With Eagle Sage, David Coe has brought his first fantasy epic, The LonTobyn Chronicle, to an exciting and highly satisfying conclusion. Readers not already familiar with the series would do well to begin with the first book, Children of Amarid. While each book in the Chronicle tells a complete story, to understand the full significance of the later stories the reader must know the first ones. In this review I'll be focusing on Eagle Sage, but I won't give too much away about the first two books.
The LonTobyn Chronicle tells the story of contact between the peoples of two continents, Lon-Ser and Tobyn-Ser. Originally closely akin, they were separated millenia ago, when, the stories tell, the brother gods Lon and Tobyn quarrelled over the love of the goddess Leora. Angered by the quarrel, their father Arick split their land in two halves, separated by a wide sea. Since that time, the two peoples have gone their separate ways and have developed two radically different cultures. Lon-Ser has pursued science and technology; its states are rich, bureaucratic, urban, and violent. Tobyn-Ser has instead developed magic. Its people have no central government, and their culture is simple, rural, and largely peaceful. The mages of the Order of Amarid, whose power comes from their ability to form a psychic bond with birds of prey, chiefly hawks and owls, protect and serve the people of Tobyn-Ser.
The LonTobyn Chronicle begins when the age-long separation between the two peoples ends, and their ways of life are irrevocably changed by the contact. In Tobyn-Ser, the Order of Amarid, which had grown rigid and complacent, is shattered into rival factions. In Lon-Ser, the balance of power between the states is unsettled, leading them towards war for the first time in centuries. Coe handles the interaction of high fantasy and cyberpunk extremely well, writing both cultures and their characters convincingly and giving a highly plausible view of their destabilizing effects on one another. I myself would have liked to have seen more exploration of the cultures and especially of the sources of magic, but Coe, surely to the delight of readers who love a good story, does not get bogged down in his world building. He does it unobtrusively and effectively as he follows his story.
The story of Eagle Sage begins several years after contact between Lon-Ser and Tobyn-Ser, as both lands experience the benefits and the disruptions of the rapid changes triggered by contact. The plot revolves around three characters, all of whom will be familiar to readers of the first two books in the series.
One half of the plot develops in the high-tech realm of Lon-Ser. Here, the main character is Melyor i Lakin, one of the central characters of the trilogy's second book, The Outlanders. Having triumphed over opponents who plotted the conquest of Tobyn-Ser, Melyor is trying to use her power to break the cycle of competitive violence that plagues her land. But those who benefit from the old system would much rather see Melyor dead than change their ways. She must discover and defeat her enemies before they destroy her and plunge Lon-Ser into war. The other half of the plot is set in Tobyn-Ser, and it also develops under the shadow of war. Caitlin, a child whose traumatic past has placed her at the head of one of the rival factions of the divided Order, must grow up and come to terms with her powers while the fate of her land hangs in the balance. Her tale becomes intertwined with Jaryd, youthful hero of Children of Amarid, now one of the leading mages of the Order's other faction.
It is with Jaryd's story, in fact, that Eagle Sage begins, with his discovery that war is coming. Having been without a familiar since his first hawk died, he gets much more than he expected, or wanted, when he binds to an eagle. An eagle binds to a mage only when the land is in great need, in time of war. Coe's description of the binding process sweeps the reader up, just as Jaryd is swept along in the tumultuous stream of images:
Visions and memories suddenly coursed through him like the floodwaters of the Dhaalismin: hunting along the crest of the Seaside Range; flipping over in mid-flight to ward off the attack of two smaller hawks; swooping and diving with another, smaller eagle in what he recognized instinctively as a courtship flight; pouncing on a rabbit, digging his talons into its soft fur and flesh, killing it with a quick slash of his razor beak. . . . Abruptly . . . he wasn't this eagle anymore. He was circling above a tall, powerfully built mage to whom he was bound. And as he watched, two armies approached each other under a hazy sky. . . . Other images washed over him. Lifetime after lifetime after lifetime. It almost seemed that he was binding not to one bird, but to many, each carrying its own memories and those of the mage it had loved. He saw scenes from the lives of the three Eagle-Sages who had come before flashing through his mind. . . . He kept waiting for a pattern to emerge, for the flood of images to begin again, as it had during his binding to Ishalla. But there was no ending here; there was nothing to grasp. Yes, he had been through a binding before. But nothing could have prepared him for this. He was being carried away by the deluge. He was drowning.
The unobtrusive image of the river flows through this descriptive set piece, giving it emotional coherence and vigor as it brings together the impact of the incredible experience of binding and the historical significance of the moment. Coe is not an ostentatious stylist, but his best writing rises well above the flat realism that hamstrings the imagination in much mainstream fantasy. Melyor, Caitlin, and Jaryd must act as leaders under the threat of war. Coe deftly involves the reader in their commitment and urgency as he moves smoothly between the many threads of his plot.
Balanced against these heroes are the villains. I can't say much about them without giving away the plot, but they deserve more than passing mention. Coe has already shown a talent for constructing complex villains. His chief villains from the first two books of the series -- the renegade mage Sartol and Cedrych, the brilliant and deadly lord in Lon-Ser who dreams of conquering Tobyn-Ser -- were both evil in the extreme and yet psychologically justified (fans of Stephen R. Donaldson's appalling and psychologically damaged villains will find Coe's approach to villains recognizable and appealing). Coe's villains in Eagle Sage match the standard of the first two books, and their plots and the hero's desperate struggles to save the lands from danger will keep readers furiously turning pages to find out what happens next.
The gripping plot is one of Eagle Sage's major strengths, but also one of its few weaknesses. Eagle Sage is such a satisfying concluding book in the trilogy because its plot grows out of the plots of the first two books. This is not a series where the ultimate solution comes from the sudden arrival of new characters with new powers. The people who have been involved in the struggles of LonTobyn from the beginning must grow to meet the greater challenges they now face. I like to see characters that I've learned to care about grow and change instead of endlessly repeating the same old heroic shtick. While the characters grow in satisfying ways, the plot's outlines nevertheless may seem a bit too familiar to avid readers of fantasy. Coe's imagination at times seems somewhat constrained by the conventions of endings in heroic fantasy, just as he seemed somewhat constrained in the first book of the series by the conventions of the "adolescent apprentice mage hero" story. The trilogy's second book, The Outlanders remains my favorite of the three because its story and characters are most fully Coe's own. In Eagle Sage, Coe sometimes lets convention guide the story a bit too much, at least to my taste.
Still, a good story-teller knows when to use convention as well as when to break with it. Eagle Sage will please readers who enjoy deep immersion in the complexities of an imagined world, and it will please readers who like a gripping page-turner of a story. That's an impressive achievement, especially in an author's first series. I look forward to seeing what David Coe brings us next.
Eagle Sage is now available in hardback. The mass-market paperback edition is scheduled to be released in March.
To learn more about David Coe and the world of the LonTobyn Chronicle, click here to read his interview with Strange Horizons.