Sean Russell was a fairly prolific Canadian fantasy writer who, over the course of eight years (1991 through 1998) churned out unique fantasies which blended fantasy together with the history of 19th Century science before turning his pen to something in the Tolkien “traditional” Epic fantasy vein with The Swan’s War trilogy. Since then; however, Russell stepped out of the SFF genre and has been crafting historical naval fiction under the name Sean T. Russell. But back to The Swan’s War, the subject of this column which begins with The One Kingdom published in 2001 under EOS, HarperCollins’s then SF imprint. Prior to reading The One Kingdom, I read and enjoyed Russell’s linked duologies Moontide and Magic Rise and River into Darkness so my expectations for an engaging fantasy read were relatively high. Those expectations were met, which I’ll expand upon below in this installment of “The Completist.”
The One Kingdom, the first of book in the trilogy, introduces a world of quarrelling families, political intrigue and games of human chess. Russell’s story focuses, initially, on three young men, Tam, Baore, and Fynnol who are adventuring far from their home of the Vale. Along their journey, the three chat about how glad they are to be free of the constraints of the Vale and to move about on their own. However, when our three heroes meet with a stranger named Alaan, the stakes of their small adventure are raised considerably. Allaan fits the mold of the mysterious wanderer who, unfortunately after helping the young men out of some trouble is seemingly killed by raiders.
Alongside the plotline of the three young men, Russell skillfully interweaves the familiar plot element of the Princess unwilling to be married in the character of Elise Wills. The princess escapes said impending marriage to Prince Michael through the help of another mysterious stranger. As much as Prince Michael is fond of Elise, he suggests they shouldn’t get married, since it will incite the war between the Wills and the Rennes. This war is exactly what Eremon, the mysterious advisor to Michael’s father the king, wishes for in his push for the two get married. Sprinkled throughout the journeys of the Valemen and Elise’s escape are spirits and legends that resonate with history, giving this story and the world Russell has created a believability and richness.
The One Kingdom blends many ingredients together to produce a promising launch book for the Swan’s War. The author introduces wandering minstrels, story finders, river spirits and men-at-arms to flesh out the cast of characters. One of these standouts is a story finder named Cynddl, who joins up with Tam, Baore, and Fynnol. As a story finder, Cynddl can “hear” the echoes of the past in the land, telling the history of what happened. Cynddl not only learns about events which transpired physical areas, but through him, we also learn much more about all the other characters in the story. Cynddl is perhaps the most important character in the novel, because of this story-finding ability (and a clever character/tool created by Russell). As such, one of the strongest elements of this novel, and quite probably this series is the sense of history Mr. Russell has injected in his world. The legends and myths add a deeper sense of plausibility and truth to the land. The world comes to life, breathing and speaking out of the pages of the book.
In the second installment of the trilogy, The Isle of Battle I felt Sean Russell was able to avoid the dreaded middle-book syndrome. He develops the story, develops the characters, and delves more deeply into the world he created in the preceding volume expanding on the magic and myth of the world. The magic is not in your face with spell-wielding wizards and every character in possession of a magical, all-powerful weapon. Rather, the magic has a great mysterious quality and is not explained in overwrought detail. The enchanted places such as the River Wynnd and the titular Isle of Battle are shrouded in both mystery and conflict, but Russell only gives the reader glimpses of the lore and magic he has introduced in his world. These glimpses make the world more alive, something that is more than what we think we know.
The story of the warring Renné and Willis families continues to build momentum while taking interesting turns as the story progresses. The alliances change quite a bit here in book two while the true orchestrators come more fully into the light. In Isle of Battle, two characters stood out to me: Elise and Hayfdd. Elise grew from a fairly naïve woman of royalty and honor with little influence over what others have planned for her into a strong woman who has gained more control of the path she treads. The events that impacted her in The One Kingdom truly take effect in interesting and not so predictable ways in the second book of the triology. Hayfdd is just an interesting character, though he is opposing the protagonists with some dark intentions, he doesn’t come across as the typical one-dimensional eeevil foil. What I found satisfying is how Russell didn’t provide a full reveal, he balanced the tease with enough explanation which is good for keeping readers hungering for the concluding volume.
One other thing that Russell should be commended for is including a brief synopsis of the previous volume in the opening “What Went Before” section. Often with series books, there is a lag between volumes of a year or more. It is nice to have this refresher prior to delving into the current volume.
The fate of the Renné and Wills families comes to resolution in the finale of the trilogy, The Shadow Roads. Throughout the entire series, especially in this concluding volume, Russell hangs a great sense of dread over the characters’ heads. In the opening scenes of The Shadow Roads, Russell brings a manifestation of Death into the events of the story, elevating the greater sense of dread and raises the stakes of an already portentous war, particularly illustrating the dreadful effects the events might have on the specific characters, in addition to the world at large.
Over the course of the previous two novels, Russell laid out a rich cast of characters, showed their level of involvement in the war and provided a magical backdrop where these events played out. From the Valeman Tam on his early, seemingly simple journey out of his familiar home, to the sorcerer Hayfdd, to Princess Elise Wills to Cyndll the Story finder, all of the characters are given ample back-story and depth such that they are not cardboard cutouts. In many similar stories the “innocent” characters evolve in such a manner that they become wholly different characters in order to complete the quest or journey they undertake. While the young Valemen who set out in the beginning of The One Kingdom have changed and evolved, there is still a strong sense that these young men (Tam, Baore and Fynnol) retain the strong core of the character they possessed when they first appeared in the story. The innocence they may have held is now gone and while they realize the deeds they do are necessary, the core of their character is somewhat darkened by the knowledge that what they do is necessary.
The underlying history and magic of the previous two installments comes more into play The Shadow Roads, as more fantastical creatures emerge, greater depth is given to the world Russell introduced while the dark history between Alaan and Haffyd is further explored. The ending of the previous volume left some unanswered questions about Alaan and mysteries surrounding both him and Haffyd, some of which are resolved in The Shadow Roads.
While Sean Russell may not have the “brand name” recognition in and out of the Fantasy Genre of George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, or Brandon Sanderson, his storytelling skills are on par and above many of the better-known writers. (Of course, as I cited above, he’s shifted in recent years to historical naval novels) In a fantasy publishing landscape where ongoing ‘trilogies’ expand into multiple books, The Swan’s War is a fine example of a completed, expertly crafted trilogy that is actually three books. Russell‘s past work was highly literate and quite enjoyable, with the conclusion of The Swan’s War, he has finished the epic. Though difficult to find in print, each volume is available as a $.99 eBook.