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The Compass of the Soul
Book Two of The River into Darkness

Sean Russell
DAW Books, 432 pages

The Compass of the Soul
Sean Russell
Sean Russell is a fantasy writer living in Vancouver, B.C. His previous novels are The Initiate Brother (DAW 1991) and its sequel, Gatherer of Clouds (DAW 1992), and the two books of Moontide and Magic Rise -- World Without End (DAW 1995) and Sea Without a Shore (DAW 1996).

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Beneath the Vaulted Hills
SF Site Review: World Without End

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rodger Turner

The craft of writing doesn't get the respect it deserves. Many of us figure we know the core rules of grammar, usually speak in full sentences and figure that we can blend them together to write a novel, particularly if we have a thesaurus at our elbow. All we need is to know the page format the publisher uses. After reading The Compass of the Soul and, before that Beneath the Vaulted Hills, I know this isn't true. I'll stick to reading. What craftsmanship, what complexity, what reverence for the written word. Sean Russell should get a gold medal for his writing.

The Compass of the Soul concludes a pair of intriguing books which make a single novel. It started with Beneath the Vaulted Hills where we are plunged into the mystery of why the last mage, Eldritch, is trying to erase the presence of magic. Sean Russell has provided us with a disparate group of characters to help us. All have reasons -- big or small -- for wanting to play a part in solving this riddle. After all, magic has played a fundamental role in this world's history.

There is the population at large who subscribe to one strain or other of the common gossip -- urban myths, if you will. Eldritch has taken on no apprentices like the previous mages did (they're gone now but nobody seems to know why or where). Stories abound as to why he is doing this. Some say a cataclysm, brought about by the continued practice of his arts, is coming, others argue that "The Age of Reason" needs no such metaphysical claptrap (empiricism is the way) and the rest aren't even sure he exists -- he's just an image used to scare children.

But Erasmus Flattery knows the truth -- or so many believe. He spent three years studying in the mage's home until the death of another student caused his banishment. And the Tellerites, enemies of the Church, suspect the reason why -- or so the Church thinks. Some of the Tellerites, an underground group hoping revive magic, have been salvaging every scrap of magical knowledge they can find in order to perhaps create a mage some day. Anna Fielding, their mage-in-waiting, lacks the critical knowledge to complete her training and needs some of the seed of the rare King's Blood flower -- a catalyst that can transform man to mage. The Church's Deacon Rose is on their trail, intent on eradicating this heresy. In a series of caves, all of them come together in their underground search for Landor's gate. It is believed by many to be the subterranean chamber where the first mage entered their world centuries ago. There, the adventurers and their companions hope to uncover the secrets and the seeds of the first mages. They soon discover that a trap has been sprung by Eldritch, and they are left to face death. Only by dint of ingenuity do most but not all of them manage to escape.

Anna Fielding has learned from the ancient writings in Landor's chamber details unknown even to Eldritch, the mage, and she finds some of the precious King's Blood seed. Seriously angered, Eldritch summons all those who have ever served him, including Erasmus Flattery. He is desperate (but in a calm, cool mage-like way) to find and to destroy Anna before she can begin taking the path to becoming a mage. Each of the adventurers find themselves in the presence of the mage, lured to him by guile, greed or messenger. All are tasked with finding Anna and reporting back. The mage is irked and no one is immune to his influence. Bit by bit, information is gleaned on Anna's progress, both where she has been and what she has found. Eventually, her refuge is found and all of the parties converge for a final confrontation. But who will win and, more importantly, who will survive?

Sean Russell has chosen an interesting device not often seen in fantasy these days to guide us towards a resolution. Despite being the focus of all things, Eldritch appears as a shadowy figure, rarely centre-stage. Most of the details we're given come from the surrounding characters, none of whom has all the information. It is rationed out piecemeal, each segment giving us a little more of the "whys" and "hows" and teasing us with what may yet be. While reading, I was reminded of the back stories in a number of today's TV dramas -- The Pretender, The X-Files or Profiler, to name three. Hardly ever does this part of a TV show advance the episode's plot, yet it serves to reveal that the characters have a life outside of the situation-of-the-week. Here, Sean Russell has established such a credible environment for his characters, letting the reader see that the main plot may be the focus of the narrative, but these people also have events and contacts which allow them to be more than "cannon fodder" for the plot. Does anybody really believe that all of a Star Trek security detail will return to the ship? It is, perhaps, the first novel (in two parts) I've read in a decade, where I've felt many of the characters weren't members of a "security detail".

The Compass of the Soul and its companion, Beneath the Vaulted Hills, are just the sort of books that can sweep you away from your day-to-day life and catapult you into that mental cabin in the woods, that imaginary home overlooking the sea, that dream sailboat cruising the waterways with your job being to sit in a rocker, stand at the helm, sway in the hammock and enjoy Sean Russell's adventure.

Copyright © 1998 by Rodger Turner

Rodger has read a lot of science fiction and fantasy in forty years. He can only shake his head and say, "So many books, so little time."

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