Martha Wells,
Wheel of the Infinite
(HarperCollins, 2000)

Martha Wells is that rarity amidst the glut of endlessly repetitive fantasy series and recycled cliches -- she is a writer whose every book so far stands alone and features new and different settings, characters and ideas. Now, in her fourth novel of fantastic fiction, Wells succeeds yet again in producing a wholly original, brilliant conception sure to cement her reputation as one of the finest writers in the field, deserving to rank alongside such masters as Guy Gavriel Kay, Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Tim Powers and Tanith Lee.

The Wheel of the Infinite distinguishes itself immediately with its setting, an invented parallel world strongly reminiscent of southeast Asia -- even more specifically, the glorious civilization of Cambodia in the 12th and 13th centuries. Its cities of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat show whiffs of inspiration from Tibet and India as well. Duvalpore, the Celestial Empire's city of temples, is the site where every year, the wizardly Voices of the Ancestors must gather to renew the wheel of the Infinite, an image built of sand, (empowered with magical chants, visualizations and incense). The image represents the key to the shape of reality.

An especially important centenary version of this rite is approaching but an inexplicable, ominous, stormy black region has marred the Wheel's representation and all the sorcerous efforts of the Voices have failed to restore it to purity. If the blight is not excised before the rite is completed, the world could be totally, undesirably changed. The Voice of the Adversary, Maskelle, who speaks for the power the Ancestors created to wipe out evil, has wandered in exile since a false vision years ago. But now the head of the Koshan Order of priests, the Celestial One, has called her back to the capital city of Duvalpore to make use of her unique, uncanny gifts. Maskelle returns with the friends and allies she acquired in the wider world -- Rastim's troupe of actors and the attractive, foreign swordsman/bodyguard Rian.

From her dreams of an eerie, inhuman city abandoned in the midst of devastation and other clues, Maskelle learns that the Voices have mysterious, magical opponents who have created a Wheel of their own in order to alter reality to benefit themselves; the Celestial Emperor himself has been duped by confederates of the invaders, and the Adversary itself might not be entirely sane. Maskelle and her companions cum allies, in their battle against the strange insurgents from another world, encounter murderous water spirits, possessed corpses, cursed puppets, murdered priests, magical assassins and the scheming court favorite Lady Marada. Wells, using her wordsmithing skills, makes these odd ingredients blend together into an enthralling narrative.

Marvelously inventive, swift-paced, witty and exciting, Wells' latest fantasy is a testimony to her talent as a writer, for The Wheel of the Infinite is not only about saving the world; it is also about saving Maskelle from self-doubt and isolation. The richly conceived Celestial Empire's plight is made all the more dramatic by the well-rounded, fully dimensional characters' sarcastic, reasonable conversations, and by their very human responses to inhuman perils. Maskelle, Rian, Rastim and company, the Celestial One, even Raith, the ambivalent Emperor, are all such colorful, memorable protagonists that one longs for a whole series of sequels in order to visit again with them and their world of wondrously exotic, intricate backgrounds, dazzling magical manifestations, and truly original plot devices that add up to a tour de force of the imagination and a pleasurable fantastic fiction reading experience rarely matched!

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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