9 November 2016

The Shadow of What Was Lost

The Shadow of What Was Lost: Volume 1 of the Licanius Trilogy
James Islington
Orbit, 10 November 2016
HB, 693pp
Source: Review copy gratefully received from Orbit

The North is full of tangled things, and texts, and aching eyes...

It's a while since I've got properly sunk into a real epic fantasy tome* so in some ways this book was like coming home. There is magic. There are swords, legions of faceless antagonists, mysterious visions - and shifty motivations.

The story opens at a school where the young (magically) Gifted are taught to control their powers. One the even of the test which will determine his future, young Davian is selected for a task which will take him far from Caladel. One of the things I soon appreciated about this book was the gentle air of menace surrounding pretty much everything and everyone. Far from being welcomed and revered, the Gifted are despised, barely tolerated, and forced to subscribe to the 'Four Tenets' that limit their powers. Even so limited, they are likely to be beaten up in the streets, spat at or chased out of shops. By absconding, Davian puts himself in danger of - at best - having his powers snuffed out, at worst, of being cornered by a lynch mob. (Ever watched one of those old horror films and wondered what it would be like to draw the attention of the pitchfork wielding villagers?) And the irony of it is that he has no powers that he can control anyway. So his mission seems doubly hopeless - as are all the best fantasy quests.

Of course there is more - a great deal more - to this story than that. For Davian, it's a growing up, as he - slowly - discovers what is special about him, and learns painful lessons about trust - giving and receiving it. Others of those he meets must recover memories to learn who they truly are, take their rightful place in the kingdom or come to terms with devastating personal change and loss.

Because in this book, nobody seems to be what or who they say they are. Much of the plot is about slowly peeling away the layers, revealing motivations - political, magical, prophetic - and seeing just how complex and entangled human nature can really be. At times things become so tangled that they resemble a PG Wodehouse plot and one longs for a stern Aunt Agatha to stamp her foot and command order. But the truth is that in the world of this book, no-one is in control. Not the King, not the Northwarden, certainly not the Elders of the Gifted. The Augurs, godlike beings who ruled the Gifted (and seem to have been pretty nasty, to be honest) are all dead - and Bad Things are happening.

It's an inventive narrative told at a galloping pace, the first in a series (obviously) so not many of those mysteries get wrapped up by the end (why one character miraculously survived a massacre, who the powerful tutor is who schools Davian (and why), who the leader of the Shadows really is) - we don't even learn the real motivations of some of the main characters. I suspect though that the crux is going to be the interplay between a pretty extreme form of predestination and a desire by many of the characters to decide their own way. That would give point to the series of visions described here and accepted by most of the protagonists as inevitable: to the backstories involving dreadful crimes by people who come across as quite decent (is there more to it? Surely there is!) and to the... how can I describe it... sense of gameplaying that sometimes seems to be going on.

So, if you appreciate fantasy I think you'll like what is a fairly straight down the line epic.  My only reservation would be that you need to pay close attention to those visions - the details matter once they start to come true - and if you don't you'll be flipping back and forward, as I was, reminding yourself exactly what was going on.

*Tome: A book of more than 500 pages in which magic happens. May or may not contain dragons.

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