Sarah Ash, Prisoner of Ironsea Tower, Book 2 of The Tears of Artamon (Bantam, 2005)
In Prisoner of Ironsea Tower Sarah Ash continues the story of Gavril Nagarian (an artist who unexpectedly inherits one of the Rossiyan duchies and the demonic power that goes with it) and Eugene of Tielen (who is determined to become emperor of a reunited Rossiya). At the end of Book 1, Gavril renounced the dragon demon that was source of his power. With no one to stand against him, Eugene easily extends his power over the remaining Rossiyan duchies and has Gavril imprisoned in a notorious lunatic asylum (the Ironsea Tower of the title).
The story begins quite slowly, but after a couple of chapters the pace begins to pick up. Apparently the creature that possessed Gavril was not destroyed by the exorcism that cast it out. Instead it finds a new host, incidentally saving the life and restoring the memory of Andrei Orlov – the heir of Muscobar (Tielen’s great rival), thought dead in a shipwreck during the war in the opening volume of the trilogy (Lord of Snow and Shadows). What’s more, there is more than one of these creatures and in the course of this volume we learn a great deal more about their history – enough, perhaps, to begin to sympathize with their plight. In spite of the title, Gavril does not long remain a prisoner. Eugene’s hold over his new Rossiyan Empire proves less secure than he hoped at first, driving him to seek still greater power with the aid of his court alchemist. By the end of the volume, the Rossiyan Empire is divided by civil war, two dragon demons are on the loose and a Francian fleet is on its way to invade Rossiya.
The book may be strong on action, but this has not weakened Ash’s characterization. As I pointed out in my review of Lord of Snow and Shadows, even her minor characters feel like real people. With one possible exception, there are no heroes or villains in this story – the personalities and motivations of her major characters are simply too complex for any of them to be unremittingly good or evil. The exception appears to be Caspar Linnaius, the Tielen court alchemist. Ash claims that there are no Dark Lords in her fantasy trilogy and that may well be true, but he is certainly a candidate for the role of Rasputin. His character is painted in unremittingly dark tones – scheming, manipulative, and quite lacking in moral restraint when it comes to the use of his powers.
However, it has to be said that this is very much the second book of a trilogy. It is inevitably dependent on Book 1. But whereas that volume had a satisfying ending, in the sense that major plot issues were resolved, this book ends on a cliffhanger with everything now dependent on the concluding volume, Children of the Serpent Gate. I found much to enjoy in this book, but I must admit I was irritated by its inconclusiveness (particularly by comparison with Lord of Snow and Shadows) – cliffhanger endings make me feel I am being manipulated into reading the next volume. That irritation apart, I can thoroughly recommend this to anyone who enjoyed Lord of Snow and Shadows.