Where do your loyalties lie? What are you willing to sacrifice for them? Would you sacrifice your life for anything?
These are the driving questions behind Rules of Ascension, the first book of David Coe's projected four-volume fantasy epic, The Winds of the Forelands. Rules of Ascension works through the problem of divided loyalties, testing its characters while at the same time testing the hardened beliefs that hold people apart and divide hearts against themselves.
Perhaps it's misleading of me to begin a review of a gripping fantasy novel by stressing its thematic pre-occupations. Since multi-volume epic fantasies continue to proliferate at an alarming rate, I want to get right to the qualities that set this book apart from ones more worthy to serve as doorstops than as literature. The fact that I'm reviewing the work of a friend, whose career I've been following since we met over dinner three years and more ago (back when he was finishing Eagle Sage, the final book in his first trilogy), also makes me anxious to establish its merits in terms that a reader can trust. So I begin with themes.
Many among the speculative fiction cognoscenti measure originality in fantasy by reliance on tropes rather than themes. If a book contains tried-and-true tropes, it must be derivative. Vampires and vampire-equivalents, elves and elf-equivalents, are right out. Rules of Ascension may draw criticism from such purists for its elf-equivalents. Its Qirsi are pale-skinned, white-haired, amber-eyed, mysterious, and magical. They are also a frail, short-lived, down-trodden, and divided people who uneasily share the Forelands with the Eandi, the more numerous, dominant race -- equivalent, it seems, to ordinary humans. The racial features of the Qirsi are not conventional window-dressing; they deepen the themes of the novel. The problems of loyalty in Rules of Ascension begin, although they do not end, with race. The value of a trope lies not in the originality of its form, but in the fitness of its use.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. If I've made it clear that this is an ambitious fantasy, let me also state that in addition to being a serious work about loyalty and sacrifice, this is a book designed to reach that extensive audience whose first interest is an involved story, one with enough exoticism to create an escape but familiar enough to be accessible. Elves and a Celtic ambiance attract these readers, and this book uses those features to accommodate them. This book has market awareness. It doesn't condescend to that market, however, and it doesn't use that market as an excuse for shoddy work. This is a technically accomplished novel; polished, elegantly conceived, tightly plotted without sacrificing characterization.
The elegance of that conception begins with the complex and plausible political system that gives shape to the conflicts. While the larger setting of the novel is the continent-sized Forelands, most of the action takes place in one of its seven realms: the kingdom of Eibithar. The rules of ascension that govern the inheritance of Eibithar's crown, causing it to be shared among the kingdom's five major dukedoms, give the novel its title, and rightly so. The political plot is driven by a gradually deepening conspiracy to destabilize the kingdom by using its rules against itself. If the crown of Eibithar falls into dispute, the conflict could draw all of the Forelands into a wider war. The problems of loyalty in the novel include national and regional ties as well as race.
Moving within this world, whose conflicts are defined by subtle racial tensions and overt political conflicts, is a panoply of richly developed characters. They give the world its depth and reality. Even minor characters are sensitively sketched; their friendships, loves, and hates are all accounted for in their actions. This uniformly rich characterization frees the plot from conventionality. There are no Red Shirts here, so one can't predict the course of the plot by picking out the characters who will die. There are no one-sided villains, either. Even an obviously evil character like the assassin Cadel feels loyalty to his partner, regrets some of his jobs, and thinks of retiring. Coe refrains from dividing his characters neatly into camps of good and evil. Instead, he divides their loyalties between competing causes, and the personal loves and loyalties of each character are just as important as their national and racial ones.
Cadel is a minor though memorable character in the novel. One can get a better sense of the novel as a whole by considering the divided loyalties that face some of the major characters. Xaver, a boy on the cusp of manhood, has sworn an oath of allegiance to Tavis, his childhood friend who will one day be his Duke. When Tavis begins acting wildly, even attacking Xaver in a drunken rage, can he hold to his oath? If he does, is he honoring his friend or his political allegiance? Grinsa, a Qirsi fortune-teller who hides a secret power, has found love after long mourning the death of his Eandi wife. Yet he has had a vision of a great danger facing Eibithar and its future king. Should he leave his love behind to follow the vision? Keziah, Grinsa's sister, is chief advisor to Kearney, Duke of Glyndwr. She is also his lover. Grinsa wants her to guide him to address the kingdom's need. Should she advise Kearney to take the risk, or should she protect him from the turmoil arising in the kingdom?
These characters suffer for their competing loyalties: loyalty to the persons they love, loyalty to the land in which they live and whose lords they serve, loyalty to their people. The larger loyalties might seem to be the more important, but Coe's narrative shows that the larger the loyalty, the harder it is to define its real meaning. The Eandi war among themselves, and the minority Qirsi, who have a greater sense of racial solidarity, have been deeply divided about their future ever since their failed invasion. At first, the Qirsi had been victorious, but gradually their advance slowed as the Eandi rallied, turning a war of conquest into a brutal war of attrition. Then, a Qirsi named Carthach showed the Eandi ways of countering Qirsi magic, after which his people were swiftly defeated. Centuries later, many Qirsi revile "Carthach's treachery" and see those Qirsi who serve Eandi rulers as traitors, too. But others see wisdom and honor in "Carthach's choice," which saved thousands of lives by ending the war. What is loyalty, what is treachery, to a people?
Readers of Coe's LonTobyn Chronicle may recognize the question here. The legendary figure of Carthach has some similarities to the legendary figure of Theron in that trilogy. Carthach's legend might also be what the story of Orris in The Outlanders (the second book of the trilogy and my personal favorite) might look like from a remove of several centuries. Orris and Carthach both go against the will of their people to serve what they perceive to be the true needs of the people, and they receive the title of traitor for it. Are they traitors, or their people's most loyal friends? Both books explore this question. Its treatment in Rules of Ascension is more satisfying, however, because it is less subordinated to the conventions of the heroic quest and more grounded in a convincing political and social context.
Despite the richness of the characterizations, this novel is still plot-driven, and once the first few chapters are past, neither the pace nor the suspense slackens. I stayed up all night to finish it. I appreciated the slower development of the plot through the novel's first few chapters, though, because I could enjoy Coe's deepening of the world through vignettes. He introduces new characters by giving the reader long, layered views of their independent lives; then he weaves them into the central story.
If the novel has a shortcoming as fantasy, it may lie in the handling of magic. Coe does not give the reader a sense that the world of the book is at all uncanny. Its people do not behave very differently from the way they do in our ordinary world, and its magic is not presented as mysterious:
The room was dark save for two candles burning beside the bed and the bright yellow flames dancing like tiny wraiths in the palm of Cresenne's hand.
'It's really not that hard,' she said, her pale eyes fixed on the flames, a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She had pulled on his shirt, but her legs were still bare, one of them stretched out to the side and the other tucked beneath her. Her hair, falling loose to her shoulders, seemed to glimmer in the firelight. 'It's just a matter of using the healing magic at the same time you conjure the flame. As long as the two powers work together, you can't feel a thing.' She turned her hand slowly and the flames crept to the back of her hand, suddenly looking more like bright spiders than wraiths."
This is a compelling moment. Coe conjures a mood of intimacy and languor in a deftly described scene. Yet the language the characters use plays against the fantasy of the description: it is matter-of-fact and rational, and readers who want a more romantic kind of magic will be disappointed. All the romance in this scene comes from the characters. Even this stylistic lack has a purpose in the story, however. If their words about magic are disappointingly rational, this language aptly characterizes the Qirsi: they are professional magicians, to whom magic is as natural as speech. Grinsa, watching his lover walk the flames over her hands, appreciates its artistry without viewing it as uncanny:
He had seen this done before -- he had even tried it himself once or twice, although he could not tell her that -- but never with such grace. Certainly never by anyone so beautiful.
"There was a man in my home village who used to do that," he said, watching her hand. Watching her. "He used to call it the fire glove."
Coe's writing will not set you afire if you are looking for the jeweled mystery of Tanith Lee's prose, but his writing reveals the artistry of an accomplished story-teller at his craft, as he suits each detail to the scope of his story.
If Coe does not make Qirsi magic mysterious, he does make it well fitted to the design of his world. Politically, this magic matters; it can turn the course of a battle and give glimpses of the future, but it is not so powerful that it dominates the world. Its limits come from its cost to the ones who use it, and these costs fit the magic to the themes of the novel as well as to the narrative design.
The Qirsi are frailer and shorter-lived than the Eandi in part because of their magic. The Qirsi use up their lives in their magic: "Every act of magic -- every conjured flame, every image coaxed from the stone -- shortened a sorcerer's life just a little bit. 'Gleaning,' it was said . . . 'is like bleeding one's life away from a thousand tiny wounds.'" Nevertheless, they must use it. "How could any Qirsi not? . . . The same power that shortened their lives allowed them to do things of which the Eandi could only dream. If a musician's harp stole years from her life, wouldn't she still play?" Where this fore-shortening might draw a people towards a selfish hedonism (a tendency dramatized in the old (for a Qirsi) fortune-teller Trin), in the Qirsi it seems to heighten their awareness that they must choose carefully how to spend their lives. One way or another, their lives will be spent all too soon, and they know it. Thus, they understand the nature of service better than do the Eandi, and they grasp the sacrifices that loyal service entails, for they are always sacrificing their lives in bits and pieces, just to be themselves. Not that they necessarily serve well, or loyally. But the meaning of loyalty is heightened and clarified by the costs to the Qirsi who do serve.
Thus, this magic, like the Qirsi who possess it, enables the novel to focus on a genuine human problem in a new way, with an intensity that could not be achieved without the apparatus of the magic. This thematic use of fantastic elements seems to me the best measure of serious and successful fantasy writing. I'd like to see this novel's magic more grounded yet in the nature of the world, its mythologies and histories. That may come in subsequent books. In Rules of Ascension, we've been shown only one kingdom out of seven, and we've only begun to learn about the Qirsi. Coe is working on a large canvas here with considerable creative discipline, so we can expect more, and better, I hope, from the subsequent works in the series.
For now, I can say for certain that this is a series well worth starting.
Christopher Cobb is Senior Reviews Editor at Strange Horizons.