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Elven Star by Margaret Weis and Tracy HIckman

Published by Bantam Spectra Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The second volume in the Death Gate Cycle opens as the first did, with the words of the Lord of the Nexus. However, since we have met Haplo in Dragon Wing, the authors no longer attempt to conceal his identity from us, removing some of the mysteriousness that had made the opening of the first volume seem rather arch and remote, almost as if the authors were playing headgames with the reader. The change is rather welcome, giving us a clear context for what we are reading but making us want to know more both about the Lord of the Nexus himself and about the history of the Labyrinth and the torments the Patryns endured there, a hell we glimpsed through Haplo's memories in the first volume.

In another departure from the first volume, the elves are front and center in the main part of the story. In Dragon Wing they were sinister tyrants from which humanity had successfully fought a war of independence and against whom the Gegs (dwarves) were beginning to fight. But they remained peripheral, and all the principal characters belonged to other races. Hugh the Hand and his various allies and enemies were human, and Limbeck Bolttightener and his followers were Gegs. We caught only glimpses of the elven society of Arianus, mostly as it intersected with humans and Gegs.

But not only are elves in the title of this novel, but the very first chapter opens with an elven lady at the household accounts. Through the interactions of Calandra with her brother Paithan we learn how the elves of Pryan live in beautiful cities filled with magical wonders, high in the giant trees that fill this world. Those trees are so tall that few people ever encounter the surface, and as a result they use stones (or rather paper bills representing them) as money, much as the people of Arianus used barrels of water as currency.

But this comfortable, genteel world of elves served by humans, which is presented in very blatant parallels to upper-crust Victorian England (Paithan even uses the term "guvnor," which is rather jarring, bringing to mind associations of Dickens and other literature of the era), is about to be shaken out of its comfortable rut. There are rumors afoot of strange giants crashing through the forests, spreading destruction in their wake. These tytans are said to be seeking their creators, whom they blame for having stolen their eyes.

Although the elves try to dismiss this threat to their comfortable lives, their denial only succeeds in preventing them from making any sort of preparation for dealing with the problem. And while they are going about their cultivated lives, visiting one another and indulging in society gossip, dragons begin to emerge from their hidden lairs in the deeper levels of the rainforest, emerging to alarm the populace.

Except that the dragon who is about to attack Calandra turns out to be the pet of an elderly man of rather odd manner. Although in his attire he seems to be the archetypical wizard, robed and bearded, his speech is bizarre to the extreme, being filled with disjointed references to things related to twentieth-century earth. In fact the dragon proves to be a more sensible creature than the old man, who claims that his name is Zifnab.

Quite honestly, I found Zifnab the most problematic character in the entire novel. I'd had a glancing acquaintance with the Dragonlance series, which had originally propelled the writing team of Weis and Hickman to prominence, because some of my friends were playing the game, and thus I had heard about the wizard character Fizban from it. Thus I immediately thought of that character, which made Zifnab feel like an intrusion of the Dragonlance character into a completely different universe. His continual references to various cultural elements of twentieth-century Earth, including James Bond and Star Trek, seemed to serve only to continually jar me out of the story world. And particularly after the fascinating and intricately realized world of Dragon Wing, which managed to make dwarves with a labor union work, these continual distracting references made Elven Star feel like a letdown. It just didn't seem to live up to the promise of the first volume.

However, given that I was reading a library book and couldn't very well throw it up against the wall lest I damage it, I kept on reading long enough to get to the next chapter, in which Haplo reappears. He is busily applying a network of Patryn runes to the dragonship that he obtained in the previous book, binding it with magics similar to those which bind his own body and give him godlike strength and endurance. For he is about to head into Pryan on a mission on behalf of the Lord of the Nexus.

Meanwhile, the trouble in Pryan is growing more severe, with rumors of war and talk of magic ships to reunite the living with the dead in the stars which shine in the heavens around the central sun. Elves and humans descend into the darkness of the dwarven realm on a desperate mission. And then the tytans appear, crashing through the forest and demanding the location of the citadels. Unstoppable in their incredible strength, they demolish the beautiful treetop cities of the elves, resulting in the flight of a horde of terrified refugees who themselves seek the mysterious citadels, hoping that they may there find some refuge against the attacks of the tytans.

Amidst all this fear and suspicion, the three races -- humans, elves, and dwarves -- are forced to cooperate if they are going to survive. And thus the authors are able to produce a conclusion sufficiently uplifting that I was interested in continuing to read future volumes. I just hoped that they would not include the foolishness of Zifnab and his intrusive references to present-day Earth, however much they may have been intended to be echoes and memories of the world that had existed before the Sartans sundered it in order to prevent the Patryns from taking over. I just hoped that the third book in the series would reach for the heights that the first one had hit.

Review posted March 19, 2009

Buy Elven Star: The Death Gate Cycle, Volume 2 (A Death Gate Novel) from Amazon.com.