. Another ambush, another dragon-back bombing run. Oh, another skirmish. Another village invaded. Another ambush. Very quickly the assaults and retreats become repetitive, and the soldiers indistinguishable, and this is quite a failing in a saga whose primary focus is the War.

These military to-ings and fro-ings comprise easily half of the story, possibly even two thirds. That's 250 to 350 pages in Through, no lightweight at 514 pages in total. Rulers adds another 150 on top of that, of which as many as 100 are skirmish, ambush, skirmish. Reader, I hurried it.

The real interest, as far as I'm concerned, is in the lives of the Forthwegian who cohabits with a Kaunian, the Valmieran noblewoman who sleeps with the enemy, and the Kuusaman mages who are developing the A-bomb of sorcery. Even here, though, there's too much repetition, and I'm a little disturbed to note that I might reasonably have read only the first three chapters and the last three chapters of Through and intuited the entire remainder of the novel. I confess that, halfway through Rulers, I skipped ahead and did just that. And these are Books 3 and 4 in the series. Books 1 and 2, amounting to a further 1200 pages, are, I'm told, essentially backstory for this pair of books in which very little changes. There's more to come.

What I'm trying to say, in a suitably long-winded way, is that Turtledove overwrites. I realise it wouldn't please his fans, his publishers or his accountant nearly so much, but it wouldn't be to the Darkness saga's detriment to lose a good three quarters of its weight.

It's annoying, because Through and Rulers aren't badly written. They're formulaically written, but they're certainly not badly written. I genuinely wanted to find out what happened to some of the characters -- not much, as it turned out, but I wanted to find that out. But if anyone's offering to produce a set of York Notes on this epic fantasy saga, I'd much rather read that next time.

Review by John Toon.

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