I will read every single book that Wurts has ever written or will write in the future
“On the morning the Fellowship sorcerer who had crowned the King at Ostermere fared northward on the old disused road, the five years of peace precariously re-established since the carnage that followed the Mistwraith’s defeat as yet showed no sign of breaking.”
And so continues one of the most highly lauded epic high fantasy series, and for me the second book in the greatest fantasy series, EVER. That book, entitled “The Ships of Merior”, takes the readers of seminal author Janny Wurts back to the incredible world she has created, first seen in “The Curse of the Mistwraith”, volume one in “The Wars of Light and Shadow.”
I read this book for my #March of the Sequels TBR a few months ago, but I am still thinking about it, and it has taken me so long to get my thoughts down on paper, so impactful was this book on me. Nevertheless, here we go.
THE SHIPS OF MERIOR PLOT SYNOPSIS
Approximately five years have passed since the events of “Curse of the Mistwraith”. Following the catastrophic events at the conclusion of that book, and the massive battle that left ruinous consequences, especially for Arithon’s side, said Arithon, known as the Master of Shadow, has gone to ground.
Arithon is plagued by guilt, and determined to protect his scattered and wounded allies and sworn vassals from further harm. But he needs all the friends he can get, with the magical powers normally at his disposal seemingly curtailed. Thus, despite not wishing more lives to be lost, being embroiled in Arithon’s wars, it seems inevitable that Arithon’s allies will continue to pay a heavy price for their allegiance, with their master appearing more vulnerable than ever before.
The erstwhile Prince Arithon is living under an assumed name, travelling with the kind and aging Master Bard, Halliron. Since Arithon is a peerless musician himself, and a worthy heir to Halliron’s legacy, there is a level of contentment in Arithon’s vocation, but he is still traumatized by his war with his half-brother, Prince Lysaer, and determined to avoid conflict with Lysaer at all costs. His solution: avoid Lysaer, period.
But Lysaer is obsessed with tracking down and killing Arithon. Using all his charm and charisma, and drawing all his allies to his cause, the determined Prince amasses large forces, bent on locating his foe, and destroying him. With his faithful second-in-command, Lord Diegan, at his side, Lysaer is still driven by the Mistwraith’s curse (as is Arithon) to eternal enmity towards Arithon, and will exact horrible punishment on any who stand in his way of his mission to eliminate his half-brother – in Lysaer’s mind, to make the realms free of the ultimate threat of the evil Master of Shadow.
Meanwhile, both the Fellowship Sorcerers and the Koriani Enchantresses have their own plans for both Princes, and are working overtly or surreptitiously to influence the outcome of the conflict, since the Princes hold the fate of the world in their hands.
Wurts’ characterization continues to be masterclass.
Arithon and Lysaer still take centre stage in this second book of the series, but there is some definite scene-stealing from several characters, including Dakar the Mad Prophet, Jieret, Mayor Captain Pesquil, Dhirken, and Jinesse who all really shine through as characters of note. Dakar in particular is maddeningly wicked, selfish, obtuse, even downright evil, but also extremely funny, with much of the humour in the book coming at the Mad Prophet’s expense.
As in the previous book, every character, especially the main ones in Arithon and Lysear, do terrible things. They also do noble things. Their CHOICES make it difficult, at many junctures, to label them either good or evil, based on those choices.
Every character is so complex, so filled with conflicting motivations and desires, and Wurts does a phenomenal job of making you feel sorry for these morally grey characters one minute, detesting them the next, cheering for them, then cheering against them, then devastated if they don’t make it through the book. Additionally, and brilliantly, Wurts juxtaposes sets of characters against each other, to the point where the reader will start to question what truly constitutes good versus evil.
What I am finding now, in reading my third Janny Wurts novel, is that, of all her startling writing skills, she truly knows how to stick a landing. The climaxes of her novels are fantastic. The build-up always makes the pinnacle worth it, and the pinnacle itself is always explosive and leaves the reader reeling.
Yes, the novel is a slow burn, punctuated with some incredibly poignant and gripping scenes throughout. But you will not want to skip anything, because when the truly thrilling parts of the novel arrive, all the beautiful, more quiet, reflective scenes, the political maneuvering, the romance, the touching parts that will leave you sad, all leading up to the big battles will be far more appreciated, for how they tie into the ending.
I stated in my review of “Curse of the Mistwraith ”, that Wurts’ worldbuilding rivals all the great fantasy writers who are renowned for their worldbuilding. Since “The Ships of Merior” takes us to even more unique lands, and introduces us to ever more unique people and customs than the previous novel, nothing I have read in the second book does anything to change my initial assessment.
There is a lush ancient history, backstory, lore, a variety of current and defunct kingdoms, ethnicities, races (including centaurs!) and cultures, and complex mythologies clans, magical guilds, complex royal genealogy, prophecy that transcends millennia, unique languages, complex magic systems and mysticism.
Wurts’ imagination, skill, and depth of research taken to create such an intricate and complex place, featuring a splinter world, main core world, and more, is staggering.
Of note, is that Wurts should receive far more attention for her fight scenes. They are amazing, poetic, intense, brutal, glorious. Wurts also does a fabulous and very realistic job of depicting huge military campaigns, what it takes to supply the armies, how the armies move, obstacles to massive troop movement, terrain and supply-line issues, scouting challenges, and everything involved with larger scale warfare, including naval warfare. Whether at land, at sea, or both, Wurts can really write a thrilling battle sequence.
Finally, the musical performance by Halliron (and Medlir) in Jaelot, is one of the most consequential scenes I have ever read in fantasy. I read that scene at least three times, before I could move forward with the rest of the book. Read this scene, and be completely amazed not merely for the beauty of the writing and the emotional effect the scene will have on you as a reader. Be also amazed for a hint of the larger implications that Arithon’s power could have on the world, and who or what is lurking beyond the fringes of reality, ready to return to a world where their presence has not been seen for countless years.
It would be extremely oversimplifying “Ships of Merior”, and indeed the entire “Wars of Light and Shadow Series”, to say that it is about a war between good versus evil, as evidenced by the two brothers, each representing a side. It would be oversimplifying to say that the novel is about pathos, because of Wurts’ incredible ability to make the reader feel sorry for both brothers (and those caught up in their war), completely manipulated by the Mistwraith’s curse, in hatred of one another. What I find the main theme of the novel to be, oddly enough, though in so many ways because due to the curse, the brothers are robbed of their choices, is about that very thing: choice.
So many of our characters have to make decisions in the novel, under duress, under a curse, under influence of their leaders, or in a moment of crisis. But ultimately, they are still the characters’ choices, largely of free will, to be good or bad, to administer justice blindly, or give miscalled mercy, to sacrifice themselves, or sacrifice others, to keep their oaths, or to forsake them, no matter the personal cost, even their very lives. I found it fascinating to witness what the characters did with their choices, and amazed – often horrified – even when those choices were made for altruistic, or entirely pragmatic reasons, at how devastating the consequences could be for others.
Yet overall, the primary secondary theme I have found running through the book, more prominent than in the previous installment in the series, was the concept that evil can be subtly cloaked (to a degree where it actually seems like “goodness”) in a veneer of kindness, civility, and outward beauty, while goodness can appear crude, uncultured, “ugly”.
I do need to take a moment to speak of romance, as well, in the book. There is more of that in this book than in “The Curse of the Mistwraith”, as we see Lysaer and his right hand man Lord Diegan’s sister Lady Talith’s courtship escalate, while the forbidden passion between Arithon and Elaira comes to a head.
I am a lover of romance, and have read a lot of pure romance books. Still, some of the most heartbreaking passages I have ever read in that regard, ones that truly hit me in all the feels, came in of all things, a fantasy novel: this novel, as opposed to a romance novel. Those passages were centered around Arithon and Elaira.
“What Elaira felt for this man was real, untarnished. Yet she could not wrench hope back into her hands, nor cross the gulf, nor complete the desire between them. Not without sullying forever the shining truth of her love, that Morriel’s manipulation had no part of.”
All I can say is the four or five pages preceding that passage and the paragraphs following it were completely heart-wrenching to read, in all the right ways.
Perhaps since Shakespeare, never have I read prose that beguiles me in the way the Wurts’ prose does.
Yes, THAT is how luxuriously Wurts writes. But to be clear, I am someone who loves relishing and basking in the beauty of language, and quite happy to take my time in doing so. If that’s not for you – in other words if you prefer scarcity of words, just to get through the book, under no circumstances do you wish to stop and savour every single word, candidly: look elsewhere.I give you a sample of the type of marvellous, melodious prose one can expect from Wurts:
“The change came with such masterful subtlety, Meldir alone could name the moment when senseless strings of syllables strung together for their resonance and rhythm. Against the superlative weave of the lyrante, the counterplay of consonant and vowel sparked like gems of a tapestry. The heart leaped in step for pure wonder.”
Yet, even if you are that type of reader that desires less flowery prose, I still encourage you to give this book, and all Wurts’ books, a chance. There is an obvious elegance and utter sophistication to Wurts’ writing, but the dichotomy is there is also an efficiency and simplicity that, the more you read of the author, the more straightforward and simple, in a weird way, the writing seems. It is resplendent writing that is also very functional. It is layered, it is meant to be read carefully and not rushed over, but it is also very effective, and very very beautiful. And, if you continue reading, you may find that it suits you just fine.
This has been a long review, as I attempted to do justice to the sheer brilliance of the author, who has blessed fantasy readers with yet another chapter in what in my mind is one of the best fantasy series EVER. Still, I feel wholly inadequate in trying to review “The Ships of Merior”, and my praise of this book seems paltry, compared to how I actually feel about it.
I can tell, now that I have read the first two books in the series, Wurts is just teasing the reader, with the ramifications of some of the decisions and events that took place in “The Ships of Merior”, in terms of what consequence they will have on the overall series.
Only two books in, as a reader, I am aware (intuitively, from what long-time readers, and from what the author herself notes about it) that I truly don’t know so much of what is REALLY going on yet in this series. There is a lot more to “The War of Light and Shadow” than immediately meets the eye, or that one can discern this early on in the series.
The combination of the lusciousness of Wurts’ writing, the enormity of the depth and breadth of the worldbuilding, the immaculately drawn characters, and the poignancy of the themes make the Wars of Light and Shadow series like nothing else I have ever read, and the books that I will no doubt return to time and time again to re-read them, for pure reading joy.
I will read every single book that Wurts has ever written or will write in the future. Simply put, she is my favourite author of all-time. That is on a list of my favourite authors that includes such luminaries as Jemisin, Gwynne, Tolkien, Abercrombie, Lawrence, Cameron, Cornwell, and T.H. White.
I am enriched as a reader for experiencing “The Ships of Merior”, and will be counting the days until I can read the next installment, “Warhost of Vastmark”.