“The Wars of Light and Shadow were fought during the third age of Athera, the most troubled and strife-filled era recorded in all of history. 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. Temple archives attest with grandiloquent force to be the sole arbiters of truth”…”
“Because the factual account lay hopelessly entangled between legend and theology, sages in the seventh age meditated upon the ancient past, and recalled through visions the events as they happened. Contrary to all expectation, the conflict did not begin on the council stair of Etarra, nor even on the soil of Athera itself; instead the visions started upon the wide oceans of the splinter world, Dascen Elur. This is the chronicle the sages recovered. Let each who reads determine the good and the evil for himself.”…”
And so begins one of the most epic high fantasy books, and the opening entry in one of the greatest epic fantasy series, EVER.
For years, I had planned to read the illustrious Janny Wurts. To be clear, Janny Wurts is often heralded as one of the best fantasy writers of all time, yet somehow I did not get to any of her extensive collection of books. No longer. Now that I have read “The Curse of the Mistwraith”, I understand why Wurts is mentioned in the same breath, in many circles, as Tolkien, Martin, and many of the truly elite fantasy authors. https://www.ranker.com/crowdranked-li… .
So, without further ado, let me attempt to do justice to the phenomenal “The Curse of the Mistwraith”, Book One of The Wars of Light and Shadow, in my review.
The beauty, for me, of the plot of the book is that, at its heart, it is simple. Some would even consider the plot full of tropes. Yet those tropes are wrapped in immeasurable nuance and complexity. I have never seen tropes meshed and threaded with such skill that one would cease to forget about the tropes themselves, and focus solely on how deftly written the book is. Until I read this book.
In the world of Dascen Elur, a war exists between two rival kings. One king is a flamboyant and notorious pirate king, the other is a cold, ruthless but highly capable monarch. The queen of the latter monarch, has a son (named Lysaer) with that particular king. Lysaer grows into the Master of Light. But the queen absconds on her husband, and runs off to have an affair with the pirate king, and bears him a (illegitimate) son as well, named Arithon. Arithon evolves into the Master of Shadow.
The queen’s husband is obsessed with being a cuckold, and vows to destroy the pirate king, his wife’s bastard son, and the pirate king’s naval forces. While the pirates are indeed a military threat to the rival king, it is the shame and humiliation of his wife’s betrayal that fuels his desire to annihilate the pirate king and his son.
Lysaer grows up to be the perfect prince and heir to the throne: handsome, courageous, intelligent, a natural leader and ruler, with an innate sense of justice. Lysaer also is eager to rule, and prove his worth. Yet Lysaer knows he possessed untapped, untutored magical powers, that he will only truly begin to uncover in another world.
Meanwhile Arithon, a lover of music and gifted musician, is raised as a mage, and trained in the arts of magic by his paternal grandfather. Arithon shuns inheriting the pirate king’s realm, and does not want to be tied to the burdens of sovereignty.
Though the queen eventually dies, the conflict continues to rage between the two rival kings. Finally, the pirate king is slain, and the Master of Shadows is captured by his enemies, eventually winding up in the hands of his half-brother, Crown Prince Lysaer.
Hate simmers between the two siblings, as Lysaer takes Arithon to Lysaer’s father, and Arithon is tortured, humiliated, and eventually banished from Dascen Elur. But Lysaer ends up being inadvertently exiled as well, to the world of Athera, and alternate reality, that can only reached via one-way magical portal.
There, initially, the brothers are forced to put their enmity aside and work together, under the guidance of wizards led by the mysterious Asandir, his apprentice Dakar (called the Mad Prophet) and other sorcerers belonging to the Fellowship of the Seven.
For Athera is clouded in permanent shadow and misery for the past 500 years, cursed by a Mistwraith, a powerful and malevolent being that is a blight upon the universe. No sun or stars can be seen in Athera, while the Mistwraith holds the land under its sway. Only the combined powers of Light (wielded by Lysaer), and Shadow (wielded by Arithon) can vanquish the Mistwraith, and bring an end to the curse.
Yet the curse is only one small part of Arithon and Lysaer’s issues. Another society of female magic-users, the Koriani, scheme against the Fellowship of the Seven, and have their own plans for the brothers. And the Fellowship themselves appear to be manipulative, secretive, and the reader will wonder if they truly have the best interests of the brothers at heart, or if the brothers are merely pawns in their designs.
Additionally, both princes are part of generational dynasties of which they are the heirs to in Athera. They have kingdoms and subjects that await their coming, like some sort of messiahs. Moreover, the blood feud between the two princes transcends into the new world of Athera. Will one prince be destroyed by the mutual hate? Will both? And will the world be destroyed with it?
The sophistication of Wurts’ characterization is truly a thing to behold. There are so many amazing, fascinating secondary characters that surround the two princes, most of whom very much have their own agendas, and are extremely grey in their perspectives and ambitions. There some downright despicable people too, but there are also some very “good” characters, who the reader will root for. But be warned – don’t get too attached. Like GRRM, Wurts has no compunction whatsoever in making noble characters suffer or die, and the final battle scenes of the book are of the tear-jerking variety, as lovable characters fall.
The princes are brilliantly drawn as counterpoint to each other at times, and at times their similarities cannot help but be noticed. Driven by forces beyond their control, played against each other by human and non-human agendas, and unsure of the players and game they are part of, one can’t help but feel sorry for Arithon and Lysaer. Their faults and positive attributes are both to their detriment, and it seems only disaster can await them both, with no pragmatic way to happiness and peace, based on the high destinies that ride on their shoulders.
This book, for me, is nothing if not a character-driven novel. That means the pacing, like many books of this nature, can be very slow-burn. There are plenty of fantastic action sequences, and the beginning and end of the novel are thrilling in terms of excitement. But the middle of the novel takes its time in drawing the reader into the politics, introducing the characters, how the magic works, the history and backstory, the settings, lining up all the chess pieces, then moving them. The book is a tome, coming in around 800 pages, yet I was never bored for one minute despite the length. Still, for those who treasure the sprint, not the marathon, it may not be for you. It is a dense, absorbing read, that requires the reader to proceed carefully, and virtually read every word.
While this book is just the beginning of the journey this series seems destined to take me on, I am hard pressed to recall as immersive world building that is constructed by Wurts ANYWHERE in modern fantasy that I have read thus far. I’m talking Tolkien, Steven Erikson, GRRM. Wurts’ dizzingly real world is replete with 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.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. I have not read anything like it, and all indications is that the first book merely scratches a bit of the surface of what Wurts has in store for the remainder of what is a huge series. I am flabbergasted by 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. The end product is superlative, and second to none. For someone like me who craves detailed world-building, I have found exactly what I was looking for in a fantasy book.
I understand that for some, Wurts’ prose may be too much of a good thing. For me, simply put, it is a thing of extreme beauty, a revelation. To say it is evocative is a paltry compliment. Her style of writing is classical, lyrical, poetic at times, stuffed full of detail, description, subtleties. You can read and appreciate the writing for its sheer loveliness, but in truth, you would literally be missing out.
That is because Wurts weaves clues to sub-plots or major plot points, innuendoes, sometimes even double-meanings into her words, that if the reader fails to pay attention – either completely mesmerized by the prose itself, or overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of it – things will be missed, and misunderstood. There is such a delight in the way Wurts writes, that I know I will be re-reading “The Curse of the Mistwraith” several times, just for the loveliness of the prose alone.
But I will also be re-reading to capture things that I know I neglected to pick up on the first read – it is that type of book. Wurts is a master at the craft of writing, and I cannot say enough about her abilities in this regard. She will make you work hard to comprehend the full picture, but I feel the payoff is well worth the effort on the part of the reader.
Predestination, the “end justifies the means”, what it means to embrace leadership, the price and consequences of magic, loyalty, family, and lust for power, prestige, and glory are all compelling themes that you will find in “The Curse of the Mistwraith”. Also, the fact that nothing is ever as it seems, and the reliability of all the perspectives in the novel being cast in doubt at various points, makes for highly intriguing and thought-provoking reading.
The prologue holds some of the key to the point of the book – and is reminiscent of GRRMs (to paraphrase) “A villain is a hero of the other side”. This is particularly relevant when we consider the main two characters, the princes. The reader will in one chapter detest and be angry with Arithon, and then next chapter empathise with him, cheer for him and pray for his survival. Then they will turn around and feel the same about Lysaer. At least in this first entry in the series, though readers will likely come to have their favourite brother, I found myself hoping somehow both could co-exist, if not find lost familial bonds of love and harmony.
But this book, make no mistake, is a DARK book overall, and I do not predict any happy endings for either brother in the series. The two brothers are positioned for failure, and seemingly, catastrophic death for themselves, if not also the world around them.
Yet this is part of the genius of Wurts, as she has the reader caring for what happens to both men on opposite sides, and fretting over the fact that – while they seem to race towards inevitable doom – they are being manipulated by sorcerers and sorceresses, evil spirits, ambitious humans, and almost everyone and everything around them.
Perhaps the scariest thing about the book is that Arithon and Lysaer’s fate seems almost completely pre-determined, with only a few alternate probably outcomes. So, as the reader, one is reading the book (and the series, it would seem) for the journey, not the ultimate destination, perhaps. But that journey is so luxuriant, so verdant with artistry, splendour, and magnificence, that I am more than willing to just enjoy the scenery, and keep reading Wurts’ “The War of Light and Shadow” to its conclusion.
This book got me in the feels on EVERY level. The writing is rapturous, the world-building was mind-blowing, the characters were superbly drawn, and the themes were spellbinding. It was a true feast of the senses, and if this book was just the beginning, the series truly promises greatness. “The Curse of the Mistwraith” was breathtaking and has me clamouring for more, much more of Wurts’ craftsmanship.
Wurts is a scintillating writer, one of the best in fantasy, who needs to be heralded in the same class as the Sandersons, Jordans, et all. I will be devouring anything she writes from now on. It won’t be long, I’m sure, until I am reading the next book in the series, “The Ships of Merior”