Harlan, Thomas. 1999. The Shadow of Ararat. New York: Tor.

Reviewed 27 July 1999

The Shadow of Ararat (cover) I'm afraid I can't match the enthusiasm of Dr. Miller's review in Locus. While The Shadow of Ararat is certainly better than the run-of-the-mill IFS, it suffers from several conceptual lapses and an annoying stylistic one.

This novel—and the series it begins, the ultimate length of which we have no idea—is based in a Roman Imperium that never was. The East-West schism has been administrative more than anything else. Christianity has never raised its head at all. Temporally, we're a few hundred years after the death of Julius Caesar (what we would call the early seventh century).

The driving concept of this novel, though, appears several times in the first couple hundred pages and then disappears. Magic works. It appears, though, that the price of magic is technology, at least within the Roman Empire. Certain attempts to make technological advances (such as moveable type) result in magical attacks on the innovators and destruction of their experiments. Further, the population of Rome seems to suffer an almost parastic loss of energy and health.

Magic itself is a disquieting mixture of necromancy, hallucinatory visions, and direct application of power symbols. The mixture seems to work for this novel, and for this milieu. I am a bit skeptical about maintaining the mixture over an entire IFS, but we'll just have to see. The most interesting aspect of the magic is the apparent lack of understanding of the principles of magic by the main characters. This may be mere misdirection; once again, we'll have to see.

All of this is fine. The problems start with the Dickensian complications, coincidences, and marriages of convenience. Not to put too fine a point on it, if the only surviving descendent of the "legitimate" Imperator of East Rome (based in Constantinople) was also the heir of the Persian King of Kings, the Persians would have wasted little time in beginning covert activities to place him on the throne of East Rome. Of all the classical civilizations, Persia was most adept at covert activity.

Another conceptual difficulty comes from the moving focus. In a very strong sense, Rome and Constantinople are characters. However, once the various parties of nobles leave those cities, we never return. When Maxian—the most powerful human wizard in the book, and coincidentally the beloved younger brother of the Western Roman Emperor—leaves Rome, it seems almost on the verge of collapse. There are messages passed all along the eastern Mediterranean; why none from the west? Why no further reinforcements, from Gaul or Hispania, that carry messages with them as they arrive? It is as if the world stops when it is outside the focus of any POV character.

Finally, there's the question of technological advances outside of Rome. Or, rather, the lack thereof. In our history, the novel opens near the golden age of Arab science (as an aside, whether the Mohammed in the novel is the Mohammed remains to be seen, although the timing and attitude are right). The library at Alexandria seems intact. So why aren't non-Romans avoiding the stasis of the Dark Ages? Well, actually, they are. The critical error is map-making. The characters have come to rely upon relatively accurate maps of inland areas, and bicker about whose maps are better (recalling that the Persian Empire had some of the best mathematicians of the classical world). There is a lot of technology that goes along with the skills necessary to survey inland maps. Unfortunately, none of this technology—or the corresponding advances, since a given technological advance leaves ripples elsewhere—makes its way into the book.

In the end, though, these flaws just get in the way of the willing suspension of disbelief. Harlan's prose is relatively polished and unmannered. Stylistically, in fact, there is too little difference among viewpoints, which often makes keeping the action straight needlessly difficult. Harlan also "shows" with a vengeance when invoking magical trances. No long blocks of italics, or hints that the wizard understands that he is in a trance. Instead, the wizard's perceptions treat the events of the trance as if they're perfectly normal. The first couple of times, this was quite interesting. It successfully deflects questions about narrative reliability that, if answered too early, would force the collapse of a major plotline. However, it got old. Surely wizards this experienced will be able to distinguish reality from magic better than this; if they can't, they won't get this experienced.

This is certainly a better-than-average first novel in an IFS. That it's a first novel at all is quite surprising. The military aspects are far better done than most fantasy novels (although, again, there would have been some technological changes that don't make it in).

Overall rating: 3 stars
Good.
Certainly worth reading. This may be more worthwhile after the next novel comes out; the closure of the book is very rushed, resolves virtually nothing, and just sets up for the next one. Unlike many IFS, I will actually read the next novel.


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