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A complicated conspiracy, involving possession, dark magic, and evil of enormous proportions, awaits behind what seems to be initially, more of a straight-up fantasy mystery-thriller.

After reading To Ride Hell’s Chasm, the feeling I had upon completion of the first book I read by the iconic writer Janny Wurts (recently nominated for yet another award, this time a Reddit Fantasy Stabby for Best fantasy contributor of 2021) – The Curse of The Mistwraith – remains. In fact, that feeling is only accentuated, after reading this wonderful stand-alone novel.

to ride hell's chasmThat feeling can be best defined by a question. Why is this author, who has published internationally best-selling books, over 20 of them, has been a fantasy mainstay for several decades, who has penned the “Wars of Light and Shadow” Series (a millenia-spanning, completely sweeping tale spread over 11 books, that competes more than favourably in terms of scope and depth with ANYTHING of its kind, including ASOIAF, Malazan, ANYTHING like it), so criminally underappreciated?

I don’t have the answer to this question, only speculation. Regardless, To Ride Hell’s Chasm was simply fantastic, and I hope my review, and others like it, will continue to encourage readers to check out this legendary author, and her phenomenal books. Now, let’s get into my review.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
I’m onto Janny Wurts now, and one of the cleverest features of her writing. The hearts of her plots, including To Ride Hell’s Chasm, are simple, and seem straightforward. But they are anything but. In the kingdom of Sessalie, the beautiful, spunky, and beloved Princess Anja is about to be betrothed to who seems to be the perfect mate: the handsome and dashing High Prince of nearby realm Devall. The dynastic match also seems to be a love match, with both parties besotted with one another.

Yet, incomprehensibly, the Princess disappears the night of her betrothal banquet. Foul play is quickly suspected. The King of Sessalie was once sharp, and capable, but is descending into dotage. The Crown Prince, Anja’s elder brother, himself charismatic and attractive, is a bit of a slacker and carouser. There are some capable lords and ladies in the court, but there are, as typical to such environs, a lot of sycophants, incompetents, and more self-absorbed nobles, only out for self-serving means, who look to profit from the Princess’ disappearance.

But never fear, one steely-eyed general, Lord Commander Taskin, is on the case of Anja’s vanishing. Taskin is supremely competent, fair, and though aging, a brilliant warrior. The King wants more than just Taskin leading the search for his daughter. He wants the assistance of one of Taskin’s subordinates, the Captain of the city garrison, Mykkael, to also take up the trail, before it goes cold.

Mykkael, like his superior, is impeccably competent. But he is also a foreigner, hailing from desert-like regions of the world, Black, in contrast to the fair-skinned inhabitants of Sessalie, and a former mercenary, who won his crown commission by merit, not birth or connections.  The haughty, upper-crust court, as well as many of the commoners in Sessalie, snob Mykkael, are suspicious of him, and don’t want him entangled in the disappearance.

Taskin does not completely trust Mykkael either. But with his legendary objectivity and fairness, the commander is willing to give enough rope for Mykkael to potentially hang himself. For Taksin, Mykkael will either prove himself to be completely trustworthy, and dedicated to finding the Princess, or an outright traitor,  actually involved in the plot to abduct her.

Then murderers strike. Their identities unknown, Mykkael’s foreign breeding and unparalleled martial skills, and of course the prejudice of the populus against him, make him an immediate suspect. Taskin’s hand may be forced to shut Mykkael and his investigation down, permanently, as political pressure mounts to take the beleaguered captain off the board.

But is it all because the captain is the only one with the skills, and the magic, who can save the Princess? And precisely who is behind the disappearance? Is some greater evil at play that threatens far more than Anja’s life?

A complicated conspiracy, involving possession, dark magic, and evil of enormous proportions, awaits behind what seems to be initially, more of a straight-up fantasy mystery-thriller.

CHARACTERS
In a book which has so many superlative things about it, count Wurt’s characterization as one more thing that is magnificent. Taskin, Mykkael, Anaj, Vesnic, Jossoud, Bennett, and all the main and supplementary characters were fully realized, and drawn in exemplary fashion by Wurts. They are laid bare for all their positive and negative traits, complexities, and motivations.

The realism of the characters is a thing to behold, and Wurts makes us feel the pain, and the joy of the characters, physical, mental, emotional, in a way that we weep and laugh with them. While the secondary characters were amazing, I need to speak about the two primary ones. They were brilliant.

Mykkael is one of the most memorable characters, for me, in fantasy fiction. He is a man out of place, and under siege, constantly dealing with the ill-will of others directed towards him, all the short-sightedness and small-mindedness, the bigotry, that interferes with everything good he tries to accomplish. He constantly is demanded to prove himself, knowing it is unlikely anything he does will ever suffice. Yet he is so certain in his convictions, so superbly skilled, and so brave, the reader will be rooting for him to overcome all the odds, and demonstrate all the animosity towards him was so misplaced, and wrong.

Taskin impresses too, as an unlikely ally of Mykkael, due to his exacting nature, his own natural sense of suspicion and political acumen, and his unwavering loyalty and long history of service to the royal family. I loved Taskin’s character as well, and found him to be refreshingly honest, principilled, and also worth cheering for.

Wurts was brilliant in conceiving these two contrasting leads (Taskin the insider versus Mykkael the outsider), and all the book’s characters, and the amazing characters make the novel completely unforgettable.

PACING
Definitely a character-driven novel, Wurts drives the plot forward at a steady pace, not too leisurely, nor too quickly. She builds a complete picture of the characters, the setting, and the problems or issues that drive the action.This book is my second read from Wurts, and I am noticing she does something interesting with her work. In To Ride Hell’s Chasm, just like when I read The Curse of The Mistwraith, there is this juncture where the reader will likely think they’ve reached the defining moment or climax, and it’s really just the beginning of the action, and the best parts of the book. It’s at that point that one will be completely unable to put the book down at all.

WORLDBUILDING
The worldbuilding in this book is, as I expected, astounding. It is even more astounding when one considers it is a stand-alone novel. Everything feels so complete, as if one is reading a ten book series. Backstory, history, lore, geography, present setting, it was all so vivid. It’s woven seamlessly into the plot, and feels so organic. Wurts painstakingly created, for a single novel, several detailed maps, including a map of the principal city, a map of the immediate environs around Sessalie, and a map of the surrounding realms.

There is also a glossary of characters. No stone was left unturned, in an effort to completely absorb the reader in a five-day escapade journeying through Sessalie and beyond. The reader will feel they are walking the exalted halls of the Sanctuary Pinnacle, or hanging out with the soldiers in barracks of the Garrison Keep, or facing the horrors of Hell’s Chasm. Wurts puts you right there, in the moment, all senses engaged, with all the sights, sounds, hearing, taste, and smells. It is simply glorious worldbuilding. The magic system is wonderful, wild, mysterious, foreboding, and thoroughly constructed.

PROSE
I have said in a previous review, I do comprehend why Wurt’s prose might not be for everyone. Many readers want some humour, some action, some drama, and a plot that barrells forward relentlessly to the conclusion. For those readers, the words, how they are said, and what they say, are less important.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to read books that don’t require the level of attention to the words that books by Wurts do. To be clear, Wurts writing is not like a nesting egg doll, though reading it can make one feel like that, sometimes. She won’t take you down continual rabbit holes, to get to the heart of the book. EVERYTHING is related back to the main plot. The words are not there to overwhelm the reader with detail for the sake of detail itself, but instead to immerse the reader completely in the story.

For me, Wurt’s writing is unparalleled, and quintessential. There is so much nuance of meaning to every single word, so many layers of complexity, in a line of words, so many emotions, details, plot revelations, in every paragraph. The book is approximately 650 pages, however it feels like it is over 1000, while never being boring, too verbose, or having the plot drag. To be able to pack that much meaning into those few words, is a skill Wurts possess to a degree that, in my opinion, is unmatched.

THEMES
There are so many engaging themes I could discuss that this book explores. However, let’s talk about racism. Racism is the one theme that for me was front-and-centre in To Ride Hell’s Chasm. Mykaeel is Black, a foreigner to Sessalie, and denigrated with such terms as “desert-bred cur”.

Throughout the book, the prejudice, mistrust, and disdain – even outright hatred – for Mykaeel because primarily of the colour of his skin. The aplomb and grace, and frankly bravery, with which Wurts deals with the bigotry against Mykaeel is astounding. She should be highly commended for this, and, as with the author in general, I am unsure if she has ever been properly recognized for how courageously and unflinchingly she tackled this very sensitive topic. She should be praised, without question, for what she has done in this regard in To Ride Hell’s Chasm.

Some of the passages were so moving, so authentic, in its representation of how one feels when one is the subject of racism, and what racism LOOKS LIKE, that it brought me to tears.There is one part in particular of the book that will be with me forever.  It was by far, NOT the most harsh example of racial slurs or animosity towards Mykkael that appears in To Ride Hell’s Chasm, yet perhaps it was the saddest for me.

“‘Who’s lost their beer to the rumour I can’t ride?’ Both men looked sheepish. The garrison captain was quick to commiserate. ‘I’d buy you a brew to remedy your loss, if I had any loose coin myself.’ Yet the prospect of such camaraderie with a foreigner made the guardsmen more uncomfortable still. Mykkael’s grin widened, a flash of white teeth under the cloak just raised to mask the embarrassment of their origins. ‘Think well on that,’ he murmured in the same tone used before on the gelding.”

So much of the book is about Mykkael’s overall nobility, and his dogged determination to succeed and save the Princess, despite all the opposition to his involvement, largely because of prejudice. At times, it can be heart-breaking to read, but so worthwhile to read.

CONCLUSION
Time to gush, unashamedly. Janny Wurts was well on her way to becoming my absolute favourite fantasy author, only after me reading ONE of her books, The Curse of the Mistwraith. Consider, amongst my favourite fantasy authors are luminaries such as N.K. Jemisin, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Gwynne, Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercombie, P. Djèlí Clark, and G.R.R. Martin. To Ride Hell’s Chasm confirmed Wurts is definitely my favourite.

Having a favourite, of course, is all about personal taste. My rationale for Wurts becoming my favourite, is that all of the other writers I have mentioned are incredible storytellers, can create unforgettable characters, have outstanding prose, and a distinctive writing style. The difference for me with Wurts is that she is at least the equal of all those other great writers in all those categories (yet she is the most under-appreciated, in my estimation), save for the prose.

In the aspect of prose, no other writer I have ever read writes in a manner that forces you, as the reader, to read EVERY word. It is simply the most lush, most COMPLETE prose one can find anywhere in fantasy, perhaps in literature.

I would also submit that Wurts brings the additional skill of being a world-class illustrator of her own books, to the equation. The pictures of the characters on my beautiful copy of To Ride Hell’s Chasm, truly bring those characters to life.

To Ride Hell’s Chasm is to-date my favourite standalone fantasy book and, while I never say never, I don’t believe anything is ever going to come close.

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