Volume One – King’s Dragon
Volume Two – Prince of Dogs
Volume Three – The Burning Stone
Volume Four – Child of Flame
Volume Five – Gathering Storm
Volume Six – In the Ruins
Volume Seven – Crown of Stars
The word ‘epic’ is slung around far too freely, in my opinion. Any fantasy or science fiction story that overflows to more than one volume seems to attract the word. Which is a shame when you finally trip over a work that really does deserve the appendage ‘epic’. And surely a seven-book marathon that successfully manages to keep hold of a large cast of characters; produce sufficient twists in the long-running plot without overwhelming the reader and manufacture a sophisticated world should be right up there as an epic. This series has been seriously overlooked as a shining example of classic high fantasy.
The action largely revolves around the kingdom of Wendar, although as rebellions and betrayals multiply, neighbouring countries move to take advantage of King Henry’s troubles. As the fighting intensifies, we have a detailed insight into the machinations of the plotters as they jostle for power. Elliott has written that she took medieval Europe as a template for the political situation – and I think it shows. Amongst the shifting alliances and set-piece battles, the world, along with its customs, history and religious practices, is clearly portrayed without any appreciable check in the narrative pace – a cool trick to pull off as those of us who write speculative fiction know only too well.
Some of the main themes addressed in the series include the nature of love – when does legitimate affection tip into obsession? What happens when duty and love conflict? The price of power, both natural and supernatural, is also explored – and the conclusion seems to be that those with the greatest mastery also suffer the most lethal consequences. A rule which takes the plot in some interesting and unexpected directions… Varying attitudes to religious dogma are also examined, along with the different motivations for fanaticism – an uncomfortably pertinent theme these days.
A wealth of engrossing sub-plots wriggle throughout the series involving an impressive number of memorable characters, without any resultant annoyance or confusion. And this is from someone with such a low tolerance of multi-view adventures, I hurled George R.R. Martin’s Storm of Swords across the room in fury…
Any particular favourites among the seven volumes? As it happens, I found the second volume, Prince of Dogs, particularly engrossing. The encounter between a couple of the main protagonists and the resulting riveting outcome had me reading till the wee small hours. All the books make compulsive reading – but that particular one will lodge in my memory for a long, long time.
Throughout the series we follow the fortunes and disasters of Sanglant, King Henry’s bastard, half-human son who becomes a target when the King clearly shows his preference for him over his three legitimate half-siblings; Sister Rosvita, court advisor and chronicler who finds herself unwillingly swept up in the thick of the fighting; the beautiful and mysterious Liath, who spent her childhood fleeing an unknown, terrible enemy; Hugh, whose thirst for forbidden knowledge is nearly as fierce as his passion for Liath; and Alain, a foundling raised in humble circumstances, whose fortunes become completely entangled in Wendar’s woes. All these characters – and a host of others, are depicted with pleasing complexity. Each one has strengths and weaknesses that impact on the overall story. If I have a niggle – and it is a small one, given the overall strength of the series – I would have liked to have seen more of Anne and her motivations. She is the only character vital to the storyline that I feel could have been more developed.
In addition to the human world, other races include the exiled Ashioi and my personal favourite – the amazing Rock Children and their war leader, Stronghand. The system of magic in the Crown of Stars is pleasingly original and detailed – especially with the steadily increasing tension as the lead characters struggle to make sense of the growing threat to the world.
Of course, you also have to feel the investment in time, emotional energy and the sheer labour of reading seven hefty volumes pays off in a suitably satisfying ending. This was, I confess, a growing concern of mine as I got to the seventh and last book – it happens to be a real personal bugbear. However, Elliott manages to tick that box, too. The characters and storyline reach a variety of conclusions that succeed in tying up the multitude of loose ends. All in all, if you enjoy becoming totally immersed in a complex, well written world, peopled with a wide-ranging set of characters that moves along at a fair clip, then the whole series represents a solidly rewarding five star read.