A WIZARD’S SACRIFICE by A.M.Justice (BOOK REVIEW)
This is the second book in Justice’s Woern Saga and I can only recall two other occasions where I have started a series with book two. While I would not always recommend this approach, it did me no great harm with Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife (Book two of His Dark Materials trilogy) or Bernard Cornwell’s Enemy of God (Book Two of his Arthurian Warlord trilogy). Now, as then, I found I picked up the story fairly quickly, though there is a risk that my backstory gleanings constitute spoilers for book one (A Wizard’s Forge).
A bit like the opening of Richard the Third, we join the story just as a “Winter of discontent has been made glorious summer.” Though in this case it is not so much by any son of York, but by a daughter of Ourtown, Victoria – foster sibling to Ashel and Bethniel, the children of Queen Elekia. They bring the Big Bad of the previous book Lornk Korng as their prisoner after a conflict that has seen Ashel maimed and Victoria changed. However, peace does not necessarily bring happy endings as politics both domestic and foreign, both past and present, slice through a number of budding romances.
Justice has constructed an interesting world. To the reader is clear that a still-orbiting colony ship has seeded this world with a human population. Through a corruption of its registry LSNDR2237 the spaceship is worshipped as the God Elesendar, its mundane logs viewed as inscrutable sacred scripture. The humans though consider their race was somehow birthed by sentient trees.
The world’s true natives appear to be fearsome giant arthropods called Kragnashians – I pictured them as an eighteen foot tall/long cross between a lobster and a cockroach. They control access to an elixir that can awaken magic powers within humans, though at the risk of fatal immediate poisoning or long-term debilitating effects. The elixir carries the woern into the imbiber, and I imagined these as like the Star Wars midichlorians – a kind of part parasite part symbiote that is the root of all magic. The woern can be passed from mother to child making magic potentially a hereditary trait.
However, as with a lot of good fantasy, there is a popular suspicion of magic use such that some nations have outlawed it entirely, which is a problem for Victoria as she had to become a wizard to win the big battle that ended the last book.
Throw in some carefully guarded “devices” – relics of an older time which appear to work a bit like Star Trek matter transporters – and the ability of some characters with the power of listening to share thoughts and inhabit the minds and senses of other characters, and you have a sprawling world of myriad interconnectivities. Justice’s large cast of characters have carried a load of emotional baggage from the struggles of book one forward into a plot full of intrigue, battle, romance and revolution.
There are grimdark elements in the tortures her characters have endured and inflicted, and a certain greyness to the roles as people switch allegiances in a constant search for the lesser of multiple evils. Justice’s cast embrace a degree of diversity, though I did find myself a little ill at ease with the depiction of one bad guy as a powerful predatory homosexual where the balance to this lay in the lightly alluded-to gay partnership of a couple of minor characters. Another character is a blind warrior who gets involved in some visceral unseen battle scenes, but his ability at other times to borrow the sight of others and literally see through their eyes felt like a bit of an easy way out. I thought more could have been made of the disorientation of seeing and controlling yourself from outside your own body (though maybe this owes more to my own difficulty in the Red Baron flight simulator when I switched from cockpit view to chase plane view).
There are quite a few couples and quite a lot of coupling as various reserves are broken down and characters come to realise their true feelings for each other. It does prompt a few awkward moments when two characters with that shared sensations attribute end up experiencing each other having sex over a separation of hundreds of miles. I mean it is bad enough for young people sharing a house with their parents, but sharing headspace at such intimate moments! That does become the trigger for some nervous collapse in key characters which ramps up the tension.
In the midst of a weave of conflicting political dynamics, Justice serves up a surprise when one of the “devices” flings a clutch of characters a thousand years into the past. It reminded me a bit of Terry Pratchett’s “Johnny and the Bomb” as they try to work out how to ensure history happens the way it was supposed to despite not having studied history as carefully as they ought to when at school. It also resonated with this article that Mark Lawrence posted about, with its discovery that time travel was theoretically possible and that timelines themselves are in a way “self-healing” – though that carries with it an implication that they can be scarred. While the characters left in the present have plenty of worries of their own to deal with, the book spins around this past timeline and the need for somebody to make a sacrifice to save the present.
Like Rothfuss with Kvothe in Name of the Wind, Justice makes much of music and musicianship as drivers of character and story. The artistic passion of her characters – with their talents for music and song – is under constant strain from rigid rules of an overbearing guild. Justice draws on terminology and sensations that make the experience of music very vivid (even to someone like me who is so tone deaf the family will not let me sing when anyone else is in the house).
The greyness of the characters comes out in this line from a bad guy who at least knows his own weaknesses.
“I have no natural conscience or compassion – this is an imperfection I freely acknowledge. Therefore I surround myself with people who have those attributes. They are my moral lodestone.”
The magic system can be a bit overpowering at times, with flying wizards flinging balls of energy against rolling balls of Kragnashian arthropods, but the mingling with science appealed to me. For example, the wizards have distinctive waveforms and wavelengths – a kind of spectral fingerprint – by which they could be identified at a distance. In a counter measures approach they seek to conceal themselves from detection with some waveform cancelling out interference effect – it brought back my Young’s Slits experiments from A-level Physics.
Justice revels in some descriptive prose that play with the senses mixing colour and sound:
“Sometimes when he sang, the notes colored his vision…”
Or the lovely imagery idea of a street packed with fists and torches here:
“…they wormed through the crowd and hurtled down alleys, then back into streets packed with fists and torches.”
“Shadows danced on the wall, birthed by a single flame.”
I was slightly confused by Justice’s inversion of the terms cad and cuckold; my understanding has always been that the cuckold (who wears the cuckolds horns) is the husband whose wife has been unfaithful, while the cad is the one who seduces the wife. On the whole though, Justice embraces without indulging in the physicality of relationships – more sex than Tolkien, less sex than G.R.R.Martin.
Overall though A Wizard’s Sacrifice is an imaginative and truly epic fantasy in a rich and variegated world of magic, monsters and science.