As the first book in this seven book series, which I remember very fondly, this was a great book. As a story in itself, it was very good and extremely solid.
There are only a handful of characters in this novel, which makes it relatively easy to follow, especially since we only follow two storylines, which merge into one about halfway through the book. The characters, because there are few of them, are as real as they could possibly be. I started thinking about the characters I liked the most, and I came up with Haplo, Alfred, Hugh, the elf captain (after the mutiny), Limbeck, Jarre, in no particular order – in other words, all the main characters except Bane, whom I found whined too much. But I think we were supposed to think about him in that way.
From the Prologue, we know there is something big going on, but we don’t get to see it in this story. We get tangential references to the Nexus and the Labyrinth, and the other three worlds, but very little else. We know that Haplo was sent to foment chaos, but we know so little about the Sartan and Patryns, except that the Patryns lost the war, and the Sartan somehow all died out (at least in the Realm of Air). Then there is Haplo’s dog, who saved the man’s life in the Labyrinth, and seems to be made of magic, in some ways. I have no recollection of the dog, so I don’t remember his importance in the overall storyline.
The storyline in the realm of air goes more than one hundred pages before Haplo actually arrives. In that span, we meet Hugh the Hand, rescued from the guillotine (in the opening pages, and one of my favorite scenes in the book) by the King’s Wizard so he can be used to kill the King’s son. Why Bane has to be killed is a mystery we don’t learn the truth of for a long time. Hugh is extremely well developed -a very sensible man, kind of like the recent Boba Fett of Bloodlines. It takes a while to get to the secret place where Hugh has hidden his dragonship, an elven ship that he uses to get around between the continents and islands, so we get to learn a lot about him. While humans normally use enchanted dragons, because their magical gift is of the natural kind, elves are mechanically inclined, so that they can create huge ships that stay afloat -for this realm does not have any oceans or lakes, but only air. The continents stay afloat using coral that exhales downwards. Water is mostly taken from the elves, whose ships can descend into the maelstrom at the bottom of the world.
There, on Drevlin, dwell the dwarves, or the Gegs, as they call themselves. The gegs serve the Kicksey-Winsey, a great mechanical contraption devised by the Sartan, and whose purpose nobody knows, including Haplo, when he arrives. Limbeck is a Geg who found himself outside in the storms once, and who found a destroyed elven ship with dead elves on board. Already curious and asking the forbidden question “why?”, he started a revolution, claiming that elves were not gods descending from the skies demanding water as a devotion, and wanting to pool all knowledge of the kicksey-winsey so they could determine its purpose. After being sent to his death at the bottom of the maelstrom, he is rescued by his fellow revolutionaries, and he brings along Haplo and the dog, whom he rescued after the ship was heavily damaged traveling through the Death Gate.
Alfred is introduced as a clumsy servant of the child Bane. I couldn’t wait to see him finally revealed as a Sartan, at least to the readers. As the book progressed, my favorite parts were being let in on the secret. He tracks Bane and Hugh down though nobody else could. His best disguise is his clumsiness, tripping over everything -even nonexistent bumps in the road. He also faints when confronted with trouble. When Bane dies, Alfred heals him. When Bane poisons Hugh, Alfred also heals the assassin. He abhors the taking of life, and refuses to do so at any time in this book. Even the dragon that is furiously trying to kill him at the end of the book gets trapped in a cozy warm memory rather than being killed, as Haplo would have done.
Bane’s secret is that he is not the son of Stephen and Anne of the mid realm, but of Sinistriad from the High Realm, a powerful and -yes- sinister wizard who has a plan to save his people. For although there were rumored riches in the high realm, their magic as a whole was fading, and their pride would not let them return to the Mid Realm in disgrace. Actually, most of them don’t have enough magic to return, anyway. Sinistriad planned to put Bane on the human throne, then rule as the King’s father. When Stephen’s wizard broke Bane’s enchantment, they sent for Hugh, to be rid of the threat. If a wizard can only teleport to a place he has already visited, and Sinistriad is so young, then how did he teleport himself to Stephen’s castle in the Mid Realm? Surely he can’t be one of the original High Realm settlers.
Hugh’s ship is attacked by the elves and is damaged so that they crash on Drevlin, and meet up with Limbeck and Haplo. When a watership of the elves drops down to connect the spout to their continent, they take it over. I liked the division among the elves. None of the crew were rebels, but their new captain was extremely unlikable, from the moment we met them. For all his talk of honor, he did nothing to instill honor upon himself. Thus when the lieutenant supported Hugh and the others, it was a really nice moment.
Up to the high realm they traveled, because Sinistriad needed a ship to transport his people down to the mid realm. Bane’s mother, a woman trapped physically and emotionally in her husband’s castle, actually helps them to escape, when chaos erupts. Bane figures out the purpose of the Kicksey-Winsey (to align the continents and provide water for all), and finally understands his father’s plan -that he was being used as a pawn to take control of the Mid Realm. For that, he starts hating his father, and tries to turn his mother against the man. When that doesn’t work, he reveals his final secret, that Alfred is a Sartan. That gets Haplo’s attention, and while Bane tries to blackmail Alfred into killing his father, Alfred tries to leave, Sartan style -using teleportation. I really liked the way Bane’s plans always backfired. He never even thought that Alfred would leave. He really thought Alfred would respond to the blackmail.
Haplo catches Alfred, and while they are arguing about the best way to deal with each other, Bane tries to kill his father by himself. Between Bane, the dog, Hugh and Bane’s mother, Sinistriad ends up dead, with Hugh dealing the fatal blow -fatal to both of them. Sinistriad’s lethal dragon, once enchanted, is now free, and everybody has even bigger problems on their hands.
For the entire story, I was trying to recall why Haplo let Alfred live, when he obviously wouldn’t hesitate to kill any Sartan he came across. When Alfred started to teleport, I thought this must be it -he didn’t get a chance. But the authors didn’t waste that chance to bring to two together, as the dog, impervious to magic, it appears, dragged Alfred back. Haplo, ordered strictly not to use his magic and reveal himself as a Patryn, leaves Alfred to deal with the dragon. I find it interesting that Alfred tells Haplo that it would take their combined strength to battle the dragon, when he is able to lull it to tranquility with only a little effort.
It makes me wonder if Alfred has to practice his magic in order to keep it strong. He must not have had much chance in the kingdom palace, being chamberlain to Bane. He also appears to be stronger than Haplo. What did he do as a regular Sartan before the world was sundered. Was he part of the sundering? His reaction (if I recall correctly) in Serpent Mage tells me no. But he must have helped in making the world of air livable. Or, being strong as he is, was he a battle-mage? I have no recollection, if anything is ever said about his past at all.
At the end of the book, Haplo has increased the chaos in this realm, by showing Limbeck that the dwarves must go to war. There is no need to do anything among the elves or humans, because they are already at war, the elves among themselves as well.
I love this series of books, but I found the back history a little heavy-handed. There were chunks of story where we were told the history of a realm or of a people. Much better presented was the mausoleum of the Sartan, which showed us the history -or that at least something happened to them. I don’t know how they could have given us the history of the High Realm, for example, like that, but it would have flowed better than the pages we got. The authors did so well with even the most minor characters; it’s too bad they couldn’t do the same with the places.
My favorite thing about this book, really, is the narration, aside from the history, as it is so funny! According to the narrator, everything is somewhat alive, as everything has an opinion. In addition, there were so many side comments, like the idea that Limbeck nearly discovered the theory of relativity, or the laws of aerodynamics, except for the fact that he was falling almost to his death. It was so humorous.
Still, that is a very minor detraction from the book as a whole, which was great, and gave us just a little taste of what is to come in this terrific series. There is little to say, really, except describe plot, as everything flowed along easily, and nothing stood out as feeling “wrong”. Everything felt quite right, though except for the revelations about Alfred, which were slowly given to us, nothing stood out as being incredible, either. This was simply a solid, and wonderfully written book. I will move straight on to the second book, dealing with the Realm of Fire.