Carol Berg,
The Bridge of D'Arnath #2:
Guardians of the Keep

(Roc, 2004)

I first encountered Carol Berg's fantasy with Restoration, the last volume of the Rah-Kirah series. Though flawed, it was engaging enough that I read Son of Avonar, the first volume of The Bridge of D'Arnath.

Guardians of the Keep is the second book of Bridge of D'Arnath and picks up shortly after the end of Son of Avonar: Seriana has returned to her ancestral home bringing her brother Tomas's ducal signet for his heir, Gerick, who is about 10 years old. Tomas's widow is pregnant again, and her physician has insisted she spend the entire time of her pregnancy in bed, since she has never, except for Gerick, brought a child to term. Seri also receives visits from the sorcerer Dassine, who has somehow managed to combine her dead husband's soul with the body of D'Natheil, prince of Avonar; Dassine is working to restore Karon's memories. In the course of events, we realize, as does Seriana, that Gerick is actually her son, who was not killed at birth but given to her brother; Gerick is kidnapped by Darzid, the captain who, it turns out, is a Zhid, one of the ancient enemies of the Dar'Nethi, the people of Avonar. The rest of the story concerns Seri's attempts to recover Gerick and to save her husband, forced into suicide by the corrupt Preceptors of Avonar.

My major disagreement with Son of Avonar was Berg's use of flashbacks to provide a backstory for the circumstances and events of the book; I felt it would have been much more economical -- and bearable -- just to give us some exposition. On that basis, I was happy to continue the saga, thinking that the flaws were ironed out and we were in for a good adventure.

I must credit Berg for universe-building -- the milieu in this novel is fascinating, beautifully conceived and very well developed. I'm not so sure I agree with the many effusive blurbs marking her characterizations as exceptional: they are well done, at least in some cases (and frankly, after about a thousand pages of text, there had better be some well-done characters) but there are still holes. The bad guys are cartoons, with the exception of Darzid, but we see so little of him that it's hard to judge. The good guys are somewhat more complex, but there are still points at which I was scratching my head -- for example, when Seri, on the basis of practically nothing, suddenly realizes that Gerick is her son, and not Tomas's. Likewise, Karon's suicide rings somewhat hollow, even though we know his soul has really been spirited off somewhere and will reappear (which is a reaction you can expect when you start resurrecting dead characters). I think the clincher for me in this regard is that the story is told as a series of first-person narratives, and all too often, I wouldn't have known who the person was except that his or her name started off the section.

We also spend a lot of time with the Zhid -- as told by Gerick, by Seri, by a captive named V'Saro. The lands of the Zhid and the Lords of Zhev'Na are a depressing place -- the landscape is unpleasant, the people are more than unpleasant, the lot of slaves and captives is gruesome, and Berg treats us to it in exhaustive detail.

After wading through this volume of the series, I have to say it suffers seriously from "fat book" syndrome: a case of many more words than story. I didn't find the style all that captivating, that I was willing to read page after page of misery and grit. I really have to confess to being somewhat offended by this sort of thing -- I find it self-indulgent and not in the best interests of the story, and one has to be a master stylist to pull it off. (Lest I be accused of being too high-brow for fantasy, there are fantasy writers who can do it, and do it very well, and I read their works for the sheer pleasure of seeing them in action -- and reread them, in at least one instance to the tune of several thousand pages of text, because they are that good.)

I probably already have a posse after me, but I can't really recommend this one, nor its predecessor. With a story and setting that could easily have sustained my interest, I found myself putting the book down time and again after a few pages simply because reading it became a chore. If I want to wade through a swamp, I'll visit the Everglades.

by Robert M. Tilendis
1 October 2005

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