READER’S REPORT. 14.4.93
TITLE: Trilogy Consisting of:
The Staff of Sorrows
Assassin out of Twilight
The Yellow Tower
AUTHOR: Neal Asher.
Neal Asher’s excellent fantasy trilogy can be read as three separate books, each one complete in itself, or as one long epic. The standard of plot and of characterisation in all three books is of a very high and even quality. Hadrim is the focal point of all three books, well-defined and credible, yet stretching the imagination as good fantasy should. The trilogy begins with Hadrim returning to his home in the Twilight.
The Staff of Sorrows. 69,000 words.
Hadrim makes a dramatic and vividly described entrance as he returns to his home: ‘Into the Twilight he rode; long-limbed, grey-haired, wrapped in a ragged grey cloak with spatters of old blood on it.’ From this first glimpse the attention is caught; the reader wants to know more of this man.
When Hadrim arrives at the baroque towered buillding of his ancestral home, Edgehouse, for centuries the ancestral home of the Arrinias family (who have the gift of immortality) he discovers that his brother Cuthred has usurped him. There is a struggle for power between the two brothers, in which the Mirror protecting Edgehouse is smashed and Cuthred is injured. Hadrim picks up a piece of the broken glass, and looking into it sees an image of the place which dominates all three books. ‘There, shown to him, was a yellow tower in a bleak, oh so bleak land, ugly, under a corpse-coloured sky. A shudder ran through him, something cold and overdue for the grave touched him with unknown fingers. He let the shard fall …’
Now that the Mirror is broken, the Weregril can enter. Hadrim is taken over by one of them, Nacromis, and is used by it to journey to a place between worlds where the Jaugre is woken – the creature which killed Hadrim’s mother when he was a child. He is freed from the possession of the Weregril by a strange friar, who gives Hadrim a metal staff. ‘It is a staff of sorrows, born of them and apt to cause more, unless its bearer uses it wisely.’
Hadrim damages the Jaugre with the staff and escapes back to Edgehouse. Here he finds the Weregril are in possession. Hadrim and his cousin Oswulf enter the house and are captured. Hadrim manages to escape, kills Cuthred and meets Nacromis again – the Weregril which previously possessed him. Hadrim strangles it, subsuming its powers. He meets the Jaugre again but this time is strong enough to kill it, using his staff, on the beach where it killed his mother.
This first book ends here on the beach, with the staff seemingllly powerless now. ‘It had lost a third of its length and was not warped and twisted with the glass of the lachrymal fused into its surface. It felt dead to him … It would serve as a crutch. He studied his fallen enemy. It did not seem so large now, and cast little shadow. He spat blood and turned wearily back to Edgehouse.’
A very nice cliff hanger which leaves the reader intrigued as to what happens next.
Assassin out of Twilight. 65,000 words.
The second book tells of Hadrim’s journey to the Tower. It introduces some female characters which are a welcome addition – a lot of women read fantasy, and they like to read about women. For part of his journey, Miraldia goes with Hadrim until, while trying to save her life, he kills her. As he goes on he meets two mastiffs accompanying another woman. ‘She was not beautiful but she was striking. Her face was strong, with a jutting nose and dark eyes.’
This is Laura, and whilst neither Miraldia nor Laura play very large or strong parts, they are adequate. Laura looks after Hadrim and heals his injuries, for he has many desperate struggles on his journey. She realises that he is still possessed by a fragment of Nacromis the Weregril and because of this is in great danger. She follows him.
Hadrim is left for dead in a river, with a spike through his body. Here the Fage finds him, and drags him out. The second book ends here.
‘Eventually the Fage got the corpse to the edge, dragged it up through the mud and onto a bed of sea-sage and wormwood. There it squatted by the corpse … gently it touched, stroked, while gulls shrieked overhead.’
The Yellow Tower. 61,000words.
The final book is the most powerful of the three, full of vivid imagery and moving at a fast pace. Hadrim, revived as the Fage removes the spike from his body, strangles it and drains its life into himself. He meets Laura again, with Karon the Rell and Hadrim’s cousin Oswulf. The four pass through a Portal and come to the shore of a sea, where Karon calls up a huge turtle, Greenshell. ‘It rose out of the sea like an island. A fluke the size of a rowing boat broke the surface, then crashed down to spray spume and caked green sand.’ Greenshell takes them across seas which change constantly as they cross them, and some of the best background writing in the trilogy comes here, for the author conjures monsters literally out of the deep which are strange, disgusting and scary.
Finally they come to a beach consisting of putrefying corpses, bound together with weed like knotted hair. The turtle turns back and leaves them to cross this to the land, and then on to the Tower. The landscape they cross now is a blighted, industrial one, a wasteland full of poisons and acids.
As they journey Karon gives Hadrim a potion to drink which will catalyse the power of the staff, and promises that all that is not Hadrim will burn. They come at last to the Tower, four miles high and a mile wide. There are now only the two of them: Hadrim and Karon. Oswulf has been wounded and is in hiding with Laura caring for him.
‘There is was then, like a postule at the centre of a sore.’
Hadrim and Karon enter the Tower and begin to climb to the top where Hadrim feels the staff is. They pass through scenes of sadistic cruelty perpetrated by the Warden, of half people, of living heads in glass cases. Karon leaves him to complete his task alone and returns to Edgehouse wit Laura and Oswul;f.
The potion acts as Karon promised that it would. The detonation blows a crater in the side of the Tower. Invincible now, Hadrim meets the Warden and destroys him in a terrible power struggle. The Tower is destroyed with him. Hadrim’s work is done: he heads for home.
Publishers need to know that an author is not just capable of writing one book, but is a viable proposition as a writer to take on. Neal Asher has proved that he can sustain a very high standard of writing throughout these three books. The ending of the third is open – it is more than possible that Hadrim could set out yet again on more journeys from Edgehouse, The writers writes with great confidence in the genre he has chosen, showing god background knowledge of fantasy requirements in character, plot and use of language. He does not fall into the trap so many fantasy writers do of inventing a language to go with an invented landscape. No time is wasted trying to work out what made-up objects are, he keeps his language simple and effective, such as in this description of Hadrim entering a cave.
‘He saw that some large carnivore had sought (the cave) long before him to die. Its dried-out husk lay like a broken-open sack of sticks against one wall.’
This is simple imagery, but how very effective. It is not an isolated example. Neal Asher’s style is very easy to read and flows well throughout the whole work, never getting in the way of the plot but adding to it by way of detailed background.
Here are all the classic requirements of good fantasy – a quest through strange and difficult lands, good triumphing over evil, and a central hero who makes a pilgrim’s progress through pain and sorrow to success.
Strongly recommended as a trilogy with commercial possibilities, the visual impact of the work also suggests the possibility of it being the source of a film script – some of the things that come out of the sea should produce some wonderful special effects!
I hope this is not the last of Hadrim. I’d like to read more books about him, and I’m sure there will be a lot more readers who would agree with me.