“Did I mention any name?” But dissembling was wasted; Eldir only glowered until Sethvir gave way with a shrug. “That’s the part of his personality that makes us all feel like we’ve been kissing coiled vipers for a penny bet.”
Always the most difficult but enjoyable of books to review, as they are some of the most challenging but glorious books to read, here is my review of the next novel (third) in the iconic “Wars of Light and Shadow” series by the incomparable Janny Wurts, “Warhost of Vastmark”.
The book picks up immediately following what transpired in “Ships of Merior”. With the Korani enchantresses, emboldened by the discovery of a long-lost talisman of their power, and their rival Fellowship Sorcerers trying to steer the two Princes from destruction, the magical influences in the background continue their behind-the-scenes struggle for influence and domination.
Caught in the middle are Princes Lysaer and Arithon, the half-brothers, now sworn enemies, who are coping with the fallout of the events at Minderl Bay. Arithon is on the run, and Lysaer is still in dogged pursuit.
Despite experiencing horrible troop losses at the cunning hands of the so-called Master of Shadow, Arithon, Lysaer is determined to destroy his half-brother, and will not rest until he does. Pressed by Lysaer’s persistence and ability to inspire loyalty and troops to risk everything in the Prince of the West’s cause, Arithon takes to the unforgiving mountain range of Vastmark, to elude, or perhaps to entrap Lysaer’s forces.
Arithon keeps his plans close to the vest, stymying even some of his closest allies. But the rash actions of Lysaer’s wife will throw well-made plans into disarray, and potentially alter the course of the brother’s conflict in unforeseen ways. The entire world is at stake, because should the brothers’ considerable magical power ever clash completely head-on, everything on earth could be ripped apart.
Arithon and Lysaer, and their enduring enmity, are still of course what drives this story. But for me, this book really had some of the secondary players stand up and demand additional notice, more so than previous installments in the series.
Wurts’ secondary characters have been amazing throughout the first two books, but for whatever reasons, in this book they absolutely came to the forefront for me. The three auxiliary characters that will leave a distinct, and unforgettable impression on the reader, I believe, in this book are the Dakar the Mad Prophet, Princess Talith, and Tharrick.
Dakar, the first, has become one of my all-time favourite characters in any fantasy series, rivalling Joe Abercrombie’s Sand Dan Glokta. If you thought you knew Dakar, all I can say is, think again, after this book. He is incredibly well-drawn, and the pathos of his magic-bound despising of Arithon and love for Lysaer, and his glimmers of nobility through an otherwise detestable character will delightfully frustrate the reader. Moreover, he still provides much of the book’s humour, though we spend most of our time laughing at him, rather than with him. But what happens to him in this book will have you completely broken for this otherwise unlikeable character, trust me.
Talith did not appear, at first, to be of great significance, but she certainly was a mover and shaker in this book. Outwardly, she appeared vain, manipulative, willful, spoiled, and a horrible decision maker, who did nothing save compromise her husband’s position. The worst part was that she did this with the opposite intent. But by the end of the book we see some more depth to dispel perhaps initial impressions of her being a more vapid, pretty, impulsive liability to Lysaer, despite Lysaer’s love for her.
Meanwhile the laconic Tharrick, and his softening wherever Jinesse is concerned, was heartfelt to watch. His suspicion of, yet grudging respect for Arithon, courage, and pragmatism was very realistic and well portrayed. He has earned my appreciation as a great fictional character.
The moral posturing of the Fellowship and the Korani, both believing they are on the side of the greater good, the same way Arithon and Lysaer do, seem incredibly devious, often misguided, and ultimately vulnerable to the individual agendas and human frailties of the specific magic wielders. Still, there is an effort to do good…but what KIND of good? The brothers seem to be as much pawns in the schemes of the two sorcery factions, as they are captive to the Mistwraith’s malice. At times both sides appear benevolent, and at times extremely sinister. The truth is likely somewhere in between.
By this book, third in the series, it becomes evident that for all his intelligence, political savvy, charisma, and strong if not flawed sense of justice, Lysaer has not proven to be the equal of Arithon as a strategist. But you wonder if at some point Arithon’s cunning won’t be enough, because Lysaer is so dogged in his approach, he seems due for a big triumph.
It has also become evident to me, that despite their obvious differences, the two enemies share a lot in common. The half-brothers’ opposing philosophies, at first glance appear diametrically at odds. And, as a result, Arithon (the “underdog”) it would seem, has the “right” stance. The reader can be led to believe this, potentially, because things seem to be favouring Arithon at every turn, though with arguably greater cost to the psyche of Arithon than that of Lysaer.
But in the end, Lysaer’s “win by any means necessary, which must unfortunately include bloodshed to prevent eve more bloodshed”, versus Arithon’s “avoid bloodshed as much as possible, but and win to prevent more bloodsheed, at all costs” seem identical, just phrased differently. Yet the mentalities of the brother’s and their motivations feel very different, irrespective of the evil spell they are under, and even if the end goals end up sounding somewhat similar.
Wurts always strategically reminds the reader, however, that both half-brothers, of course, as still driven to hatred, bewitched by the inescapable curse of the Mistwraith. This curse affects their judgement, emotions, and every move they make, driving them to see one another as an antithesis. Both are tortured by their own morality, and both are more than willing to accept responsibility for their action, yet still find a way to blame the other for the ills of the world, and force them to make the decisions they make.
The parallels are fascinating, and make this series utterly compelling.
Some of the moments in this series continue to shock and disturb, as the human cost to both sides escalates, and those closest to the princes will not be spared. Wurts’ ability to show both sides of the conflict and make us care about the opponents on both sides is nothing short of brilliant. The reader’s heart will be broken a few times in this book, for characters one may not have even particularly liked. But the tragic circumstances of their passing, the futility and cost of war, will be prevalent in the reader’s mind, when some important characters meet their fate.
Bloody, thrilling large-scale battles, betrayals, revenge, utter ruthlessness, political machinations, and unforgettable moments of quiet, philosophizing, and reflection, combined with lovely, moving passages make this book one that will stay with you long after its finished.
The world building is flawless. From grandiose courts, to humble countryside, rough terrains, the open waters, and more, the landscape and settings are meticulously described, but done so organically throughout the novel one will absorb them completely before you realize what’s happened.
The various realms, clans, feudal allegiances, militaries, customs, histories, and intrigues are all part of a fully realized world, with a backstory dating back thousands of years. A stunning achievement. The spectre of magic creatures from the past continue to loom, monsters roam and ancient fantastic evil beasts threaten present characters.
Captivating magical confrontations, and subtle manipulations of the Fellowship and Korani, as we are treated to a taste of their powers, adds to the fascination the reader will feel with what is possible and what COULD be possible in the future. It is apparent only the surface is being scratched here in terms of the supernatural elements that might come to bear in this series.
It takes reading exactly one of her books to realize that you will have likely never read anything like Wurts’ writing before. Her incredibly diverse vocabulary, with longer, flowing sentence structure, maximizing the meaning of every single word, is fabulously nuanced and complex. It is methodical, precise, and can be exacting on the reader.
It requires patience, perseverance, and investment. It is also absolutely, sumptuous, and beautiful. Wurts’ ability to squeeze every last drop of poignancy and impact out of a sentence is, in my opinion, unparalleled. This is the kind of writing many writers would give anything to be able to emulate.
It is also not a style of writing that will be for everyone, but it is definitely for me. It is so rich and luxurious that after I finish one of her books I struggle to get into what I read next, because I go through withdrawal, missing Wurts’ style.
“The spellbinder set his teeth and glared at rain-chiselled stone, that would endure through long ages, indifferent to the trails of mortal suffering. He measured himself in unprecedented cold logic, and understood, should he shy from the choice, the courage of a boy and a little girl’s brown eye, beseeching, were going to haunt him forever. He bitterly dreaded to face their contempt in the dregs of every beer keg, to the ruin of his irresponsible pleasures.”
It is rare that one can honestly say that with each book a series just gets better and better. That is assuredly the case with “The Wars of Light and Shadow”. As I have noted previously, this series has easily become my favourite fantasy series of all time, and “Warhost of Vastmark” has only served to cement my enduring love for this epic saga. I am completely hooked, and I feel that for many a fantasy reader, if you give this phenomenal series, and this astounding writer a chance, you will be too.
Now three books in the series, I know that I have not comprehended everything in a series of such incredible depth and breadth, and that there is much more to be revealed as I draw a bit closer to the halfway point of “The Wars of Light and Shadow”, but that’s just fine.
To reiterate from my review of the previous book, “Ships of Merior”, I am more determined than ever to focus on enjoying the ride, and being content to have all things revealed to me, in good time, rather than trying to solve all the mysteries at once.
I suggest if you read this book, to consider doing the same, to enhance the pleasure of your reading experience. Discard preconceived notions and expectations, and just love the read, because I will guess many assumptions about this series will be incorrect. Many of mine certainly have been, with all the unforeseen twists, turns, and surprises in the narrative.
There is more than enough outstanding prose, breathtaking worldbuilding, captivating themes, and masterclass storytelling and plot for me to be able to focus on the glory of the book itself, as opposed to the need to understand everything all at once.
Wurts is one of the most distinguished fantasy writers of her generation. When one mentions the iconic writers and series of all time, such as the Erikcson’s and “Malazan”, the Martin’s and “A Song of Ice and Fire”, the Jordan’s and “Wheel of Time”, we need to be mentioning Wurts and “Wars of Light and Shadow” in the same breath. While this does happen in many reading circles, I do not believe it happens nearly enough.
I already have the next book, “Fugitive Prince” on my shelf, and will be counting the days until I can re-immerse myself in the world of Light and Shadow.