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Initiate's Trial by Janny Wurts

“All of his days began the same way. He awoke without any memory. Nameless, he knew nothing at all of his past. Search though he might, his thoughts churned in circles. He encountered no sense of self-purpose. Nothing beyond the fact, ‘I exist’, that might endow him with a future.”

In perhaps the most shocking book of the entire “Wars of Light and Shadow” series, author Janny Wurts begins a new arc, and propels us forward approximately two and a half centuries in the history of Athera, to the events of “Initiate’s Trial”, book 9 of this astounding saga.

After being cursed by the Mistwraith, approximately 300 years prior, the paths of half-brothers, Arithon, thought of as the Spinner of Darkness, and Lysaer, known as the Lord of Light, have diverged perhaps as far apart as they ever have previously in the series. But their enduing enmity, at least on Lysaer’s part, remains.

Arithon is captive of the ruthless Koriathain enchantresses. He has no memory nor agency, as per the quote from the book provided, at the beginning of this review. Nonetheless, he has the wherewithal to realize that he has been tasked, for an undetermined length of time, with battling free wraiths – elements of the vanquished Mistwraith who no longer have physical entity, who wander through space – from imperilling the world of Athera.

Meanwhile, his daughter (whom Arithon does not realize is his daughter), raised by the same Koriathain who have imprisoned her father, and used him for their purposes, appears. She advises Arithon that his life is in danger. Since he has successfully banished all the free wraiths, he is no longer useful. She tells Arithon she has a plan to free him.

Lysaer, meanwhile, after having been venerated most of his life as the Avatar of the Light, is now deemed an apostate to the same religion that originated with him. We learn that a Great Schism has occurred, whereby Lysaer has denounced what he has considered false priests from the religion of the Light. As a result, in the splinter, the “True Sect” – a new and fanatical offshoot branch of the religion of the Light – has been formed.

Lysaer has chosen to leave religion behind, and focus his energies and power on politics, to become the Mayor of Eterra. Yet Lysaer is still curse-driven, and still bound by that compunction, to destroy his half-brother.

Lysaer has a new faithful companion, Daliana (a descendant of Lsyaer’s former loyal aide Sulfin Evend), trying to forestall his worst impulses.

But can a man driven by such a gaes as the Mistwraith, ever be truly prevented and restrained from those impulses? And at what cost to Arithon, and indeed, the rest of the world, if he cannot?

In writing this review, perhaps this a good juncture, to pause, reflect, and make some more general and overarching commentary about the book and the series, rather than provide the standard review, where I typically, in more in-depth fashion, discuss characters, themes, writing, etc. about the specific book I’m reviewing. Instead, I’d like to expand on two elements, that I believe need to be highlighted about this particular book, and the overall series.

THE TIME JUMP IN “INITIATE’S TRIAL”:
The first thing I’d like to address is the elephant in the room, about the book itself. It’s the time jump, why I referred earlier to “Initiate’s Trial” as perhaps the most shocking book of the series.

Yes, even for me, a huge fan of the series and of Wurts’ writing, the time jump, was, at first discombobulating. That does not mean it was not extremely well handled. It’s sometimes disconcerting when a book leaps forward in time in the middle of the book, or from where the previous book in a series left off.

For me, in this case, it was that feeling, at first, of nostalgia, and even grief, mourning that some of the side characters I loved from the previous eight books, had died of natural causes, because their lifespans are far shorter than that of the two main players.

But when I sat back and pondered this, I found this was MY issue, rather than the author’s.

Because I went back and re-read “Stormed Fortress”, the book that preceded “Initiate’s Trial”, and asked myself, as honestly as I could, if Wurts had left anything urgently lingering from the plot of “Stormed Fortress” that should have been closed off before jumping 250 years ahead. The answer, after some internal debate with myself, was “no”.

For despite my lamenting for the fates of some of favs from previous books, wondering how the rest of their lives played out, Wurts give us satisfying tidbits in “Initiate’s Trial” about just that. So, the feeling of loss, and dissatisfaction about what happened to those who have long passed, was alleviated to a great degree.

Moreover, with the new cast of characters introduced, and the skillful manner in which Wurts depicts them, we quickly form a sense of attachment and appreciation for them as well, and care about what happens to them too. Just as we did with the long-dead characters who died in the 250-year interval. That brings a whole new depth to the series.

Furthermore, when it comes to characters, even though with the drastic, and perhaps jarring time jump in Initiate’s Trial ( possible because the two main characters are blessed – or cursed – with magically-extended, exceptionally long lifespans of about 500 years ) we are still focused on Arithon and Lysaer, as we have been from the commencement of the series.

Final thought on this point, I bring you back to the prologue of “Curse of the Mistwraith”, which is in effect the prologue for the entire series.

“…At that time, Arithon, called Master of Shadow, battled the Lord of Light through five centuries of bloody and bitter conflict. If the canons of the religion founded during that period are reliable, the Lord of Light was divinity incarnate, and the Master of Shadow a servant of evil, spinner of dark powers…yet contrary evidence supports a claim that the Master was unjustly aligned with evil. Fragments of manuscript survive which expose the entire religion of Light as fraud, and award Arithon the attributes of saint and mystic instead. Because the factual account lay hopelessly entangled between legacy and theology, sages in the seventh age mediated upon the ancient past…let each who reads determine the good and evil for himself.”

This prologue truly became even more relevant when considering the time jump in Initiate’s trial. It’s much clearer to understand how such misconceptions, confusion, and contradictions about who and what Arithon and Lysaer were, when put in the context of the passage of huge swaths of time, such as 250 years, came to be.

So, once the reader moves past the time jump, they can absorb themselves back into this marvellous series, with renewed energy and enthusiasm. And indeed, the time jump, after I had completed Initiate’s Trial, made the whole series feel ‘rebooted’, in a good way!

THE ARCS IN “WARS OF LIGHT AND SHADOW”:
The next item I’d like to address, is the “arc” nature of dividing up the series. I’d like to explore at how it is designed by the author, why it works so well, and why it was warranted in the first place.

As I noted, this book, “Initiate’s Trial”, represents the start of a new arc in the series. Wurts has elected to divide her magnum opus into distinct arcs. Arc 1 is “Curse of the Mistwraith”, the first book.

Arc 2 consists of “Ships of Merior”, and “Warhost of Vastmark”, which some consider one self-contained book, in certain editions has been published that way.

Arc 3 is the largest arc, and holds “Fugitive Prince”, “Grand Conspiracy”, “Peril’s Gate”, “Traitor’s Knot”, and “Stormed Fortress”.

Arc 4 starts with “Initiate’s Trial”, and concludes with “Destiny’s Conflict”.

The final Arc 5 is the sole and concluding book of the series, which will be entitled “Song of the Mysteries”, to be released in 2024.

I would note here, that Wurts was inspired to pen “Wars of Light and Shadow”, after viewing a documentary about the Battle of Culloden Moor. After watching that movie, she was resolved to write about a conflict where there were lots of shades of grey, and ambiguity between what is “good”, and what is “evil”.

Speaking in an interview posted in Locus Magazine in 2017, Wurts said this, related to why she wrote the series, and the arc structure she chose to write it in:

“When the storyline was conceived, decades before the first volume’s release, I was young, ambitious, and neck deep in research to support the foundations of an epic concept, including the nuances of weapons and tactics. Then I saw the docudrama, ‘Culloden’, filmed in stark black and white, with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion so ‘’celebrated’’ in ballads and literature stripped down to horrific, unvarnished facts. The shock of that viewing, set against the reading I’d done, forever annihilated the heroic trope of a killing war based on a cause. The shine on the myth became utterly stripped. Textbook presentations of history, the narrow presentation of the daily news, literature, movies, and particularly fantasy literature perniciously oversimplify good and evil. The righteous battle for a grandiose cause does not exist, and the ‘‘good’’ side does not prevail when the outcome rests upon brute force turned to slaughter.

“My personal fury re-sharpened the ‘Wars of Light and Shadow’ with intent to shatter the fallacy. All conflict has multi-faceted angles of view. From the outset, this series embraces that stance, its thrust aimed to rebut the glorification of history as written by the victor, and to rend the veil that elevates war as a broad-scale solution. The arc structure begins by setting the stage through the eyes of two half-brothers with different backgrounds, one a musician and solitary mystic, and the other the gifted son of a king. Their divergent natures become set at odds by the Mistwraith they aimed to subdue. The second phase enlarges the span of the conflict as their individual characters shape their responses as dedicated enemies, and how that influence shapes their followers. The third arc opens up the arena to world view and defines the moral high ground of all of the factions involved, and the fourth dives beneath the surface into the mysteries of the world itself. The final arc (and last volume, now underway in draft) will orchestrate the series finale and bring the Mistwraith’s origins to conclusion. This graduated expansion alters the readers’ journey profoundly, each arc unveiling a wider perspective by breaking the preconceived frames of assumption. One by one, all of the traditional fantasy concepts are blown away, reversed, or replaced, revising all that has gone before until the viewpoint reshapes the setting and ventures beyond the world we thought we knew.”

As you might also glean from the above interview, besides how and why Wurts chose to divide her series into arcs, that this series is as utterly ambitious in scope, worldbuilding, history. It rivals anything by Erikson, Jordan, Tolkien, or the like. It has all the heavy emotional impact of Hobbs, in terms of the breadth and depth of character exploration and analysis. Stunning and visceral fight scenes as found in Gwynne, Winter, and Cameron? This series has that too.

No hyperbole here that any reader who wants to be challenged on every level of reading, including emotionally, intellectually, (and for me spiritually), should be reading this series. This is a story, which, as the writer herself notes, does not “sprawl”, instead it “deepens”.

And, I adore all that depth. I noted in my review of “Fugitive Prince”, this 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 I can’t get enough of. ‘Wars of Light and Shadow” has everything I could want in a fantasy series, and so much more.

This series, is simply, for me, the greatest, and most complete fantasy series ever written, Janny Wurts is one of the greatest fantasy authors ever to write, and “Initiate’s Trial” continues to display her incredible genius, taking the series into unforetold and exciting new directions.

My next review in “Wars of Light and Shadow” will be of the last book that is currently published in the series, “Destiny’s Conflict”.

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