Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Vincalis The Agitator
Holly Lisle
Warner Aspect, 391 pages

Art: Matt Stawicki
Vincalis The Agitator
Holly Lisle
Holly Lisle was born in Salem, Ohio in 1960. She grew up all over the USA -- Alaska, Ohio, Costa Rica -- and Guatemala. She graduated in 1981 with an Associate Degree in Nursing. Before writing full-time, she sold newspaper advertising, taught guitar for beginners, did commercial artwork, and worked as a nurse until 1993. She has both children and cats, and has been both married and divorced.

Holly Lisle Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Diplomacy of Wolves

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Hank Luttrell

Suspension of disbelief can work fine with magic when any use of magic has appropriate costs or consequences. For instance, magic use might deplete the user's stamina, leaving her fatigued. Sort of a metaphysical conservation of energy. Holly Lisle has used this idea in an extreme manner. In this story, magic use creates a backlash of destructive forces. Large-scale magic use would normally destroy the user. Dragons, the ruling class of magicians in this ancient civilization, have developed technology which allows them to redirect the harmful by-product of their magic use so it consumes a population of slaves.

As dystopia go, this is a frightening construct: Pampered citizens in beautiful floating cities, great metropolises under the sea, every sort of device and convenience, from transportation to communication; food production to entertainment, is created or maintained by magic powered by burning the flesh and souls of a human underclass. The general population is mislead about the nature of the "Warrens" where the human fuel is warehoused, and even the officials usually delude themselves about the nature of their power supply.

"Wraith" is a boy born in the Warrens. For reasons unknown, he is immune to the magics which numb and confine the vast number of victims. Some aspects of the this book are nostalgically similar to classic forms of science fiction: a rebel minority challenges a repressive society, some how toppling the totalitarian government, bringing the promise of freedom.

Lisle's work provides a more mature view of this situation than some stories. It is usually unclear while reading the final pages of many dystopian stories, how the handful of rebels plan to replace the infrastructure of the society they are destroying -- how they will feed, shelter and cloth the populations they seek to free. Lisle's story suggests a reasonable and frightening answer.

This book is a prequel to Lisle's series The Secret Texts Trilogy. Readers of that series might know what to expect from this book, as it sets in motion plots and conspiracies which affect Lisle's world. New readers won't be befuddled by anything here, and in fact will probably want to see how things work out in the trilogy. However, there are a few moments that are surprising.

For instance, one expectation in a BCF1 is that we will be given a detailed narrative about every moment of the characters' struggles. After all, how else can all five or six hundred pages of all three (or more) books be filled? This book is more terse -- only a bit less than 400 pages -- and when Lisle come to a dull patch, she summarizes. Wraith must develop a theatre company as a propaganda arm for his revolution, create an underground, and all the while maintain secrecy and cover for himself. It takes about three years, we are told, but we learn about it in the space of half a page.

It was jarring, when in the last quarter of the book, a god suddenly shows up to help the revolution along. Maybe readers familiar with the earlier series expect this, but there was no reason to think gods existed or at least took any interest in the affairs of this world. The only "gods" in the narrative to this point are actually Dragon magicians in the guise of gods indoctrinating Warren inmates. Perhaps the gods play a large role in the trilogy, but in the context of this book it's a bit deus ex machina.

Dystopian stories usually focus critical attention on aspects of our own culture. The stories might extrapolate trends or tendencies to the point that they become clearly repressive or abusive. You can probably tell that Lisle's novel is more abstract. Because, after all, our culture, our society, isn't based on a government conspiracy to burn human souls to fuel transportation or build cities. Right? Right?

1 Big Commercial Fantasy

Copyright © 2002 Hank Luttrell

Hank Luttrell has reviewed science fiction for newspapers, magazines and web sites. He was nominated for the Best Fanzine Hugo Award and is currently a bookseller in Madison, Wisconsin.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or other stuff worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide