The Trials of Trass Kathra is the eighth book in Abaddon's pulp fantasy epic, The Twilight of Kerberos. It is also the fourth from Mike Wild who, with the aid of his talented heroine, Kali Hooper, has been unveiling more and more of the meta-narrative that links the events of this shared world.
And, in Trials, the meta-play's the thing. In a blog post last year, Abaddon editor (and The Call of Kerberos author) Jonathan Oliver, revealed that the series is coming to a dramatic close in 2012. Trials is the penultimate book by Mike Wild, followed by Mr. Oliver's second book, The Wrath of Kerberos, which will then all be neatly (one hopes?) wrapped up by Mr. Wild again in Children of the Pantheon. That gives Trials a lot of work to do to set-up the set-up.
In the previous Kali Hooper adventure, Engines of the Apocalypse, Mr. Wild did a solid job of juggling the balance between stand-alone pulp and series pillar. Kali Hooper battled the titular Apocalyptic Engines and it just so happened that said that the origin story of the Engines was related to a greater plot. Neatly done. Engines was also the book in which Mr. Wild scooped up some of the other series characters and got them involved as well. At the time, it felt a bit like an old Marvel Annual, but this groundwork helped set the scene for further group adventures.
Engines of the Apocalypse ended with an ominous cliff-hanger - one of Hooper's foes, the Pale Lord, was in position to take over the Final Faith church. The Trials of Trass Kathra picks up a year later. Kali is now on the run and trying feverishly to figure out what's going on with the second gas giant looming in the sky. Her investigations push the galvanized, extra-sinister Final Faith too far, and they proceed to round up all of her friends and long-time associates in order to silence her interference.
Everyone - good, bad, ugly - is eventually driven to the lost isle of Trass Kathra. The island contains mysterious information that Kali needs to know about her own "destiny" (her vitriolic hatred of that word gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from me). Unfortunately, the island is also surrounded by a squidgy Lovecraftian presence that has been spawned by Hel'ss, the "bad" planet. Kali has to dodge from one foe to another and, this time, do it without the help of any of her friends - they're all in cages, waiting to be sacrificed.
The latter half of the book alternates between Mr. Wild's hallmark set-piece action sequences and some cinematic exposition (not a frequently-used phrase). Kali fights numerous Big Bads, undergoes the Trials of Trials and takes a few breaks to have the history of the world explained to her. Mr. Wild has an uncanny talent for serving up world-building info-dumps without making them grate the reader's eyes, partially because he gives them as part of an oral storytelling tradition rather than as pseudo-academic inserts. On top of everything else, Trials is well worth reading as a case study in how pulp world-building can be done without ruining the pace of the story.
In Trials, Mr. Wild has abandoned the stand-alone premise entirely in favor of the "greater good" of the series. Although by no means an un-entertaining book, this isn't one that'll make much sense to those unfamiliar with the Twilight series. It is packed with references to earlier books (admittedly, mostly those by Mr. Wild): the bad guys, the good guys, the side characters and even a few of the more random locations that Kali has visited.
Interestingly enough, I think Mr. Wild did the right thing. The Trials of Trass Kathra maintains action-packed excitement and over-the-top pulp excess, but it also accomplishes a lot of the tricky narrative legwork required to link all the previous books together.
Where I think The Trials of Trass Kathra stumbles is in the treatment of its main character: Kali Hooper. Kali suffers a few adolescent slings and arrows - remarkable as she's gone largely unscathed in previous books. It isn't that Kali Hooper hasn't been a woman in the earlier books, it is that Kali hasn't been a stereotypical genre female.
In Trials, there's an unfortunate reversal that starts in the very first action sequence. During some rooftop acrobatics - Kali complains that the rain has ruined her hair, and "she'd just got it done, too". This is a cheap laugh and one that undermines her credibility as an "adventure archaelogist" and an action hero. It is also shockingly out of place with her personality as built in the rest of the series. Kali's been the 'real' (non-sexualized, non-typecast, non-jiggle-bait) Lara Croft. Trials also has Kali accompanied by a dwarf that's randomly and annoyingly obsessed with her ass. She also drops some bizarrely off-key comments about her own breasts (which, judging by the cover art, aren't suffering).
The Trials of Trass Kathra was therefore a bit of a surprise. Mr. Wild excelled in everything I thought impossible - he balanced the needs of series and book, action and exposition. But then I was let down from an unexpected quarter: the series' remarkable protagonist. Kali Hooper has been a character so goofily enjoyable that I falsely assumed that she was an effortless creation. However, in this case, while Trials of Trass Kathra maintains the series' high standards for action, it lets those same standards slip for its main character. I hope that, with the complex narrative bits all sorted out, Kali can safely return to form in Children of the Pantheon.