Sunday, 8 July 2012

Review: Darkening Skies by Juliet E McKenna


The second volume of the Hadrumal Crisis, Darkening Skies depicts events in the immediate aftermath of the original volume, Dangerous Waters (which I've reviewed already).  The book depicts a period of rebuilding, either literal as buildings are repaired and demenses reconstituted or personal, as new roles are discovered and  settled into.

This last is handled skillfully and the writing adapts easily to address the new challenges the characters discover and how they rise to meet them. Corrain, the vengeful captain from the first book, settles into an uneasy existence  as Halferan's Baron, haunted by his past and in many ways caught between his old role and his new one. Lady Zurenne, whilst not exactly burning her wimple gains a new, more conniving edge, using her daughter's new authority as "Lady Halferan" to effectively get what she wants without having to engage in any sort of confrontation.  Other characters are similarly developed, particularly Hosh, a young man who was left behind during Corrain's escape from the corsairs, who now gains far more in personality and purpose than he had before - even if at least part of his role is to be Anskal, the barbarous wizard's, punching bag.  One nice thing is that  Hosh gets to have revenge for being enslaved by the raiders in a particularly satisfying scene.

Elsewhere Ms McKenna brings the other crisis, the politics of the wizards's isle, into sharper focus and lets it become more enmeshed as the "hawk" faction becomes more vocal in its demands that something be done about Anskal, and stamping their authority as the premier mage faction onto the world.  This is a development from the first volume and the political action feels a lot less slow and cumbersome in comparison to Dangerous Waters.  Whilst Planir, the Archmage, successfully establishes his authority by the end of the book, he does so in such a manner that makes the reader wonder if he has simply stored up trouble for the future; if he can take the steps to stamp Hadrumal's authority in such a dramatic fashion, then what stops him interfering at other points if magic is involved?  I can't help but feel that this is a theme that will return to haunt him in the third book. 

The book ends with a terrifying display of wizardry that leaves the reader in no doubt as to how much damage magic can create in warfare: Dungeons and Dragons sorcery this isn't.  In fact the magic employed reminds me more of the wizards of Roke in the Earthsea books, albeit without the desire to maintain balance.  You're left with little doubt that magic, once allowed off its' leash could level mountains and boil seas and that a full scale wizards' war would probably bring ruin to the world.

What is interesting to me is that by the end of the book the crisis looks as if it has been averted, and that peace will return to the world in a way that Dangerous Waters didn't - it was obvious that Anskal was going to make trouble and that his presence wouldn't be tolerated by Hadrumal.  It will be interesting to see where the third book takes things and how the politics on the wizard isle will develop, in the wake of his apparent defeat especially as Ms McKenna has mentioned "eldritch kin" and it seems highly unlikely that having mentioned them they won't be used.

To return to the point I made about feminism in the first book, Darkening Skies seems to sit a lot easier in this regard.  The female characters are much more effective and in general they feel a lot less stifled and restricted.  Jilseth, with her magic returning, gets to make several significant discoveries and its a relief not to have her spend most of the book as a sort of invalid, moping about her lost magic. In addition she seems to evolve being Planir's catspaw to having a greater role of her own; whilst the addition of powerful, influential lady mages operating away from Hadrumal helps cement the idea that women can be powerful on their own. On the mainland, in Halferan we see the women managing to wield influence perhaps, rather than power, and see an interesting contrast between Zurenne, using what might be considered wiles to get her way, and her daughter Ilysh who sees nothing wrong with commanding like a man.  Perhaps a further contrast is made when Corrain has to make another trip to Solura, a nation to the far north where women have the ability to reach positions of authority on their own merit - making Calahadria look even more like a backwater to a 21st century reader.