Sunday, June 8, 2014

Reign of Ash Review Part 2: What Makes A Good Fantasy Novel?

Memorable characters, outrageously difficult tasks to accomplish within a ridiculously short time-frame, handsome male protagonists, ass-whuppin' female protagonists, bad bad vampire-man, and the name Lanyon Penhallow! All this and a slew of fantastically wrought minor characters and an uncommon setting--in the most pure definition of fantasy fiction--make for an amazing fantasy novel.

From her debut novel, The Summoner, Gail Z. Martin has been taking her fans on a whirl-wind swash-buckling thrill ride. Filled with dashing heroes, dastardly villains, romance and intrigue, Martin's novels give us everything we need in the quintessential fantasy novel. I am fond of comparing Gail Z. Martin to Raymond E. Feist in terms of scale. Huge maps, days of travel at break-neck speeds towards an unpredictable outcome define much of Martin's fantasy framework. Her latest novel, Reign of Ash, released in March of 2014, is one more notch in Gail Martin's blockbuster line-up.

What's New?  

For the first time in a Martin novel, the vampire is not a tertiary character, or a subjugated class of minorities. Enter Lanyon Penhallow, first introduced in Ice Forged, the Ascendent Kingdoms Series first novel. A lord of some wealth and considerable power, and a talishte. Unlike Kolin or Gabriel in the previous series, Chronicles of the Necromancer, and The Fallen Kings Cycle, Lanyon Penhallow and his brood are a rare breed, a set of powerful talishte that are involved from the beginning. The talishte are waging their own war, and this war and it's outcome comprises the backdrop for the Ascendent Kingdoms' novels. Enter Pentreath Reese. Vampire warlord bent on world domination, or someone content to sit back and watch the world burn?

Both lords represent a powerhouse of resources and wealth. Creatures who have nothing but time now find themselves finding time in short supply as the prosperity of the entire kingdom rests on the success or failure of the restoration of magic. Penhallow and Reese's characters are vital, irrevocable to the rest of the plot in ways vampires have not been in earlier novels

What Stayed the Same?

The vampire puppet-master has returned. Pentreath Reese makes Foor Arontola of Chronicles of the Necromancer look like the picture of sanity. Where Foor Arontola's ambition seemed to know no bounds, Pentreath Reese is determined to see magic restored to the natural order, thus rendering humanity as helpless as it ever was in the face of vampire subjugation. By his side is his trusty puppet-lord, Vedrand Pollard. 

Martin has a knack for hierarchies. Both Vedrand Pollard and Jared Drake (The Summoner, The Blood King) seem like monsters on the outside--and on the inside, truth be told. Compared to their vampire lieges, they are but mewling simpletons, weapons to be wielded in a greater play for power far surpassing their human toys' petty ambitions. 

Vedrand Pollard was rumored to be second only to Blaine McFadden's father, who was bad enough to warrant patricide. Imagine, then, a creature as ruthless as Pollard, capable of orchestrating assassination all the way as far as Edgeland, being humbled by something more powerful and fearsome than any torture device, more frightening than death itself. Here is a creature who has lost the meaning of fear, who will live until the end of time, or until he gets tired of it. Standing before him, and constantly dogging is steps, is the most feared of all monsters in human recollection: the vampire. Beautiful, powerful, hungry. Reese is not the kind master Penhallow is to Bevin Connor. Reese acts rashly, behaves illogically and sends his men on wild goose chases, and he is quick to punish them when they fail. Such is the life of one who serves a warlord. Compound this with the fact that this thing could tear your head from our shoulders with barely a thought, and can read your mind in the taking of blood and you have some very stressful working conditions. 

Gail Martin does an amazing job reminding her readers that vampires are creatures we have grown to love, but also remain creatures to be respected and feared. For a more in-depth look at Martin's use of vampires and subjugation, my gendered-reading here goes into more detail. 

Feasting! Let's not forget the feasting! There isn't much to eat in Donderath, but small social gatherings still have big meaning in fantasy fiction, grounding the reader in a sense of safety and security. Let the visithara rage; tonight we host tea and supper and a contra dance in the style of a dying way of life. Tonight we cling to what was, for tomorrow, we ride to reclaim the future. 

To Restore the Magic: The Allegory of Nuclear Fallout

I had made the comparison between the War of Mages (as I'm calling it) and the ever-impending threat of nuclear war in our reality in my review of Ice Forged, which is lost to us because my other blog went the way of the Do-Do. In a Reddit AMA, Gail Martin was able to address the fact that she did not intentionally write the War of Mages to represent nuclear war or the threat of nuclear war, but rather what might happen if our electric grid were to go down. Either way, something catastrophic would likely be the cause of the grid's destruction. 

The people of Donderath relied on magic much the same way we rely on electricity. They relied on it to keep their crops from withering, to make themselves comfortable and to keep themselves secure. Such a battle as the War of Mages that broke the bonds of magic and reduced magic to it's natural state, the visithara (the wild magic) could be easily likened to the aftermath of nuclear war, such as what was depicted in Book of Eli. Nature itself would be altered in the wake of nuclear fallout. I know Martin did not intentionally write this as an allegory, but I feel that anyone in my generation or the one before it (who would have personally--or who's parents would have--remembered the Cold War) can hardly ignore the fact that military tensions outside of our control constantly threaten our way of life. I feel that Martin, in many ways, does the reality of that fear justice in the loss of magic, and in it's shaky restoration, the ritual for which remains documented if you know where to look. Where our reality might have a spot of trouble is that our electricity relies on physical infrastructure that would likely have to be rebuilt, and even then there's no guarantee it would be the same as it was. 

Reese's War: The Story Arch

Slowly, as the novel progresses and we see more Pollard/Reese action--both in private audience and on the battlefield--Reese's motives become more clear, but his character's motivation becomes less so. Pollard's character is easy: he wants to rule Donderath. Unattainable dreams are the best kind, a certain Final Fantasy VII character once said. Reese seems to be happy just to watch all of Donderath writhing in its death throes. Reese is determined for Blaine McFadden to fail in his quest to restore the hasithara (domestic magic). His reasoning is unclear. He feels that the magic is in its purest form as the visithara, despite the fact that it's also very dangerous and unstable in that state. I recall a certain Tool album in which the right honorable Reverend Maynard James Keenan preaches the destruction of the "one great big festering neon distraction" that is California as it slides off into the Pacific, urging its misguided, corrupted populace to "learn to swim." Reese is not a preaching metal star: he is deluded, drunk on his own vision for a new world order. He will join Lanyon Penhallow, Blaine McFadden and Vedrand Pollard in their new titles of Warlords, dividing the power and resources of Donderath among themselves until one of them is powerful enough to ascend. 

Penhallow--tall, handsome, powerful, dashing, and dangerous-- is aware of Reese' vision for the kingdom well before anyone else is. He and Vigus Quintrell attempt to warn King Merril, to no avail. Thus Reese and Penhallow lock themselves into a secret war, a war that culminates in the ultimate fight to restore magic to the broken kingdom of Donderath. On the side of the Allied Forces: Lanyon Penhallow, Kierken Vandholt (the Wraith Lord), Blaine McFadden and his band of ex-cons, Traher Voss the Mercenary Rogue, and Niklas Thielsen, former commander on the front lines for king and country. On the Axis side: Pentreath Reese and his human puppet Vedrand Pollard. Grossly outnumbered, Reese and Pollard persevere in their attempts to gain the throne and restore the old world order to Donderath. Pollard is a despot, an illegitimate Lord of the Blood. McFadden is the disowned lord of Glenreith, disenfranchised and exiled after he murders his father for raping his sister. Where this war will end, no one knows for sure--except Gail Martin. Fantasy authors rarely disappoint when the need arises to leave us dangling in anticipation like squealing mice (small little mice with no hair and one leg).  

Conclusion: The Best Parts

Martin reminds her readers that her characters are human. Humans are capable of the most heinous crimes, especially nobility, who by virtue of their status and wealth, are conditioned to believe they are above reproach, and they are often above the law. Blaine McFadden's father beats and rapes his own children, forcing his oldest son to take matters into his own hands, after which his family is further punished by his disgrace. Martin reminds her readers that no one is perfect: if Blaine had left well enough alone, his family would have survived, but Blaine had a good heart, and could no longer watch his father brutalize his family. He chose, and even though his choice was unpopular, he did what he felt he had to do, and he lived with those consequences. His family did survive, even without him, but in hardship and struggle, a fact he was forced to contend with when he returned from Edgeland. 

Martin reminds her readers that humans are often vulnerable, unwilling heroes content with their lot in life until circumstance calls them to become more than they are. Bevin Connor was not much of a man, but he was happy in his service to Lord Garnoc. He suffers Penhallow's partnership through the kruvgaldur, and then falls prey to Vigus Quintrell's meddling. None of it is his fault or concern, until the Great Fire, when suddenly Bevin Connor, unwilling, stubborn and nervous, must rise to become the only link the Allied forces have to finding Vigus Quintrell and restoring the magic. He becomes a tool of circumstance without recourse. He has no natural defenses, has no skills as a swordsman, and no blood claim to power. He is dragged through dungeons, sewers, crypts and underground caverns against his will. His arguments count for nothing. Bevin Connor is the quintessential human being, an uncommon fantasy character. We are left with little more than pity for Bevin Connor, and we remember that we are only readers, who, like Connor, are more than happy to leave the swashbuckling to the heroes. 

Reign of Ash is a read worth partaking of this summer. Gail Martin is an author of class, a worthy contributor to the genre, and though she may disagree, I believe delving into her works reveals an author who is more than meets the eye. Beneath her stock fantasy characters are comforting traditional tropes. Meshed into her formulaic plot are pantheons of gods who's traditions are steeped in the symbols of our own ancestral mythology, in the symbols of the Dark Mother of Nineteenth-Century deconstructionists (visible in the Crone deity, Esthrane and Rakka) if only we dare to look for those symbols. Martin puts serious effort into the traditions of her characters, her people. Their rituals and shrines become part of the reading experience and strengthens the bond between the characters and the readers. If you have not yet partaken of Gail Martin's other novels, then make this your Summer of Magic. 


Gail Z. Martin is an author of sword-and-sorcery novels. Check out Chronicles of the Necromancer and The Fallen Kings Cycle. Don't forget her series of short-stories for e-readers, featuring resident bad-ass Jonmarc Vahanien. Her Deadly Curiosities short-stories are also available. Look for the novel, Deadly Curiosities June 25, 2014. Summer of Magic indeed. Look for Martin in the kickstarter anthologies Steampunk Versus Aliens, Athena's Daughters, Dance Like a Monkey, and hopefully, Heroes. Visit her blog page on the blog, Disquieting Visions, The Winter Kingdoms on Facebook, and 

All-Star Cast

I love the idea that one day Gail Martin's books will inspire film-goers as well as readers. So, as promised, an all-star cast of characters gets a real all-star cast!

The Cast:

Blaine McFadden: Robert Beitzel (he did good in TURN
Kestel: Emma Watson
Dawe Killick: Sam Riley
Verran Denning: Simon Peg
Pirran: Tom Hardy 
Lanyon Penhallow: 
Niklas Thielsen: Jeremy Renner
Bevin Connor: Alexis Cruz (from the 90s)
Pentreath Reese: Tom Hiddleston (release The Hiddles!)
Kierken Vandholt: John Hurt
Vedrand Pollard: Brad Dourif 
Aunt Gertrude: Rene Russo
Carr McFadden: Brenton Thwaites
...The Sister: Anne Hathaway
Zaryae: Tarja Tarunen
Vallerian: Doug Jones 
Borya: Shawn Ashmore
Desya: Aaron Ashmore
Traher Voss: Jonathan Rhys-Davis 
Vigus Quintrel: David Tennant 
Treven Lowry: Morgan Freeman (characters don't have to be white).

Penhallow's Brood

Geir: Chris Cerulli (better brush up on your vampires, Motionless!)
Tertiary vampires: Ryan Sitowski, Devin Sola.

Reese's Brood:

Ricky Olson
Josh Balz

If you haven't recognized the entire core of Motionless in White, that's okay, you will. They're gonna break onto the scene like a wave of awesome on the beach of whoa

Who should play Lanyon Penhallow? Hit me up on Twitter (@SquealingNerd), on the new Facebook page, show me who you would pick on Instagram (squealingnerd), or drop it down in the comments below. 

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