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Trial of Fire: Fifth Book of Elita
Kate Jacoby
Gollancz/Orion, 441 pages

Jon Sullivan
Trial of Fire
Kate Jacoby
Kate Jacoby was born in Australia but has lived all over the world. She has worked a variety of jobs including in a Melbourne theatre, both backstage and as an actor, a caretaker in a remote Scottish castle, a software trainer, a cook for cyclists and a brief stint as a voice-over for radio. She lives in Melbourne, Australia with her dogs, Sam and Jake.

Kate Jacoby Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

One of the better epics to appear over the past several years has been Kate Jacoby's Book of Elita. While lacking the imaginative scope of Steven Erikson, Ricardo Pinto or Robin Hobb (at least in Liveship Traders), Jacoby has nonetheless proven herself adept at infusing her high fantasy with a memorable cast of characters displaying some depth and a well-delineated world enriched by a system of magic and mythos characterized by enough originality to set her work apart from more standard fare. Add to this story-telling skills that evince a maturity uncommon for a relatively new author, along with a willingness to allow both her tale and characters to evolve and develop without dependence upon action and magical fireworks to primarily spur her narrative along, and one is faced with a damned good read as well. And, while broadly familiar, her ongoing cycle proves difficult to resist, at least for those seeking respite from the same old twice and thrice-told tales written with scant creativity or skill, where only the character and place names change.

Trial of Fire brings the series to a satisfying conclusion (with only a few caveats that I will address below). After decades of struggle and rebellion, with enough plot twists, intrigue and red herrings to placate those waiting for George R.R. Martin's next installment, the last novel builds toward the final confrontation between the Salti Pazar and the Malachi, the patriots of Lusara and the usurper king Kenrick, the Guilde and the Church, and the Enemy, the Ally, and the Angel of Darkness. Prophecy will be fulfilled, the Word of Destruction spoken, the Demon unleashed, though not all will turn out as expected. Instead, as can happen with auguries worded as riddles, even when their meaning appears clear, interpretation is open to the vagaries of fortune, faith, and ultimately the freedom of personal choice.

Despite having stumbled in the past, the ancient Carlan has regenerated through the blood of his daughter. Believing he has learned from his past errors, stronger than ever before and now possibly immortal, buoyed by his discovery of the Key and its revelation of Robert Douglas and the long hidden location of the Enclave, he sets off in pursuit of the Enemy, determined to destroy not only Douglas and the Salti, but to gain the Key which will provide him with infinite power. After living in sanctuary for over five hundred years in the mountain caverns of The Enclave, masked from the view of their enemies by the Key, the Salti Pazar are forced to flee, betrayed by the joining of the Key to the Calyx, upon which they had placed such hopes. Instead of immediately joining that flight to the safety of the rebel stronghold in Flan'har, Robert must first find a new way to hide the Key from Carlan's discovery. Joined by Jenn, Andrew, Finnlay and a few others, Robert desperately tries to reach his secret hideaway in the mountains of Nanmoor, all the while masking the Key with his own magic, an effort that is slowly killing him. Haunted by the fear of his role within the Prophecy, and unsure that Jenn will not yet ultimately betray him, setting in motion the events that will lead to his killing her, Robert struggles against what seems more and more to be inevitable.

Meanwhile, Robert's former companion, Micah, has entered into a secret arrangement with Sairead's uncle, the leader of the Malachi D'Azzir. While the aims of this agreement remain unclear, its first purpose is the capture of Robert Douglas. King Kenrick, on the other hand, has come to believe that Carlan, whom he knows as the Guildesman Nash, was behind the attack on his cousin, Andrew, and no longer trusting him, seeks the aid of DeMassey's Malachi for the instruction in sorcery Carlan had once promised him. Bishop Godfrey continues to try and convince Osbert that the Church and the Guilde must unite against both Kenrick and Carlan, giving aid to the rebellion despite Douglas and other of his followers being Salti sorcerers and thus their historical enemies. Andrew continues to resist and resent Robert's insistence that he be placed upon the throne at the cost of killing his cousin, Kenrick. And Jenn continues to hide from both that Robert and Andrew are actually father and son. But the Hermit of Shan Moss has left his forest, the Goddess Mineah has been seen above the cliffs of Nanmoor, and events are racing toward a conclusion that none of the novel's participants can hope to control.

Ms. Jacoby handles the stew she has stirred up deftly, shifting from one perspective to another with a skill natural to a more experienced author. As is perhaps to be expected, the pacing for Trial of Fire is a bit more frenetic than earlier books, yet for the most part there never exists a sense that the author is not firmly in control of her story. Certain moments, such as the change that comes over Andrew upon learning of his true parentage, or Kenrick's acceptance of his fate, are handled a trifle too glibly. And I believe the author missed a significant opportunity near the end to dramatically alter and avoid the all too typical everyone-gathered-together and happily-ever-after ending that she instead chose to opt for. I expect for many readers of epic fantasy, such a conclusion is both expected and demanded, but for me it has been done far too many times before to remain convincing -- assuming it ever was -- and one might have thought a far different ending would have offered greater poignancy, as well as better reflected the quality of the author's writing and her unwillingness to simply mimic convention that had characterized the novels up to this point. Frankly, I was mildly disappointed by the author's lack of courage.

Nonetheless, I can hear fans of the series shouting "No!" and expect my voice to be that of lone dissent. After all, good triumphing over evil and impossible romances winning out has become an apparent and familiar part of the appeal behind the commercial success of high fantasy, and god knows we wouldn't want to shatter any illusions. Still, the success of work such as George R.R. Martin's darker A Song of Ice and Fire or the bittersweet conclusion to Robin Hobb's Farseer series offers hope that as a genre, high fantasy may yet be able to free itself of the shackles of repetitive and banal romanticization. Ms. Jacoby has shown in her first series that she has the ability to write more than the standard fantasy soap opera, and she's certainly an author I intend to follow closely. And but for the expected and somewhat insipid ending, one of the best epics of the year.

(By the way, Jon Sullivan's illustration boldly burdening the dust jacket gets my vote for most lurid cover of the year!)

Copyright © 2003 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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