Tuesday, 27 January 2004

Julian May: Conqueror's Moon (2003)

Edition: Voyager, 2003
Review number: 1216

May begins her third series (discounting the collaborative Trillium novels) with this story, part one of The Boreal Moon Tale. Like the Trillium series, it is a fairly standard fantasy and even shares one of the main features of these, novels, a system of magic in which stones and crystals play an important role as repositories of power. (This is something which can be seen in a lot of post-Tolkien fantasy, of course.)

The setting is the island of High Blenholme, once part of a large empire but now divided into petty kingdoms. Three are particularly important to May's story: Cathra, which seeks to re-unite the island as a response to a lengthy famine; Didion, the main opponent to this unification; and Moss, home of the strongest magicians where the royal family is divided between supporters of the other two mentioned nations. A lot of the story is structured around the personalities of the members of the royal families of Cathra and Moss, which makes the politics more believable than those in the quest and lost heir stories which are the staples of the genre.

Something else which is unusual is that the novel is written in such a way that the reader is on the side of the aggressor; almost always in fantasy, military matters are arranged so that the reader sympathises with those who are attacked. This is more generally the case at least in post 1945 literature; given that Tolkien wrote at least partly in response to the Second World War in the most influential fantasy novel, it is hardly surprising that I can't actually think of another example in the genre.

There are things which don't quite work. For example, the character of the ambitious teenage prince of Moss, Beynor, is not sufficiently three dimensional. He is so much a stereotypical teenager, whiny and irritating, that it is hard to see why the rulers of Didion take him at all seriously. (This is one of the factors used to cement the reader's sympathy with the Cathran side.) Surely he would not be the kind of person anyone would rest their strategy for defending their kingdom on.

The beginning is dull and formulaic; I suspect that there will be quite a few potential readers who have given up after the first few pages. In the introduction, we are introduced to the idea that The Boreal Moon Tale is the memoirs of a Cathran wizard; this, though is the only part of the novel written in the first person. It is extremely like the arch little historical introductions of which David Eddings is fond, right down to the turns of phrase, and if there is one writer I never expected the author of the Pleistocene Exile saga to remind me of, David Eddings would probably have been it. This describes the problem I had with Conqueror's Moon - it is good, and it has something out of the ordinary about it, but it is not as inventive and unusual as May has been at her best.

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