Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Review - The Heir To The North by Steven Poore


The book is Part 1 of the two part story Malessar's Curse.

In the prologue, we learn of a mighty empire that reigned in the North, eight hundred years before, and was smashed by the sorcery of the wizard Malessar. The echoes of the fall of Caenthell and the High King reverberate down through the centuries, appearing in the tales told by storytellers. Protagonist Cassia is marinated in these and other stories, as a result of homeless wandering with her abusive drunken storyteller father. 

This is a superb plot device - between the storyteller father and a centuries-old wizard whom he and Cassia take up with we have a rich explication of the rich backstory as this ill-matched crew travel the myth-drenched landscape on a quest for the ancient sorcerer Malessar, a quest the true nature of which remains tantalizingly obscure until near the end.

The opening scene of the prologue establishes the cause of the subjugation of the empire of the North, in terms which tell us we are definitely in the zone of epic fantasy: 'Sorcery tore the castle to pieces around him.'

In the chaos, Baum saves the infant heir to the High Kingship of the North. You will spend quite some time trying to work out who is the descendant of this individual, and the tension and doubt are maintained with expert skill.


I am not generally a fan of epic fantasy - I think the only one I really enjoyed before this was Lord of the Rings, which I read at age 15 then again, at various ages. Some might say: Come on, powerful warriors, noble kings, beautiful queens, sorcery and blood oaths - what's not to like? But I usually have a problem with the treatment of magic in fantasy novels, especially in epic fantasy, where it is almost invariably over-used, and gives the impression of the arbitrary universes of Dungeons and Dragons rather than a believable world into which magic erupts as a shocking discontinuity, something truly rare, even alien. 

But Poore has got the mix just right - magic is used sparsely and sparingly. We are aware of the existence of powerful and terrible forces, but they are so rare that many people do not even believe in such powers. 

And he can pull out the stops when need be, giving the reader a vision of magic which is alien and frightening. In a magical battle, 'The air tasted of stone, sand and nightmare.'

The religion is also done well. Characters' relationships with the various gods of the peoples of the story is convincing - somewhere between belief and doubt. A wise wizard outlines the nature of the gods:

'They are primal and emotional. There are gods of anger, of joy, of love, and desire. Gods of war, of luck, of fate. They are all of the heart, not of the head.' 

Similarly, Poore is good on battles. He lays on the action in doses that don't stretch one's credulity or reduce the whole novel to increasingly boring bouts of violence. 

I like a lot the way that place and history are woven together. Cassia travels far with her mysterious companions, to places which are forgotten cities reached by uncountably ancient roads, through a whole landscape soaked in layer upon layer of history. This kind of world-building uses the storyteller theme to embed stories within stories, resulting in an intoxicating depth of myth underlying every important event.  

The quality of the prose is excellent. I started an Edward Cox fantasy recently and was so put off by the liberal handful of clich├ęs in the first paragraph I couldn't be bothered to continue reading the book. Poore's writing does not suffer from such literary jerry-building, but is bright and fresh.

The story is strengthened further by the relatively unusual choice of protagonist. Cassia is a girl, in a male-dominated world. And she is young, with the dreams of youth, which often make a poor fit with the realities of the world she lives in. But her secret, which she comes to understand at the end, is about to change that world.  

This is a book to read more than once, for the sheer pleasure of the writing and plotting. Heir to the North is a story told with superb prose and characters and pace. Buy it, read it, read it again.