03 September 2011

Children of the Serpent Gate

Sarah Ash, Children of the Serpent Gate, Book 3 of The Tears of Artamon (Bantam, 2005)

In this last act of the saga that began with Lord of Snow and Shadows, the Rossiyan Empire stands at a crucial moment in its history. Science and reason have begun to displace an older magical way of the looking at the world. But the release of the Drakhaoul, demonic (or angelic) beings who can take possession of human hosts, threatens to plunge the empire into a new dark age. Also threatening to turn the clock back is the Francian Commanderie – a military order of religious fanatics that effectively controls King Enguerrand of Francia.

In this third act of the drama, Ash continues to work with multiple points of view. By doing this she succeeds in creating a much richer narrative than would have been possible with the omniscient narrator of traditional fantasy. However, the resultant complexity does threaten to overwhelm the narrative flow at times.
Among the several viewpoint characters that Ash has used over the course of the trilogy two stood out for me in this volume: Gavril and Kiukiu. As I read through Children of the Serpent Gate I was struck by how these characters seemed to represent two complementary aspects of the narrative action. Gavril’s story takes place entirely within the physical world of Rossiya. Meanwhile Kiukiu, as befits her role as shaman, becomes the protagonist of a parallel story unfolding on a spiritual realm. While Gavril struggles with the Drakhaoul on the physical level, she is working to release the spirits of a number of children who were sacrificed to open a gate to the realm of the Drakhaoul.

Ash has commented that there are no Dark Lords in this fantasy trilogy. In my review of the previous volume, I suggested that while this might be true, the Tielen court alchemist Kaspar Linnaius seemed to be a Rasputin-like figure. However that assessment was premature. In this volume, we see another more sympathetic side of Linnaius. In contrast to the black-and-white characterization of so much contemporary fantasy, Ash has very effectively painted all her characters – even the apparent villains – in various shades of grey.

While the characterization is satisfyingly complex, there is also plenty to satisfy lovers of action: sea battles, sword fights, daring escapes, arcane encounters. Indeed, there is perhaps too much action towards the end of the novel as the various strands of the narrative come rushing together to create a climactic conclusion.

In summary, this is a very satisfying conclusion to a refreshingly different take on the fantasy trilogy. Sarah Ash is definitely a writer to keep an eye on.

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