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Elfsorrow
James Barclay
Gollancz, 454 pages


Fred Gambino
Elfsorrow
James Barclay
James Barclay was born in 1965. He was brought up in Felixstowe, Suffolk, and attended college in Sheffield before training to be an actor. He was an extra in the film, Onegin, but his screen appearance ended up on the cutting room floor. He works in London as an advertising and promotions manager for an investment house. The first novel in his series, Chronicles of the Raven, is titled Dawnthief.

James Barclay Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Nightchild
SF Site Interview: James Barclay
SF Site Interview: James Barclay
SF Site Review: Noonshade
SF Site Excerpt: Noonshade

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

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This is the fourth in James Barclay's ongoing, at times peripatetic adventures of The Raven, an imaginary band of mercenaries and mages noted not only for their fierce loyalty to one another, but for a predilection for finding themselves at the center of momentous events which threaten to eradicate the world of Balaia. Both catalysts and shapers of fortune, The Raven have become legends in their own time, universally feared and respected, though their aging members have watched their numbers change due to losses and new recruits: death, after all, is an occupational hazard. Though the premise is hardly new, Barclay's reapproach is notable for its use of standard epic stereotypes within new or altered contexts, the series doing much to breathe a bit of fresh life back into conventional heroic fantasy as entertainment, neither under appreciating the values of simple adventure narrative, nor making the mistake of taking itself too seriously. The end result is a thoroughly engaging romp, seated in the best traditions of pulp, in which the author has created a secondary realm and cast of characters that for the most part stands apart from the usual run-of-the-mill epics cluttering retailers' shelves. And, compared to similar work, such as Glen Cook or David Gemmell, Barclay's work offers far more sustained invention.

Since Nightchild, the author's writing has become more tightly focused and compositionally coherent, each story improving with the telling. Barclay has taken his initial, at times one dimensional characterizations from his first novel and expanded upon them, while losing none of his original camaraderie and camp-side humor, developing nuances and depth to his protagonists that in some ways was absent in the first two books. Additionally, some of the glib segues in plot development have diminished, if not entirely disappeared, creating greater credibility to the narrative's ongoing denouement, as well as significantly enhancing the creation of the book's secondary realm. While continuing to be largely action-driven, and offering some of the more vivid descriptions of combat to be found, this is not merely an exercise in muscle flexing, but in equal measure an imaginative effort at world-building that also attempts to provide some comparable time between feminine and male perspectives, as well as reveals, particularly in this latest outing, evidence of social conscience. Though no one is likely to mistake its predominant emphasis upon adventure and warfare, the author has elevated his stories beyond mere estimates of testosterone levels.

Elfsorrow takes place six months after the events recounted in Nightchild (arguably Barclay's best work to date, marred only by a somewhat summary and surprisingly abrupt ending that left the reader dissatisfied -- fortunately avoided here). The Unknown Warrior has rescued his family from the privations and unrest in Balaia left in the wake of Lyanna's destruction, and returned to Herendeneth, unfortunately with uninvited Xeteskian mages and Protectors in tow. Erienne continues to grieve for the loss of her daughter, while refusing to accept the One Magic the Al-Drechar have tragically forced upon her. The exiled Kaan are slowly dying, awaiting rescue and return to their own dimensional space, and new members have been added to The Raven's roster: the renegade general Ry Darrick, Denser's Given, Aeb, and Ilkar's new love, the Drech elf Ren'erei. Back in Balaia the Northern Continent is being torn apart by open warfare between the mage colleges of Xetesk and Dordover, with the innocent population, already reeling in the aftermath of Lyanna's uncontrolled devastation, caught between warring factions. Selik and his minions are riding throughout the land, stirring up rebellion, and the entire magical order of Balaia is threatened.

In an attempt to return balance between the four mage colleges, and thereby force Xetesk and Dordover to negotiate their differences, Ilkar believes his elven college of Julatsa must be returned to its original strength and prior independence before its collapse during the Wesman war. But to do this, Julatsa will need more mages, many of whom have returned to the elven lands of Calaius. Knowing he can depend upon his comrades' assistance, Ilkar leads The Raven to his ancestral home, located deep within the rain forests of the Southern Continent. But The Raven are not the only Balaians journeying to Calaius: Xetesk has launched it own expedition in search of lost lore. Prior to The Raven's arrival, they raid the ancient temple of Aryndeneth, sacred seat of the elven faith, in the process unwittingly desecrating the statue of the God Yniss, removing a small portion of the statue as a souvenir. This sets off a desperate chase that will lead ultimately back to Balaia, as the elven protectors of the temple attempt to capture and return what has been stolen. Unsuspecting, The Raven walk right into this conflict, one in which the elves are taking no prisoners. Needless to say, Ilkar's homecoming is not what he expected.

As can be anticipated, based upon Barclay's previous books, The Raven find themselves embroiled in magical and political intrigue and conflict, this time with a religious component. Not only are they once again confronted with saving their own world, but the entire elven race, for the desecration of the temple has brought about a disruption in the balance of life through which the elves are attuned to their land, with dire consequences: in increasing numbers, the elves have begun dying. And unless the stone fragment can be quickly returned, the elves will cease to exist, among them Ilkar and Ren'erei.

With The Raven, Barclay has created one of the more memorable casts of heroes in recent memory, supporting them within a world of magic based upon constructs entirely his own. While action may dominate the pages of his narratives, this has not taken place in the absence of increasingly strong characterization or a secondary world imaginatively and freshly developed. If his stories may lack the more serious and grander intentions of authors such as Matthew Stover or Steven Erikson, they nonetheless represent the best among his less ambitious contemporaries in providing simpler and more straightforward heroic entertainment. And, with the inclusion in Elfsorrow of an underlying, if relatively simple, environmental statement, the author may well be showing an emerging interest in using his narratives for purposes other than mere entertainment. As his writing talents have continued to evolve and improve, this is certainly a writer to watch, both for immediate enjoyment as well as future development.

Copyright © 2002 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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