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Wings of Wrath by C.S.Friedman

Cover art by John Jude Palencar

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This volume is the second in the story which began in A Feast of Souls. Although this story is billed as the "Magister Trilogy," it is in fact not a trilogy -- a series of three novels complete in themselves but creating a meta-story larger than the sum of their parts -- but rather a single novel divided into three parts.

This practice has become common in the fantasy genre largely as a result of The Lord of the Rings, which was originally divided into three because the publisher was uncertain whether such a large volume would be profitable, particularly given the scarcities of paper in the UK following World War II. If the first section were to fail in the market, the publisher could then cut its losses by declining to bring out the second and third parts. However, the wild success of The Lord of the Rings instead set a pattern that epic fantasy would no longer come in stand-alone volumes, but in sets of three.

However, writing in the three-volume format can often lead to a second volume which is markedly weak compared to the first, and feels as though it exists solely to carry the story to the third and final volume. The middle volume ends up being nothing but middle.

Worse, because there is no guarantee that readers have read the first volume recently, or even at all, it is necessary to spend a certain amount of time at the beginning bringing everybody back up to speed. Events and relationships must be re-established before the story can move forward again. In The Lord of the Rings, the second and third volumes each had a brief summation of the major plot points of the previous volumes, largely because the split was done after it had been written in its entirety.

By contrast, Wings of Wrath has been written with the summation woven into the text proper, which means that it cannot simply be skipped over if you still have the events of book one firmly in mind. No, you've got to slog through all the housekeeping at the beginning in which the various characters deal with the aftermath of the climactic battle against the Souleater at the end of Feast of Souls. As a result, I found the first part of book two notably less engaging than the first one, which I read in a single afternoon. Several times I had to set it aside in order to take care of various obligations in my life, and I wasn't exactly consumed by the urge to get back to it as soon as humanly possible.

However, once those initial chapters were past and the characters began to get involved in the quest for the gap in the magical defenses which were supposed to shut the Souleaters into their icy prison in the north, things finally started to click and I actually wanted to keep reading when I needed to set it aside. By the middle of the book, new complications were finally beginning to develop that really pulled me into the story: the Witch Queen, embittered at what she regarded as the contempt of the Magisters, was instead offered a seductive new way to do magic, one that would not involve consuming her own dwindling soul.

Except to do so she must enter a bond that reads like a vile parody of the Impression of a Pernese dragon or the link with one of Mercedes Lackey's horse-shaped Companions. For it turns out that the Souleaters are surprisingly intelligent -- and there were people left up in the northern wastes when the magical barriers were created at the end of the last incursion, centuries earlier. As time went by, some of the humans have developed a modus vivendi with the Souleaters -- and they have not forgotten that their ancestors were written off by their southern cousins as mere collateral damage of the war against these monsters.

Meanwhile, the former monk Salvator Arelius has been crowned High King, having set aside his monkish vows. Unlike most of the religions of his world, which each worship a number of deities, his sect is monotheistic, worshipping a single deity who is both Creator and Destroyer, and which is held to have created the Souleaters as a scourge to teach humility to a humanity grown overweeningly proud of its accomplishments. He also regards the Magisters as morally suspect because their sorcery produces power without apparent price, and as a result refuses to name a court Magister and relies upon witches for what little magic he deems essential.

It is interesting to read Salvator's moral objections against the Magisters in the light of the recent controversies about fantasy literature (particularly the Harry Potter books, but several other books as well) among certain religious people here in the Primary World. When one looks closer at their insistence that all magic is evil, you will often find that they are using a very specific sense of the word -- namely, dealing with malign spiritual entities to gain supernatural powers -- and that they simply assume that this is the only meaning of the word (other than the sense of stage magic or manual illusion).

However, the magic in most fantasy fiction has absolutely nothing to do with the sort of occultism with which the critics of fantasy are so concerned. Far from it, the magic of most fantasy novels is more along the lines of an alternate system of technology. That is, magic depends upon the use of some kind of "magical energy," much as the electronics of our own world relies upon electricity and the gravitic technology of numerous science fictional universes (David Weber's Honor Harrington novels being only one of many) relies upon gravity -- the energy and knowledge of how to use it is in and of itself morally neutral, and only the way in which people choose to use it raises moral issues. For instance, Sherwood Smith's Sartorias-deles novels have a system of light and dark magic that roughly parallels the divide between heroes and villains, but both techniques draw upon the same magical energy. The difference between them is whether one uses it carefully or spends it heedlessly, rather like ecological issues of technology in our own world.

In these novels Ms. Friedman has created a system of magic that does not involve appeals to any malign entities, yet is intrinsically evil, at least in some forms. For the witch, who draws upon his or her own soulfire to work spells, the ethical question revolves primarily around whether the consumption of portions of one's life is a form of suicide on the installment plan, or a morally legitimate act of self-sacrifice. But the Magisters, who appear to be able to work magic without paying a price, are in fact doing it by committing murder piecemeal, becoming a sort of energy vampire sucking some unsuspecting individual's life away to fuel their spells -- and they are aware of what they are doing. Given that, is it any surprise that the society of the Magisters should be amoral and rift with internal hostilities, kept in check only by the understanding that any one of their number who kills another will be ruthlessly hunted down by all the others?

A lesser writer might have given in to the temptation to turn it into a blatant allegory of a burning social issue such as the current debate on embryonic vs. adult stem cell therapies. However, Ms. Friedman draws no explicit parallels, leaving us to draw our own conclusions about whether the story tells timeless truths within its fictions. Even the death of Queen Gwynofar's unborn son feels nothing like an abortion, but rather like the scene in John Ringo's Hell's Faire in which Mike O'Neal Jr. has to call a nuclear strike onto overrun territory while knowing full well that his father and daughter are there and will not survive.

Review posted March 30, 2009.

Buy Wings of Wrath: Book Two of the Magister Trilogy from Amazon.com