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Fire Sea by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Cover art by Keith Parkinson

Published by Bantam Spectra Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The first two volumes of the Death Gate Cycle centered around the adventures of Haplo the Patryn among the various quarreling races of humans, elves, and dwarves in two of the four elemental worlds created by the hated Sartans during their Sundering of the world that was by which they imprisoned the Patryns in the hellish Labyrinth. Because the humans, elves and dwarves have lesser talents with magic, it was generally easy for Haplo to conceal his true nature.

However, things are different on Abarrach, world of elemental earth. It's a harsh place, dark and cold where the Fire Sea of burning magma does not warm it, and filled throughout with dangerous vapors. The humans and elves brought to populate it did not last long, and even the dwarves with their natural toughness were able to endure only so long before their numbers dwindled beyond sustainability and they too died out, within the living memory of the old king of Kairn Telest, who called them Little People.

And who are these survivors, who prevailed when even the dwarves, a race justly renown for their capacity to endure harsh environments and heavy labor, were slowly driven into extinction? It slowly becomes clear that we have finally met the Sartan, the race of extraordinarily powerful magicians who opposed the Patryn and thrust them into the prison of the Labyrinth.

But the Sartan of Kairn Telest are a sadly diminished remnant of their former glory, as we soon see through the eyes of Baltazar, necromancer to the king, whose memoir the first several chapters are presented as. They have survived only by raising their dead as zombie laborers to keep up with the work that their dwindling numbers can no longer manage.

In doing so, Weis and Hickman introduce an element of the horror genre into the fabric of a story advertised as epic fantasy. True, the revenants are nice and domesticated rather than wandering around slavering for brains, but the very concept of the living dead still carries with it a definite horrific element fairly guaranteed to set the nerves of the typical fantasy reader on edge just by the boundary violations inherent in it (think of the shuddersome feeling that runs through the nerves as you read the scene with the hordes of Inferi under the lake of the Horcrux in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince -- and they're quiescent as regular corpses until disturbed).

In doing so, the authors also introduce a moral and ethical dimension to the use of magic which up until now has largely been treated as the technology of another world. People of any of the various magic-using races may use magic for good or ill, but the operation of magic is in and of itself morally neutral. But as we learn through the unfolding story, the persistent use of necromancy is not only spiritually warping the magic-users, but having consequences that reach far beyond the bounds of their communities or even the world of Aberrach.

At least that is the theory of Alfred Montebank, the Sartan whom Haplo found in the air-world of Arianus masquerading as a human magician. Haplo has brought him along to Abarrach, and at the sight of the undead servants of Prince Edmund and his followers, poor Alfred fairly faints in horror. When Haplo brings him back to his senses, he speaks grimly of a balance of life and death that maintains itself, such that if one person is brought back to life, another person's life is cut short.

But there is little either of them can do with respect to the practices of the people among whom they have fallen, so they accompany Prince Edmund and the necromancer Baltazar on their way to the central caverns where they hope to find the people who have drained the sources of their heat and water. At first things seem to be going well, since both sides are putting their best foot forward. But the tensions are still simmering just under the surface, and it's only a matter of time before they burst forth in conflict between Edmund's refugees and the natives of Necropolis. And the fighting is made all the more horrific as a result of the use of necromancy, such that the casualties on each side are seen as just more raw material from which to make further zombies to fight for them.

And then the unthinkable happens -- someone breaks the rule requiring that the dead be allowed to lie for three full cycles (measures of time used in that sunless world) before being reanimated. This waiting period is necessary to weaken the bonds between body and spirit so that the resultant zombie is more easily directed. When the dead are raised prematurely, the soul remains more closely tied to the body, more able to direct it and to exert free will upon it, producing not a docile zombie but a dangerous lazar.

Finally, the volume concludes with a brief appendix which is presented as a treatise on the rune-magic of necromancy. At least for me, the contents of it , even the discussion of the Runestate Boundary which seemed like a magical equivalent to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle were not quite as interesting as the footnotes which offered a glimpse of a system of writing quite different from the normal linear writing systems such as the Roman alphabet to which we are accustomed in the Primary World. Instead, it would appear that the runes used by the Sartans not only for their magical workings but for their writing form a complex network by which meaning can be read in multiple directions at once, tracing lines of thought all across the page.

When I originally read this volume back in the early 90's, I was somewhat apprehensive. I'd been very impressed by the sheer audacity of Dragon Wing, in which the authors had managed to create a surprisingly convincing labor union among dwarves and make it fit into a world that otherwise followed the social patterns of pre-Industrial cultures that one typically finds in epic fantasy. As a result, when I started reading Elven Star only to encounter elves living in the style of English lords straight out of the works of Charles Dickens or perhaps Jane Austen, I found it rather jarring. Marxist language in the mouth of a dwarf could be chalked up to parallel social evolution, but hearing words like "guv'nor" in the mouth of an elf was stretching my suspension of disbelief to its limits. When the mad wizard Zifnab made his appearance and I immediately recognized him as a direct copy of a character from the Dragonlance novels which Weis and Hickman had done for TSR, it was almost enough to make me throw the book against the wall.

But not quite, since it was a library book and I didn't want to have to return it with a broken cover. Not to mention that I didn't want to put a dent in the drywall of my apartment and have to pay for the damages. And there were enough good things about the volume that I was still willing to keep reading, and to give the next volume a chance. I was happily surprised to see that the authors were back in form again. Yes, the world of Abarrach was exceedingly grim, and the presence of the reanimated dead in their culture did give it certain overtones of horror, but things were coming together just enough that I could see that there was something going on that was a whole lot bigger than any of the characters were able to see,. As a result, I finished this volume actually looking forward to the next one.

Review posted August 19, 2010.

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