PROS: Strong Female characters in a world where they aren’t unusual for being so; evocative, poetic language; excellent evocation of themes.
CONS: Sometimes feels too rigidly bound to the High Fantasy template
VERDICT: A solid start to a high fantasy series.
Uneasy lies the head of the heir to a martial Earldom. Malian is the Heir to the Earldom of Night and, despite her duty and loyalty, can’t resist exploring the ruins of the old keep that slumps next to her home. This proves to perhaps save her life, as it gives her room and knowledge of terrain to evade a surprise attack, and bring her and her new friend, Kalan, to a revelation that they are far more important than even a temple acolyte and the heir to a Earldom already are.
Helen Lowe’s previous novel, Thornspell, is a young adult fantasy. In The Heir of Night, the first in the Wall of Night series, she decides to tackle epic fantasy. This is a subject near and dear to the her heart as evidenced by a number of guest posts on SF Signal on the subject.
Lowe brings a number of strengths to the table. The greatest of these is the female characters and, more broadly, the role of women in this world. It’s not just that we have a couple of strong female characters bobbing up, but rather what we see is the tip of a submerged iceberg of egalitarianism. We are not given explanation as to how or why, and that doesn’t really matter, but the society of the Derai and, from what I can tell, the other societies on this world, too, treat women as equals. The main character is the heir to the Earldom. There is no hint of a suggestion that if she had a baby brother he would be heir instead. She’s the first and only born, so she is the heir. The greatest hero to the Derai? Yes, female. Female warriors? Yes. Temple Priestesses as well as Priests? Yes. And so on.
I might guess that a certain strata of readers will roll their eyes, claim that this is not realistic and a lot of other nonsense. Here is a secondary world with equal roles for women, unapologetically, in all professions. It’s refreshing, and the writing makes it work. I could believe Asantir, the Honor Guard captain, as an action heroine secondary character. I particularly liked Nhiarin, who came across as a sort of female Gurney Halleck mentor to Malian.
The worldbuilding is well done, too. Yes, its a secondary world, feudal honor bound society, and that’s not innovative. Yes, there is an implacable enemy behind the wall. But beyond that, and beyond the gender issues above, we get an interesting otherworld that the protagonists fall into. The mere fact that the Derai are not native to this world and are interlopers is itself is a nice twist I’ve seen before, but certainly not common. There is also a set-piece that strongly reminded me of Zelazny’s Tir Na Nogth from the Amber Chronicles. I wonder if the world being built is more like that of Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns or Urth from Gene Wolfe. I have my suspicions about who and what the Derai really are.
The characters, too, are well drawn, bot major and minor characters. Lowe establishes Malian and Kalan early and strongly and the group of allies they draw around themselves are also strongly delineated. They are indeed teenagers by our standards, but I don’t think you can quite call this a YA novel, like Thornspell. In many ways, thanks to the cultures and world they are in, they have much more in common with adults than with teenagers of our world.
The language, when it comes to evocation and description, shows that Lowe also has chops as a poet. It is at turns atmospheric and evocative, bringing a real sense of place to the Old Keep and the Hills. I do think that the dialogue is sometimes a touch stilted and reads as too formal; people are a little too often addressed only by title, to the point of distraction, for example. The dialogue, if you read it aloud, feels a bit clumsy to my ear.
On the other hand, theme, no surprise coming from a poet interested in epic fantasy, is another place the book comes off well. Old histories coming to the fore again, mistakes and disagreements coming back to haunt the descendants of those who made them (or in the case of more recent ones, the people themselves). Honor, loyalty, sacrifice and friendship, and the conflicts between them. Lowe believes and puts into practice that without such themes, epic fantasy is dreck and dull. Oh, and while this is a fight between good and evil, the side of good is not blameless, and there is definite criticism of how the rigid code of the Derai often does more harm than good, and in fact, can do evil. There may be a not-so-subtle criticism of what is and what is not justified in a fight against “evil” here.
You may have ssen a fair number of aspects of the book before: two young protagonists, touched by prophecy, given tokens, sent to collect a set of magical artifacts and grow into their power, for only with that is there a prayer to defeat an enemy that threatens the world. Mysterious allies and adversaries swirl around the protagonists. The characters, although as I mentioned above are well drawn, do sometimes fall into very distinct archetypes. In many ways, the book feels like it is bound to the frame of the high fantasy template with an iron will.
Overall, I did enjoy the book, even if it did not break as much new ground as one might hope it would. But then, I don’t believe it’s an attempt to shatter the mold of High Epic Fantasy as much as it is a work intended to live within those boundaries. Is it fair of me to criticize the work too much for taking that approach? While some aspects are definitely off-the-shelf, it’s not as if she’s trying to rewrite Tad Williams or George R.R. Martin. On SF Signal, Lowe has talked about these sorts of concerns directly, and now that I have read her novel, I can see that she practices what she preaches. The writing and worldbuilding did keep me reading, and I am curious enough about The Wall of Night world to want to continue reading in it. If you are looking for epic fantasy that sits firmly within that playground, then The Heir of Night is well worth your time.