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James Barclay

Victor Gollancz / Orion

UK Hardcover First

ISBN 0-575-07328-4

Publication Date: 08-15-2002

454 Pages; £17.99

Date Reviewed: 12-02-02  

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Fantasy, Horror

04-29-02, 05-02-02, 01-27-03, 03-26-03, 08-30-03, 08-31-03

Marketing fantasy must be a very dicey game. I'll admit that I had to get past the well-done, faithful-to-the-novel cover art, and the corporate-sounding though utterly appropriate title of James Barclay's latest novel. I've enjoyed his other novels in this series, but having read many of them this year, I was thinking that the series and the reader might be suffering from exhaustion. But having finished the book, I realize that they're both dead perfect, and that this novel is easily Barclay's best. From the first paragraph of the first page, Barclay displays all the strengths that he showed in the previous titles at a much higher rate of magnification. He plunges the reader into bustling battle, and doesn't let go for 454 pages. The writing is top-notch excitement. As usual in Barclay's work, the characters are to die for.

For those who missed 'Dawnthief', 'Noonshade' and 'Nightchild', 'Elfsorrow' is not a bad place to start. Sure, there's a lot that's gone on in the past three novels that feeds into the characters' situation as the novel opens, but crisis that drives the novel informs the readers, even as it clamps them in an iron fist. As ever, the reader is best served by reading the novels in order, and it's time well spent. But in a pinch, this novel makes an excellent starter, and pinches are its specialty.

As the novel opens, the world of Balaia is in chaos. The four colleges of magic are at war as the most powerful, Xetesk, tries to assert its dominance. The battles that open the novel are spectacularly well-described, and magic done the Barclay way is every bit as logical, organized and exciting as the hard-SF variant. There are in fact a number of parallels, and Barclay creates visions of conflict using magic that are very science-fictional in nature. The mercenaries of The Raven are once again called to serve the greater good at no material profit as they journey to a new continent Calaius, the ancient home of the elven race to gather elven mages to help bring an end to the conflict that rages across the landscape.

The story quickly moves to Calaius, where a Xeteskan raiding party is seeking a technological magic upgrade from the ancient writings of the elven race. Calaius is mostly jungle, and the fight that ensues between the elven guardians and the raiders is a masterpiece of characterization, razor-edge action and terror. Readers who remember the thrills delivered by the movie 'Predator' will jump out of their seats as Barclay deploys the nastiest elves this side of the Special Forces. His ability to orchestrate and describe a scene of action is equaled by his ability to create compelling likable characters on both sides of the battle. Yron, the Captain of the invading forces is a fantastically well-drawn character who displays Barclay's incredible talent for manipulating the reader's sympathies in a very enjoyable fashion. The TaiGethen elves are remarkably enjoyable as well, though the sympathy vane spins in precisely the opposite direction that it does when pointed at Yron.

In 'Elfsorrow', Barclay does a number of things amazingly well, but he also does give the short shrift to some of the returning characters. Some readers may feel that Ry Darrick and Thraun should have been given more stage time, but it's pretty hard to worry about that in the face of a book so thoroughly entertaining. That Victor Gollancz have decided to release it in hardcover is appropriate. Were it a movie, it would require the full THX theater treatment. It will certainly play bigger and better than any action movie of recent memory, and those who found fantasy fascinating in the form of the movie adaptation of 'Lord of the Rings' would be well advised to give Barclay a read. 'Elfsorrow' rips, snorts and gallops off into your brain.

What helps to keep Barclay head and shoulders out of the cheese factory is his willingness to take the whole deadly scenario with the utter aplomb of Sam Peckinpah filming a western. There are no neat holes drilled in anybody's chests here. There are screams of anguish and agony, starving easily-manipulated refugees and serious consequences to the relentless pursuit of violence. Barclay plays hard in this novel, and readers will have a real hard time facing the consequences of what characters they like have done. Conversely, that's what lifts this novel up and really gives the well-described action a punch. To have real fun, you have to face real danger. Barclay fills both sides of the bargain perfectly.