I reviewed James Barclay’s 1999 debut fantasy novel ‘Dawnthief’ here a couple of months ago. ‘Noonshade’ is the following year’s sequel, taking up the story where the first book left off. Denser, a mage who is one of the legendary group of mercenaries known as ‘The Raven’ has successfully cast Dawnthief, the most powerful spell ever invented. With it, he has managed to destroy the evil Wytch Lords of Western Balaia, mere moments before they were successfully reincarnated. Had he failed, the Wytch Lords’ soldiers and shamen, aided by their powerful magic, would have conquered the whole of Eastern Balaia.
Without the Wytch Lords to contend with, the undersized armies of the free East, boosted by the support of their four colleges of magic, may now stand a chance against the overwhelming numbers of Wesmen soldiers advancing towards them.
However, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The casting of Dawnthief turns out to have had an unexpected and potentially catastrophic side-effect. An ugly jagged hole has appeared in the sky above Balaia. Although Denser initially downplays it as merely cosmetic, the Raven are soon disabused of that notion by Sha-Kaan, a powerful dragon chief who exists in a parallel dimension which is intimately connected to Balaia. Sha-Kaan appears in Balaia and tells them that the ‘hole’ in the sky is actually a dimensional rip connecting their world to his. The rip is unstable and will only get bigger. When it’s big enough, it will allow dragons from other clans than his to fly to Balaia and destroy it.
So, having saved Eastern Balaia from the Wytch Lords and, perhaps, the Wesmen, too, the Raven are now faced with trying to find a way to close a growing dimensional rip they don’t understand, before hordes of dragons travel through it on a mission to destroy their entire planet.
No rest for the wicked, huh?
Like its predecessor, there is a lot to admire in ‘Noonshade’. First and foremost, Barclay has created strong and clearly delineated characters who imbue the action with emotional resonance. Each race and tribe, whether they’re human, elven or dragon is distinctly drawn, with understandable motivations and realistic strengths and weaknesses. There are no impervious super-heroes to be found here but neither are the villains of the piece two-dimensional.
In fact, one of the aspects of this book I enjoyed most was getting inside the minds of Lords Tessaya and Senedai, the leaders of the Wesman tribes, and coming to appreciate that these were honourable men fighting for the future prosperity of their people, rather than faceless pantomime villains created solely to give the Raven someone to kill.
Coming a close second to this was the depth of Barclay’s world-building in relation to the dragons. There is enough complexity and sophistication here to fill a book all on its own, yet the story of the various dragon broods forms only one part of this multi-stranded narrative.
However, this is epic fantasy, so readers are likely to expect fighting. They won’t be disappointed. There are enough battles here to keep even the most gung-ho fantasy fan happy and, as always with Barclay, you can never be sure who will still be alive at the end of each fight.
I also thought the author dealt well with the use of magic in Balaia. It is definitely not a free pass to winning battles at no cost. On the contrary, casting spells correctly takes long training, great concentration and a lot of stamina. As the story progresses, we increasingly see the toll it takes on each mage, with the outcome of certain battles turning on the extent to which massively superior Wesman forces can keep absorbing huge levels of casualties until all the mages on the other side are exhausted.
My only real criticism of the previous book, ‘Dawnthief’, was the lack of variety in the way that different characters expressed grief. I’m pleased to say that Barclay starts to deal with this issue in ‘Noonshade’. Although there’s still an awful lot of tears expended by all and sundry, several characters respond to particularly traumatic events in more nuanced ways in this book, with much greater depth and variety to their actions and emotional responses.
‘Noonshade’ is a brilliant example of epic fantasy, providing the reader with a rollercoaster ride that crackles with energy from start to finish. It’s a more than worthy sequel to ‘Dawnthief’ and I look forward to seeing how Barclay finishes off his first trilogy in ‘Nightchild’.
(pub: Gollancz , 2008. 491 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08279-3)