The first two volumes in Juliet E. McKenna's latest trilogy, The Hadrumal Crisis, are set in the same universe as all twelve of her previous novels. The problem around which they are structured is that of rogue wizardry. In Einarinn, from the wizards' island stronghold of Hadrumal, the Archmage Planir has final authority over magic. He upholds the treaty which mandates wizardly non-interference in mainland politics. Above all, wizardry must never be used in war.
When Dangerous Waters (2011) opens, the Archmage is faced with a threat to his authority and to the public image of wizardry in the form of Minelas, a renegade mage who betrayed a Caladhrian baron to pirates and used his powers to kill. Though Minelas is not himself a threat to Hadrumal, his victims—Lady Zurenne, widow of the dead Caladhrian baron, and Corrain, once a captain of the baron's guards and now a pirate galley slave—may prove dangerous to the status quo that preserves mainland wizards' safety and Hadrumal's independence. Eventually, Corrain wins free of the pirates and journeys to distant Solura in search of a mage who isn't subject to the Archmage's authority, one who might be willing to help Corrain avenge himself on his former captors. Finding this mage, however, opens a whole new can of worms for Corrain, Zurenne, and the wizards of Hadrumal. For Anskal is a wizard of Mandarkin, a man from a people with no compunction at all about using magic to slaughter. In Darkening Skies (2011), the tension revolves around Anskal, who has killed most of the pirates and taken over the rest, and Hadrumal's concern over what he might do next.
And did I mention that the pirates' lair is in the Aldabreshin archipelago, home to a people implacably hostile to any form of magic?
I really wanted to like these novels. I haven't really enjoyed anything McKenna's written since the end of her first series, but I hoped, going into Dangerous Waters, that it would break that pattern. It promised pirates! A widowed noblewoman with two young daughters to protect! A loyal soldier sold into slavery, and a lady wizard investigating the actions of a renegade!
Dangerous Waters and Darkening Skies rather failed to live up to that interesting premise. Instead of being compelling stories of tense deeds, the novels' overall concerns are more to do with the management of Hadrumal's potential public relations crisis, and the four characters who alternate points of view over the course of the two novels remain opaque and undeveloped. These characters are Corrain, Lady Zurenne, Jilseth, a mage dispatched by Planir to investigate the renegade Minelas, and—in Darkening Skies—the youth Hosh, also formerly a member of Baron Halferan's guard, now a slave.
Jilseth was the only character for whom I could muster much interest or empathy. Her initial task, to investigate the renegade mage without revealing to his victims that he was, in fact, a mage, is one that strains her natural sense of justice. As Dangerous Waters progresses, she comes to possess a certain amount of sympathy for Lady Zurenne, and at the conclusion of the novel, risks her own life to defend Zurenne and her children. In Darkening Skies, however, the development of her character is lost in a profusion of politicking and the introduction of new minor characters who will mean little to anyone who hasn't read McKenna's Aldabreshin Compass series.
Lady Zurenne started out potentially interesting. A widow with young children in Caladhria—the most chauvinistic nation in Einarinn, whose parliament of barons is reminiscent of the Polish Sejm in the Late Middle Ages in its lack of direction—she makes choices to preserve and defend her eldest daughter's patrimony. When she learns how Hadrumal failed to control the renegade Minelas, at whose hands she suffered, she is determined to use the information to force the Archmage to protect her daughters. But her vacillation between bitterness and gratitude, and her lack of action outside (and even within) the domestic sphere after choosing a (male) protector for her daughter in Dangerous Waters gradually becomes off-putting.
So we come to "Captain" Corrain. Corrain's a bit of an arse, to be honest. He's dismissive of the Aldabreshi who have enslaved him, remarkably self-justifying when his plans go wrong—first, during his escape, when he has to leave Hosh behind; later in Solura, when he disregards his companion's advice and approaches the wizard Anskal—and rather tendentious. While he achieves some growth in Darkening Skies, admitting to the Archmage that he did wrong to try to recruit Anskal, his admission and subsequent attempt to make amends strike me as something of a self-serving choice: throughout, Corrain's track record is one of a man who uses what power he has to protect his own and make himself look—if possible—good, with little regard for ethics.
None of these characters feel particularly active: all their decisions seem to take place in reaction to outside forces—the pirates, the Archmage, Caladhrian nobles, Anskal, others. In the end, I'm left with very little sense of them as individuals, or of their inner lives.
Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of these three (in Darkening Skies, four) characters. The chapters alternate, each ending on something of a hook or minor cliffhanger, which isn't resolved for two chapters. I cannot judge how well the tension and pacing works for someone who doesn't share my dislike of most of the characters: I suspect rather better than it did for me.
McKenna is a competent writer, and I appreciate the depth of worldbuilding in these novels. The culture of the Aldabreshi is a detailed background to all interactions with the pirates. Hadrumal, too, has the air of a college town, filled with politicking mages as interested in research as in the doings of the mainland. But Darkening Skies in particular suffers as an individual book for being set in a continuity in which McKenna has already written so much: for a new reader, the profusion of characters and places may lack emotional resonance, while the lack of character development may trouble readers old and new.
I wish I could say otherwise, but the first two thirds of the Hadrumal Crisis really don't work for me. I hope McKenna writes another book I enjoy as much as I did 1999's The Thief's Gamble again someday.
Liz Bourke is presently reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. She has also reviewed for Ideomancer and Tor.com.