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Peril's Gate
Janny Wurts
HarperCollins EOS, 736 pages

Art: Janny Wurts
Peril's Gate
Janny Wurts
OK, pop quiz! If you were asked to describe the work of Janny Wurts, what would you say? It is likely that you would get one of two answers. One would be that she is an author while the rest would say she is an artist. Both are correct for she has done a number of fantasy novels over the years often with her art decorating the covers.

Janny Wurts Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Fugitive Prince
HarperPrism site for Fugitive Prince
An Open Letter from Janny Wurts on the Wars of Light and Shadow

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

This ongoing series by prose stylist Janny Wurts has to be one of the more frustrating offerings of doorstopper fantasy available, both in terms of its appreciation and assessment.  While in many respects -- in terms of the quality of writing, characterization, and richly developed world-building -- one of the better examples of fat fantasy currently underway, it is within these very merits that can be found some of the series most problematic elements.  Ignoring for the moment that this series, like all of its contemporaries, is to a large degree feeding upon itself, spinning out tales without any seeming focus as to conclusion, Ms Wurts' strengths as a writer often represent equally her greatest deficits, which perhaps all can be gathered and laid at the door of exuberance or, depending upon how you view it, a tendency towards excess.

It is impossible not to admire the fecund reservoir of language that waits at the author's beck and call.  Outside of Patricia McKillip, perhaps no other writer of fantasy today is so readily able to draw upon as vivid or varied a source of word play as Janny Wurts, crafted together in an almost continual rhythm of assonance and alliteration, almost as if the author wishes to reflect in language the role that melody plays within her narrative themes.  Her creation of the culture, mythos and landscape of Athera is as imaginative, animate and expressive as any to be found in high fantasy, and her depiction of magic perhaps unparalleled in terms of its complex and unified, ritualistic quality.  This complexity, if often romanticized, is also carried over into many of her characterizations, hardly a single character, even the most minor, depicted with a broad or singular stroke.  Yet, if anything, the author's writing represents an embarrassment of riches.  And herein lies the problem.

Ms Wurts is hardly one to let an opportunity to enliven or enrich her prose pass.  When called for, this propensity leads to passages of beautifully wrought description or vividly enacted action.  When appropriate, such approach can lend her tale drama and much vitality.  Nor would one ever fault her characters for a lack or unremarked moment of emotion or potential tension.  No scene or episode is too insignificant or banal not to draw one's attention, simply glossed over, neglected or lent modest notice, not when instead it can be embellished or enlarged upon.  Yet the cumulative effect of this heightened, ever-active prose quickly becomes comparable to a daily diet of fois gras washed down with a Loire moelleaux: one is easily satiated.  Many are the occasions when a simple rather than complex sentence would suffice, where a scene need not be exquisitely rendered or a character's thoughts or interactions heavily charged with import in order to be effective.  Kept at a constant pitch, after a time the reader grows increasingly numb.  And language and the style of expression should best serve the narrative, not the opposite; a prudence Ms. Wurts tends to lose sight of.

Nor is the unavoidable sense of déją vu discovered here auspicious.  Having escaped the plots of the Koriani enchantresses that concluded Grand Conspiracy, Arithon s'Ffalenn flees in winter across Rathain and the empty wastes of Daon Ramon Barrens, hounded by the Armies of Light and his half brother, Lysaer, the Curse of Deshthiere threatening at any moment to overtake him.  Alone, still aware that he is as yet ensnared within the web of the Prime's schemes to undermine the Law of the Major Balance, to break the compact established with the Paravians and grant mankind ascendancy, the Master of Shadow finds himself temporarily abandoned by the Fellowship, who themselves are under sorcerous siege, with no time to spare the s'Ffalenn heir.  Though the clans rally to his aid, outlawed and decimated by years of massacre and persecution, they are no match in numbers for Lysaer's fanatical forces as they close upon Rathain's renegade prince.  However there are some signal developments: Ellaine finally escapes the watchful and malevolent eye of Cerebald; young prince Kevor experiences an epiphany at the moment of his death; and the long-missing mage, Davien the Betrayer, returns to meddle in the affairs of men.

While seemingly pregnant with possibilities and for the most part well told (this and the last novel more tightly focused than previous outings), in broadest terms this newest volume to the saga appears indistinct from what has gone before, Arithon again in flight and against all odds eluding pursuit.  Though the details and settings have changed, in outline this story seems far too familiar.  Nor is this sense of déją vu alleviated by Arithon's reliving his past while wandering the tunnels of Davien's Maze, an episode dominating almost the entire final hundred and so pages of the book, regardless of its premise to guide the epic's hero (and the reader) to a new and fuller understanding begging for changes in the future.  While understandable, perhaps, in terms of the author's intentions, within the context of largely similar plot outlines that have by now provided the bulwark for six volumes and several thousand pages, one might question turning to this device as evidence of a certain lack of tact.

In terms of raw talent and imagination, I consider Janny Wurts to be one of the more promising writers currently writing traditional high fantasy.  And there are those that will inevitably be drawn toward her lyrical approach, which is successful and skillfully done when called for and not overworked.  But the author needs to curb and discipline her writing to avoid the occasional excess and a tendency towards over-signifying each moment or passage, that in accretion becomes overbearing and distracting.  Continual indulgence in language and unleavened drama ends up ultimately overwhelming the story, which within the traditional context of her narrative, should possess the greater importance.  And finally, Ms. Wurts needs to avoid any further cycle of flight or fight, which by now has been revisited all too often, and start to move her saga significantly forward... but then again, this is a criticism that can be leveled at all of the contemporary champions of fat fantasy, even the resourceful George R.R. Martin: one can only go to the well of intrigue and plot twists so often. 

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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