The Wizard Hunters - Martha Wells
Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).
The Wizard Hunters
Book one of The Fall Of Ile-Rein
ISBN: 0380977885 (Amazon link)
I have to start with a side issue - this book has a really hideous cover. Normally book covers don't matter much to me, but this one is particularly awful, the sort of cover that would make my eye recoil in horror from The Wizard Hunters on a bookshop shelf. I read it with the dust-jacket removed, but found the book underneath to be a lurid purple too!
I'm a bit of a fan of Martha Wells, and one of the reasons I like her novels so much is that she's that rarest of beasts, a writer of Commercial Fantasy, albeit more original than most, who writes standalone novels. One in particular, The Death Of The Necromancer, won her a lot of deserved praise. I was therefore disappointed to find that The Wizard Hunters is ominously titled Book one of The Fall of Ile-Rien, but, as if to make up for committing trilogy, the heroine turns out to be daughter of The Death Of The Necromancer, and I am quite happy to return to that world.
Ile-Rien has changed though, time has moved on, and for me, much of the atmosphere of the previous book has been lost with the introduction of cars and guns. Ile-Rien is now at war with the mysterious Gardier, enemies from a unknown country who attack in massive airships. Armed with potent spells which destroy mechanical device and strong wards, these airships are free to bombard Ile-Rien's capital, Lodun, from above. Comparisons to both World War I and The London Blitz of World War II are strong, but in fact the story veers quickly away from any obvious plot parallels. Instead what we have is a Parallel Worlds story with our heroine and some friends getting sucked into another more obvious Fantasyland, where the mysterious Gardier are also starting to appear.
Our heroine is Tremaine Valiarde, the daughter of Nicholas Valiarde, and as the novel opens she's been sent to rest from duty on the rescue teams who scrabble in rubble to save survivors from the bombing. She's strongly contemplating methods of suicide that won't bring more shame on her family name when fate offers her a nice dangerous change of mission - naturally she snaps it up. Her 'uncle', Arisilde Damal, constructed a sphere, a magical artefact with curious properties, able to enhance a caster's own skills. Uncle Ari used to use it to entertain a young Tremaine, and it let the little girl cast some weak illusions of her own. However, Uncle Ari and Nicholas both disappeared in an early casting of a Grand Spell, a sort of magical Manhatten Project aimed at stopping the war. Since then spheres have been difficult to construct and now only the prototype is left - as it seems to be reluctant to work with Tremaine present she's soon caught up in events.
Events never work out smoothly however, and soon Tremaine and friends find themselves in trouble, under attack from the Gardier on another world as they collide with the second plot thread. This world, Syrnene, is low-tech, a pastoral landscape populated with farmers and fishermen. It also sports gods who live in caves, and Chosen Vessels, men who have god-given gifts to see curses, and whose job it is to kill wizards. Wizards are evil, tend to be insane, and Ilias and Giliead, a Chosen Vessel, are currently trying to find out if the evil Ixion, who they have already killed, has returned. What they find instead is the Gardier, wizards too but of a very different sort, and Tremaine and her friends, some of whom are also wizards. As Ilias and Giliead's culture mandates killing wizards, they find it difficult to work together to escape safely...
The plot is actually quite decent, with a couple of good twists thrown in, but takes too long to get anywhere. Overall I found The Wizard Hunters to be disappointing. Neither world really comes alive in the way I expected, and the Gardier are too mysterious to be effective - I needed to know why they were invading to really be interested. Currently the Gardier are just a McGuffin to cause the rest of the action, and for my taste there was too much action - people were constantly being captured, recaptured, betrayed etc. Normally, that's a good thing, but in this novel I found myself wishing for less pyrotechnics and more world-building. Much more could be made of the culture clash, and in particular, I found the contrast between the purported role of the institute sorcerers and their actions to be a Suspension of Disbelief killer.
Another big problem is the central issue of Damal's Sphere - it's a McGuffin pure and simple, and for much of the novel its purpose to the act as a deus ex machina device, able to save the day when all seems lost. To be fair, the last few pages resolves the issue of the things nature smoothly, but still, by that stage I wasn't very interested anymore - it was a plot device, nothing more.
My biggest complaint, and this is perhaps very much to do with me having a very bad cold just now, is with the characterisation - it just took me too long to figure out who everyone is and how they related to care what was happening. This is far from a bad book, but I found myself quite uninvolved until quite near the end of the plot, and I'm not exactly desperate to read the next volume. Only a couple of characters stood out as individuals, and their inter-personal relationships aren't painted very convincingly. Perversely, what I would like to read is the backstory - Wells does a nice job making Nicholas and Isilide's undercover exploits sound thrilling and intriguing, but sadly the foreground story doesn't live up to the same standard.
Worth a look, but far from her strongest work. You can judge the start of the book for yourself as there are sample chapters, a generous five of them, available at www.marthawells.com.
Posted: Sun - December 21, 2003 at 01:21 AM