Based on a high-concept blending of the fantasy and police procedural genres, Valley of the Soul is the second sequel to Ghosts in the Snow, a book that made its way onto Locus magazine's 2004 recommended first novel list and earned its author a Compton Crook award for best first SF or fantasy novel. Unfortunately, despite showing an exemplary grasp of the mechanics of genre, Valley of the Soul displays a lack of focus that Jones will have to remedy if she harbors any hopes of transforming that early critical goodwill into any kind of lasting impact upon the infamously competitive fantasy genre.
Dubric Byerly's youth was spent at war, leading men into battle against the dark mages whose influence once threatened to overwhelm his world. Now a castellan to a lord who is largely unconcerned by the continuing threat posed by surviving mages, Byerly and his followers investigate crimes, some more disturbing than others. As the book begins, Byerly is investigating a number of cases of animal mutilation that seem to be linked to a local sanatorium and its sleazy head physician. Bylerly suspects the involvement of a mage, but his investigation is hampered not only by the internal politics of the realm, but also his private life and those of his staff.
Valley of the Soul takes place in a fantasy world that differs dramatically from those of most other fantasy novels. Aside from populating her world only with humans, Jones does not embrace the magical elements of the fantasy toolbox. Instead, she depicts magic as an inherently evil and dangerous practice associated only with the viciously psychopathic mages that plague her world. Ranged against these mages are not the usual gang of muscular heroes, but rather a very down-to-earth and mundane cast of characters who are only doing their jobs. Indeed, Faldorrah is a thoroughly modern place, as nobles and commoners are forced to climb the same promotion ladder from page to squire and then to knight with competence and professional requirements being the only things that will help them find advancement. For example, Lars is by far the best page in his Lord’s service, but his weakness with a bow might prevent him from getting that promotion to squire; and while Dien might be Byerly’s trusted right-hand man, he knows that he will never make it to knight. Jones’s decision to sculpt her world into this shape not only results in an original, gritty, and low-fi fantasy setting, it also provides her with the perfect platform upon which to tell her story as it is perfectly suited to the demands of the police procedural novel.
The police procedural genre is arguably best known for books such as Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories or Georges Simenon's Maigret novels, but in recent years perhaps the most visible examples of the genre have been TV shows such as Law and Order or HBO’s The Wire. Despite sharing some roots with the better-known detective and crime thriller genres, the police procedural is quite distinct from them due, in part, to its differing focus. Where most detective stories concentrate on one main character (Holmes, Poirot, Cracker), the police procedural focuses more on ensembles. It also avoids the colorful and unusual Holmesian cases favored by the detective novel, preferring instead to deal with more mundane, everyday cases. In addition, procedurals largely ignore the "whodunit" structure favored by many crime novels, making them less concerned with who committed a crime and more concerned with how the police solve it. Valley of the Soul follows these genre conventions to the letter by giving the book's large cast of characters a range of personal issues to deal with, such as unwanted pregnancies, stalled relationships, and psychological trauma—and that's without factoring in the different cases on their desks, or the internal political wrangles that affect their professional lives. Simply put, Jones's genre-blending is irreproachable: she deflates the fantasy enough to allow a mundane focus, and yet she is skilled enough at world building to make the problems her characters face both familiar enough for readers to empathize with and yet different enough to make the most of the fantasy setting. Structurally speaking, Jones's work compares favorably to any similar piece of genre blending, from Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy novels to Peter F. Hamilton's under-rated Greg Mandel trilogy. However, like many pieces of inventive architecture, for all its perfect structure and design, Valley of the Soul is ultimately difficult to live in.
It is one thing to understand the demands of different genres and see how they interrelate, but quite another to come up with interesting plots and characters to fuel your stories, and this is undeniably where Jones's book falls short. Valley of the Soul's main plot is undercooked; the characters spend the entire book bumbling about, muttering about mages, but really get nowhere until the mage shows up and starts cackling at them. This has two knock-on effects. First, it makes the main plot feel rushed, as in effect the nub of the problem is both introduced and sorted out in the last 50 pages. Second, while a procedural need not be a whodunit, there is normally a sense that the characters are working their way through an investigation. Here all lines of investigation lead to nothing, and then all of a sudden the mage turns up in the last place you would expect. "Clever" to the point of being tricksy, this decision undermines the competence of the characters and effectively bungles the plotline that should drive the whole book forward.
Moreover, the failure of the main plotline exacerbates a larger problem of plot management. Valley of the Souls is part of a series of books, which implies at least some degree of interdependency. If Jones means each book to be read individually, then each book's main plotlines should begin and end within the same book. However, if she means the novels to really form part of one story then she has to keep checking in on old characters, and generally keep long-term plot lines running so that she can have them pay off at a later time or in a later book. This book is clearly written with the latter aim in mind. At only 452 pages long, this novel only has so much "screen time" available, and Jones spends so much of it checking in on old characters that the book's main plot strands are practically starved of air. Indeed, even relatively self-contained sub-plots such as Jesscea and Lars's betrothal, or a mining disaster, feel flimsy and dramatically lightweight due to their predictable character and Jones’s need to quickly move on to the next strand. If this novel were 1000 pages long, you would accuse it of suffering from fantasy novel bloat, but at less than half of that you can't help but wish that Jones would pick a plotline and develop it properly, maybe then she wouldn't need to rely upon shocking imagery for impact. Indeed, because of the brutal nature of the mages' crimes, Jones is forced to lapse into graphic descriptions of child abuse and mutilation that feel gratuitous and strained when read in the context of the gritty but good-natured realism that pervades most of the book (and allows Jones her frequently touching depictions of her characters' relationships). The effect is admittedly slightly less jarring than having Miss Marple work over a suspect with a blowtorch and a toffee hammer, but it highlights Jones's constant need to cut to the chase. Were Jones to focus on the emotional fallout of the crimes for the victims' families and friends then the murders would arguably gain impact without Jones (a woman from Iowa who enjoys quilting) having to attempt to channel James Ellroy (the self-styled white knight of the far right).
Overall, Valley of the Soul is a frustrating read. Jones's skill at genre-blending and world creation is such that it is easy to see how close she is to producing something unique and interesting. However, rather than working on the fundamentals of her writing—such as putting together good strong forensic-fantasy plots and developing them fully—Jones squanders her audience's attention by mortgaging off the quality of the book’s main plotlines against a possible future pay-off offered by her long term character and plot arcs. This is a risky strategy even for an established author, as it is exactly the kind of thinking that leads to bloated monstrosities like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, that drag readers along for book after book without ever giving them the pay-off. Tamara Siler Jones still has the potential that many noticed in her first novel; the time has come for her to make something of it.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic. Currently teaching after conducting research in fields as diverse as biological warfare and the epistemology of metaphysics, he writes articles and reviews that are collected on his blog, SF Diplomat, and chairs the world's first childfree political group, Kidding Aside—the British Childfree Association.