“You can’t let your past write the future”
My reading of my favourite fantasy series of all-time, “The Wars of Light and Shadow”, by the incomparable Janny Wurts, continued in October 2022 with book four, “Fugitive Prince”. This wondrous installment, as with the previous three books in the series, interlaces interminable spectacle, intricately crafted and incredibly plausible plots and subplots, utterly convincing and captivating characters, prodigious world-building, and seminal, redolent prose that will have readers begging for book five.
The book begins with a highly emotional and important scene involving the repudiated Koriani sorceress, Elaria. Elaria is tragically separated from the man she loves (and who loves her) – who is one of our two primary characters: Arithon s’Ffalenn. Elaria, bound to a life of chastity and service to her order, as someone versed in medical arts, becomes entwined in the destiny of a couple about to give birth. But the baby may not survive. And if it does, dark auguries swirl around the child that have stark implications for the broader plot.
That broader plot, of course, continues to be focused around said Arithon, dubbed the ‘Master of Shadow’, vilified by his half-brother and nemesis Lysaer s’Llessid, ‘the Lord of Light’, and by Lysaer’s supporters. Mage-trained, but having been denied access to his mage powers, Arithon is doing everything to avoid his brother’s relentless pursuit, while protecting those sworn to him from Lysaer’s wrath. Thanks to Lysaer’s vituperative attack of his character and deeds, Arithon has been portrayed as the devil incarnate across the realms of Athera. But in the face of this unjust misrepresentation of the sensitive, compassionate, and empathetic Arithon, blessed with a musical talent and position of a Master Bard, strives to find a path to peace, by returning the mystical Paravians who once dominated Athera, to the world.
Meanwhile, Lysaer – the other main character of the series – struggles with multiple issues. Including the most heart-wrenching, which is his estrangement from his wife, Tailth, as their relationship turns tragically beyond repair. Not humbled by his devastating defeats in the previous books, but rather even more resolute in his convictions, Lyaser’s obsessive determination to end his half-brother, all the while both are inextricably bound to the Curse of the Mistwraith, takes on a whole new level in “Fugitive Prince”. As Lysaer’s ingrained suspicion and mistrust of all things magic (because of Arithon, and the curse), escalates, Lysaer makes all magic, except his own, anathema, and targets the rival Fellowship Sorcerers and Korani Enchantresses as his enemies as well.
Once again, the brilliance of Wurts’ characterization, especially of the half-brother protagonists, drives the story in “Fugitive Prince”. What stood out to me in this novel, compared to the previous three in the series, is how diametrically opposed the half-brothers have become, as the series have progressed. The brothers started off as mortal enemies, however had never met nor known each other. Once they did meet, after initial continued animosity, battling common cause, under duress, had brought them close enough to form some brotherly bonds of love, sadly ripped apart by the Mistwraith’s malediction. Now, some time after their animosity has grown to true enmity, their true character attributes, enhanced by the curse, one brother juxtaposed against the other, is on full display.
Lysaer is clearly beginning to lean towards more villainy, at least in this juncture of the series, than in the previous installments. He is lavish in the trappings of his personal dress and court, preens over the sophistication and urbanity of his personal conduct and all that surrounds him, yet oddly obtuse when it comes to appreciating music and art – something that (notably) is integral to his half-brother’s (and his opposite) character. He seems more lustful for power, more willing to resort to pure scheming and malintent to accomplish his goals. In particular, his horrific treatment of his wife Talith, whom he seemed to be completely enraptured with until she (through her own reckless and impetuous actions) was kidnapped by Arithon, stands out as abhorrent. Lysaer is becoming increasingly myopic, and even somewhat delusional and fanatical in his approach to leadership, and it sent chills down my spine, in terms of what it bodes for the future of the series.
Yet what stands out most about Lysaer in “Fugitive Prince ”, is his overwhelming PRIDE, and unwillingness to see anything other than his hatred for Arithon, and his mission to take Arithon down. Lysaer’s charm, majesty, and political savvy continues to help him mount a smear campaign against his half-brother, and draw allies around the Lord of Light in almost cult-like fashion. But his hubris seems to be taking over the better parts of his personality. He increasingly sees his followers as expendable foot soldiers in his personal war against Arithon, and this worrisome trend towards “by whatever means necessary” does not bode well for those who swear fealty to him.
By contrast, Arithon, living humbly, a fugitive on the run from his dogged enemy, is MOSTLY concerned for protecting those who follow him AND those who follow Lysaer, from death. Arithon’s altruism, the sense of clear-minded devotion (rather than the near-cultism Lysaer inspires) of his feal subjects, his humility, all truly set him apart, and as the antithesis of his brother.
The extremely well-drawn secondary characters in Fugitive Prince have intriguing roles in the narrative. I’ve spoken a bit about Arithon’s beloved Elaira. But the complicated, hilarious, and increasingly more lovable Dakar (who is part of a spellbinding and harrowing journey later in the book with Arithon), the single minded, iron-willed Morriel, Prime Senior of the Koriani, Princess Talith, and stewards Maenol and Jieret all have pivotal places in “Fugitive Prince”, along several other auxiliary characters.
In terms of themes, predestination, character assassination, pride, malice, loyalty, justice, balance, love, all figure prominently in “Fugitive Prince.” For me, by far, Lysaer’s ability to renounce Arithon for many of the same crimes he himself has committed, is not only incredibly hypocritical, but fascinating in that his followers seem blind to the facts. The Lord of Light’s ability to spin propaganda to achieve his ends is miraculous. Reading about real historical figures, or watching current, living world leaders display this same ability, is frightening, and sobering.
As I have noted in previous reviews of Wurt’s novels, the author has created (in staggeringly meticulous fashion and to an incredibly believable degree) ancient history, backstory, lore, a variety of current and defunct kingdoms, ethnicities, races (including sun-children, unicorns, and centaurs!) and cultures, and complex mythologies clans, magical guilds, complex royal genealogy, prophecy that transcends millennia, unique languages, complex magic systems and mysticism.
Readers will learn a bit more in “Fugitive Prince” of the sacred pact involving the Fellowship Sorcerers, the ancient royal lineages of Athera (of which Arithon and Lysaer are the inheritors) and the Paravians. It has become more evident that besides restoration of balance, the return of the Paravians is also the key to ending the half-brothers’ conflict.
Wurts’ imagination, skill, and depth of research, particularly in all matters equine and of seamanship, is fabulous.
I have continually praised Wurts’ prose as being the best out there in terms of epic fantasy. Let me repeat, for me, no one writes like Janny Wurts. I’d sell my soul to have a fraction of her ability to spin words, maximize vocabulary, and make just reading words on a page such a complete joy. Her prose is so vivid, so lush, so beautiful. Yes, of course, the sheer density of this wondrous writing will not be for everyone. But it’s what I crave in fantasy literature, and among so many fantastic authors that I’ve read, her prose is easily my favourite.
“Fugitive Prince” is a beautiful slow-burn read. There are some terrific action sequences, though this book was more languorous for me than past installments in the series. That did absolutely nothing to deter my utter enjoyment of the novel. Wurts’ writing is something to be savoured, and the plot moves steadily forward, seamlessly. And, as always with Wurts’ books, expect a masterful conclusion. Of her many strengths as a writer, Wurts DEFINITELY knows how to write an ending, many of them explosive, extremely poignant, and unforgettable.
In some ways, “Fugitive Prince” reads, I think, as an incredible table-setter for the next Arc in the long “Wars of Light and Shadow” Series. But this amazing book is far, far more than merely a set-up novel. Wurts cleverly draws in the reader by resolving some lingering, persistent threads that the reader was burning to have resolved in previous books, while creating tantalizing new ones that propel the series forward in momentous fashion.
So many mysteries remain unsolved, and Wurts slowly, meticulously, begins to peel the curtain back, inch by inch, to reveal more of her stupendous world, more of the spiralling conflict between the two main characters, building gradually and inexorably towards what I have no doubts whatsoever, many books hence, will be a mind-boggling conclusion to this stunning achievement of literature.
I realize I am still very early on in the series (of eleven books), but, of course, I am COMPLETELY invested in the “Wars of Light and Shadow”, and Wurts’ luxurious, dazzling prose, incredible storytelling, and marvellous characterization will keep me coming back to her writing time and time again. She is definitely my favourite author, and “Fugitive Prince” only further cements that.
Onto “Grand Conspiracy”!