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The Skein of Lament
Chris Wooding
Gollancz, 405 pages

The Skein of Lament
Chris Wooding
Chris Wooding was born and raised in Coalville, Leicester, and has been a full-time writer since leaving Sheffield University where he studied English Literature. He's the author of ten novels for young adults, including the award-winning The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, soon to be a film. The Braided Path, which so far includes The Weavers of Saramyr and The Skein of Lament, is his first series for the adult market.

Chris Wooding Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Weavers of Saramyr
Chris Wooding Fan Site
A Conversation with Chris Wooding

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

The second installment of Chris Wooding's The Braided Path trilogy comes garlanded with laudatory review quotes, including a number that praise its unlikeness to "standard" fantasy: "a long way away from the standard orcs and broadswords setting of too much sub-standard fantasy"; "resolutely stands out from the standard fantasy slop"; "takes care to undercut fantasy clichés". While I admit I've been guilty of this kind of assessment myself from time to time, such statements have begun to bug me. Anyone who reads widely in the fantasy field has to be aware that in fact it's much less common these days for fantasy authors to follow those "standard" themes and settings, than to work themselves into contortions trying to avoid them. Praising books for daring to be "different" is not just a truism, it echoes (and thereby inadvertently reinforces) the prejudices of non-fantasy readers, who really do think that all fantasy is orcs and broadswords and Campbellian heroic journeys. There's always been a crazy kind of backwardness to invoking the most negative stereotypes of the genre as a way of saying something positive about the books and authors that especially impress us -- but nowadays, it seems to me, this kind of commentary is just lazy.

Well. Now that I've got that out of my system, The Skein of Lament is indeed an original fantasy in a unique setting. In the previous installment, the realm of Saramyr -- whose noble families have become dependent on the magic of the Weavers, sorcerers who wear witchstone-infused Masks that grant them great power, but also turn them into twisted, loathsome, perverted creatures -- was torn by civil war over the succession of the young Heir-Empress Lucia, who also happens to be an Aberrant, possessor of a natural magical talent that the Weavers have taught the people of Saramyr to fear and detest. In a daring coup by a secret resistance movement, Lucia was snatched from the jaws of an assassination plot and brought to the haven of the Xarana Fault, where outcasts and outlaws of all kinds have made a kind of alternate society. There the resistance dug in, building its strength, waiting for the time to be right for action.

The Skein of Lament opens five years after Lucia's rescue. The Weavers' influence on the nobility of Saramyr has become a stranglehold, and the blight their witchstones have brought upon the land threatens full-scale famine. Though the resistance's reach now extends throughout Saramyr, it's no closer to uncovering the Weavers' secrets, and still not strong enough to openly oppose them. Lucia, who has grown into a fey young woman, is the resistance's titular leader, a semi-mythic role she seems passively to accept, though her mysterious talents, which even she doesn't fully understand, seem to hint at a different destiny. Kaiku, the young noblewoman who was drawn into the resistance by the murder of her family, and has vowed vengeance upon the Weavers, is now an experienced fighter; but she continues to refuse to submit her powerful Aberrant gift to training, despite the urging of Cailin, leader of the enigmatic Red Order (an organization of female Aberrants who are able to naturally work the magic the Weavers can only access through their Masks). Mishani, Kaiku's childhood friend, has also become an important member of the resistance; her talents are political, not magical, but formidable just the same. And Asara, the shapeshifting being who feeds on the life-essence of her victims, pursues her own mysterious ends -- one of which involves working for the Red Order, which may have an agenda it has not revealed to the other resistance leaders.

When a spy returns from the dark continent of Okhamba with a stolen document, the shocking truth about the Weavers' witchstones is revealed: they are not of the earth at all, but fragments of a fourth moon, Aricarat, the three moon sisters' dark brother, who millennia ago was destroyed and fell in pieces to the earth. For the last several centuries the Weavers have been trying to dig those pieces up. Simultaneously, the resistance makes a terrible discovery: the Weavers have come to Xarana Fault, concealing their presence behind a magical barrier. What's their purpose? Does it have anything to do with the closed, menacing barges that have recently been plying the rivers of Saramyr? Kaiku, in company with an unusual Okhamban man named Tsata, is dispatched on a dangerous mission to find out. Meanwhile, the Weavers' plan of political domination proceeds, their goal being nothing less than the direct rule of Saramyr through a puppet Emperor. But they themselves may be only puppets of a greater intelligence. And Lucia, whose strange talents link her not just with the world but with numinous dimensions beyond ordinary human perception, makes a terrifying discovery -- that the earthly war to come is a pale reflection of a far more deadly conflict.

The Skein of Lament is a more mature work than its predecessor. The excesses that I found distracting last time around -- the over-elaborate prose style, the abundance of description, the gratuitous action scenes -- have been tamed, and now serve the story very well. Wooding brings the distinctive, Asian-flavored world of Saramyr to vibrant life, from the teeming cities to the spreading plains to the strange and varied landscapes of the Xarana Fault; there's even a side trip to another continent, a jungly heart of darkness that not only allows Wooding to build a strikingly different setting, but to sketch the complex history of present-day Saramyrrhic society. A convincing sense of cultural context underpins the narrative; Saramyr isn't one of those monolithic fantasy societies, which seems to have existed forever without significant alteration, but a civilization that has developed and changed over the centuries, and itself supplanted something older. Interesting legends and religious mythology add further depth. The complicated political machinations of the nobles and the Weavers are also well-drawn, with crosses and double crosses abounding. This is a novel in which evil is truly larger than life, and no one, not even the otherwordly Lucia, is entirely free of base or selfish motives.

Old characters return -- Mishani, who plays politics with nerves of steel and a will of iron; Kaiku, tough yet vulnerable, with believable flaws and failings, who has come a long way from the sheltered young woman she was at the start of the series, and continues to grow and change in this volume. There are also a number of intriguing newcomers, including Tsata, the tattooed Okhamban man who accompanies Kaiku on her mission. He too has a distinct cultural background, entirely unfamiliar to Kaiku; initially they have great difficulty in understanding one another, but a bond slowly grows between them. This is not at all a romantic novel -- grime and grit are the order of the day, and Kaiku is partial to one-night stands -- but a romance is hinted here, and perhaps will develop in the future.

As before, the action is intense, with exploit piling on adventure virtually nonstop throughout. Toward the end, this becomes a little wearying -- possibly because there are several story threads to bring to separate climaxes, and in intercutting between them all Wooding skips big chunks of time, which saves a lot of narrative but also necessitates capsule explanations or flashbacks each time we rejoin the action, in order to explain what we didn't see. For me this had the opposite effect to the one intended: rather than being breathlessly driven along through the final chapters, I found myself pausing more often. I'm aware that this is at least partly my own personal taste; I nearly always have trouble with narratives that attempt to create the illusion of simultaneity by swiftly intercutting between a number of ongoing scenes. Then again, this is a very difficult technique to carry off.

The Skein of Lament is not a stand-alone novel, but the plot is self-contained enough, and the backstory organically-enough included, that a new reader probably could catch on without too much difficulty. Threads left dangling at the end open new mysteries and suggest many interesting adventures to come in the final volume of this enjoyable -- and, yes, very original -- series.

Copyright © 2004 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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