by Sean McMullen
A book review by Mark L. Olson
Tor, 2002, $27.95, 496 pp
I've greatly enjoyed McMullen's previous post-Holocaust SF novels Souls in the Great Machine and The Miocene Arrow, so even though this book bore the hallmarks of a Generic Fantasy, I quickly grabbed it. It is a Generic Fantasy, but with enough interesting twists that it was still worth reading.
It's set on a Generic Fantasy World with all the usual stuff: continents, nations, maps, kings, doom-laden magical artifacts, mad empresses, wizards, medieval technology, etc. But McMullen carries the book a bit beyond the ordinary Generic Fantasy by skillfully mixing modern sensibilities into the Generic Fantasy World, yielding a stew which, while perhaps not terribly realistic, is quite entertaining.
Warsovran (an awful name!) is Emperor of most of Torea and aiming to be emperor of all of it. He digs up (literally) Silverdeath, an ancient magical artifact of great destructive power and unleashes it on a resisting city. Not only is the city destroyed, but over the next half-year, Silverdeath melts the entire continent into lava. (Warsovran isn't terribly bothered by that since he arranged for his wife to stay behind while he pulled out to sea with his navy and marines. He may have destroyed his entire empire and the continent it was on, but he did avoid the hassle of poisoning her.)
One of the other nations (located on a different continent, fortunately) has a covert espionage team using that world's equivalent of high-tech which is trying to recover Silverdeath so they can destroy it. (The eponymous Shadowmoon is their submersible sailing ship!) There are also a variety of other forces chasing after Silverdeath, some to destroy it, some to use it. While they're doing that, Warsovran is off to conquer another continent using Silverdeath and his marines. Add to this the world's only vampire (who appears to be a sorcerer from our own world who got sucked over to that one by mistake) and a variety of interesting people and sorcerers and you have quite a complicated, and very entertaining, story.
I find it very hard to put into words a feeling I have that McMullen has crossed modern sensibilities and modes of organization into a Generic Fantasy World. And done so with considerable success. Real medieval worlds are not long on well-thought-out or systematic organizations, while this world abounds in them. A religious order which takes the Benedictines one better and not only preserves old knowledge, but systematically studies sorcery to improve the state of the art, for instance. And the various governments may be run by princes and sheiks, but they set up MI-5, Bondian, espionage organizations in one instance or highly efficient Special Forces Commando training regimes in another.
It's all hopelessly unrealistic, but fascinating. Recommended.
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