A BLACKBIRD IN DARKNESS (New English Library 1992 pp 473 £4.99)
A quest involves a number of elements: the ultimate problem, short-term problems, exoticism, the weaknesses of the characters, the development of plot. And the background for all this has to be the potential for horror - what will happen if the heroes fail, and how they might fail.
Freda Warrington has taken a different position in some ways to Tolkien. Although the background to both Lord Of The Rings and these Blackbird books is of impending immense evil, Tolkien avoided any involvment of gods, demons, the supernatural and any ethical discussion. The world of the three planes and the characters in it spend long periods discussing the ethics of their actions and the nature of the god-like figures (who are no gods) who control it. This makes the books more like the work of Stephen Donaldson than Tolkien, and the books share that dispiriting dullness the leper found.
An example of this fantasy is in the second book - Ashurek, one of the trio, has met a renegade general who has established his headquarters in a poor peasant village. The general has installed an Amphisbaena, an immense octopus-lke creature belonging to the Worm, which has hypnotic powers, which enables the general to control the peasantry (and allows the beast to eat odd peasants without their minding). The peasants revel in the hypnotic reverery and worship the creature. Yet within fifteen pages of meeting the general and seeing the beast, both are dead and the peasants exposed to the misery of their lot again. No sooner has the threat appeared than the hero overcomes it, the scene does not contribute to the tension of the book. The exotic appears only at intervals and then disappears just as quickly as it was introduced. Moral discussion does not reaaly make up for this weakness, if it is one.
Still, Thomas Covenant fans are likely to enjoy these. They're better than a lot on the shelves.
A BLACKBIRD IN TWILIGHT (New English Library 1992 pp387 £4.99)
A year after they brought out the first two volumes in the Blackbird sequence NEL have brought out the third and fourth. They are more two pairs than a quartet - A Blackbird In Darkness ended with the Worm M'Gulfn and apparantly all his demons and human emissaries destroyed. A Blackbird In Amber reveals that one survived, devoid of some powers but still totally evil, intent on world domination and willing to become involved in any subterfuge to achieve it.
The previous novel pair moved between worlds on a number of planes - this pair sticks to the earthly plane, and the vast continent of Vardrav, where one Empire is striving in its turn for power, and various kingdoms of varying moral worth are opposing the imperial drive.
That empire, Gorethria, supplied one of the trio of heroes in the first pair., As Amber begins, internal revolutions in the palace quickly lead to a boy being replaced and Xaedrek taking his place. Xaedrek is a philosopher-king, unfortunately without a mind to apprieciate the higher thought, and quickly the one surviving demon becomes his eminence gris. Working together in his laboratory they begin to distill spirit of tortured slave into a magical potion to further empower the soldiers of the empire to more military conquest.
Meanwhile, two women appear to save the world - both former mistresses of Xaedrek. One of them, Kharan, discovers a happier love with a stable-hand, while the other, Mellorn, is discountenanced to discover that the new power of the empire is based on vivesection and magic even though she is herself a sorceress.
Kharan's stable-lad is sentenced to the old human-hunt, while Xaedrek's love for her lets her off with a sentence of beheading. You can guess whether the plot allows either of these sentences to end in their intended conclusion. Mellorn escapes from the palace too.
So follows the epic trek of three heroes across a mythic continent with a completely different flora and fauna from the home life of our own dear planet. And although supernatural laws such as sorcery work here, there are some strange suppressions of natural laws.
As in the first two books there are some good set pieces of invention, but they are never related to the plot. The characters go there and meet new circumstances, but then they leave. The two best are in Amber - the lizard-loving community of Mangorad with its vast pyramids in the jungle, which is followed by the shifting sands of Ungrem where humans live in the pouches on the milk of vast sand-burrowing marsupials. But the tribe are taken by the Gorethrian army and no more is heard from them. The invention occupies only fourteen pages.
A lot is made in the books of the difference between the natural and the supernatural. However, as Mellorn spends so long worrying about the use of her supernatural powers and why she is usually too late in using them, what this means is that the stories start to forget the natural - the huge pyramids, for instance, are hollow, one having a central chamber "sixty feet square" and with "an apex high above their heads", but of course all pyramids are solid because classical civilisations had not invented the lintel, and the sloping forty degree wall is the easiest way to build high without using too much material, and this was true for Egypt, Asia and South America - there is not reason why it would not be true for Vardrav, except for the need to create that sense of wonder. You get the barbaric splendour without its causality.
I guess a lot of readers will forgive the books that, for their other invention.
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