Carol Berg,
The Bridge of D'Arnath #1:
Son of Avonar

(Roc, 2004)

Carol Berg's Son of Avonar, book one of The Bridge of D'Arnath, begins on Midsummer's Day in the 14th year of the reign of King Evard; the story is told by Seri, who leaves no doubt from the very beginning that she is very poor, works very hard just to stay alive and carries a heavy burden of bitterness and grief. As much as she would like to seem cold and uncaring, however, she finds herself sheltering a runaway, a naked man who attacked her in the forest near her small cabin, who has lost the ability to speak and who is being chased by her brother's henchman, Capt. Darzid, who tells her a story of a runaway groom who stole his owner's horse. Through gestures and pointing, the "runaway" soon informs her that his name is Aeren, after the hawk of the mountains, and Lady Seriana, for so she is, begins to realize that he is not a horse-thief and was never in his life a servant.

So Berg begins the story of Seriana, a noblewoman of the Kingdom of Leira, which under its two most recent kings, Gevron and Evard, has conquered the neighboring realms in particularly brutal fashion. Fans of medieval fantasy, take note: Berg's version of this universe is harsh, brutal and vicious, a place where justice is unyielding and, usually, final -- unless those in power can think of something nastier to do. It is also a land that has outlawed sorcery -- one of Evard's most notable accomplishments before he took the throne was to slaughter the people of Avonar, a city that harbored sorcerers, after the inhabitants had been promised amnesty by King Gevron.

Seriana reveals her own history in a series of flashbacks recounting her life as the heiress to one of the oldest and most noble of Leiran families -- her education in the intellectual circle of Martin, one of the heirs to the throne; her marriage to Karon, one of Martin's closest friends, who is a sorcerer (and of course, the truth about sorcery is not at all what the throne and the priests would have everyone believe); Evard's underhanded and ruthless elimination of his rivals for the throne, including Martin; Karon's discovery, his death and the deaths of all of their circle, including Seriana's son by Karon, who is taken from her at birth to have his throat cut ... and then returned to her; and as she learns from various sources, the history of the J'Etanni, the race of sorcerers, and Aeren, whose name is actually D'Nathael (which, naturally, means "hawk"), the Heir of Avonar -- but not the same Avonar who was destroyed by Evard.

Berg is a capable writer who can spin a fascinating tale, and Son of Avonar has moments when her abilities shine through strongly. Regrettably, as a seasoned veteran of fantasy literature, I found several aspects of this novel that seriously interfered with my enjoyment.

Seriana herself is a character who should be complex and interesting but who is not initially engaging -- nor is she particularly sympathetic. Seri's brother Tomas, King Evard and others veer perilously close to cartoonhood; the evil ones have no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, while the good ones are fools. Although much of this is corrected by the end, it takes more than a little determination to get there. This is more than a little frustrating because Berg has set up a wildly inventive and potentially fascinating premise -- the banished duchess, the lost prince who can neither speak nor remember who he is, friends and foes who are searching for him, characters who may or may not be on the right side, a mysterious lost realm -- and yet one is at some pains to remind oneself that there is a reason to be reading about these people, if one can just remember what it is.

Flashbacks, which are the central structural device through most of this book, are dangerous tools. In the hands of a master stylist, they can be used to create a tight, richly developed story. For mere mortals, they serve as often as not to derail the momentum. Unfortunately, Berg's use of flashbacks is the major flaw in this novel; they don't really add dimension, but come across as more of a longwinded way to add exposition. They don't seem to parallel particular events in the present, and there is simply little, if any, resonance between flashback and the "now." Essentially, we are being told two stories in tandem, illustrating one of the true pitfalls of flashbacks -- we already know where the characters are, so interrupting the story to tell us how they got there had better involve something absolutely riveting, which is lacking in this case.

Son of Avonar is frustrating simply because its potential is so great. The last section of the book (after the flashbacks have flashed their last and the pieces of the puzzle start to come together for Seriana, who, for such an intelligent and well-educated woman, seems remarkably dense) becomes very absorbing, but earlier I found myself skimming sections of the novel because of my conviction that the action was leading to obvious results. I was seldom wrong. It is perhaps this that leads to the feeling that there is more book than story -- a lamentable tendency in contemporary fantasy, and one with which I can claim no sympathy. I am close to being a compulsive reader, and there were sections that simply did not hold my interest.

While by no means as grossly overstated as some offerings in the genre, Berg's effort could use some judicious cutting -- in fantasy fiction, as in most other things, lean is good. If one can get past the initial distaste for Seri and her attitude, Darzid and his elemental sliminess, Evard and Tomas and their unimaginative brutality, Aeren/D'Nathael and his mutely irrational behavior, the story begins to hang together beautifully -- some of the cartoons turn into real people, the plot thickens nicely and there is even a major surprise in store. I am, however, reminded of that priceless line from Amadeus: "Too many notes."

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 19 June 2004

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