The Seventh Gate by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Cover art by Stephen Youll
Published by Bantam Spectra
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
One of the most difficult things about writing a big, multi-volume speculative-fiction mega-story is bringing it all to a successful conclusion. You've introduced all kinds of gosh-wow sensawunda ideas, whether they be scientific concepts or knockout waycool magic. All of them have implications that must be interwoven with the goals and interpersonal relationships of the characters seamlessly so that everything seems to grow organically, inevitably toward the final confrontation between protagonists and antagonists. And when it all finally comes together, there needs to be one big bang at the end, not a series of awkward stutter-stop pops like a bunch of firecrackers going off. Or worse, a fizzle.
And the bang at the end needs to be big enough to satisfy the promises that were made at the beginning, promises that have been built upon in each book as the stakes were raised with every previous confrontation, every major turning point. It absolutely must not be a let-down, something that leads readers to say, "Oh, was that all to it?"
This can be particularly difficult to attain if much of the series has been based upon startling revelations, particularly ones that stretch and challenge the conventions of the genre. There can be a strong temptation for the author to resort to a trick ending, often not realizing that it is in fact a trick ending but instead thinking it is a Final Big Reveal. Take for instance the ending to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. We've been given one after another startling revelation that Things Are Not as They Seem, confrontations with a succession of ever increasing dangers and powerful opponents, all building to the final confrontation with the Big Boss. Except it turns out the Big Boss is not God at all, but is in fact a tired old angel, a being so ancient and weary that the simple act of opening his protective box is fatal and he dissolves into dust. Talk about fizzles -- it proves so trivially easy to defeat him that it reads almost like a joke. Iin fact, it might have been able to work if the storyline up to that point had been one of ridiculous reverses and absurd come-downs, but in what until that point had been presented as a serious drama, it simply was not the grand final confrontation that the book had promised.
And the Death Gate Cycle certainly fits the bill on that front. From the very beginning, we started in Dragon Wing with worldbuilding that stretched the limits of what was possible in fantasy literature. There was a little bobble with the Victorian elves in Elven Star, but by Fire Sea we were getting back to the superbly realized Secondary World full of logically developed wonders, a level of writing that held fairly steady through the next three books. At the end of Into the Labyrinth our hero Haplo and two companions had been delivered into the infamous prison the Sartans created for the reform of the Patryns and which had instead turned into a hell of endless sadistic cruelty. A horror we had glimpsed again and again in the previous books through Haplo's memories of a childhood little more than a waking nightmare, losing his parents before he had any clear memory of them, then passing from one to another seeming fragment of safety only to find it naught but an illusion to be torn away by yet another hideous threat.
Thus it is fitting that the final volume should begin not with Xar, Lord of the Nexus, as had been the case in the previous books, but with Haplo and his unwilling companions in the Labyrinth, having found temporary respite in the refuge-city of Abri. And using that respite to try to figure out what the heck just happened to Alfred Montebank, that Sartan who had been masquerading as a human wizard on Arianus, realm of Air.
And then who should show up but Zifnab. Yeah, him -- that goofy old man from Elven Star who seems to be a redaction of the equally goofy wizard figure Fizban from the Dragonlance series -- and who kept babbling about things from the here and now, continually distracting and detracting from the worldbuilding of what until then had been a wonderfully realized Secondary World. I'd hoped that he was a one-off mistake, a bit of comic relief that the writers had rethought after Elven Star -- but no, here he is, and he's now got to tell Haplo all kinds of Big Philosophical Heavy Stuff about the self-correcting nature of the Wave and how it eternally seeks true balance and even now is trying to rectify the imbalances that resulted from the Sartans' ill-considered grand scheme, the Sundering which created the four linked elemental worlds, the Vortex, the Nexus and the Labyrinth, all interconnected by the various Gates.
And of course Haplo's isn't the only storyline, so off we go to Chelestra, where the Sartans who originally Sundered the world had hidden themselves in their city of Chalice, there to sleep until things could be rectified. Except they've awakened to discover things getting steadily worse, and in the final indignity, they have been trapped in their city by the mensch (humans, elves and dwarves) they had previously surprised. And worst of all, Xar has allied himself with the dragon-snakes, beings of pure malice incarnate, in his plans to take his final revenge upon those who condemned his people to generations of unending horror in the Labyrinth.
And speaking of Xar, he has not forgiven Haplo for refusing to obey his will on Arianus. Having learned the secrets of necromancy on the stone world of Abarrach, Xar plans to kill Haplo, then raise him as a zombie servant. Except when they finally encounter one another and Xar tries, it doesn't work quite as he intended. It seems that things are no longer what they seem with Haplo, such that the magic that makes zombies doesn't work. And it somehow involves the dog who continually follows Haplo around, the beast he befriended and let become his constant companion in spite of everything he learned in the Labyrinth about such sentimentality being weakness and making him vulnerable.
And then here comes Alfred to explain -- the dog is nothing less than Haplo's own soul, externalized and given visible form. More specifically, it is his good self, the caring and compassionate part that he had to shut out and deny in order to survive in the Labyrinth and then to serve as Xar's errand boy in the various elemental Realms.
However, that Big Reveal is not the final one, since we still have the race to control the mysterious Seventh Gate by which Samah and his fellow Sartans brought about the Sundering. Whoever can gain control of it will have complete control over all the interconnecting realms. Xar intends to throw the surviving Sartans into their own prison and see how they like the hell they inflicted upon the Patryns for untold generations. He then intends to rule over the mensch, the so-called lesser races which his people have traditionally despised.
However, the desperate battles not only with the few surviving Sartans, but also with the lazars led by Klietus of Abarrach, is only strengthening the dragon-snakes of Chelestra, making them more powerful, even able to invade all the worlds and destroy not only the mensch, but Sartans and Patryns as well. The only way to keep them from taking over everything both sides are fighting for is to set aside all those negative emotions of hatred and desire for revenge and to work together to find the truth about the Seventh Gate and what was accomplished through it.
Thus Alfred and Haplo are finally able to locate the hidden door in Abarrach which leads into the Seventh Gate. This fabled place proves to be the chamber in which the Sartan worked the awesome and terrible magic by which they remade the world. A chamber in which they must confront just what that remaking resulted in, and seek to undo as much of the damage as they can manage.
As with the earlier volumes, this one is concluded with an appendix dealing with some of the underpinnings of the world -- in this case, magic as a realization of quantum mechanics, with some discussion of parallels with the movement from Newtonian to Einsteinian understandings of mechanics in the Primary World.
On the whole, I have to say that the conclusion works. It is solid and workmanlike, and perhaps most importantly of all, it actually concludes the storyline. There are no stupid cheats or trickery that leave the reader feeling like the author has pulled a bait-and-switch. Yet at the same time there really isn't anything in it that takes the reader to the next level of wow, that really expands our horizons -- or even just challenges our expectations of the boundaries of the fantasy genre the way the authors did with the industrial dwarves in Dragon Wing.
A workmanlike success, if not an overwhelming success.
Review posted May 2, 2010.
Buy The Seventh Gate: A Death Gate Novel, Volume 7 from Amazon.com