Shadow of the Seer: a Winter of the World novel
by Michael Scott Rohan
(Orbit, £7.99, 584 pages, paperback, published 2001.)
Michael Scott Rohan's 'Winter of the World' trilogy was one of the truly original fantasies of the mid-eighties, a work in which he displayed formidable strengths; a deft, compelling touch with his prose, a marvellously skilful blending of mythical motifs from American, Viking and Ancient Greek sources, and best of all, a wholly new slant on the nature of evil.
Rohan chose to place his story in the midst of the last great Ice Age, and instead of presenting another clichéd Dark Lord (of the sort who had so degraded fantasy in the preceding decade) he imbued the world-spanning glaciers with their own malign intelligence. One of the Elder Powers of the world, the Great Ice hated not simply humanity, but life itself, and sought to bring the whole world within its sterile, gleaming, deathly grip...
The magic which Rohan's protagonist, Elof, wielded in those tales was Smithcraft, the ability to craft items in metal with their own potent powers and virtues. And the methods and techniques of Smithcraft added another dimension of fascination to the novels.
In 1998, Rohan commenced a second trilogy in this world, though not directly tied to the protagonists of the first. The new stories were set much earlier in the chronology of his tale (a thousand years or so). The first of these new novels, The Castle of the Winds, gave his fans just what they expected; a bold Smith for a protagonist, subtle, treacherous, Icy conspiracies, ringing battle scenes, and a series of clever smithying techniques and surprises. The second, The Singer and the Sea, was weaker work. Well written, but reliant on an unfortunate Deus ex Machina resolution, and very thin on the Smithcraft front.
Shadow of the Seer is a definite departure from this previously established template. It is set, not within the North American/European confines of the previous works, but in an indistinct central Asian locale. The protagonist is not a Smith, but a Seer, Alya, and to him the events and beliefs of the earlier books are either non-existent future contingencies or laughable rumours.
This is a darker book than any of Rohan's preceding ones. Alya's people live on the fringes of a land almost completely devastated by the Great Ice. Ancient realms and glories are long gone, petty kinglets squabble over the remains while the implacable Ice sends its ruthless Ekwesh raiders out to break down even the last thin remnants of resistance. Alya himself is almost a perpetual refugee. His family are slaughtered when he is just a youth. Fleeing, he takes shelter in a hidden village, only to see it raided within a few years, and Savi, the girl he loves, stolen away.
The story, then, follows Alya's quest to save Savi and defy the Ice. Rohan is, in essence, conducting a guided tour through the heart of the Ice's dominion, a realm of chill and mist, fierce predators and malign sorcery. Nothing is made easy here. Alya has his own formidable abilities, as well as the gifts of elusive but potent Powers, but these do not suffice to save him from simple human errors of judgement or the overwhelming force of numbers, or even the caprice of pure bad luck. Treachery slips through the novel, breaking the surface periodically and one gradually gathers the impression that the hero and his companions are a dim, wavering spark of light, struggling forward through gathering shadows.
One can admire the craft in Rohan's work. One can see that he is, again, playing intelligent, admirable games with mythical sources (Central Asian/Indian this time), though the influence here is significantly weaker and more obscure than in the first trilogy. One can appreciate the addition to a compelling series and see that by writing this book he is filling out one previously hidden dimension to his fantasy world. Nonetheless, this is a hard book to truly enjoy. The mood is generally sombre, and Alya's quest bleakly protracted against a harsh backdrop of lands and peoples shorn of true hope. For too long, the protagonists seem to be struggling uphill against all but insuperable odds, and, perhaps, towards disappointingly limited goals.
Rohan remains an innovative voice in fantasy, but as a trilogy this second set of books hangs together only loosely, and comes to no very clear and satisfactory ending. What he has done, as many current authors do, is to supply a 'prequel' to his previous work, but of excessive length and slowly declining mood. There are many other stories threading through the main narrative of Rohan's earlier work (the tale of Vayde and the migration from Kerys to Morvran, for one) that would have made a tighter, meatier, more engaging read, and would perhaps have had a more uplifting tone.
One could, as a last note, ask if this book works well as a standalone story? In some ways yes, for there is no significant connection to the peoples and places or even much of the cultural background of the earlier books. But there is still the same basic milieu, the same war of Elder Powers setting the scene for the story, and many facets of those Powers' behaviours and abilities might be a little clouded without the experience of reading the earlier works. Perhaps then, this one is only for Rohan's more serious fans.
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© Simeon Shoul 29 September 2001