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A Fortress of Grey Ice
J.V. Jones
Orbit Books, 655 pages

A Fortress of Grey Ice
J.V. Jones
J.V. Jones was born in Liverpool, England, in 1963. She currently resides in San Diego, California where she is hard at work on her next novel.

J.V. Jones Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site ReviewA Cavern of Black Ice
SF Site Review: The Barbed Coil
SF Site Review: The Book of Words
Sample Chapter from The Baker's Boy
Sample Chapter from A Man Betrayed
Sample Chapter from Master and Fool

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

After a three-year hiatus in which rumors circulated that the sequel to J.V. Jones' acclaimed A Cavern of Black Ice was stalled, A Fortress of Grey Ice has now finally been released, at least in Britain. Previous buzz that the novel was indeed in trouble appeared to be confirmed when the original planned publishing date of March 2001 passed by, only to be followed by the announcement that Ms. Jones' American publisher, Time Warner/Aspect, had abandoned the project due to delays. Fortunately, the at times seemingly ubiquitous Tor picked up the contract and will be publishing the novel in the States at some unspecified date in the future, along with a reissue of A Cavern of Black Ice. In the meantime, those on this continent who wish to read the book will either have to order it from England or continue to wait patiently.

Under the circumstances, the question that obviously arises is will one's patience prove rewarded? A Cavern of Black Ice loudly announced a new level of achievement for author J.V. Jones, a far more ambitious and layered project than her earlier popular series, Book of Words, and a significant step forward from the rather banal and problematic Barbed Coil. Deftly incorporating an arctic setting and drawing upon polar and tribal cultures, the author spun a complex and multi-faceted tale notable for its imaginative world-building and description, as well as depth of characterization and an at times far darker tone than found in her earlier novels, blending in elements of what can only be termed horror. The end result proved a signal achievement for this maturing novelist, and one that quickly catapulted this series among the better ongoing works of high fantasy, drawing ready comparison to Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb, Sean Russell, or George R.R. Martin. As is common in such instances, success with the first book placed a great burden upon the second to equal or surpass the original. Does it?

A Fortress of Grey Ice represents a greater division of storylines than was present in the first book. The novel opens rather dramatically with new characters and settings, then moves quickly to Ash March's abrupt and covert departure from Raif in order to join the Sull. Left with the Listener, Raif finds himself alone, now abandoned by clan and friend, cut off from everyone and everything that he loves. Embittered and resentful of the lore that claims him as Watcher of the Dead, Raif will wander the edge of the Want until he finds the only group willing to accept an outcast and renegade, the outlaw Maimed Men. Elsewhere Ash, already leagues away from Raif, will become initiated into the mysterious blood lettings of the Sull, all the while riding in haste to reach the safety of the Sull lands, guarded by her two Far Riders and pursued by the maeraith she has unintentionally released.

In addition to the now divided yet still intertwined storylines of Ash and Raif, Jones continues to develop the earlier plot threads of the Dog Lord, Vaylo Bludd, Raif's sister, Effie Sevrance, Raina Blackhail, and to a lesser degree Angus Lok. Effie is ultimately forced to flee the clanhold and Raina plots against her husband. Angus Lok makes an unexpected pact with the Dog Lord. Warfare and raids continue to divide the clanholds while, unbeknownst to the feuding clans, Marafice Eye amasses an army at their borders. Penthero Iss struggles to maintain his hold as surlord of Spire Vanis against the intrigues of the grangelords and his own heir apparent. Into this percolating stew Jones throws two new storylines: Bram Cormac, brother to the usurper Thorn King, Rob Dun Dhoone, and the convict Crope, former servant of the Bound One. And, ignored by almost everyone else in their entangled plots and squabbles, a darker evil is stretching forth its shadow across the land (image and wording intended).

The author deftly if at times peripatetically balances her multiple story threads, for the most part continuing the success in book one of weaving her multi-layered tales together while allowing them to develop their own momentum and identity. Characterization continues to remain a strong suit. Nonetheless, there were times near the middle of the book when some of the stories appeared to amble and meander, seeming to lack some of the more tightly concentrated focus apparent in the first book. This can become one of the risks inherent in continually shifting between multiple characters and diverse storylines: the possibility that the reader may lose a degree of his or her attachment or interest in a character or a plot development when action and personalities are separated by several chapters and many pages before neglected narrative threads are once again picked up. The result can be an unintended insertion of distance between the varying storylines, a reduction in a tale's immediacy for the reader. While there was little sense of this "separateness" in the first book, its presence was periodically felt here.

More problematic, however, is the rather rote and reflective conclusion, as well as the occasional failure to recontextualize or better disguise inherited endowments. While high fantasy tends to presuppose a certain amount of cloning from Dunsany and Tolkien, references to voided steel whose victims turn into the Unmade, shadows, maeraiths, and nine dark Endlords are a trifle too obvious for comfort, and represent an instance of clear borrowing better avoided in the first book. Compared to the imagination shown elsewhere within the novel, this lapse of convention is unfortunate here. So is the lack of sustained drama in Raif's final combat with the Shatan Maer. Considering that the Shatan Maer is "the most powerful creature that had ever lived," Raif disposes of the threat somewhat summarily, and with less drama than A Bolt Hole or The Stand at Floating Bridge, the action-packed chapters preceding it. By comparison, the concluding conflict, which should have been the most vivid and spectacular of the book, instead seems anti-climactic and retiring. Nor does it share the poignancy of the epilogue that follows. Finally, and compounding other problems, the chapter bears a broad resemblance to the events concluding A Cavern of Black Ice, and the overstated and tired identification with "the gates of hell" fails to help or improve matters.

Overall, this novel seems more a building upon what was established in the first book, or preparatory to what is to come, than concluding or resolving anything. Nor does it stand as individually or strongly on its own. Nevertheless, and despite my criticisms (which some I suspect will find quibbling), this is a strongly written sequel, and more likely to retain the series' fans than lose them. But for certain aspects of Raif's storyline -- connections and progressions which for the moment seem more loosely developed than integral -- I was entertained throughout. And, except for a couple missteps, the author has continued to show herself adept in her ability to spin multiple and evolving plotlines into an epic web that the average reader will likely become ensnared in. To date, one of the best jaunts in high fantasy I've read this year, and likely to remain so.

In answer to my earlier question, was it worth the wait? All things considered, I believe so.

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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