Russell, Sean (2001). The One Kingdom [The Swans' War, Book I]. New York: Eos.
Reviewed 29 March 2001
Yet another Interminable Fantasy Series™ reviewed here? What does this say about my taste in books? (A great deal less than it does about the availability of books of late, believe me.) At least this one is by a writer of some skill, who is willing to take quite a few risks with the normal content of an IFS.
I've already reviewed Russell's previous The Compass of the Soul in these pages. It's perhaps unfair to compare the first book of a series, particularly by a writer who is not known for snappy beginnings, to the concluding book (at least in terms of writing sequence) of another of that writer's own series. Or, anyway, it's perhaps unfair when both books are above the dreckish level exemplified by the Valdemar bathos or the Dragoncrap Chronicles. Before jumping into the substance, though, I must admit that I have some serious questions about Mr. Russell's pacing in this book and in this series. The story develops quite slowly, and does not really sustain any momentum until at least a third of the way into the book. This book would be vastly, vastly improved by adopting a more Tolkienish structure (specifically, that of The Two Towers and The Return of the King); quick cuts between different threads of the story that have yet to appear on the same loom just don't work. The One Kingdom in particular suffers from this flaw. Hint to writers, aspiring or established: Prose is not cinema, and cannot tolerate the same sort of headhopping made popular through film's ability to easily splice different camera angles without losing continuity. Just because it's not headhopping within a single chapter does not keep it from being headhopping. My attention span does exceed that of a six-year-old, and I'm going to bitch when that's not respected.
That criticism aside, Russell's writing (which remains understated), worldbuilding (which is geophysically, economically, politically, and anthropologically sound), and invocation of grandeur make this a worthwhile reading effort. Everything develops slowly in this novelthe plot, the characters, the apparent and real conflict (which are not at all the same thing), the environment. One thing that Russell does well, though, is to keep all of this development at consistent stages without maintaining a rigid lockstep progression ("chapter three advanced the plot four days, so I must advance the characters the same amount, and chapter four must be the same, and…"), such as that common to hard science fiction. Admittedly, the contemporary model of hard science fiction seems to use different sizes of lumps, but they're still quanta. As a specific example, the respective character development of Dease and Tam is equivalent at the beginning, at the midpoint, and at the end of the novel. However, the quanta of development are completely different, and yet appropriate to the characters' roles.
Thus far, Russell has maintained one of the best-considered concepts of the River Into Darkness books: Magic is not a gee-whiz technology substitute. It's rather more subtle, more legendary, than that. And, perhaps most importantly, nobody really understands how it works. By negative implication, this points out a major flaw in most IFS magic systems: they essentially force an idiot plot. I suppose I keep reading these monsters hoping that somebody will pick up on this, but it's very rare. Compare, for example, the rare usage of magic in Tolkien with the almost-hourly usage of magic in, say, Valdemar (whether one calls it "a Gift" or "magic," it's magic). The extraordinary powers available in Valdemar are seldom used wisely, efficiently, or cooperatively, in distinct contrast to Tolkien's use: occasional flashes, but mostly an ever-present threat.
Once the novel does get going, most of the character relationships are quite nicely drawn (with perhaps the overly coquettish exception of that between Tam and Elise) without lapsing into omniscient narration. This is the proper use of "showing" instead of "telling." The most-visible antagonist is perhaps a bit one-dimensionalbut in much the same way as is Captain Ahab. (I guess it's okay to be one-dimensional if you're the hero of an overrated, pretentious novel about a big fish that continues to be read only because American Lit. professors need something in prose from the middle of the Nineteenth Century.) Because Hafydd is mostly offstage, though, he is more a foreshadowing of what is to come later than a character himself. As of yet.
Intellectual Property Rights: © 2001 John Savage. All rights reserved.
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