(Disclaimer: To get an idea of how old this post is, my tattoo has no colors in it yet. This was written in February 2011)
'Tris led the way out of the crowded tent to where the entire camp stood staring at the sky gone crimson, as if a glistening curtain of blood shimmered across the dome of the night, blotting out the stars and darkening the moon.
'Around him, Tris could hear commanders barking orders. Senne, Rallan, Soterius, and Trefor ran for their troops. Soldiers rushed to mobilize, and Tris caught a glimpse of vayash moru taking to the sky.
'Only the ghosts remained with Tris. Estan raised his face to stare at the glittering, blood-red light. Then he turned to meet Tris's eye. '"It begins."'
The end of The Sworn comes as a cruel and unusual shock to one of Gail Z. Martin's most loyal readers--myself. Her previous books, The Chronicles of the Necromancer, beginning with The Summoner and ending with The Dark Lady's Chosen, concluded with occassions marking the end of trial and hardships unknown to some of the youngest and freshest heirs to the thrones of the Winter Kingdoms.
The close of Martin's latest novel does not end this way. The novel builds up to the unresolved climax with omens and prophesies, from the darkness predicted by the mages of Vistimar to the predictions of the Lady made at the disastorous coronation of Queen Berwyn of Principality. Martin's lack of safe haven, of feasting, portends even greater danger for her next novel, The Dread, already in publication, and also derails from a somewhat predictable trend in her novels.
Feasting has always been an important aspect of Martin's novels (and has set my stomach to rumbling more than once). A feast is often held in honor of one of her characters--such as Jonmarc Vahanian's welcome feast as he takes over Dark Haven and the feast held for the adventurers at the end of The Summoner. The humor at the end of The Summoner is so light that hope is obviously not out of the question. Feasting is how the reader knows the characters are in a safe place. When the trenchers of beef stew are brought out, we can all sleep a little easier. The aweful portents of doom at the end of The Sworn cast it in stark contrast to the rest of the series.
The Sworn is unique, as Martin pointed out in a release-day blog (www.ascendantkingdoms.com), in that it is useful as an introductory novel to the setting and characters as well as a continuation of the events in The Chronicles of the Necromancer. This novel introduces The Sworn, a nomadic tribe loyal only to those they guard, The Dread, a frightening group of ancient chaotic beings who, in turn, guard an even greater form of chaos, the Nachale. Despite the novel's title, The Sworn are only part of the bigger picture Martin paints for the Winter Kingdoms. The Sworn are vital to the reader's understanding of the unfolding events: the threat of a War of Unmaking by the Durim, whose ultimate goal is to ressurect the cult of Shanthadura. In doing so, the Nachale will be released and used as a weapon of the northern kingdoms who have, until this time, remained a mystery.
The Sworn contains all of the usual for Martin: adventure, dark magic, ghosts, a cast of powerful, debonare characters whose obvious talents are tempered by wisdom and caution and, of course, feasts. While Martin is truly a gifted writer, her plots are often predictable, especially concerning the feasting, her obviously powerful central characters and the catch-alls designed to keep readers from throwing themselves in traffic at the thought of more harm coming to such nice people. The Sworn are just such a catch-all. One of the Sworn is Tris Drayke's cousin, Jair, prince of Dhasson. His wife, Talwyn, is the next in line for chieftan and heiress to the shamanistic powers of her people. Instrumental in discovering the truth about the Durim, their goal is to warn Tris. "Communication" with all allied Kingdoms keeps the novel from spiraling out of control but has the feeling of a catch-all. Fortunately the Winter Kingdoms are run by personal friends of the Summoner King of Margolan, Tris (Tris' wife, Kiara, is heir to the throne of Isencroft. Berry, or Berwyn, is princess of Principality until the sudden death of her father. Jonmarc Vahanian is her personal champion. King Kalcen of Eastmark is Kiara's uncle on her mother's side. Now keep all of that straigth for five novels.). However, as each faction learns of the Durim's goals, the bigger picture is slowly brought into focus, allowing Martin two advantages: complete control of events and an unprecedented ammount of suspense.
Tris and Kiara play a much smaller roll in this novel, which is disappointing at best, given Orbit Book's synopsis that leads the reader to believe Tris will be the center of the novel's events, as he has been for the entire series. To cast a heretofore unkown character as the central figure of an introductory novel is a bit pretensious (but Orbit seems to have been more confident about the readership than Martin, also providing no Map of the World. Common to most fantasy novels, a Map of the World would most certainly have been nice for anyone new to the story). The figure of Aidanne, new to the cast, is brought much closer to the fore. She is a "Serroquete", a ghost whore who carries a message vital to Principality's survival. However, her perspective as a central character shifts at the end of the novel to the role of a spirit pawn. Jonmarc is also very important. His fight against the Durim seems to parallel The Sworn's. However, Jonmarc has been a pawn of the Dark Lady before, and he continues to be so. Characters who have always been in the foreground, such as Carina and Carroway (central characters for the previous novels) have been pushed all the way to the peripheral, cruel treatment for a character like Carroway, who sacrificed his livlihood to save Queen Kiara and her unborn child in The Dark Lady's Chosen. Also, the word 'vampire' emerges almost as a slip of the tongue at the end of the novel. Vayash moru is the term used for vampire in the series, and so far the two are not interchangeable.
Martin continues to show improvements as her writing evolves. The end of the novel is refreshing, though understandably disturbing. There is no hope at the end of The Sworn. Graphic description continues to be fundamental but is not overpowering. After all, Martin writes fantasy, not horror. Setting and character continues to dominate Martin's perspective, and she does not degenerate into the flaw that those without magic are inferior to those with magic. Martin possesses skill in making her readers emotionally invested in her characters. At the end of The Sworn, Martin's characters face a cataclysmic war. I defy a reader to declair themselves apathetic to that fact.
Sitting on the floor, stomach dropping with the turn of every page, this reader was hit with the realization that the world is on the brink of disaster with no end to the suffering in sight. For one of Gail Z. Martin's most avid readers, the need for more has become urgent. Martin's writing is sometimes flawed, but her greatest achievements speak for themselves in her imaginative setting and honest-to-goodness characters. The Dread is slated for release in the fall of 2011. For this writer, that is a long way off indeed.
For more information about Gail Z. Martin and her novels, visit her website at http://www.chroncilesofthenecromancer.com.