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Beneath the Vaulted Hills
Sean Russell
DAW Books, 464 pages

Beneath the Vaulted Hills
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).

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rodger Turner

Elsewhere I wrote about World Without End (book one of Moontide and Magic Rise) saying:

Have you ever found a book that you don't want to end? Ever? I've discovered a few in almost forty years of reading science fiction and fantasy. This is one. I wish I could explain why it held me in such thrall. Characters? Plot? Prose? Setting? Yeah, I suppose so but that's not it. I just remember each time I picked it up there was a languid ache knowing that, with each page, I'd have less to read. Finishing it was like the day I knew for certain that it was time to leave school and go out into the world. I could only sigh, look back and remember.
This book and its sequel, Sea Without a Shore, follow the adventures of Tristam Flattery, a young naturalist cultivating a career in an Age of Reason. He's summoned to the palace of Farr where the king is dying. He's asked to lead an expedition to find a species of plant, once cultivated in the kingdom but now failing, in order to help the king survive. It turns out the plant has what some would term magical properties. We, the readers, are dropped into a epic tale where magic is being systematically stamped out by some and attempts at preservation are being made by others. We meet a number of mysterious characters: Averil Kent, a renowned landscape artist, the Countess of Chilton, a woman of incomparable beauty who holds many dark, dreadful secrets and The King's Man, a secretive figure who heads the royal Secret Service. It is never quite apparent whose side they favour.

What does this have to do with Beneath the Vaulted Hills? Well, we meet earlier, younger versions of these characters in this first part of the two-book series, The River into Darkness. We learn many of the reasons why these characters and others act as they did in Moontide and Magic Rise. I found this an interesting device that Sean Russell has employed. He gives us a hint, a look, a glimpse of some event in the character's past and teases us into figuring out what part they play. Little mysteries. Give the reader a bit, let it dangle, move on to another plot point, show a little more, come back to them and so on. I love it. It reminds me a lot of the plot techniques used in The X-Files' main thread of alien abduction. Never give the audience enough to figure it all out, but give them enough to tantalize them until the next clue drops into place. Brilliant.

But getting back to the book, Beneath the Vaulted Hills is a novel about Erasmus Flattery, Tristam's uncle, who, as a boy, lived for three years in the house of Lord Eldrich, the last of the Mages. Unceremoniously dismissed from the house, he has yet to figure out why he was told to leave. He meets an acquaintance, Samual Hayes, who is being pursued by two groups. One is the Royal Navy and the other are the Tellerites, a underground group trying to revive magic. For it is the twilight of the era of the mages. All but one are gone. But hints of their power and their learning remain. The hunters think Samual is the key. Kehler, another friend of Hayes may have some clues, stolen from the priests who are sworn to wipe out this scourge of magic, in his possession. All are drawn to Castlebough, a country town renowned for its baths. There a series of underground caves may hide those wondrous secrets. All the principals show up for one reason or another and are drawn together to preserve, to destroy or to enrich their power. Geez, I think I've been dropped into a daytime soap opera.

Sean Russell has captured the atmosphere and the ethos of a truly magical time. His people are on the verge of awakening from a great reverie, and some don't want to give it up. Most know it is time. Sure there will be some small magics to discover, some place, some time. But for most, the age is past. It is time to get on to other discoveries, growth and become what their destiny has in mind for them. Looking back, they'll sigh and feel wistful about the past but they'll find it a different, but not necessarily better, society. Hasn't that happened to us? Shouldn't it happen to everybody?

I'm drooling in anticipation of what the sequel to Beneath the Vaulted Hills, the second half of The River into Darkness, will bring.

Copyright © 1997 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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