Friday, June 11, 2010

“The Map of All Things”, by Kevin J. Anderson (Orbit)

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The second instalment in Anderson’s awesome Terra Incognita series

After terrible atrocities by both sides, the religious war between Tierra and Uraba has spread and intensified – the series of skirmishes erupting into a full-blown crusade.

Now that the Uraban leader Soldan-Shah Omra has captured the ruined city of Ishalem, his construction teams discover a priceless ancient map in an underground vault – a map that can guide brave explorers to the mysterious Key to Creation. Omra dispatches his adopted son Saan to sail east across the uncharted Middlesea on a quest to find it.

In Tierra, Captain Criston Vora has built a grand new vessel, and sets out to explore the great unknown and find the fabled land of Terravitae. But Criston cannot forget his previous voyage that ended in shipwreck and disaster... and the loss of his beloved wife Adrea – who is now the wife of the soldan-shah in far-off Uraba, fighting to survive against palace intrigues and constant threats against her life.

The first part of this series, The Edge of the World was probably my favourite book of last year, so I could barely contain myself when this arrived in the post. Epic in scope, yet crisply and brilliantly written, Anderson wove a number of threads together into an impressive, thoroughly satisfying whole. With The Map of All Things, Anderson has improved on the first, while upping the stakes for the characters and his world. Anderson’s writing is as good as it was in book one, building on the solid foundation, failing to disappoint, as he adds more layers to his world and the cultures that inhabit it.

Terra Incognita series could almost be described as Clash of Civilisations transferred onto a fantasy world: warring religions, centuries-old misunderstandings and intolerance. After the events of the first book, the violence between the Tierrans and Urabans is escalating in a never-ending cycle of ‘eye-for-an-eye’ killings and attacks.

The hatred the two nations feel towards each other, fuelled by revenge and the fiery rhetoric of their civil and religious leaders, burns so hotly in otherwise kind and gentle people. The ra’virs (kidnapped Tierran children, brainwashed by ‘The Teacher’ to wreak havoc in their former homeland) are an interesting creation, with genuinely horrific potential – you could describe them as the sleeper cell terrorists of this world.

One of Anderson’s true triumphs with this series is that readers will find it difficult to form an allegiance to either the Urabans or the Tierrans – each side burns with similar hatred and zeal; each side has its flaws and strengths, heroes and villains; each side has committed atrocities. The Tierrans (the ‘Western’ nation) and the Urabans (the ‘Middle-Eastern’ nation) have clear parallel-characteristics with our own world, and sometimes Anderson’s allusions are surface-deep, but on occasion they do go a lot deeper.

The religious leaders on both sides are pretty crazy – as they blindly follow their version of their faiths, the rest of their people are swept up in their wake or branded heretics or traitors if they even remotely question. Prester Hannes, the zealot from Edge of the World who has done a fair amount to inflame the conflict, is still nominally a ‘good guy’, but he commits a terrible blunder late in the novel that could have dire consequences in the final book of the trilogy, The Key to Creation. In fact, there are no “good guys” or “bad guys” – you will be sympathetic towards characters on both sides, and equally appalled and angered by both sides.

The Map of All Things, and the trilogy as a whole, is a study of human nature. Each side has noble perceptions of itself, even as they condemn slaves to death through hard labour and meagre food, or execute them in retaliation for a perceived or actual slight (itself, invariably, the result of another previous slight). Anderson clearly outlines the lies we tell ourselves to make “necessity” a sufficient excuse or explanation for actions we would never consider in other circumstances – and perhaps shouldn’t in the situation described.

Matteo, the childhood best friend of Tierra’s new queen, Anjine, follows her instructions to the letter – regardless of how grisly the task he’s been set – but cannot avoid questioning what they are all becoming.

“Would the cycle never end? The momentum of hatred swept them along like the foamy waters of an uncontrolled flood. This war had changed both Tierran and Uraban, followers of Aiden and followers of Urec alike. It left scars so thick and ugly that not even victory could make them fade...”

Despite the dark times, there are some moments of decency and charity. When Prester Ciarlo, a lowly prester of Aiden, and the brother of Adrea/Istala, ventures into Uraba, he is met with suspicion but also a warm kindness from someone he (and the reader) would not expect – it’s a scene that humanises the enemies for each other, highlighting the differences between the politically-minded court characters and the other strata of society. Interestingly, there is no comparable act by a Tierran for a Uraban.

The Map of All Things is the continuation of an epic tale of religious intolerance and the perpetual spiral of hatred that this can breed. Violent retribution begets violent retribution, as the warring sides cannot seem to stop themselves, even when they realise that what they do is madness. The large cast of characters is easy to follow and they grow and mature over the course of the novel. Intelligent fantasy, but written in an engaging and entertaining style, Terra Incognita is easily one of the best fantasy trilogies of the decade.

It’s a bit difficult to review this book, other than looking at the themes that I have – all the praise I had for the first novel is equally relevant to this one.

Very highly recommended; if you’re a fan of fantasy, you need to read this.

For Fans of: George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, Brent Weeks

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