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The Heir of Night US cover

The Heir of Night UK cover

I really wanted to like The Heir of Night. How can you not like a novel with such evocative names as the Earls of Blood and the Keep of Winds? Not to mention some gorgeous myth-making: a long and terrible fight against an enemy called the Swarm of Dark, then a desperate landing on a new planet, where men and women garrison the Shield Wall of Night against the coming of the Swarm. In its hints of a bleak, cruel world the milieu reminded me at times of George R. R. Martin's fantasies, particularly in the names.

A good sense of myth-making is not enough, though, and unfortunately the novel did not live up to my early expectations. Take Malian, for example: she's the title character, the Heir of Night, who's being trained to take over from her father the earl. During a Swarm attack she discovers that she can rouse the Keep with her mind. She realizes that she has inherited some of the old powers from her mother—and unfortunately, due to a schism between warriors and priests, this means she has to be sent away, secluded in a temple.

As a character, however, Malian isn't developed all that well, at least initially: she's just depicted as young and somewhat sheltered. The other people in the novel are similarly flat, summed up with one or two characteristics. Malian's friend Kalan, sequestered away in a temple because of his powers, resents not being allowed to be a warrior and is grateful for the chance to go out into the world and show what he is capable of. The high steward Nhairin was wounded in a fight and regrets that she can't join in the battle against the Swarm; nearly every time she comes into a room she's described as "limping" rather than walking.

And would people really send their best warriors into a temple, especially when they're engaged in such a life-or-death struggle? Sure, societies do stupid things all the time, but Lowe never made me believe that this society would act in this particular way. And what goes on in these temples? Do the priests try to develop their forbidden powers, or do they want to stamp them out?

We're never told, though, because Malian doesn't end up in a temple. Instead some visiting heralds smuggle her and Kalan out of the Keep, and the rest of the novel follows the two of them as they try to find a place where they can learn more about their powers. As they travel they both begin to grow a little, to show more courage, but they are rarely permitted to do anything. Protectors appear at every dangerous moment to help them: the mysterious heralds; a Golden Fire; a long-dead hero out of myth named Yorindesarinen; Rowan Birchmoon, the Earl of Night’s mysterious wife . . . (Though even as I was feeling impatient at the intercession of yet another helper, I couldn't help admiring Yorindesarinen's name. See what I mean about Lowe's use of language?) All that's left for Malian and Kalan is to stay clear of the fighting.

There are a lot of these magic helpers, and magic foes as well, and the narrative has to come to a halt while some character or another explains them. "'True,' the Huntmaster replied . . . 'The silver worm is only generated by a device, however powerful, while the siren worm is a power wielder, able to call on spell and counterspell until it prevails'" (p. 261). After a few of these explanations, as well as all those rescues, supernatural or otherwise, it begins to seem as if almost anything can happen, that whenever Malian and Kalan find themselves in an impossible situation some new magical friend or talisman will show up to get them out of it. The problem with this, of course, is that the tension starts to slack; if anything can happen, everything can happen. It all starts to get a bit confusing as well. Was that a silver worm, or a siren worm? Or was it something else?

After a while I even started having trouble with the language, all those capital letters, the Nouns of Noun. "[Y]ou are the Token-Bearer, and you alone have the power to walk among the Merry Hunters. Those you touch with the Ring will rouse to action among the Gate, but whether to save the Heir of Night or harm her will depend on your wisdom" (p. 263).

I don't think I'd be so disappointed, so bad-tempered, if this novel weren’t so predictable as well. Malian, of course, turns out to be the "One-to-Come," the prophesied hero who will defeat the Swarm. Of course nearly everyone in fantasy is the prophesied one, along with all those heroes of old epics and fairy tales; it's a very powerful archetype. But Lowe does nothing new with this trope—she just shows us a fairly average girl discovering that she has powers and learning how to use them.

It's always difficult to review the first book of a series, since the author can do little more than suggest the milieu and present some of the characters. The Heir of Night ends with Malian and Kalan still searching for someone to help them with their powers; very little is resolved. Future volumes will almost certainly show them playing more of an active role in the fight against the Swarm, learning their strengths and stepping out from behind their protectors. The setting will probably broaden out as well, taking us to more of the lands beyond the Wall, and perhaps even into space, where the people of this world came from. Maybe there will even be more complexity as well, maybe Lowe will take more advantage of this interesting world she's created. I hope so, anyway.

Lisa Goldstein's latest novel is The Divided Crown, written under the name Isabel Glass. Her novel The Red Magician won the American Book Award for Best Paperback. She has worked as a proofreader, library aide, bookseller, and reviewer, and she lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their cute dog Spark.



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