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12-02-10: James Barclay Reveals 'Legends of the Raven'

'Elfsorrow,' 'Shadowheart,' and 'Demonstorm'

It's funny to see the future as the past. But it's been a long time since I started this column. It's been through many iterations and will no doubt go through more. But I remember my first heady days, all those great emails with Simon Spanton as he changed the face of science fiction and fantasy with some inspired authors. One of my favorites was James Barclay, who took the standard elements of fantasy and charged them with verve and style to create two outstanding trilogies based around the same group of characters — The Raven, a sort of Magnificent Seven of fantasy. What always floored me was that nobody in the US ever thought to publish them — until now.

Lou Anders over at Pyr knows a good thing. He's smart and wants to sell books. So in an environment where, I'm told, fantasy sells best, he's done the smart thing. Pyr has already published the first Barclay trilogy, Chronicles of the Raven; 'Dawnthief,' 'Noonshade,' and 'Nightchild.' Now they're busy with the second, Legends of the Raven with 'Elfsorrow,' and 'Shadowheart,' (Pyr / Prometheus ; November 30, 2010 ; $17) and 'Demonstorm' due in January. If you've not read any of these books, and that's likely in the US, then now is a great time to start. Barclay is a gifted writer, who gets better as the books go on, but he starts out with an uncompromising approach. Characters die.

For those who have not read any of Barclay's Raven books, I'll keep this precise clear of spoilers and speak to the strengths of the series and Barclay's writing. First of all, in a genre where bloat is the starting point for most writers, Barclay knows the power and strength of economy. In both trilogies, the books all clock in at around 400-ish pages. Barclay offers the pleasures of immersion in a richly created world, but he doesn't go overboard. He keeps his readers honed in on character and story. This is not to say these books are non-stop action, though it's close.

The core of the books is the group of mercenaries known as The Raven; and who is in that group is subject to sudden change, usually as the result of violence. Surely, you're going to find Hirad Colheart, the Barbarian, and after that, well... Let's just say that you'll usually find a mage or two and an elf in the mix, or on the sideline. At least for a few chapters. But that changing roster gives Barclay to really explore the dynamics of a group of fantasy warriors ina way that you don't often see. This is not the usual ragtag team, but instead, a business driven by ethics and relationships. The relationships are all over the map, with the fantastic aspects carefully gauged to enrich character involvement.

The world in which all this unfolds, Balaia, is richly realized, and becomes richer in the second set of novels, which take place mostly among the Elven culture. The elves are consummate users of magic, and one of the appeals of Barclay's work is that the magic has some sort of sense to it; there's an economy of magic, as it were, and it makes a huge difference. Magic is not a get-out-of-jail-free card here. It's a dangerous weapon, an energy source that can just as easily kill the user as the intended target.

Readers should know by now that I am something of a monster hound. To this end, Barclay gives us some truly entertaining dragons, and like the best creators of monsters, he makes them characters, not just eating and burning machines. But there are more than just dragons out there, Barclay dots his creation with worse thing waiting to take not just your life, but your soul. The point being that, this is not just a combat novel with swords and magic replacing guns and infantry. Barclay's fantasies have a very science-fictional feel to them, while remaining solidly in the fantasy fiction genre.

Barclay's skill in character and world-building is matched by his skill in plotting at all levels; in a scene, in a novel and within each trilogy. Given that the books are about a crew of mercenaries, there's an expected predilection for fighting and action, but there's a lot more than a simple declaration of sides. Barclay is something of a politician, and he delves into cultures and beliefs as motivations for conflict, then plays them out in wildly extravagant action scenes that play like big-screen movies. Readers who enjoy a well-wrought action-oriented fantasy that will bring to mind the best parts of the classics we've all read should make sure to pick up Barclay's Chronicles of the Raven and Legends of the Raven. As a side note, the packing and production are very nice in these American editions. This is the sort of fun that rarely gets done once — let alone twice.

11-30-10: Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan Create 'The Fall'

The Middle of a Nightmare

There's something special about the dreams we call nightmares. They seem to have no beginning, and no end. We are always in the middle of a nightmare, and that trapped, hopeless feeling of unceasing agony is what makes them so frightening. The placelessness of our souls becomes a torment beyond the surreal tortures we imagine. We are without home, and thus, without hope.

Tapping into this feeling of the authentic nightmare is not easy, especially within the confines of a modern vampire novel, but in 'The Fall' Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan use the middle book of their vampire trilogy to create a dizzying spiral into nightmare. The series began with 'The Strain' and will end (or perhaps not, given the title) with 'The Eternal Night.' As a middle book in a trilogy, 'The Fall' faces some challenges, which it manages to turn into advantages. Though the questions it raises outnumber the answers it offers, it's still a rich, rewarding reading experience that captures the essence of nightmare.

For readers who might be interested in the book from what you've read in this review so far — stop reading now. You need to have read 'The Strain' before you start 'The Fall.' That said, Del Toro and Hogan manage to be as eloquent as possible in the opening portions of the novel, bringing readers back to the end of the world as we know it. But once we're there, and it doesn't take long, 'The Fall' transforms into its own vampire novel, a story of love tortured and inverted, a story in which the underpinnings of family and society have come undone.

Having created a memorable cast of characters in 'The Strain,' Del Toro and Hogan bring them back and take them down a notch, even as they manage to make some significant inroads in their battle to keep humanity fully human. Ephraim and Zack Goodweather cope, but just barely, and what happens in the course of 'The Fall' does not make things easier. Zack's character arc is a grand mix of poignant and terrifying, while Ephraim seems to be getting the sort of education that results in suicide bombers. Setrakian reveals his heart and Vasily Fet lets himself learn the ways of the warrior. The authors don't overindulge or shortchange our protagonists, and the result is that we're immersed in a nightmare whose beginnings are now unimportant since the end seems unreachable.

There's a lot of gratification with regards to the vampires, as we see more and learn more about not what they mean to humanity, but to one another. The revelations here are enough to give the novel a real jolt, and the new critters are unique and disturbing. Del Toro really is a monster-hound, one who knows that a monster with a character is far more terrorizing than a mere eating machine. The authors also introduce some new characters on both sides of the divide who provide wonderful moments of power, awe, terror and sorrow. For all the apocalyptic action that ensues, and the great set pieces, 'The Fall' is smart enough to know that characters make the world go round — or stop it dead, if that's their wish. 'The Fall' takes all the raw materials and the power of genre and pulp fiction — monsters, cliff-hangers, set-pieces and setbacks, invests them with some real emotion, and casts the work in excellent prose. There's enough poetry to conjure the nightmare, shot through with the sort of brutal simplicity that makes action scenes come to life for the reader,

Bucking the usual trend for second novels to run long, 'The Fall' is actually shorter than the 'The Strain,' and every bit as intense. As with the best nightmares, the ones that scare you so much you want to tell everyone you know what you dreamed, 'The Fall' really does leave you hanging. There are resolutions, steps forward and backward by those on both sides of the conflict, but the final chapter is still to come. The endless feeling is well-played by the authors, to amp up the horror and the terror. We're clearly partway through a story that might well have an ending we'd prefer not to experience — not as humans, not as characters in the story. As a reading experience, however, 'The Fall' is a very effective exercise in vertigo. It lives up to its title, taking readers to the edge and then over. You do get to wake up from 'The Fall.' You'll certainly remember it. It is just like those nightmares that have no beginning, only terror, and an interruption that is not an ending, but a malevolent promise of more terror to come.

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