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Issue #133 - September 2006

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Birth of an Epic

By Cheryl Morgan

One of the favorite catch phrases of the entertainment business is "more like this". So when a new movie does well, Hollywood is suddenly clamoring for more like it. And when a new author becomes popular, publishers want more like what he writes. Right now UK publishers seem quite keen on getting more like the works of George Martin and Steven Erikson. That means fat fantasy novels with large casts and a fair amount of blood and gore. Gollancz weighed in a few months ago with Tom Lloyd’s Stormcaller. Now it is Orbit’s turn, with Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley.

The book begins slightly cheesily with the Thermopylae-like moment, but it soon becomes obvious that these are not brave Spartans protecting their home from conquest; they are religious fundamentalists sacrificing their own (already Saved) lives so that their fellow believers can flee to safety. Not that these defenders of a pass are any less brave or willing to give up their lives for their friends, but they do so in order that their cult can hide itself away, grow, and one day come back in impose its beliefs on the rest of the world in blood and fire.

"Winterbirth" is the name of a mid-winter festival as well as the name of the book. It is over 150 years since the cultists of the Black Road were expelled from civilized lands. The people of the Glas Valley have perhaps gotten soft and over-fond of festivals in that time. In addition most of their fighting men are away in the south, quelling a rebellion at the bequest of their overlord. The true believers have not gotten soft. And the people of the Glas Valley won’t be soft for much longer, if only because most of them won’t be alive.

So far, so much a mediaeval tale. There are feuding lordlings, there are castles, there are religious fanatics trained for battle. What makes Winterbirth a fantasy? Well to start with there are the elves.

Well, OK, they are not called elves, they are called kyrinin, but elves they are. They have that fine-featured look, they live in the woods, they are very good with arrows, and so on. They also have a fair bit in common with Native Americans in terms of living in tents, and having a warrior-culture, and being divided into tribes named after animals, which makes them rather more believable elves than most.

The one thing the elves, sorry kyrinin, don’t have is magic. That is the sole provenance of the na’kyrim — human-kyrinin halfbreeds. There used to be a lot of them, but rather unwisely they used their powers to dominate both humans and kyrinin. Now there are a lot less of them, most of them hide away in remote places for safety, and they have a lot less magic. Every so often, however, genetics will throw up something interesting, and that is how the Black Road came to the Glas Valley.

So, on the one side standard pseudo-mediaeval humans, complete with spunky young lordling, and on the other religious nutters, elves and an evil sorcerer. Oh, and lots of difficult-to-pronounce names full of apostrophes. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

The first thing that Ruckley gets right is his politics. The racism between the human and kyrinin is very believable and evidenced on both sides. Their joint detestation of the na’kyrim is also entirely believable, and has the inevitable consequences. Better still, both sides feud between themselves as much if not more than they fight each other. The Lannis clan (or "blood" as Ruckley has it) hate their Haig blood overlords as much, if not more than they hate the kryinin. The Fox tribe and the White Owl tribe would be merrily slaughtering each other were it not for the human settlements in between their lands. And the fanatics of the Black Road, as all good fanatics do, hate everyone.

Ruckley is also reasonably good with his characters. A lot of them are easily recognizable as stock figures out of the fantasy formula, but their personalities are more than one-dimensional and they behave as if motivated by thoughts and feelings rather than by the needs of the author to drive the plot. Even when the bad guys do stupid things, it is because of pride and arrogance that has been established rather than because the Evil Overlord always does daft things.

The military side is OK. Ruckley doesn’t have Erikson’s talent for strategy, but his hand-to-hand combat is well done. In particular, no one has Conan-like abilities. People keep getting injured and have to live with those injuries afterwards. Soldiers in armies get tired and hungry and fall sick. This is all good stuff.

The plot does take a little while to get going. It is also fairly predictable if you have read enough books of this type. But then if the author has done a good job of giving his character convincing motivations you should, to some extent, be able to predict what will happen. My only real complaint was the point where the elite Black Road soldiers proved about as good with crossbows as Imperial Stormtroopers are with their blasters.

I don’t think that Ruckley is quite star quality yet. He doesn’t have the magnificent characters of George Martin, the wonderful combination of utter bleakness and humor of Steven Erikson, or the strong philosophical background of R. Scott Bakker. But he has produced a very solid first novel in an interesting, if not terribly innovative, world. There are, of course, two more books to come, and there is plenty of potential material left hanging for Ruckley to develop. If you are into big, bloodthirsty fantasy sagas, this one is well worth checking out.

Winterbirth - Brian Ruckley - Orbit - publisher's proof

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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