Underground Reading: The Gathering of the Lost by Helen Lowe
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
This is part of a series of reviews - my attempt to cover all nine finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Award before the winner is announced at the end of October. I'll be approaching these books in a slightly templated fashion: plot summary, good stuff, not so good stuff, conclusion.
The Gathering of the Lost (2012) is the second book in Helen Lowe's Wall of Night series. The first, Heir of Night, won last year's DGLA Morningstar award for the year's best debut.
Gathering picks up five years after Heir leaves off. Malian (the aforementioned Heir of Night) and Kalan (her manly sidekick) have gone their separate ways after leaving the Derai lands. They've been secretly seeded into society, both to train them for the horrors to come and to keep them safe from pursuers. The world (mostly) thinks them dead, but there's no reason to take chances... yet. Now, the lands are going to hell in a hand-basket and Malian needs to get to work as the Chosen One. There's terror a-comin', and the world lacks a champion.
Gathering is structured in three parts. The first follows Jehane Mor and Tarathan, two Heralds (sort of travelling warrior/wizard/things) that also appeared in the first book. They're in one of the bustling River cities for festival season, and stumble on a plot by the forces of darkness.
The second part follows Malian and Kalan (kinda) as they have adventures in their new lives and stumble on a plot by the forces of darkness. The final part reunites everyone as they head to a major tournament to avert a war, ensure that ancient rituals are fulfilled, search for the titular "lost" (a legion of missing Derai warriors) and... stumble on a plot by the forces of darkness.
There are lots of pan-dimensional dream sequences, magical artifacts, world-shattering rituals and desperate last stands. The Gathering of the Lost is definitely an Epic with a capital E.
The Gathering of the Lost inherits a lot of good will from The Heir of Night, a book I had some nice things to say about last year. The protagonist (and chosen one) is Malian, a young woman, who doesn't just "kick ass", but she's also genuinely smarter, more capable and more interesting than anyone else in the book. Very, you know, Chosen-y. The supporting characters are fairly evenly distributed between the genders, and - GASP - the book doesn't even suffer for it. Who knew that female characters could be just as epic as their male counterparts? INFORM THE GHOST OF DAVID EDDINGS.
Heir was more interesting to me as it felt a little more subversive - not consciously, perhaps, but its world and plot felt slightly (enjoyably) off-kilter from the norm. Gathering is more straightforward. There's good, evil, and the two hit one another with swords while engaged in a race for magical loot. Still, there's a little here that's differs from the traditional standard:
- There's absolutely no doubt - in her mind or anyone else's - that Malian is the most important person in the world. Rather than moaning "why me" or pretending this isn't happening (why is it that all Chosen Ones feel the need to play coy?), Malian tackles the responsibility head-on. She's quietly sacrificed her life to become the high fantasy equivalent of a child star.
- To balance that out, Ms. Lowe attempts to make Kalan a bit more of a reluctant hero. Unlike Malian, he's not chosen. He's followed her as her friend, but now, after five years of mingling in a new culture, he's... kind of happy. Kalan's out of the game - he's got new friends and new loyalties. When he reunites with Malian, there's a distance there. Not because he's now evil or a coward, but because has someplace to belong, with new priorities. I think this is dropped a little too rapidly, but, for the middle third of the book, Kalan's reluctance provides a very human contrast to Malian's certitude.
- There's an attempt (albeit, not a particularly successful one) to make the first two story sections feel like mysteries. Shape-changing evils are doing some killing, which makes for a solid foundation for a fantasy whodunnit. The mysteries are not, sadly, resolved like mysteries (... basically evil REVEALS itself dramatically), but, as far as quest structure goes, I liked seeing our noble epic heroes scheming in tense, enclosed environments.
None of these are spectacular departures from the epic fantasy form, but they are at least slightly-inventive twists.
Capital E for Excessive?
When tackling The Gathering of the Lost, it is important to note that this book doesn't shy away from paragraphs like this:
"It is not the eyes." The voice of Nhenir, the legendary helm that had once belonged to Yorindesarinen, the greatest of all Derai heroes, was a mixture of light and dark, speaking into Malian's mind. "Your inner awareness must be open: you must learn to eat the dark lest it eat you." (1)
Gathering goes on to play a lot of epic bingo, with characters named Raven, "frost-fire" blades, Darksworn, "cave of the sleepers", Night, Blood, Fire (all capitalised),... the list goes on and on. I gave Malice grief for having an un-ironic magical wolf companion, but Gathering is littered with high fantasy buzzwords.
It goes further than that - if Heir dared to veer away from common tropes, Gathering embraces them. This is a high fantasy world where everyone is magical - more than than, every character we encounter has "secret" upon "secret". When in doubt, assume that everyone you meet has magical powers, noble ancestry and at least one ritual to fulfill before the end of the year. (If they don't, odds are they're Darkswarm shape-shifter, and you should stab 'em.)
There's also a curious lack of explanation as to why the Evil are evil. And I apologise, as this may be in Heir and I've forgotten it - but, in Gathering, at least, we're operating under a "tell not show" assumption that bad guys are bad. And certainly the bad guys aren't above a bit of assassination, law-breaking, conniving, shapeshifting and political manipulation... but then, so are the heroes. Furthermore, it seems like the Darkswarm are actually taking the lead in terms of, say, both manufacturing and the preservation of knowledge. Nor are the forces of good presenting a united front. I hate to say it, but, based on the events of Gathering, I know which side I'd be on.
Gathering is also extremely exposition heavy. Much of this is done by the simple art of "recounting stories at one another" - often in italicised dream sequences. I, would, however, like to note this spectacular example of the "As you know, Bob" style of dialogue-based infodumping:
"But you and Tarathan both speak their language - and you were sent to their Wall, five years back. I had forgotten that, until today."
Jehane Mor nodded. "We bore a message to their Earl of Night. But we had no dealings with any other Derai house."
"Night, Aravenor repeated, then shook his head. "Most of the Derai we're seeing are from Swords, like this lot, or the clan they call Blood."
Tarathan frowned. "You make it sound like they're coming here in numbers?"
"They've begun to, especially these past few years... There were always some, of course, because of their dealings in specialised armor and weapons. The trade in the metals they mine from their Wall is much larger, but the...[ad infinitum]" (18)
This conversation continues for three more pages. The two characters tell one another things they both already know, ensuring the reader is well-briefed on the Derai migration patterns (irregular) and lifestyle (unpleasant), contemporary political tensions (the Derai may want the River land), mythology (the Swarm are stirring), social landscape (tense, but no flare-ups), local politics (did you know that the city of Ij is governed by the Three, who should not be trifled with?) and upcoming events (the Festival is coming and it should be the best year ever, book a room early - click here for the best rates). Good lord.
All in all, this is a book that takes itself very, very seriously. If you're the type to giggle at geas-casting sentient swords named "Amaliannarath", this probably isn't the series for you.
E for Effort?
I giggle at "Amaliannarath". A lot. I also giggle at the idea that the world is guarded by mysterious visor-helmed Patrols (like Judges, but nicer) that have been doing the job for 1000 years and no one has ever asked who they are or challenged their authority. I also giggle at the fact that the enemy is so unbelievably incompetent that they can't even use shape-shifters and advanced technology to somehow destabilise a feudal empire that's already falling apart at the seams. (Or that the heroes are so incompetent that, despite going through the 'shape-shifter checklist' a dozen times, they're still surprised by them at every turn.) Plus the magical talking helms, world-serpents, sex-powered druidic rituals, dream sequences, "frost-fire" swords, people actually named Raven and superhuman Heralds that can apparently do pretty much anything (up to and including healing magic, invincible shields, unstoppable combat magic and sex-powered druidic rituals). This is all way too goofy for me.
That said, perhaps more than any other book on the list, I find my differences with The Gathering of the Lost to be almost entirely a matter of personal taste. This is a book that doesn't gender-fail, that does try to do a few new things (structurally, at least - though not thematically), it is inclusive for all readers and audiences, and, generally speaking, doesn't do anything that I would argue as "objectively" wrong. The language is silly (and forced) and the writing succumbs to clunkiness, but where I struggle with Gathering it is largely because it isn't my thing. Possibly I'm too jaded an epic fantasy reader, but Gathering is simply too po-faced for me; like, say Malice, this is a book that would work better for someone with fresher eyes (and less aversion to names like "Yorindesarinen").