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Fantasy Challenge #5: The One Kingdom, Sean Russell

Have I mentioned before that I’m beginning to regret choosing big fat fantasy novels for my reading challenge this year? I think for next year’s challenge I’ll pick books under 100 pages, or at least something that’s predominantly short. Because secondary-world fantasies are generally big books and, at 698 pages in my Orbit paperback edition, Sean Russell’s The One Kingdom is probably not the biggest book of the dozen I’ve chosen for my challenge.

But it may well be one of the slowest.

The One Kingdom is the first book of the Swans’ War trilogy – followed by The Isle of Battle and The Shadow Road – but it’s not Russell’s first novel. He has written two earlier fantasy diptychs (one of which is apparently set in “the Kingdom of Wa”). He also writes historical naval fiction under the name Sean Thomas Russell. According to Russell’s web site (here), the Swans’ War trilogy came out of a desire to write a high fantasy, something he had avoided previously in order to “distinguish myself from the many imitators of Tolkien”. The good news is that The One Kingdom isn’t especially Tolkienesque. It’s more like Robert Jordan. Although, happily, Russell’s prose is a good deal better than Jordan’s.

The trilogy is set in the land of Ayr, which is dominated by the River Wynnd and its tributaries. The valleys formed by the tributaries are principalities in what was once known as the “One Kingdom”. But some time in the distant past, the kingdom split apart, leaving two families vying for the throne – the Wills and the Rennés. It’s the machinations of these two families which forms the plot of the trilogy…

Except it doesn’t really. Or rather, it doesn’t noticeably.

Secondary-world fantasies are typically constructed from story and world, and their appeal lies in one or the other, or both. Since story is so important, it is laid out from the start – this is the quest, this is the prophesy which must be fufilled, this is what must be done to resolve the story, this is where the characters are going and why. But not in The One Kingdom. Russell keeps his actual plot hidden, and it makes for an often frustrating read.

There are two narratives, linked by a single mysterious character. One is a travelogue; the other is an escape. In the first, the young Valemen Tam, Fynnol and Baore are travelling along the river with gypsy-like “story-finder” Cynddl to the Wold of Kern, chiefly because they’ve never left the Vale before and so it’s an adventure. Meanwhile, in the second narrative, Lady Elise, daughter of the head of the Renné family has run away from an arranged marriage because she knows the marriage is part of a plan to start a war in which the Wills will finally vanquish the Rennés.

The mysterious character who pops up in both these narratives, and prods them along, is the rogue Alaan. He meets the Valemen at the opening of the book, and saves their lives when they are attacked by black-clad soldiers (who appear to be after Alaan). He also arranges Elise’s escape from the Renné castle, and hands her over for safekeeping to a duo of minstrels.

Complicating matters is the possible reappearance of a legendary trio – although perhaps “god-like” might be a better description. Caibre, Sainth and Sianon were the three offspring of a wizard in ancient times, and they may have been reborn to fight their battles all over again. One of them seems to have taken over Eremon, counsellor to a prince ally of the Wills, and is determined to drive everyone into war.

There are some nice ideas in The One Kingdom. The best is the River Wynnd itself, which features hidden waterways and tributaries. These are magically hidden, alternate versions of the valleys of Ayr. Unfortunately, Russell has plonked this neat central conceit into a world built after watching Prince Valiant a few too many times. Bits of The One Kingdom may read in parts like the Wheel of Time, but the world-building appears to owe more to Ye Olde Hollywoode Mediaeval Englande than it does to any real attempt at creating a viable world of the required technological level and appropriate culture. The novel’s resolution, for instance, takes place at a ball in the Renné castle, and it reads like something from a Disney fairy-tale. Given all this, it’s easy to understand why the “gritty” fantasies of Abercombie and the like came as such a refreshing change…

Also problematical is the naming. Tam, Elise, Toren, Tuath… these aren’t too bad. But Cynddl is unpronounceable, and Gilbert A’brgail is always going to be misread as Abigail. Yet the place names are chiefly prosaic: Westbrook, Sweetwater, Speaking Stone…

The prose is mostly readable, and occasionally quite good; although Russell frequently tries too hard for high fantasy “authenticity”, resulting in those tortured sentences which are supposed to give the story an olde worlde feel but instead just look silly. The pacing of the novel is… languourous. Possibly even lethargic. Pages of introspection follow brief outbursts of action. Russell even flubs a couple of his big action scenes – the attack on the Fáel camp at Westbrook Fair is one example. It’s all over in a single paragraph, more or less. Whatever shock value it’s supposed to possess is completely missing.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of The One Kingdom. I liked the idea around which the world was built – the river and its magical hidden waterways. I liked the story. That the reader was forced into mapping both story and land as the book progressed struck me as interesting approach. The characters were mostly sympathetic, although a bit flat. Sadly, the villains were one-dimensionally villainous – evil with an “eeee”, in other words. Especially Eremon. Despite that, I suppose I could say I sort of enjoyed it…

Which puts me in a bit of a dilemma. I’d like to find out how the story of the Swans’ War pans out. But I’m not prepared to wade through 1500+ pages of sluggish prose to do so. A synopsis would do the trick, I think – a dozen or so pages summarising the plot of each novel. Yes, that’d work. Any volunteers to put one together for me?

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