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The War of the Lords Veil by Adam Nichols (Orion Millennium, 5.99, 372 pages, paperback. First published 1994; reissued 6 April 1998.)
The Pathless Way by Adam Nichols (Orion Millennium, 5.99, 407 pages, paperback. First published 1996; reissued 6 April 1998.)
The Paladin: Book One of the Whiteblade Saga by Adam Nichols (Orion Millennium, 5.99, 503 pages, paperback. Published 6 April 1998.)

Modern fantasy is a curious mix of the banal, the clichéd and the inspired. All too often it is formulaic, mega-volumed and a bore to wade through, with writers like Robert Jordan and David Eddings ruling the roost and proving that you don't need to be good (or at least to stay good) to sell books by the truckload. Fortunately, amidst the often underwhelming dross there sometimes gleams genuine talent, writers who take on the formula and successfully turn it to their own ends. On the evidence of these three books (one new, two re-issues), Adam Nichols looks to be someone genuinely worth reading.

On first acquaintance, Nichols does not appear to have a great deal going for him. He is operating in the 'feudal system with magical knobs on' department of fantasy, after all. In The War of the Lords Veil, one of his earlier works, the plot is pretty standard fare -- a mysterious and viciously effective army of demon soldiers sweeps up from the South into the peaceful Northern countryside. All resistance is crushed by the demonic power of the invaders. Survivors are either forced to take to the hills to save themselves, or are swept up and used as slave labour for their conquerors. However, as told in a multi-viewpoint manner by Nichols, this book does generate a good deal of narrative drive, as opponents of the new regime come together in their diverse ways to fight the invaders. The subject matter may be pretty standard fare, but Nichols does use it in fresh and lively ways, supplying an interesting set of characters and a grittiness to the plotting that is pleasingly different.

The Pathless Way is set in the same fantasy land as the first book, but hundreds of years later, and well away from the original locale. It starts out standard fantasy fare, with a quasi-Viking raid on the settlement of Reeve Vale that leaves the little frontier town burned and its people either dead or scattered. But from there on in, the story takes an altogether more original bent. Guthrie, the last surviving son of the ruling family, meets with a member of the strange Closter brethren while lost in the woods following the attack, and is introduced to the underlying chaotic nature of his universe. The experience shatters Guthrie, and he is left with only a book of cryptic verse and the skull of the Closterer Abbod to guide him while he attempts to survive in a very changed world. Nichols succeeds in making Guthrie's plight (and that of those who depend on him to lead them) both compelling reading and a fascinating insight into the nature of his world. To the Closterers, reality is a malleable thing, and Guthrie's coming to terms with this fact, and the way he uses the power it gives him, makes this one of the least predictable fantasy reads you'll find. Worked to a smaller scale than the others, of the three books reviewed here, this one is the gem.

My heart sank when I picked up the most recent of these books, The Paladin, only to spy on the cover the dreaded words "Book One of the Whiteblade Saga". Had Nichols succumbed to Jordanitis already? The cover picture itself gave out no great hopes, being one of the clumsiest generic efforts I've seen in recent times. Fortunately the story inside, if not quite on the same level as The Pathless Way, is interesting, with a number of unique features that make it an absorbing read. The heroine of the story, Elinor, starts out (as per the formula) as a love-sick young woman, torn between her desire for the shady Annocky (whom she successfully seduces using a spell told to her by a local medicine woman) and her stepfather's wish to marry her off to an older man who could bring him a lot of business. Running away after faking her own death, she is guided by another wise woman's prophecy (they run as a thread through Elinor's story), and undergoes several transformations, acquiring the sword 'Whiteblade' of the title along the way, in return for killing the ruler who gave it to her. By the end of this volume, Elinor has become a key figure in the fight against a group of religious zealots intent on restoring the ancient powers (those very powers that were shattered at the end of The War of the Lords Veil).

What buoys up The Paladin and keeps it from falling into the clichéd seen-it-all-before condition of much modern fantasy is the excellent characters, both the central protagonist and the supporting figures around her. This is true of all these books. Nichols isn't afraid to kill off major characters either, so he keeps the reader on his toes, wondering what is going to happen next. Underlying all three books is a good foundation, rooted in a cycle of transformation (of the young man Tai in the first book, of Guthrie in The Pathless Way, and Elinor in The Paladin), and of ancient magics stirring again. Adam Nichols has a splendid imagination, and a great sense of story. He's also a cliché-breaker, and that might be the strongest card in his hand as he goes up against the gut-swollen 'giants' in the world of fantasy in the battle for a prominent place on the display shelves.

Review by John D Owen.

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© John D Owen 25 July 1998