by Julian May
Review by Rafe Conn
HarperCollins/Voyager Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0007123205
Date: 4th October 2004 List Price ?7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Welcome to High Blenholme Island, a basically triangular northern island about 500 miles wide and 1000 miles long, the setting for the first in The Boreal Moon, the new trilogy from prolific sci-fi/fantasy writer Julian May.
High Blenholme is an place with a problem. The volcanoes of the island have been pumping out noxious fumes for the past three and a half years reducing harvests dramatically and plunging the previously wealthy islanders into poverty. It has been said that no nation is more than three meals away from revolution and the rulers of the four states that make up High Blenholme are all anxious to retain their positions.
Prince Conrig of Cathra - the largest and wealthiest of these states - has devised a plan to join the disparate nations under his banner thus recalling the halcyon days (now a thousand years past) when Emperor Bazekoy united the island through force of personality and arms. Conrig must run the gamut of self-serving politicos, conspiring agents of foreign governments, officious bureaucrats and his own dying father, the King.
The prologue is narrated by Royal Intelligencer Deveron Austrey, an old man, now in exile to the mainland some few hundred miles from the island. Deveron then switches to the third person and tells his story starting with his own humble origins and the discovery of his extremely rare 'wild' magical Talent. Magic in this world is virtually limited to the natural abilities to 'scry' (see over distance) and 'windspeak' (speak to others with Talent over distance) however certain Sigils supplied by the mysterious and extremely dangerous 'Great Lights' allow other spells to be performed. Early in the book Deveron manages to get his hands on a Sigil which confers invisibility on the user thus allowing him to excel at his job - Prince Conrig's spy.
We follow various characters from the four kingdoms as they deal with the battles, conspiracies and dire economic consequences of the volcanoes persistent belching (known as the ?Wolf's Breath?). Conrig's relationship with his father changes and develops as the old king approaches his death and he exercises the right of a dying king to ask one question of the dead Emperor Bazekoy.
It is this relationship between father and son, primarily, that forms the most important plot dynamic, the story changes direction as their relationship changes. The characters and their motivations are well constructed and quite convincing, the British reader may be given cause to reflect on the relationships within our own monarchy and generally on the relationships between fathers and sons.
The book also has a couple of maps of High Blenholme which are well designed and drawn, they are not quite as powerful as Christopher Tolkien's maps for his father's books but they serve to clarify the geographical and geopolitical strands of the novel. As a fantasy novel the realm described is not too distant from our own, yes there is magic, but it is limited and yes there are ghouls and monsters but they are peripheral rather than central. This is essentially a story of relationships, not just Conrig and his father but also of Conrig and his brother, wife, other rulers and of course his spy Deveron.
Though the character of Deveron is superficially a familiar one (low-born magical apprentice) his crossover as a man of action and his loyalty to the Prince give him an extra dimension retaining the reader's interest. Also the fact that he introduces the book as an old man means we know that he survives his various challenges allowing us to concentrate on his development as a man, magician and soldier.
Ironically, considering the gender of the author, it is the female characters that come across as stereotypical and flat. Conrig's wife is the feisty daughter from a neighboring state's royal family, her role and the decisions she makes are unsurprising and therefore a little unsatisfying. The same can be said of the Princess Ullanoth, daughter of the king of another of the four states. She is Talented and possesses several Sigils, she is in dispute with her younger Talented brother for the throne of their kingdom and forms an alliance with Conrig to try and defeat her sibling. She is best described as scheming and beautiful. The wife of the dying king, Conrig's mother, is also from the catalogue of stock characters.
These minor criticisms aside, this is a well written, interesting and occasionally exciting book with a fine array of heroes, villains and freaks. It bodes well as the first in a trilogy and though it may not turn out to be a classic series like her Saga Of The Pliocene it is sure to become a well read and well loved.