Tuesday, December 07, 2010

“The Crowded Shadows”, by Celine Kiernan (Orbit)

Reviewed by Alyssa Mackenzie

Kiernan-2-TheCrowdedShadowsBook two of the Moorehawke Trilogy

Wynter Moorehawke has fled the dangers of court for bandit-infested forests, seeking exiled prince Alberon.

But more than just thieves lurk in these shadows. Every tyrant and zealot who has ever threatened the kingdom is sending emissaries to meet Alberon, whose motivations seem unclear.

Razi and Christopher had also set out to track Alberon, and find Wynter as enemies close in. With a savage wolf clan on their heels, they must seek sanctuary with the nomadic Merron. But this leaves them enmeshed in a net of sinister black magics and forbidden ritual. Their safety and the kingdom’s future will depend on a web of alliances and hostilities. And Alberon and his war machine sit at its heart.

In The Poison Throne, Kiernan’s debut, Wynter Moorehawke returns home to find her childhood friend Alberon, the heir to the throne, fled from the palace and apparently plotting to overthrow his father. In this environment, she joins Alberon’s half-brother, Razi in carefully navigating the newly-perilous world of King Jonathan’s court. When I read it in May, I knew I’d be reading the next books in the Moorhawke Trilogy as soon as I could. Kiernan combined nuanced, engaging characters with a compelling and fast-paced plot, and the novel left me eager to read more. In The Crowded Shadows, I was pleased to find Wynter’s story continuing in fine form.

This second novel picks up soon after the first left off, with Wynter alone in the wilderness on a quest to find Alberon. Even after she is again in the company and under the protection of Razi and Christopher, she lives with the constant threat of physical danger. The three find themselves caught between the Loups-Garou, a sinister clan of nomadic slave-traders and mercenaries (also known as ‘Wolves’, they are the “wolf clan” mentioned in the synopsis above), and the Merron who, while apparently friendly, hold their own physical and emotional perils for the three friends. In an interesting contrast to the first book, in which Christopher is a naïve outsider whom both Razi and Wynter feel impelled to protect, with the Merron it is Christopher alone who can see the dangers that they present clearly, having been raised by a Merron tribe.

In The Crowded Shadows, Kiernan introduces a number of different peoples into Wynter’s world, most notably the Loups-Garou and the Merron. Each of the two is evoked in brilliant detail, with their own traditions, attitudes, and, in the case of the Merron, language. Kiernan has drawn extensively from Irish Celtic tradition in creating the Merron, and their spoken language is adapted from modern Irish.

[Included with the novel is a short piece by Kiernan on “Merron Religion, Ritual, and Hierarchy” that you can also read here. For an interesting account of how she came up with the Loups-Garou, see Kiernan’s post here, but I would recommend reading The Crowded Shadows first, as it does contain some spoilers.]

As the scene shifts from the enclosed world of Jonathan’s court, we see the imaginative work that has gone into Kiernan’s world-building fully realised. Kiernan’s world is a re-imagined medieval Europe, in which the conflicting concerns of many kingdoms, tribes, and factions – whether religious, moral, or mercenary – are held in a precarious balance, largely due to the alliances initiated and maintained by King Jonathan. Once again, Kiernan does a brilliant job of intertwining the political stakes of her world with the personal concerns of her characters: for Wynter and Razi, reconciling Alberon and his father will not just reunite a beloved friend with his father; it may save their kingdom and those around it from political disintegration.

However, while the political crisis that drives the action of the trilogy is still very much present – for one thing, the Merron tribe with whom Wynter, Razi, and Christopher find safety is acting as emissary from a neighbouring kingdom to Alberon – I found The Crowded Shadows to be more concerned with raising the personal stakes for the characters. Once they leave the court, the focus of the story shifts from the political history that has led to the crisis to the personal histories of the three main characters. Kiernan continues to reveal tidbits of information about Jonathan’s and Lorcan’s pasts, but the emerging back-story of the younger generation is much more prominent.

Kiernan uses this back-story to great effect, building tension and deepening motivation for her characters. Alberon, whose personality and motivations are still mostly unknown, is at least partially revealed to the reader through Wynter’s memories. We learn more about his relationships with Wynter and Razi, and their relationship with each other, and so gain further understanding of the urgency that drives them to find their missing friend. We also get a lot more information about Christopher’s past, and his relationship with Razi, which is by no means as simple as it might appear.

Kiernan does not shy away from brutality: she includes scenes of occasionally shocking violence, and puts her characters through intense emotional and physical duress, challenging them to overcome experiences of intense fear and pain. Christopher’s past is especially painful, and the longer they spend with the Merron, and the nearer the threat of the Loups-Garou becomes, the more he is forced to face his past experiences. Kiernan does not spare her characters from the consequences, foreseeable or otherwise, of their decisions: they must repeatedly make difficult choices, where even the right decision can lead to unhappiness and guilt.

As in The Poison Throne, the atmosphere of the novel is tense, and the pace is brisk. Kiernan does a good job of maintaining the sense of tension and danger she established in her debut, despite the dramatic shift in scene and characters. Her characters are still on precarious ground, trying at once to survive in a situation that they don’t entirely understand and to accomplish their own ends. There is no place of safety or stability for her characters: even the developing relationship between Wynter and Christopher, which in itself promises to be quite sweet and simple, is complicated by the brutality and instability of their environment and Christopher’s past.

In The Crowded Shadows, Kiernan has written a brilliant follow-up to The Poison Throne, with complex and nuanced characters, and a fast-paced plot that made this book nearly impossible to put down. By the end of the novel, Kiernan wraps up the main story-arc; however, it is towards the eventual meeting with Alberon, and the necessary final confrontation with Jonathan, that both the personal and political threads of its plot are driving – there are a wealth of questions to be answered and uncertainties to be resolved in the trilogy’s final instalment.

Wonderful writing and story-telling.

Highly recommended.

The Moorehawke Trilogy: The Poison Throne, The Crowded Shadows, The Rebel Prince (review forthcoming)

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