Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Review of Janet Morris' classic of Heroic Fantasy, THE BEYOND SANCTUARY TRILOGY


BEYOND SANCTUARY, by Janet Morris. Author’s Cut Edition © 2012 by Janet Morris, and published by Perseid Press. Book One in “The Beyond Sanctuary Trilogy.” 

 Let me start off here with a quote from my Black Gate review of Janet and Chris Morris’ novel, The Sacred Band: “The Sacred Band is much more than great Heroic Fantasy: it is classic literature, filled with sub-plots, a fine cast of well-drawn characters, insight and wisdom and recurring themes of honor, faith, brotherhood and love. This novel spoke to me on a personal level because it’s a story of pure human drama and powerful emotions. While the characters are larger than life, they are also richly-drawn and written with great depth of insight and humanity. What also rings true with the Sacred Band is their military tradition, their ethos. These characters are soldiers, warriors. They are not only mythic heroes, they are also everyday heroes; real people, everyday people who face extraordinary odds and foes. . . . The Sacred Band has the sharp edge of reality, the harshness, the bitterness and the danger of the real world. Love, loyalty, honor—these are the ideals by which these characters live and die. This novel is epic in scope. It is mythic by heritage. It is positively Homeric.”

Janet Morris’ Beyond Sanctuary is the first volume in a trilogy that includes Beyond the Veil and Beyond Wizardwall, and the events in this trilogy take place before The Sacred Band, the magnificent novel by Janet and her husband Chris, which I previously reviewed here for Black Gate. Beyond Sanctuary is a complex novel, truly literary heroic fantasy. It is textured and layered, subtle at times, and yet always powerful. Like the best of all literary fiction, it has emotional depth and human drama, subtext and a philosophy that is expressed through the thoughts, words and deed of its characters, and not through narrative lecture and dissertation that slows the pace of narrative thrust. This is a novel driven by eloquent, intelligent characters with real emotions and real problems, with plots and subplots born of the classical tradition . . . characters that speak to us, that have something to say. And the action never falters, never loses momentum, and each chapter picks up more and more steam right up until the explosive finale of the attack on Wizardwall, and the resulting aftermath that ends like the final note in a great opera or symphony, on the last page.

War is brewing and the Rankan Empire hopes to flout Mygdonian expansion into their own lands, and flout the mages of Wizardwall, as well. And thus Tempus the Black, also called the Riddler, decides that it’s time to join the fight, leave the sinkhole that is Sanctuary and go up against the sorcerers and witches of Wizardwall. So he and Nicodemus, who is also called Niko, along with Janni, Critias, Straton and the other Sacred Band of Stepsons, set out in pursuit of two powerful and ruthless foes: Datan the archmage, and the Nisibisi witch, Roxane. This is the novel where Tempus first becomes involved with Jihan, daughter of a Froth God, who is in human form for the first time. This is where a young boy named Shamshi, who comes to play a major role later in The Sacred Band, has his mage-blood first awakened by Roxane’s caresses. This is where young Niko, who is heartsick over having lost two battle-partners, loses his maat, his sense of balance and inner peace. And this is where Roxane first spins her web to attract Niko, to play her games with him . . . and wants to use Tempus to destroy Datan. Ah, but Datan has his own plans to use Tempus—to destroy Roxane! No honor among thieves? There is even less honor among mages and witches.

If you are familiar with the classic ™Thieves World shared-world series, you will encounter many old friends and foes herein: Lastel, (aka One-Thumb), Molin Torchholder, Hanse (aka Shadowspawn), Walegrin, Grillo, and so many others. Oh, and you’ll also revisit the Maze and that most infamous den of iniquity, the Vulgar Unicorn. The gods, too, play a huge role in this novel: Askelon of Meridian, regent of the seventh sphere and entelechy of dreams and shadows; Enlil, Storm God of the Armies, who has snubbed Tempus; Stormbringer, the father of Jihan; and Vashanka, the former patron of Tempus, who has been left behind but not forgotten, and whose shadow, like those of all the gods, hangs over the lives of all the characters, for good or for ill, sometimes helping, sometimes interfering. 

The main plot and the various subplots are complex, and to go into more detail would only cause me to give away too many surprises and twists and turns. But I can safely say that you won’t be disappointed in the array of fantastic characters, the intrigue and Machiavellian maneuverings of priests and politicians, and the exciting siege of Wizardwall. Demon dogs, were-snakes, soldiers, demons, and the heroes of the Sacred Band—those warriors “of a higher octave of being,” all clash in mighty battle. Cime the Mage Killer, sister of Tempus, lends a hand. Randal, the allergy-prone enchanter and shape-shifter, so young and so eager to prove his worth, comes into his own and earns the respect of Tempus and the Sacred Band. Niko, too, who is still very young and uncertain, hopes not to disgrace himself in front of his elders and fellow members of the Sacred Band.

For me the theme, the heart of Beyond Sanctuary is untried youth, of untested boys growing into men, of recruits becoming soldiers, warriors and heroes. It’s a great treat for me to revisit this series, to see the threads and foreshadowing that begin in this first book of the Trilogy and evolve and grow through the next two volumes, and how they all play out, for better or worse, in The Sacred Band. We see the hand of Fate at work here, and the influence of the gods. And what I especially like is how Morris involves the gods, how they influence mortals, take on human form, become human and fallible, but never over-shadow the mortal characters or the story itself. Though not always seen, not always taking an active part, the gods are ever there, their presence always felt; this is all superbly choreographed in the classic tradition of Greek mythology. Beyond Sanctuary is a wonderful novel, and this edition is a brand-new, revised and expanded Author’s Cut. This is a lucid, lyrical and powerful story of love and war, loss and betrayal, life and death. Death is the price we pay for war. Grief is the price we pay for love. Indeed. I’ve already started reading the second book in the Trilogy, Beyond the Veil. I urge you to start here, with Beyond Sanctuary, and don’t stop reading. Ever. 

 
BEYOND THE VEIL, by Janet Morris. Revised Author’s Cut, published by Perseid Press, copyright © 1985, 2012 by Janet Morris. 396 pages. Cover art: detail from Battle of the Amazons, by Peter Paul Rubens (1617 – 1618.)

I continue with my review of the 5-star, Author’s Cut editions of Janet Morris’ classic of Homeric Heroic Fantasy, the Beyond Sanctuary Trilogy, of which Beyond the Veil is the second book. Once again, she does not disappoint in this stirring novel of political and religious intrigue, dark magic, gods and men, witches and mages, and the price of love and war. This is a pivotal book in the trilogy, where foreshadow and story threads begin to weave in and out to form a tapestry, telling a tale of friends who become foes, enemies who become allies, and what Fate lies in store for certain demigods and mortals. Now, after the battle to win Wizardwall that took place in book one, Beyond Sanctuary, Tempus, Niko and the Sacred Band are caught between the local rebels and the empire of Mygdonia’s blackest magic. Once again, “War is coming, sending ahead its customary harbingers: fear and falsity and fools.”

It begins with the murder of a courier on his way to meet with Tempus, and the arrival of a young woman named Kama, of the 3rd Commandoes, (a unit of special rangers originally formed by Tempus) who seeks audience with Tempus, who is also known as Riddler. Her mission is to take 11-year old Shamshi, the young wizard-boy back home to Mygdonia. Shamshi, once a pawn in the game played by the late sorcerer Datan in the previous novel, is still under the spell of Roxane the witch, but is now being held as a guest-hostage by Tempus and the Sacred Band. Though he may be a child in the eyes of men, Shamshi is already plotting against Tempus and Niko. He is guided and goaded by the “voice” of Roxane, who has been in hiding since the death of Datan, her former partner in crime, and the loss of Wizardwall at the hands of Tempus and his Stepsons. Roxane has her own agenda, of course: she is one of the most seductive, dangerous and deadly foes in this trilogy.

To further complicate matters, Shamshi is in love with Jihan, Froth Daughter of the weather god, Stormbringer; she has come to earth to spend one year as a mortal, and Shamshi can’t wait to grow into manhood so he can take her for his own. Even though Roxane has already introduced him to the pleasures of the flesh, Shamshi knows he must wait to seduce Jihan, wait until he is a man full-grown when she will accept him as such, or so he believes. Jihan, however, loves and cares for Shamshi only as if he was her own son. But she has fallen in love with Tempus, much against her father’s wishes, and wants to stay with him, permanently. Relationships, plots and counterplots are complicated in this series and, oh . . . what tangled webs these mortals and immortals weave. “When men and mages fought gods in perverted theomachy, no one was safe, not on earth or in the heavens.”

Tempus, still without the patronage of Enlil, the Storm God of the Armies, is weakened and uncertain, and concerned for Niko, his right-side partner, whose life and fate hang in the balance. He sends young Randal, the seventh-level Hazard Class mage who proved his worth in the battle of Wizardwall, to the Bandaran Isles to find Niko, who has gone into retreat there. Together, Niko and Randal then travel to mystical and mysterious Meridian, where they meet with Askelon, Dream Lord and regent of the seventh sphere, who seeks Niko’s aid and offers him his patronage. Reluctantly, Niko agrees to become the avatar of Askelon who says he wants “to secure the stability of the seventh sphere through its human connection, to prevent the possibility of someone threatening the right of man to dreams of comfort and healing.” But is that all the entelechy of dreams and shadows wants? Or does Askelon have a hidden agenda that is yet to be revealed? Are gods to be trusted any more than men? And let’s not forget about Roxane, the snake-eating, soul-devouring witch whose grim shadow hovers over all: she wants Niko for her own; she seeks to regain Wizardwall for all her kin, and “to find out if Tempus is truly immortal and whether a Froth Daughter might be turned to drizzle upon the air.” And young Shamshi is her tool, her weapon against Tempus and Jihan.

As I stated earlier, this is a complicated novel, rich and complex in the machinations of its characters, whether they’re mortal, divine or numinous, whose motives may or may not be what they seem. It begins with a mystery and keeps that going throughout the story: the reader knows only as much as what the characters know and learns things only when the characters learn them. When the answers and revelations come, they hit fast and hard. There is also wisdom and philosophy in this novel, and a wealth of wonderful quotes. Janet Morris was determined that Beyond the Veil not suffer from what I call MBS—Middle Book Syndrome, and she has succeeded. More than that, halfway through the story this novel goes from being as solid as its predecessor to upping the ante and raising the bar.

Now let me mention Janet Morris’ prose, her style, her approach. She is a musician, a bass player, and she writes with the ear of a musician. There is what I call “poetry of earthiness” in her prose, and a certain rhythm in her style. For example, here’s a passage, elegant in its simplicity, from a scene set in a whorehouse, that puts you right there:

“Gayle was here now—beside her among the bubbly pipes and smoke. Candlelight flickered with the drafts, glimmering on cup and shield rims, on blades and armor; snatches of intrigue; lovers cuddling in corners; schemers whispering in booths nearby; wisps of low connivance leaking out from a dozen paper screens. Gayle must know something, be useful in some manner. This place he’d chosen was one for confidences and calumny. She began to open him up with canny questions and careful flattery.”

And here’s a bit about Tempus that reveals something of his character, something of his past, without giving away the mystery of the one they call the Sleepless One. His presence, whether or not he takes center stage in a scene, dominates all:

“As a haughty young philosopher, ages ago, before the curse which had made him a tireless wanderer, bereft of sleep and love and what men call peace, Tempus had concluded that god is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger. . . . Further, that out of all things can come unity and out of unity, all things.”

Tempus, Morris’ most famous character, her legacy character, is a stoic hero, a great warrior, a demigod . . . and philosopher. We get to know him, but not as well as we get to know the other members of the Sacred Band. Morris keeps the mystery, the enigma of him there to tease us. He is not called Tempus the Obscure for nothing.

And for all the glory of its flesh and blood characters, the beauty of prose, the literary depth and textures and levels of this classic, there is no shortage of inhumans, once-humans, half-humans, magic-working, mortals fighting in the streets, mage war, embattled gods, fire-spitting demons, shape-shifters, and a rousing night raid that reaches a powerful crescendo. Oh, yes . . . there’s also a golden homunculus, a creepy little thing that becomes the whispering master of one recurring character, and nearly succeeds in doing to Tempus what few men, few mages have ever attempted. The final scenes involving a young warrior-woman who has found herself pregnant, and who is torn between keeping the baby or having an abortion, is played out perfectly, with restraint and delicacy, with compassion and humanity, and a deft touch that neither underplays nor overwhelms.

Once again, as I highly recommended the first book in this magnificent trilogy, I say that you will not be disappointed in this second book, Beyond the Veil.

 
Beyond Wizardwall, by Janet Morris. Revised Author’s Cut, published by Perseid Press, copyright © 1985, 2012 by Janet Morris. 415 pages. Cover art: (English) The Fall of Phaeton, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1604-1605, oil on canvas.  Image copyright © The Perseid Press, 2013.

 “Woe betide the soul who loves too much, wants too much, dares too much.”

I finish my reviews of the 5-star, Author’s Cut editions of Janet Morris’ classic of Homeric Heroic Fantasy, the Beyond Sanctuary Trilogy, with the third and final book, Beyond Wizardwall. This was the toughest of the three books to review because there is so much that happens and so much ground to cover. This is also the most dramatic, tense and emotionally powerful of the three books. Let me begin with a little recap in Janet’s own words:

“Heavy snows had put the war against Mygdonia and its Nisibisi wizards into hiatus. Niko’s commander, Tempus, called the Riddler, had employed magic to bring his mixed cadre of shock troops (Rankan 3rd Commando rangers, Tysian ‘specials,’ hillmen of Free Nisibis, and Niko’s unit of Stepsons) back to Tyse for the winter. Fighting had ended inconclusively, with the Mygdonian warlord Ajami still at large.”

They ride into Tyse triumphant and settle in to wait for spring, content with the season’s work. All except Niko. Everything in this excellent novel revolves around Niko, (who is also known by his war name, Stealth), for what trials he endures and what tribulations he suffers are Herculean and tragic, and form the core of this novel. In the first chapter he’s at wits’ end, quitting the Sacred Band after he gets rousted by a pair of arrogant 3rd Commandos, wherein things quickly turn ugly and he kills one of the soldiers. Niko escapes and goes into hiding at Brother Bomba’s whorehouse. This is where the triad of Niko’s troubles begins. First, there is Askelon, the entelechy of dreams, regent of the seventh sphere and an archmage with delusions of godhood. He rules the sleep of all, from his ephemeral archipelago of dreams, Meridian. Then there is Roxane—shape changer, soul eater and vampire-like witch, who devours the essence of life from hapless mortals. Finally, we have Enlil, the northern Storm Lord and god of the armies. All three come to haunt Niko.

Askelon wants Niko for the purity of his soul, who steals his sleep and wants Stealth for an avatar. Roxane the witch, Death’s Queen, wants Niko’s body and a bit of his soul. And Enlil wants Niko as a representative on earth. Pulled in three directions by three powerful beings of higher octaves, Niko is being driven mad, which leads him into a whirlpool of drink and drugs. To make matters worse, Brachis, High Priest of Vashanka, (the Rankan storm god who has disappeared), comes to hire Niko to assassinate Abikithis, the emperor of Ranke, for the good of empire, Vashanka and Niko’s own soul.

Now, still searching for Niko, wanting him for the murder of one of their own, the 3rd Commandos trash Bomba’s bordello, but Niko manages to escape.

Enter Tempus: The Riddler wrestles with his own demons. Demigod and immortal though he is, he bears a curse of his own: those who love him die of it, and those he loves are bound to spurn him. And Niko, being his right-side companion in war and life, may suffer from that curse, as Tempus himself has long suffered from it. The Riddler’s heart is troubled, for he has deployed Niko before, pushing him and using him to flush out Roxane the witch, but she’s still at large. Now Tempus fears that Roxane has again possessed Niko and is spying through his eyes. He needs to find Niko, not only to set things to rights, but to find out what Brachis the High Priest wants, and to save Niko from the 3rd Commandos, the special unit Tempus formed and trained in his younger days. To top it all off: there is much anger, competition and jealousy between the Stepsons and the Commandos. Furthermore, Vashanka, the Rankan Storm God who once was Tempus’ patron, has disappeared. Tempus blames himself for the witch stalking Niko, and he will finally bargain with Enlil—save Niko, leave Niko be, and take him, the Riddler, instead. Ah, but things are never quite that easy.

Enter Randal: Seventh Level Hazard Mage, who is also part of the Sacred Band, the only wizard with whom they agree to work. When he returns home he confronts the mysterious suicide of his guild’s murderous First Hazard Mage. After Niko is found and rescued, Tempus orders Randal to keep an eye on Stealth, his one-time, right-side partner, to protect him and keep track of him. But as you can guess, that’s not going to be an easy task, either. And events are soon set into motion that will quickly throw Randal into the very thick of things.

Enter Cime: The dangerous, seductive mage-killer, sister of Tempus in spirit, if not by blood. She breaks into the mageguild one night, casts a spell and seduces the First Hazard, and then murders him. She and Tempus will form a joint occupation to rid the world of sorcerers, except for Randal. If it was up to her, Cime would rid the world of gods, too. Despite her distaste for wizards, she will team up with Randal to help track down Roxane who, weakened and ugly and badly injured after the mage-war, wants a magical globe that Randal possesses. Don’t forget: Roxane also wants Niko, and she uses an innocent young boy named Grippa to get at him.

And then there’s Kama, Tempus’ beautiful daughter, a soldier with the 3rd Commandos, who falls in love with a Stepson named Critias, and who seems to have a secret agenda all her own. Needless to say, she manages to cause a few problems. What does she want? Whose side is she on? What does she seek, besides her father’s approval? What part will she play in the events to come? Jihan, the Froth Daughter of the god Stormbringer, also returns to complicate Tempus’ immortal life, and with her is the young boy with wizard’s blood, Shamshi, whose sad fate will eventually play out in The Sacred Band, which I previously reviewed here and for Black Gate online magazine. (January 12, 2014.)

As Fate and the gods would have it, all-too soon things heat up further for Niko when he’s captured by priests and goes on trial in a kangaroo court designed to find him guilty of murder. He is tortured and maimed beyond all mortal endurance, and what he suffers in one tense, emotionally-charged scene will cut to the core of your heart as it cuts to the heart of Tempus the Riddler. And Tempus, near the end of his own wits, finds a way to capture Roxane, only to end up making a bargain with her, to gain her help in saving Niko.

This is a novel of passion and love, powerful and character-driven from start to finish. It’s brilliantly conceived and executed, packing more in its 415 pages then the previous two books combined. Just to give you a sample of what else goes on: During a festival of songs, games and physical prowess, there is a hostage crisis culminating in a surprising decision by Tempus, and what orders he gives to his Sacred Band. While the war between Ranke and Mygdonia is on hold for the winter, assassination is nevertheless in the air, and there’s a military coup in the works to put an old friend of Tempus’ on the Lion Throne of Ranke. But Ranke is doomed unless their missing god Vashanka is found, for without their god no hand at the helm of empire could be steady enough to put her back on course.

Ah, but no strategy of war lasts long after battle is joined, and everything seems to be going wrong, especially after Randal the mage decides to go against Tempus’ orders when he is sent to deliver a message to the Rankan mageguild and discovers, to his dismay, the truth about who the chiefs adepts of his guild just happen to be. There is also a very strange and highly unlikely, often pesky little hornet, and the “reveal” of what that creature is will catch you off-guard . . . and there’s this cool, orange-haired, gray-skinned demon named Snapper Jo who Roxane summons to serve her.

Beyond Wizardwall is a wonderful novel that expertly caps the Beyond Sanctuary Trilogy in a surprising and satisfying conclusion. It’s a novel of complex characters caught up in complicated situations. Once again, Janet Morris gives us a literary classic of Heroic Fantasy. This is a textured novel, layered with themes of brotherhood and loyalty, love and betrayal, of the magic and majesty of horses, of boys growing into manhood, and the tragedy of those who die all too young. This is a novel filled with fine writing, exciting and talented writing. For example, here is Morris describing simply and most eloquently, the archipelago of dreams known as Meridian: 

“Here was no life as men knew it, no days piling one upon the last inexorably; but a different life, a different nature, malleable and ruled by the flux of nature. Sometimes Meridian was beautiful, sometimes horrid, for it held every dream and every dreamer from all mankind’s befuddled flock. These had no tomorrows, no yesterdays, but only dramas, lusts and fears and doubts—and joys, melodies to set its golden streets vibrating with the turning of the spheres. Meridian was one of the four metaphysical compass points of creation; as such, its existence was never wholly in one realm or another, but roving on a cosmic wind that changed with every dream and dreamer.”

There is plenty of action, humor, sex, pathos, magic and mystery, as well, and the narrative moves as swiftly as a blood-bay stallion at full gallop. This is Heroic Fantasy at its best, the kind I favor, and this Author’s Cut, which has been revised and expanded for this handsome, brand-new Perseid Press edition is a classic of the genre. But above all, Beyond Wizardwall has heart and compassion. Janet Morris writes about people; her characters live and breathe with the kind of vibrancy and solidity I find inspiring and influential to my own work. For in the end, without human conflict, without emotional drama, without character growth, without heart, all you have is a narrative. And the soul of this novel is this: we feel the humanity and compassion in Niko; we feel the pain in Tempus’ own heart, know how deeply he loves, how he fears that love. We feel his aching and longing, and what torments his soul. And even in the character of Death’s Queen, the soul-eating witch Roxane, we learn that she can love and that she, too, understands compassion. Once again, bravo Janet Morris!

Life to you, and everlasting glory.