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The Crown of Silence
Storm Constantine
Victor Gollancz, 344 pages

Anne Sudworth
The Crown of Silence
Storm Constantine
Storm Constantine was born in 1956 in England. She attended Stafford Art College in 1971-72 and worked as a finance officer in Staffordshire. Her writing career began with The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit in 1987. Storm Constantine's other novels include The Bewitchments of Love and Hate (1988), The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire (1989), The Monstrous Regiment (1990), Aleph (1991), Hermetech (1991), Burying the Shadow (1992), Sign for the Sacred (1993), Calenture (1994), Stalking Tender Prey (1995) and Scenting Hallowed Blood (1996).

Storm Constantine Website
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SF Site Review: The Oracle Lips

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

I had been prepared not to enjoy this book: the first novel of The Magravandias Chronicles, The Sea Dragon Heir, never credibly came together, its focus poorly integrated, awkwardly and heavy-handedly shifting between characters, point of view and various plot threads, ending with a cliffhanger that was not only precipitous but a complete departure from the previous storylines.  It was difficult to detect any over-arching intention behind the multiple, wandering narratives, the story seeming as if inventing itself as it went along, with both the writing and the story being told largely conventional and pedestrian, especially when compared to the author's early work in Wraeththu.  Further, one of the primary characters, Pharinet, who dominates the first half of the book, was particularly (though perhaps intentionally) difficult to relate to: self-centred and destructive in her obsessions, her characterization would have been more approachable had it seemed to serve some evolving or intrinsic narrative purpose.  But by book's end, especially with an almost total shift in the second half of the novel to a character whose portrayal seemed almost a counterpoint as well as an abrupt departure in narrative focus, the purpose behind Pharinet's actions and depiction remained unclear, with little promise of resolution or further development offered by the book's conclusion.  Not an auspicious beginning!

Therefore, it was gratifying to discover Crown of Silence as a novel in which the author is now in full mastery of her craft, successfully interweaving her multiple plotlines and characters in a manner absent in the first installment, and with an intention and style that elevates it well beyond the ordinary fantasy.  As indicated by the initial book's conclusion, here the author shifts her story away from Pharinet and most of the earlier novel's characters, figures such as Valraven Palindrake and Prince Bayard present only on the periphery of the story, regardless of any potential hinted at for the future.  The story opens with the destruction of a rural village far from the shores of Caradore or the heart of the Magravandian Empire, with the brutal rape of a peasant boy, Shan, and his subsequent rescue by a stranger.  This episode will set in motion a series of events that will ultimately lead to a spiritual quest and testing that will eventually divide its participants and announce the existence of a true king who will oppose and destroy the Empire.

Sounds rather familiar, doesn't it?  However, there is far more going on here than the conventional quest tale, with its echoes of Arthurian romance.  While reflections of the Grail quest and the realm of faery are evident -- episodes of the wild hunt; the sacrificial king and his intimate connection to well-being of the land; rituals in the cycle of death and rebirth dressed with holly, yew and ash; a Lady of the Lake as well as Avalon; visual symbols and references that could have come straight out of Boorman's Excalibur; even simulacra of the four principal knights of the Grail, Galahad, Percivale, Bors and Lancelot, whose counterpart likewise fails -- in Crown of Silence they are differently guised, arising from a far different crucible and circumstance, allegorically serving symbolisms at once ancient and contemporary.  The "angel" that delivers the Grail -- here a crown -- is a far cry from Gabriel, scarred and Promethean, with closer associations with the fallen nephalim than the voice of a Christian god.

In this allegorical tale of spiritual struggle and redemption, more modern day issues such as rape and victimization are equally being explored, along with the destruction of the spirit inherent in self-abnegation and a refusal to embrace and affirm our own acts and experiences, regardless of outcome or motivation.  Socratic and Aristotelian beliefs are examined and called into question, along with the potential vacuum of relativism, even though fear resides in belief, and the responsibilities inherent in personal choice and self-determinism.  The author posits that only through acceptance and affirmation of life, embracing both the good and the bad, confronting self-knowledge, "dancing on both sides of the coin," does an individual participate in life and the world around them, the former's energy the only constant, denial the equivalence of death.  In this respect the author has completely recontextualized the earlier Arthurian legends and romance, directing it towards a far different purpose, and one that would likely makes its original authors shudder.

On only one occasion do I find the author stumbles, undermining one of her themes.  This takes place in the seduction of Shan by the sorceress Sinaclara, though the action is, in many ways, too matter of fact in delivery to be accurately described as such.  While I have no problem with sexuality in print or image if it serves a purpose, even one as banal and obvious as verisimilitude with reality, when it becomes gratuitous, conforming to sexual stereotypes -- here a beautiful, older woman seducing a handsome 17-year-old virgin under the guise of instruction, sex lasting all day, writhings on the floor in multiple orgasms and screams of passion that fill the walls of an entire manor and end in a humorous interruption -- it becomes sheer Hollywood, no more compelling than the obligatory, filmic tit.  Considering the serious aspect of much of the author's other sexual content, scenes such as this are something she'd be well advised to steer clear of.

Finally, this novel contains some of the best chapters concerning the lessons of a magician's apprentice since Merlyn's instruction of Wart in T.H. White's The Once and Future King.  While lacking the latter's often delightfully whimsical and anthropomorphized tutelage, Shan's apprenticeship shares many similarities, as well as a seriousness of intention.  Both in manner of portrayal and purpose, these episodes stand well apart from the usual mystic mumbo-jumbo or pyrotechnics normally associated with training in the magical arts -- magic here being as much existential as sorcerous.

Has Constantine redeemed the seemingly halting, peripatetically focused narrative of her first novel with the second?  This waits to be seen, and depends in large part on whether she can integrate the events and characters of that novel more fully into those that succeed.  Crown of Silence is certainly a giant step forward in this effort, and taken singly and on its own, is one of the better epic fantasy novels to come out in the past year.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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