I thought this was a better-constructed story than in Dragon Wing, but I also think it could only have been done in the second book of the series. In the first book, we wanted to know about Haplo. I think we get a better idea in this book, however, because nothing goes according to his plans. From the moment he sets foot on Pryan, the world of fire (or heat or energy, to be more precise), he is constantly playing catch-up to the events.
The other idea that works well here is Zifnab. Although there was humor in the first book, none of the characters, including Alfred, was the fool, like Simkin from the Darksword Chronicles, and Fizban (hmm… note the inverse spelling) from the Dragonlance Chronicles. I have always loved inside references, which is one of the reasons I like the Star Wars expanded universe so much. Zifnab is ripe with internal and external references. I thought he was a Sartan, but it appears that he is a life form beyond Sartan. Later in the series, he will declare that he is God. I wonder, given the name association with Fizban, if that’s not far from the truth. He is able to poke through Haplo’s magic without the typical Sartan rune magic -at least none that is visible, he knows of Haplo’s coming well before he even enters the Death Gate to this world, and he knows about OUR world, as well as other fantasy worlds.
Zifnab talks several times about Fizban and Gandalf (the grey, because he smokes!). The dragon at one point says he should have gone to Pern! Zifnab talks about speaking with George Lucas, the space shuttle heat shield tiles and Challenger explosion, tries to christen Haplo’s ship Enterprise (“all rights reserved”), the Millennium Falcon and others. It’s quite hilarious reading his lines. He is a lot like Fizban, in that he is always falling asleep or disappearing at the most inopportune moments (letting the lower life-forms exercise their own powers without becoming reliant on him), forgetting his magic (he seems to have a similar fireball spell he can’t remember, like Fizban), singing songs like “over the rainbow” and being quite absent-minded. He is one of the most loveable characters! As I’ve said in my review of Dragon Wing, I don’t remember Haplo’s dog, but here Zifnab says he knows the secret of the dog! I can’t wait to hear this one revealed. I find it interesting that the dog tries to protect the lesser races and Zifnab against Haplo, even though it is most loyal to the Patryn.
Other characters include the elf siblings Paithan and Aleatha, both prodigal children to their older sister Cassandra, who runs the weapons business and the family. Then there are Roland and Rega, human siblings who are buying the weapons. They are all full-fledged characters, fully developed and fun to read about. Then there is the dwarf Drugar, out for revenge on all of them.
The threat in this book is not eternal war, as in Dragon Wing. Instead, mighty giants, blessed with Sartan rune-magic in its most elemental form, are roaming the land, killing all they find, looking for their lost “citadels”. Distant human lands have already fallen to them before the story starts. The dwarves want to buy the elven weapons from Roland and Rega for protection, but Paithan arrives late, and Roland and Rega don’t really know the way to the dwarf kingdoms, so it takes even longer to arrive. By the time they do, all is destroyed. Paithan and the humans are captured by the giant Tytans, but Drugar helps them escape, because he wants them to see the destruction of their own people before he kills them himself.
Retreating through the human lands, they do see it in chaos, and eventually the tytans overwhelm them. Instead of coming to their aid, elven archers fire upon the terrified humans. Haplo arrives in his ship in time to rescue Paithan, Roland and Rega, and encounters the Tytans firsthand -and they overwhelm him, even with his powerful magic.
Haplo was caught by surprise in a number of ways by Pryan. Through the Death Gate, he encountered four suns surrounding him. When he decided to move beyond them, he spent days or weeks in empty space -but it wasn’t space, it was the air in the center of the world, for Pryan is a solid shell on the outside, with a hollowed-out inside, with the vegetation growing on the inside of the shell. There is so much energy that it is difficult in most spots to find the ground (except for the dwarves, who live underground). The elves live in the treetops, and on mossy plains or by lakes in the mossy plains. The humans prefer open plains without much tree cover. Haplo starts to second-guess himself and his master and his magic. He sees stars in the sky, and we get a little more information about the new worlds. From what the Lord of the Nexus has read in the Sartan books, none of the worlds have stars or moons. I wonder, then, if the new worlds exist in our reality any more, or if they still exist in our solar system.
When Haplo arrives at Cassandra’s house, he is met by Zifnab, who accosts him with the news that he will be taking refugees to the stars. He doesn’t believe it, but accepts Zifnab’s suggestion that he go out and rescue Paithan. When the Tytans attack the elven settlement, Haplo sets a trap to gain knowledge of whatever is in its mind, hopefully to find out where the Sartan have gone, for he recognizes the Sartan rune magic in them. He nearly dies in the assault, but is saved by Zifnab’s dragon (I guess the human “intelligence” about the Tytans was wrong, because it stated that even Dragons raced away in fear of the Tytans -instead, the Tytan ran away in fear).
Then begins another long trip through the sky, as everybody nearby takes shelter in Haplo’s ship to escape the stars. I question Zifnab’s planning here, as the variety he picks to save from the Tytans is so small that the three races will die out in a generation. One dwarf, a handful of humans (including at least one brother and sister), and a handful of elves, also including at least one brother and sister. To add to that, Roland and Aleatha are sexually attracted to each other, and Rega and Paithan are already romantically involved. I wonder how factual is the “fact” that the two races cannot interbreed. Thus the genetic variety is left to a single elven servant family of elves and few human slaves.
On the way, a war almost starts on Haplo’s ship, and he is reduced to the role of mediator or baby sitter, something to which he is not accustomed. I can tell he wouldn’t have made a very patient parent. We get lots of flashbacks to his time in the Labyrinth, including a romantic interest, and the division of runners (individuals who try to get through the gates) and squatters (groups of people who band together for protection and move much more slowly). The girl wants to raise a family, which would mean at least temporarily (for several years) joining a group of squatters. Haplo, in stereotypical male fashion, freezes at the thought. He never sees her again.
When Haplo’s ship arrives at the “star”, he makes the discovery that it is actually still on Pryan, just on the other side of the globe. Arriving at the shining city, he takes the opportunity of the strife between the races to sneak out and enter it, learning about Pryan the way he learned about Arianus. Pryan seemed to work a little better than that world, except for the undying light and the extreme heat. The Sartan had planned to use the excessive energy on the other worlds, for example to power the Kicksey Winsey, but they apparently died out before that could happen.
They built shining cities that could magically darken so the people living within could experience night. But instead of completing their grand design, they were reduced to the role of babysitters of the races, trying to end squabbles and wars, just as Haplo did on his ship. And, of course, they started to fade. I wonder if it is God’s price, to make them pay for destroying the world He created and making four more out of its parts. I don’t recall much about The Seventh Gate at all, except I believe there is an answer.
The humans, elves and dwarf leave Haplo’s ship and move toward the city. They meet Haplo leaving as they arrive, but can’t get in because the city was magically locked. In a hilarious but telegraphed piece of acting, the dragon eats Zifnab and roars at the group until Drugar figures out that he has the key to the city in his rune charm. Like Haplo, I wonder where the dwarves learned about the runes. He is astonished that they could grasp such things. Was it Zifnab, or did the Sartan of old teach the lesser races, like they endowed the Tytans? I don’t recall if that question is answered. In the end, Zifnab and the dragon talk about their performances, with Zifnab quoting Gandalf from Moria (“run, you fools!”) and the dragon wondering how much longer he could have stayed there salivating and growling before the dwarf figured out how to open the gates.
Haplo’s world is starting to shatter. He thinks he knows all about himself and the worlds he will visit, and especially about the Patryns and Sartan. But he is learning that there are things he doesn’t understand, and that his Lord could be mistaken about some things. It will take two more books before he really shatters, but I see the cracks beginning, even though he has regained his sense of superiority and almightiness by the end, as he leaves to go back to the Nexus.
Speaking of the Nexus, we get one chapter in that place before Haplo goes through Death’s Gate. In it, he nearly flies into the Labyrinth. If his ship could get in, I wonder if it could get out again, and if he could rescue anybody from within. Presumably anybody who enters could not get out again without a lot of trouble.
Finally, the only person I can think of who could be on the cover of this book would be Haplo, but where are the runes on his hands?
Otherwise, I can’t have enough praise for this book. It doesn’t have the gritty style that characterizes books written these days, and that just adds to its charm. I am already loving this series, again.