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The Isle of Battle
Sean Russell
HarperCollins Eos, 480 pages

Steven Hickman
The Isle of Battle
Sean Russell
Sean Russell is a fantasy writer living on Vancouver Island. His previous novels include 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).

Sean Russell Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Isle of Battle
SF Site Review: The One Kingdom
SF Site Interview: Sean Russell
SF Site Review: The Compass of the Soul
SF Site Review: Beneath the Vaulted Hills
SF Site Review: World Without End

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Sean Russell's The One Kingdom proved to be one of the better epic fantasies of last year, generating much anticipation for the sequel. Initially set within a fairly typical high fantasy kingdom, Russell quickly invested his realm and characters with fresh perspective, creating a world of magic and political intrigue that he could largely call his own. With a deft sense of the natural as well as unnatural world of "the land between the mountains," the author set out to construct a new history and mythology which while broadly familiar, nonetheless evolved to reflect its own individuality, greatly aided by characterizations that strove as much as possible to avoid the usual stereotypes. Granted, this novel possessed its fair share of medieval borrowings and other conventions that tend to limit as well as identify high fantasy, but coupled with enough imagination to prevent it from becoming derivative or vitiating its vitality of storytelling: a most enjoyable yarn throughout.

Starting where the previous novel left off, at first The Isle of Battle gave cause for concern. Slow to start, and seeming to ramble somewhat, I will admit that initially I feared this was headed to become but another interlude, a mere set up for more novels to come, as can often happen with sequels where the expansion upon the original idea loses its earlier focus or vigor. With the current propensity towards more and more multi-volume epics, it must be said that few seem able to maintain consistency throughout -- in fact, over thirty-some years of reading, I can think of only three: J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Stephen Donaldson's first Chronicles, and recently Steven Erickson's Malazan series (Marion Zimmer Bradley's sequels and prequel to The Mists of Avalon never measured up; George R.R. Martin appears poised to spin out of conspiratorial control; Robert Jordan already has; and Robin Hobb undermined her best chance yet in the hasty, ham-handed closure to Liveship Traders). Some might include Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy or Patricia McKillip's Riddle-Master, but despite the many merits of these works, even quality of writing is not among them. It should be noted, however, that this observation is being made only within the context of high fantasy and its numerous Tolky clones.

But I digress. Let it be said that after some haring off in various directions, Russell begins to tie the narrative threads of his story together, eventually reassembling them in a manner that greatly justifies or at least redeems his earlier restless sub-plotting. For a large part of the novel, everyone appears to be pursuing everyone else, not always with a clear picture of what will happen once they catch up with who they seek. But this builds towards a wonderfully wrought-out climax which successfully concludes the novel, if leaving much unresolved, tantalizing the reader with the prospect for the next book. The ancillary chase of Carl A'denné is particularly effective in retaining interest in the more conventional conflict developing between the Renné and the Wills, while the main focus of the novel shifts to the haunted and hidden realm of the Stillwater. Themes of betrayal abound, and earlier enemies accept uneasy alliances. The past continues to bleed into the present, and all of Wyrr's children now once again stalk the land in human form, bringing with them all their former passions and hatreds. Even more ancient enmities may be stirring, and there are hints that the author may be poised to turn many of his earlier premises topsy-turvy. The future is decidedly unclear, which can only drive the reader, and hopefully the story, onward.

This is that relatively rare phenomena in epic fantasy: an unpredictable story and cast of characters framed within a genre most commonly typified by foreseeable outcomes and narrative conventions. While not entirely abandoning the latter, Russell has nonetheless refashioned them to tell a different story, one that possesses all the attributes of a good yarn while somehow avoiding the utterly stale repetition present in the work of so many of his contemporaries. Though there is the occasional misstep, as in the return of Alann's original captors -- a case of better letting sleeping dogs lie -- these are few and far between, and this series joins others -- George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire,Robin Hobb's current Tawny Man, J.V. Jones' Sword of Shadows, Kate Jacoby's Book of Elita, Paul Kearney's Monarchies of God, Ricardo Pinto's Stone Dance of the Chameleon, and Steven Erikson's Tales of the Malazan Empire -- as one of the better, ongoing fantasy epics. Now if only we didn't have to wait for the next book! But I suspect for some that is part of the attraction -- certainly for the publisher.

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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