Michelle West,
The Sun Sword
(DAW, 2004)

The Sun Sword is the final volume in Michelle West's series of the same name. The story is complex, involving the affairs of the Empire of Essalieyan in the North, a brawling, busy, vivid country, and most specifically House Terafin, foremost of the Ten Major Houses, the most influential merchants in the Empire; and the Domain of Annagar in the South, a land of harsh sun, lush mountain valleys, parched deserts and a studied, careful ritual courtesy in which every gesture and every stillness, every word and every silence, speaks volumes.

There is a huge cast of characters in the series, including not only those from Essalieyan and Annagar, but denizens of realms outside of normal reality: the demons of the Shining Court, ruled by Allasakar, Lord of Night, who have their own motivations for interfering in the affairs of men, particularly Ishavriel, Isladar, and Telakar; the High Queen, Arianne of the first-born, who rules the Deepings and who is the enemy of the Lord of Night. The key characters for much of the series are Jewel Markess, later ATerafin, leader of a gang of children in the slums of Averalaan, the capital of Essalieyan, who manages to get herself and her entire den adopted into the House; Serra Diora di'Marano, who becomes Serra Diora en'Leonne, wife to the Tyr'agar (ruler) of Annagar; Ser Valedan kai di'Leonne, a bastard son of the Tyr'agar, one of the hostages held in Averalaan as part of the settlement of the most recent war between the two realms, who suddenly finds himself the sole Leonne heir; Amarais Handernesse ATerafin, The Terafin, head of the House; Kallandras, once an assassin and now a bard; Alesso di'Marente, who styles himself "di'Alesso" and who arranged the slaughter of Clan Leonne and assumed the throne of Annagar, although not fool enough to attempt to wield the Sun Sword, by which the true Tyr'agar would be known; Evayne a'Nolan, a magi and seer who exists outside of normal reality and whose path through time winds over and around those of the other characters; and Kiriel di'Ashaf, a demon-sired half-breed, and Auralis, who serve with the Ospreys, the Guard of House Kalakar who in turn become the guard of Valedan. There are also the Voyani, nomads who wander the Dominion and the Desert of Sorrows, and who have their own agenda in the coming struggle between Essalieyan and Annagar, and the magi of the Order of Knowledge, whose purposes are their own.

The crux of the story is the establishment of Valedan as the true Tyr'agar of the Dominion, to be accomplished with aid from the hated Empire, against a backdrop of House intrigues among the merchants of Averalaan, intrigues among the Clans of the Dominion, intrigues by the Kialli, the demons of the Shining Court, and further intrigues by the Voyani, the Order of Knowledge, and others. That there will be war is inescapable: the only question is how many armies will be involved and who the adversaries will be.

The Sun Sword is the resolution, the climax, the braiding together of elements that finally brings everything to rest. West pulls it off beautifully. The focus for most of this volume is on the South, as Valedan marches to bring the Dominion under his control and Alesso deploys to meet him and keep his usurped crown. That Alesso has secretly allied himself with the Shining Court is cause for concern on both sides: the Ospreys have met and defeated demons before, but do not relish the prospect; Valedan's advisers have recommended killing Kiriel, as it becomes apparent that she is the daughter of the Lord of Night and so, to their minds, an unreliable element; Alesso is fully aware that the demons will betray him.

For the reader, this is the book in which histories and customs and expectations collide and events and characters undergo sometimes surprising transformations: Kiriel's maturation into her god-born power is anchored by her memories of Ashaf, the peasant woman who raised her; Diora's growing willingness to shatter the boundaries she has lived within all her life becomes open rather than, as has always been the case, secret, a Serra's only real means of exercising power; Valedan's growing if unspoken determination that he will rule the South, but the South will not rule him -- even an unlooked-for and yet eminently believable role for Auralis that brings a character who has been ostensibly minor and even perhaps a throwaway into a new and profound relationship with events.

West notes in her acknowledgments that the manuscript for the series ran some 7,800 pages as it grew from two books to six. This final volume is nearly 1,000 pages of type. Under these circumstances, it may seem strange to note "ellipsis" as a characteristic of West's style, but that is one of its most striking features. Perhaps best exemplified in the sections about the Dominion of Annagar, but in this final volume becoming a characteristic of dealings in the Empire as well, it is a style that leaves much to inference; to West's credit, and a necessity if this is going to work, she provides a full, rich context from which to fill in the blanks. She also happens to be a good writer. I am generally skeptical of what I call "fat books." All too often, the fat is just that, and particularly when length relies on style, it too easily becomes mere self-indulgence. West is one of those writers whom I am willing to exempt from this observation: her prose is magical, rich, sinuous and compelling and her use of inference brings a kind of tension to the work that is all too rare. Even Sea of Sorrows, which is set mainly in the desert -- a setting which almost invariably has disastrous results for the pacing of a book -- was almost impossible to put down. This is even more true of The Sun Sword.

Critical to the success of any fantasy novel is the consistency and believability of the universe it inhabits. West need bow to no one in this regard. It is the same universe that was the setting for her two earlier novels, Hunter's Oath and Hunter's Death, but more fully developed and far broader in scope. Think of Annagar as a compendium of the East, stretching from the fierce family loyalties of Sicily through the subtle duplicities of the courts of the Caliphs to the formal and deadly manners of the Shoguns. Essalieyan could be Renaissance Florence or Milan grown to imperial proportions, ruled by a pair of god-born kings who are, literally, divine, and governed in truth by the tenets of Macchiavelli, even though in this world he never existed.

West has received rave reviews for this series, and they are deserved, but be warned: this is all one story and is intricate enough that one has no hope of following it in this volume without a refresher course. Ordinarily, this would be something to anticipate, but given that the complete series is somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 pages -- well, be ready for a marathon. In this case, however, that's not a bad thing at all.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 26 June 2004

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