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The Lightstone

by David Zindell

(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 cover scansome 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 dreams...

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 work.

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 approach.

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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