Monday, June 29, 2015

Down the Stacks #7: The Banned and the Banished

This week’s selection for “Down the Stacks” is a high fantasy series I discovered years ago but only read part-way through until this past week.  It’s a relatively recent entry into the genre, published in the early 2000s, and thus mixes up the expected elements of Fantasy with contemporary styles and themes.  The series may be informally referred to as the “Wit’ch saga” after the naming pattern of the individual books, but author James Clemens called the five books as a whole “The Banned and the Banished.

Once, the land of Alasea was home to many and varied races from classic fantasy and folklore and powerful magic granted by the Land itself and a spirit known as Chi.  It wasn’t quite a golden age, but the different peoples got along well enough in their respective territories.  One day, however, a massive volcano emerged just off the coast of Alasea, heralding the arrival of the Dark Lord of Gul’gotha and his twisted demonic armies.  As the Dark Lord advanced, the Brotherhood of the Rose, those who wielded the magic of Chi, tried to fight back only to discover that Chi had vanished, leaving the mages unable to refresh their magical powers.  In a desperate last stand, three mages attempted to forge a magical book in fulfilment of a prophecy, only for things to go pear-shaped when one of the three, a novice in the art, panicked and tries to escape the spell circle.
Jump forward 500 years, and we find that the land doesn’t actually look too bad under Gul’gothal control.  History has been rewritten to paint the Dark Lord as a liberator of the people from old superstitions, and the great volcano has become the Black Hall, the closest thing alasea has to a capital city.  The general populace is unaware of the dark, sickening magic that occurs in the depths of the Black Hall and in the dark corners of the land, and the nonhuman races are almost unknown or are hunted.  In this setting, we meet our heroine, Elena Morin’stal, the young daughter of an apple farmer in the town of Winterfell who has just started puberty.  As she reaches for a particularly succulent-looking apple, her hand disappears into a shaft of sunlight and emerges colored a deep ruby red.  As she soon discovers, this marks her as a wit’ch - the first blood-magic wit’ch in centuries - and her life changes immediately.  Within the course of one night Elena is hunted by agents of the Dark Lord, who desires to make her magic his own, loses her family to fire born of her wild magic or the Dark Lord’s agents, and finds herself surrounded by a group of individuals each with their own quests but all tied to her by various prophecies.  What follows is a grand quest to find and complete the Blood Diary, free the land of the Dark Lord’s twisted magic, and discover just why most of the prophecies concerning Elena say she will either save the world, doom it, or both at once.
Elena’s quest draws in a lot of characters, both good and evil, over the course of five books and the majority are written with a surprising amount of depth.  For the sake of not dragging this review out too long and spoiling some plot twists, I’ll focus on Elena’s core group of allies and a couple of the most persistent villains.
Elena herself is a girl forced to grow up quickly, and after that rough first night she rises to the challenge.  The entire first book of the series, Wit’ch Fire, is devoted to that first night, so she spends the entire time confused and on the verge of going into shock as her parents die, followed by her beloved aunt, then her brother is kidnapped by a darkmage, and eventually her uncle falls as well.  Even after she gets past that, Elena struggles constantly to reconcile the wild, uncaring wit’ch magic inside her with the human woman she is.  Elena is passionate and stubborn, but she’s also capable of learning and growth.  As she learns to accept her fate, she goes from complaining about having to bear the power of a wit’ch and looking to others for direction to making her own decisions and acting as the guiding personality in the group.  Elena’s magic is based on blood and energy reserves drawn from light.  When she charges a hand with sunlight, the magic released from that hand when she draws her blood has the attributes of fire, while moonlight gives her ice magic, and if she should encounter a ghost or come close to death while one of her hands is empty of magic she can access a power called ghostfire that renders her invisible and lets her turn the souls of her enemies against their fellows.
Elena’s brother, Joach, is just as interesting to watch as Elena herself.  He’s fiercely loyal to Elena and determined to protect her at any cost, but his abduction in the first book leads to him spending several months under mind control by the darkmage Greshym and thus exposed to the tempting lure of dark magic.  He has a natural gift for prophetic dream magic, and learns both some dark magic spells and how to bond weapons to his blood, enhancing both the weapon and his own fighting skills.  Joach is a tragic character, always struggling to balance using the dark magic spells he learns and remaining on Elena’s side of the conflict.  Like the tragic heroes of Greek theater, Joach’s actions eventually catch up to him in devastating ways, and wiser members of the group see it coming and try to warn him off.
First among those drawn to Elena by destiny is Er’ril of Standi, a one-armed swordsman who was present during the forging of the Blood Diary 500 years ago and granted ageless immortality so he could guide the wit’ch to the book when she finally appeared.  Er’ril is not a mage, but he knows enough about the old Chyric blood magic to teach Elena basic control over her powers, and his age makes him a good source of information about the past.  He’s devoted to protecting Elena from the Dark Lord, but often to the extent of wanting to hide her away from everything so she won’t get hurt.  He’s also steeped in old prejudices, slow to admit the validity of any argument that comes from a source he distrusts, and quick to advise killing any and all captured enemies even if they may prove useful in other ways.  Despite his faults, he’s Elena’s steadiest ally and an anchor for her when she gets too deep into the magic.
A close contender for “most loyal ally” is Tol’chuk, a half-breed og’re cast out of his homeland for killing another og’re outside of a clan war and given a quest by his elders.  He carries a red gemstone called the Heart of the People which is supposed to act as a gateway to the afterlife for Og’re souls, but was corrupted by one of Tol’chuk’s ancestors, called the Oathbreaker.  As an og’re, Tol’chuk appears brutish, but his fanged face and nonstandard Common belies his intelligence and loyalty to his friends.  The heartstone he carries guides him, glowing brighter when pointed in the direction of his destiny, which is usually Elena but occasionally elsewhere.  Tol’chuk has an uncomplicated worldview, allowing him to exercise great faith in following the requirements of destiny.
Next up is Kral, a large man of the nomadic mountain tribes.  Drawn in by a prophecy centering more on Er’ril than the Wit’ch, Kral nevertheless becomes a solid friend to Elena.  Kral is unfailingly honest, since his people consider speaking lies to be a mortal wound to the spirit, and possesses elemental rock magic that allows him to ignore pain in battle.  Early on, he and Tol’chuk are the heavy hitters of the group, but later on circumstances conspire to keep Kral and Elena heading toward different but equally important targets across the land.
Moving toward the more selfish end of the scale, we have the Nee’lahn, the last of the Nyphai.  Nyphai are essentially dryads - humanoid spirits tied to koa’kona trees.  The Nyphai were one of the oldest races in Alasea, at one time covering most of the continent with their groves before a Blight wiped them out.  Nee’lahn hopes to revive her people, but all she has to go on is a prophecy of new koa’kona trees growing from a fire born of magic.  Ordinarily she would not be able to travel far enough from her tree to find this redeeming fire, but she carries a lute carved from her home tree that carries its life-giving spirit.  Nee’lahn is the bard of the party, but her elemental magic lets her commune with any tree and control plant life to ensnare enemies.  While her goals are ultimately self-serving, Nee’lahn is kind and gentle and the pain she feels when encountering forests twisted by dark magic is palpable.
Then we have Meric, a prince of El’vin people seeking the bloodline of his people’s lost king.  The El’vin are masters of the sky and winds, and once lived alongside the Nyphai until the Blight came.  The Nyphai blamed the El’vin for the Blight and kicked them out of Alasea, but kept their king as a hostage.  Meric arrives to the story with two goals: find the King’s descendant and kill the Wit’ch, because she will destroy his people.  These goals end up conflicting because the Wit’ch, Elena, is also a descendant of the El’vin king, but Meric quickly decides that protecting the royal bloodline trumps anything else.  As one would expect from a race based on fantasy-standard Elves, Meric starts out as a condescending jerk to everyone he meets and has particular ire for Nee’lahn, but after sharing in the hardships of protecting and helping Elena he mellows out considerably, to the point of becoming criticla of his own people’s isolationism.
Lastly for the good guys, we have Fardale and Mogweed, shapeshifter twins who are stuck in their current forms and cast out to seek a cure before they “settle” and forget their Si’luran heritage.  As twins, Fardale and Mogweed were originally forced to always share the same shape, which bugged Mogweed to no end.  His attempt to break the link has trapped him in human form and Fardale as a wolf.  As individuals, the two could not be more different.  Fardale is brave, loyal, and selfless, willing to scout ahead and fight, but Mogweed is a craven, selfish coward who won’t hesitate to betray everyone to the Dark Lord if it will free him from the curse he put on himself.  The one good thing I can say about Mogwood is that he is very good at keeping secrets and avoiding suspicion; not even Fardale ever suspects the depths of Mogweed’s willingness to sacrifice others for his own benefit.  
The Dark Lord of the Gul’gothal comes across as a more active version of Sauron: unseen for the majority of the series but occasionally heard to speak and direct or discipline his ill’guard and darkmage agents.  His origins and ultimate goals are mysterious, but his methods clearly mark him as bad news.  His brand of magic centers around torture, poison, and corrupting the elemental magic of others, turning innocent people into grotesque ill’guard that take pleasure in the sick “gifts” they are granted.  Most of the ill’guard Elena and company encounter are linked to swarms of deadly, twisted vermin - spiders, scorpions, rats, leeches, etc.
The darkmage Greshym is the most persistent of the antagonists, appearing in every book.  Greshym is the darker half of one of the three mages who forged the Blood Diary; all that was good in him went into the Diary itself.  Like Er’ril, Greshym is immortal, but he isn’t ageless, so he appears as an extremely aged and nearly blind man.  Although he starts out hunting Elena at the Dark Lord’s command, Greshym ends up becoming more of an archenemy to Joach, developing an obsession with controlling or corrupting the lad after he escapes Greshym’s mind control.  Old as Greshym is, he’s deadly in combat and a master of double-talk and manipulation with a preference for mind control and illusion magic.
As you’ve probably noticed, James Clemens has a thing for sticking the superfluous apostrophe in names.  In character, race, and place names, there’s roughly a 40% to 50% chance of an apostrophe appearing between syllables, and contraction-based names almost always have them: ebon’stone. ill’guard, etc.  Clemens also sometimes gets a bit on-the-nose with names.  the Dark Lord and his army of demons, ill’guard, and d’warves comes from a land called Gul’gotha, obviously a twisting of Golgotha, one of the names for the hill where Jesus Christ was crucified in the Bible.  There’s also a dragon of prophetic importance named Ragna’rk, or “Ragnarok” if you will.
Clemens is a skilled fantasy writer all-around, but his two best points are characterization and hooking the reader’s interest.  The quest to save the world from the Dark Lord is not an easy one, and Clemens isn’t afraid to kill characters off in order to keep the tension high.  The deaths aren’t willy-nilly, however - there’s always time given for the reader to get to know the character’s motivations and dreams, and in the case of the central cast their personal demons and doubts, before they have to face the prospect of death.  Sometimes death is cheated or reversed but never more than once per character.  The hardship and loss our heroes face cause them to falter on occasion, and there’s often a question of whether somebody is going to abandon or turn on their allies, and the suspect isn’t always cowardly Mogweed.
Elena’s story could stand well on its own, but Clemens hooks the reader in by putting the tale within two nested framing devices which entice you to read to the end for entirely different reasons.  On the outermost layer, The Banned and Banished is presented as the reading material for a postgraduate study course some unknown period of time after Elena’s quest ends.  The series title is explained in this frame device in forewords written by the head professor of the course.  To paraphrase, the story of Elena is banned to all but the select few who take part in the course because the government considers the Wit’ch’s final act to be dangerous knowledge.  Attempts to destroy the story completely in the past have failed thanks to dedicated cults who went as far as tattooing passages on their bodies, so now access to the scrolls is strictly controlled.  The academic forewords warn students against reading ahead of the syllabus and putting too much belief into the words; the consequences of breaking these rules is death by hanging.  These forewords provide just enough information to entice the reader to reach the end of the story and see just what Elena’s final, dangerous act was.
The second layer of framing device is the introductions written by the in-universe author of The Banned and the Banished.  This unnamed man writes from several centuries after Elena, but was once part of her questing group.  He was blessed or cursed with immortality by Elena until such time as he wrote her true story.  This mysterious author’s introductions provide glimpses into a world after Elena but before whatever society was responsible for censoring the tale in the first framing device.  The enticement to read that the second level provides is figuring out the identity of the author and why Elena felt it was necessary to make him immortal until he told the true version of her story.
The Banned and the Banished is one of the best underexposed fantasy series I have ever had the fortune of running across.  It’s a masterpiece of world-building, characterization, action, and adventure.  Mysteries and dark secrets abound, assumptions and prejudices are challenged and reversed, and nothing in the scope of the novels is immune to change, destruction, corruption, or despair.  You’ll second-guess everyone’s motives at least once, be surprised at where allegiances truly lie, and cheer Elena Morin’stal on to victory while at the same time dreading what that victory will actually mean.
Track down The Banned and the Banished.  Read it.  You won’t regret it, no matter what the Commonwealth may threaten.

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