“The wheels of due process ground on unchecked, until a struck look of terror transfixed his green eyes, and an arraignment for black sorcery was read out by a nasal secretary. Then that scene ripped away, replaced by another: of the accused, chained to a scaffold, stripped for a ritual execution. The sharpened sword waited, and the bundled, oiled faggots. Nearby, a cowled headsman mounted the stair, while a mob shook raised fists and clamored for redress in blood against the Master of Shadow.”
Half-way point nigh achieved in my reading of my favourite fantasy novels of all time, “The Wars of Light and Shadow”, by the marvellous Janny Wurts! Book five, “Grand Conspiracy”, was another amazing installment in a series that has truly raised the bar in terms of what epic fantasy can be.
**Please note**this review touches on events that occurred in previous books in the series – thus potential SPOILERS for the previous four books.**
Following the tumultuous events of “Fugitive Prince”, this book focuses, as the title indicates, on the long percolating plot by the Koriathain sorceresses, to lure our protagonist Arithon – reputed Master of Shadow – into a snare that will secure him in their clutches once and for all. At the centre of this scheme is the unwitting dupe, the brave but simple young shepherd Fionn Areth, chosen at birth to be a helpless pawn in the Koriathain designs, and groomed since then to be the bait that draws Arithon to his capture, and demise.
Meanwhile Lysaer – Arithon’s half-brother and full-time arch-nemesis, heralded as “Lord of Light” – is still bent on destroying Arithon at all costs. To consolidate his power base, Lysaer uses his considerable charm, natural leadership and diplomacy skills, and the fervor of those who hail him as a saviour and the only hope against Shadow, to procure a new wife in order to ensure the continuity of his house, beguile the wealthy trade guilds and nobles to continue to fund his war against Arithon, and solidify his future rule as a king.
However, things take an exceptionally sinister turn, as Lysaer, who claims to have rejected all sorcery, has seemingly – hypocritically – turned to dark occult, in his rabid pursuit of Arithon. Lysaer essentially begins to wield the power and influence of a deity, and his besotted followers begin to revere him as such.
“The Cabal of Light” is emerging, and readers may begin to wonder, what cost (if “Light” is to prevail, and humans will have sway in the world, and magic is destroyed save the power of Light, as opposed to Shadow successfully bringing the immortal races who founded the world back to ensure magic is sustained) is Lysaer willing to pay to triumph? And how many will suffer for the cause of Light, as Lysaer’s troops seem to be becoming more and more expendable.
Reference characterization, once more, Wurts provides the reader with some of fantasy’s most meticulously and realistically drawn characters. The two main opposing players, the two half-brothers, of course are still the essence of the plot. Larger than life, heroic, but victim to the curse that makes them hated foes, their humanity seems to be collapsing under the weight of both the Mistwraith’s curse and their royal-born traits of compassion versus justice.
They cannot help who and what they are, and cannot help being set against each other, to the death. More and more casualties escalate, as ominously, there is mounting evidence that everyone caught up in the war, could potentially fall, in cause of Light against Shadow.
Arithon features more prominently in the narrative than Lysaer. That does not mean the Lysaer does not make an impact when he does appear.
Smoothly seducing nobleman and common-born alike, forging alliances, leading by example inspiring troops by participating in battle exercises, getting down in the muck and grime when he could repose in splendour, convincing or coercing even those who initially don’t believe in him to cleave to the Light, and drawing anyone within reach of his aura like moths to the flame of his charismatic personality, Lysaer is a force that can’t be withstood.
Except he continues to be thwarted by Arithon, and seems to be becoming more and more fanatical in his pursuit, and more self aggrandizing in his mannerisms, while in inviolable fashion, married to his core trait of justice. But it becomes more and more evident that Lysaer’s brand of justice, and chivalry, is devoid of compassion.
On the other hand, Arithon is infirm, tortured, haunted by nightmares due to his guilt at those he has been forced to kill, and those who have been killed, caught up in the war between he and Lysaer. His innate traits of foresight and compassion are crippling him. Spending more than a decade at sea, on the run from Lysaer, but also seeking the Paravians, there is a quiet desperation to Arithon that made me want to weep for him at so many junctures in this book, and this series.
Auxiliary characters that stood out for me in this book, besides Elaria, were Sulfin, Raeitt, Ellaine, Cattrick, Parrien and Mearn and the rest of all the S’Byrdions. More on the new character of Dawr below. Raeitt especially is deliciously complex, intelligent, and devious, and as such it’s minacious to see a schemer of that calibre be inveigled by the “Lord of Light”.
Dawr S’Brydion, grandmother of the S’Brydion brothers, was by far my favourite character in the book. She is just the kind of snarky, crabby, cantankerous, quick-witted and sharp-tongued, plain-speaking, clever, and past the age of caring what others think (or what she says to whom regardless of rank) that I absolutely adore.
Her tenacity surrounding her suspicions about the fate of Talith, her dressing-down of the Lord of Light’s acolyte, her upbraiding of the younger, fiery S’Brydion males and putting them firmly in their place, was a joy to watch. She might be diminutive in stature, but her presence is enormous. She was my scene-stealing character of the novel, whom I very much hope to see more of.
Of special note, Ellaine turns into the exact opposite of what Lysaer intends, by his treatment of her, and I really enjoyed her character arc, though I fear for her greatly. There’s little room for a wife of Lysaer to assert her will in such a marriage, and it does not bode well for her that she’s unwilling to be just a brood mare and stand docile while Lysaer keeps himself distant and estranged from her, to prevent her from becoming an Achilles heel.
The sophisticated Lirenda is all fire, underneath the cold, calculating, and cunning exterior, and her ambition is the flame burning ceaselessly within her. But that fire could be doused, and replaced by another raging inferno – her secret passion for Arithon, the man she hates, and yet achingly desires, against her will.
Lirenda has done everything she can to put herself in the position of First Senior, and succeed the ancient Morriel, but has yet proven herself unworthy in the Prime’s eyes. Yet Lirenda’s obstinacy and her weakness for Arithon is her greatest exposure, and she is compromised in ways that she could never predict, even with her enchantress tools of prescience.
Power, and how it’s used, was a major theme that stood out for me in “Grand Conspiracy”. What does it mean to use power judiciously, and what does it mean to use it for malice.
In thinking about this theme, at this point in the series, the Koriathain have clearly, for me, of the two main sorcerous factions, become the villainous ones.
Their original mandate of using compassion (ironically, the main trait that Arithon, their enemy, embodies) and forgiveness to help shape humankind, and guide them towards a better future, seems to have been twisted and perverted, towards malice, deception, and self-preservation of the relevance of their order, and attaining their Prime’s ends, at all costs.
It appears the Koriathain are unwittingly allying (though for Lysaer they are his enemy as they are “evil” magic wielders) with Lysaer, because they place their enmity with their rivals of the Fellowship, goodness, and maintenance of the best elements of human nature (i.e. mercy).
The Koriathain are willing to attack the very land of Athera they claim to love, and put it in grave jeopardy, in order to thwart the Fellowship. I can only conclude, by this point, that the Koriathain, and their ruthless leader Morriel, have lost their way, and become nefarious, and are endangering not only Arithon, but Athera itself.
The unyielding Morriel’s clinging to life, bent on longevity, clinging to power, refusing to relinquish it to any successor she deems unworthy biding her time beyond reason, and her solution to the succession planning, was chilling and thought-provoking.
Speaking of the rivals of the Koriathain, what completely stunned me in “Grand Conspiracy”, was that I finally, unavoidably, began to grasp the true power of the Fellowship of Seven sorcerers.
While Wurts has long before (since the first book in the series “Curse of the Mistwraith”) outlined that the Fellowship held immense powers at their disposal, there can be absolutely NO doubt left after reading “Grand Conspiracy” what the Fellowship could wreak upon the world of Athera, should they chose. When Asandir speaks to fishermen and clanborn scouts early in the book, there are passages there that sent an icy chill up my spine. Among them:
“Only this time, they would be compelled to the act of mass slaughter in full cognizance, causation set into a lens of awareness refined by then thousand years for arcane wisdom.”
Fortunately, and sometimes frustratingly in terms of saving bloodshed, the Fellowship are bound by the Law of Major Balance (which reminds me of something akin to “Star Trek”, where the “Prime Directive” is the principal tenant of Starfleet).
Non-interference, consent, free will, and an unbreakable pact, govern the Fellowship actions. It’s plain, the Fellowship have the power to avert any catastrophe, but are bound by their own agreements with the mythical Paravian races that founded the world, not to use that awesome power.
Compared to the Koriathain, the Fellowship look far more benevolent, caring, and perhaps the only hope to help save Arithon, who in turn may be the only hope to restore order to the world, if he can utilize his talents to locate and return the Paravians to the world.
I will sound like a broken record here, but for me, among all the things I love about reading a Janny Wurts book, her priceless gift for prose is something I will never be able to get enough of.
Stunning magic, dizzying plots, countermoves and betrayals, blistering fights, stirring nautical scenes, rising tension to a fever pitch, desperate flight, an unrelenting thirst for vengeance, loyalty, sacrifice, guilt and depression, joy in service, the beauty of music, and more, this book is yet another in a series that will have your emotions bobbing like a boat on stormy waters.
As per Wurts’ calling card, be prepared for a heart-wrenching ending which will have you grasping for the tissue box.
I don’t see anyway how, one is this deep in the series, that one has not been able to recognize and appreciate just how stupefying talented Janny Wurts is.
From the depth and scope of her worldbuilding and her keen eye for detail and stunning realism, to her poetic, lush, mesmerizing prose, to her witty and poignant dialogue, and masterful ability to compare and contrast her characters, and bring them to vivid life on the pages, for me her place can be only amongst the most esteemed fantasy writers of her generation, such as Martin, Jordan, Erikson, Le Guin, Hobb, and that ilk.
My enthusiasm to finish this miraculous series in 2023 is sky-high, and I will consider it perhaps the greatest accomplishment of my reading life. Bring on “Peril’s Gate”!