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The Storm of Heaven
Thomas Harlan
Tor Books, 555 pages

The Storm of Heaven
Thomas Harlan
Thomas Harlan was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled extensively in Europe, the Near East and Australia/New Zealand. He no longer works in the computer industry and writes full-time, when not designing games, travelling or writing game modules.

According to the author:
"The initial version of Storm proved to be too long to fit the price-point Tor wanted to deliver to the public, so about 300 pages of manuscript were removed to make the book a salable length. You can read these missing scenes (and entire plot-lines) on the Storm Deletions pages."

Thomas Harlan Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

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One could never fault this series for its lack of epic proportions: a tale spanning continents, a cast including emperors and empresses, the Prophet Mohammed, and a resurrected Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great.  Even Uthar Pendragon receives mention!  Set within a vast alternate history in which the Roman Empire has survived intact to the year 624 AD, Persia remaining its implacable foe, the author has reconstructed this large-scale saga around the struggles for empire amidst the emerging religious fervour of Islam.  Freighted with apocalyptic magic and abundant mythological references, drawn heavily from historical events and custom, Mr. Harlan has spun a multi-faceted tale thick with intrigue and peppered with cataclysmic events, part fact, part fiction, from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius to the destruction of imperial Ctesiphon and Constantinople.  Barbarian hordes of Huns, Avars, Khazars and Goths variously threaten or defend the Empire's borders, and the Levant boils with rebellion and mysticism.  Rome is defended not only by its legions but an ancient, mysterious Oath, at once a blessing and a curse; gods still intervene in human affairs, and dark sorcerers roam the earth.  Immense armies clash on the Plain of Mars, fleets rage upon the Mare Internum and the earth trembles beneath the tramp of marching feet.  The Lord of the Wasteland speaks through the voice of the Faithful.  If any complaint could be lodged, it might be the sheer scale with which Mr. Harlan has chosen to invest his saga.

This is the third installment in The Oath of Empire, continuing many of the multiple plot threads established in the first book and continued through the second.  Some thought lost by the end of Shadow of Ararat or Gate of Fire miraculously reemerge, whereas others will find in this volume that "God has fixed the length of [their] life."  Maxian reaches a shocking conclusion (if somewhat glibly recognized), Alexander is loose with an army in Magna Gothica, former enemies put aside their differences, and Thyatis has survived, though without any memory of past events.  Former comrades now find themselves locked in deadly combat and, as before, little appears entirely as it seems.  Armies are again massing on the march, leading to a battle before the walls of Constantinople that, in terms of its climatic action, exceeds anything the author has offered before.

In this volume, Mr. Harlan has in many ways mastered some of the earlier weaknesses found in previous novels.  As always, his description of combat remains vividly detailed, but here he excels himself.  This book both opens and ends with battles far more complicated, detailed and dramatically played out than his earlier efforts, capturing both the confusion and shifting fortunes of the battlefield in a way that brings individual conflict to life, while at the same time clearly revealing tactics and the movements of forces upon the field.  This clarity of focus in many ways extends itself to other aspects of his narrative.  The handling of his various plotlines seems much tighter, even if often and at times annoyingly predicated upon a succession of cliffhangers, using the obvious manipulation of sequential crisis to move his narrative between chapters.  While the magical elements remain bold and oversized, and often delivered in a manner that demands acceptance at face value, with little explanation or substantiation as to their foundation or source, the description of their actual execution and result here is much more lucidly done, the clarity of description helping to support the colossal scale of magic that is occurring throughout this narrative, and that was largely lacking before, especially in the first book, where much of what happened magically appeared more incredible or contrived than necessarily believable.  Even Maxian's tale, which until now has been the weakest storyline within the series, with its often vague ponderings upon the significance of the Oath, overblown magic and fortuitous sequence of revelations and events, becomes more grounded in action, which allows the reader to ignore in part the often tenuous foundations surrounding the Oath's contribution to this saga.

Storm of Heaven reads as if the author has arrived at a balance between the at times unwieldy, cyclopean action and cast of his first novel and the more descriptively dependent, and thus slower pace of his second, creating in this third installment a story that draws more upon the previous books' strengths, while relegating their weaknesses further to the background.  True, some of the magical episodes -- Maxian's meeting with Paiawon, Zoë's etheric guardian, Thyatis' visitor in the Temple of Vesta, the purpose behind Maxian's placement of the copper beads in the Forum -- remain vague or obscure as to their significance and intention.  One is left to wonder at Jusuf's reminiscence of the death of Sahul, as he was not present when his brother died.  The silk cloth Patik uses to magically enfold a body in order to fit it within his pocket appears without warning and then falls from further mention without any real explanation, outside its function.  While perhaps some clarification of these events and elements may be forthcoming in the follow-up volume, similar in form to the telltale hints suggesting the identify of the Queen and child in the first chapter who, to date, have remained a mystery in previous editions, based upon past experience it is just as likely that these events will never be fully explicated.

Nonetheless, Thomas Harlan has come a long way from the more loosely constructed, overblown tale first encountered in Shadow of Ararat.  Though a continuation of that story, Storm of Heaven is a much more tightly written narrative, showing the author in greater control of juggling his complex plots and varied cast of characters.  The action scenes have never been more vivid, and his recreation of the world of Rome remains admirably detailed and descriptive.  While not yet quite on par with other epic fantasists such as George R.R. Martin, Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, Steven Erikson or Robert Jordan, Harlan has here amply proven his ability to weave together a complicated saga on a monumental scale, with an ever-expanding and evolving narrative that in terms of adventure holds the reader's interest.  I certainly plan to continue this saga into the next book, The Dark Lord, and look forward to a promising future from this author.  Despite some fumbles, it has evolved as one of the better "door-stopper" fantasies of recent years.

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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