Into the Labyrinth by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Cover art by Stephen Youll
Published by Bantam Spectra
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
When well-known Dragonlance writers Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman started their original universe Death Gate cycle, they started it with a bang. In Dragon Wing they gave us a richly and subtly imagined world very different from the typical fantasy and actually made it work, even the dwarven labor union organizer. The second book, Elven Star hit a rough patch with some humorous elements that didn't always quite hit the right note, particularly the Victorian elves and the absent-minded wizard character who was way too blatantly based on a Dragonlance comic-relief character. However, the third and fourth books, Fire Sea and Serpent Mage, once again captured that elevated but not purple tone that goes with the richness of the worldbuilding.
After having introduced each of the four elemental realms -- air, fire, earth, and water -- in the first four volumes, it was time to start drawing the various storylines together and build toward the final climax. The fifth volume, Hand of Chaos, began this process, and this volume builds toward the final confrontation by taking us at last into the Labyrinth, the prison the Sartans created to reform the Patryn by forcing them to rely upon one another and thus learn mutual trust and consideration.
Or that was the intent, at least. Like the rest of the Sartans' grand scheme, it went awry and became a mockery of its original purpose. Instead of providing careful gradations of danger that would make co-operation essential to survival, it became a sadistic nightmare world of monsters and torments that would seem to offer the hope of escape, only to reveal it to be naught but illusion. Although the Patryns did learn to work together in order survive, instead of gentling them and making them more compassionate, the experience of this particular hell only succeeded in hardening them in bitterness and determination to revenge themselves and their people upon the Sartan.
However, until this volume we the readers have only learned this information second-hand, mostly through the memories of Haplo and the increasingly fierce monologs of Xar, the Patryn who calls himself Lord of the Nexus. Since our image of the Labyrinth is as much a product of suggestion than actual knowledge, there is a very real risk that when we get to see the actuality behind those memories, it may prove a disappointment.
Think for instance of Salusa Secundus, the dreaded Imperial prison planet in Frank Herbert's Dune universe. In Dune itself, we never actually see it -- instead we learn of it only by reference. First, we see Duke Leto and some of his advisors speculating about its nature and its role in the creation of the Sardaukar, the feared, nearly unstoppable elite Imperial forces. Later, we see the Fremen ceremony of memory in which a voice wails "We were slaves on Salusa Secundus for nine generations." The mind is left to fill in the horrors of an almost impossibly brutal environment, at least as harsh as Arrakis but different, from which only a few strong survivors emerge to absorb the mystique of being a chosen elite. But when we see it in Dune: House Atreides, the actuality proves to be decidedly less impressive (the scenes in Children of Dune cannot really be considered, since they are taking place after Paul's promised gentling of the world has taken place).
Wisely, Weis and Hickman do not take us straight to the Labyrinth in the beginning of the novel. Instead, they start as they have the previous five volumes, with Xar, Lord of the Nexus. However, now he is not in the Nexus any longer. Instead, he has come to Abarrach, where he is practicing a Patryn version of the necromancy the Sartan developed there. Instead of carefully waiting three days after the subject's death in order to weaken the link between body and soul in order to ensure a controllable zombie, he is deliberately performing the magic immediately, resulting in a lazar, a more willful revenant he hopes to be able to use for his purposes. Specifically, he hopes that this Sartan knows secrets of the Sundering and the nature and location of the mysterious Seventh Gate which is supposed to control the entire system of the Sundered Worlds.
There is other evidence that Xar has undergone a marked ethical deterioration since we originally met him in Dragon Wing. For instance, he has deliberately allied himself with the dragon-snakes from the water-world of Chelestra in spite of clear evidence of their malice. No doubt he started much as many historical individuals and groups who allied themselves with monstrous evils here in the Primary World -- he thought he could control them and use them for his own ends. Instead there is ample evidence that they are in fact using him, feeding the darker side of his deeply scarred personality at the expense of the liberator of his people he started out to be. Now his arrogance is becoming overweening, to the point that he is actually alienating those with whom he might otherwise have allied.
After the introduction, we go back to Arianus, where we see the return of Hugh the Hand to the Brotherhood of Assassins, where we get a critical question raised -- why was he spared? His wound was fatal, so why should he have been restored to life? By this point, human and elf alike are getting the idea that they are dealing with extremely powerful beings who do nothing out of the goodness of their hearts, and a favor is very likely to be a marker that can be called in at a time advantageous to its owner and exceedingly inconvenient to the one from whom it is owed.
Certainly Xar's agents are at work in Arianus. Marit has come to the Gegs of the Low Realm, who are now proudly reclaiming their traditional name of Dwarves and taking control of the Factree. and is manipulating them to help in the search for Haplo. Here we really get to see the until-now disparate threads of story beginning to draw together into a web of treachery, building toward the final confrontation.
Except Marit isn't quite as clever as she thinks, resulting in Haplo being able to escape through Death's Gate even as he's desperately fighting her. No sooner than they arrive in Pryan, they're attacked by a tytan, one of the blind giants who were such a menace in the climax of Elven Star.
Of course Paithan, protagonist of that volume, hasn't been idle in the meantime. Far from it, he's been busily uncovering all kinds of secrets of both the citadels and the tytans, secrets that hint of their role in a much larger plan of the Sartans -- if only they can comprehend it sufficiently to gain control of it.
Frustrated by his experiments in necromancy, Xar comes to Pryan in search of the Seventh Gate, thinking that it will enable him to remake all the worlds and take his ultimate revenge upon the Sartans. However, he discovers that he is not quite as powerful as he thinks he is when the tytans take notice of him.
Even as Xar is dealing with the tytans, Marit and Haplo find a way into the Vortex, another part of the complex inter-world transfer system that the Sartans design. Since it is not as controllable as Death's Gate and they don't understand its workings, they end up emerging from it in a grim place that both of them soon recognize as a part of the Labyrinth, the hell in which both of them were born and escaped only by the assistance of Xar, to whom they both once felt absolute loyalty on the basis of gratitude, but whose recent actions have greatly shaken them.
Except they're not alone -- along with them came Alfred Montebank, the Sartan whom we first met masquerading as a human magician way back in Dragon Wing. A character whose endless comedic clumsiness would seem to make him hopelessly unsuited for survival in this hellish place where even the best-trained Patryn fighters are constantly tested.
In many ways, saving the actual entry into the Labyrinth to the final part of the book works by continually building our dread and anticipation, while avoiding having to actually put out all that much when it comes time to serve up the goods. From all the things we have learned in bits and pieces from the past five books, we know that the Labyrinth is a place of horror, so we feel simultaneous dread and eagerness when presented with a book whose very title promises us that we will finally be entering this fabled, forbidding place. As the stack of pages left to be read grows steadily smaller with every turned page and we still haven't gotten to the Labyrinth yet, our tension only increases. What horrible circumstances will lead what character to have to enter that horrible place, and what will happen in it?
And then, when we finally arrive in that place both dreaded and anticipated, we discover that this volume is rapidly winding up and we're going to have to wait for the final volume to come out. Of course now that all seven volumes have been published, the cliffhanger isn't quite as frustrating as it was back in 1993 when I read it the first time, back in a day when the publishing-business news sources that we take for granted weren't available and I literally had no way of knowing how long of a wait I could look forward to before I could finally see how Weis and Hickman were finally going to wind up the spectacular story they'd been weaving for the past several years, a story that had carried me through some of the roughest periods of my life. But a reader who hasn't already purchased all seven volumes will still have a frustrating wait while acquiring that final volume.
Review posted May 2, 2010.
Buy Into the Labyrinth (Death Gate Cycle) from Amazon.com