Well, that was interesting. After three books that felt like little parochial squabbles, this one has a touch of the epic about it. It sprawls across the whole of the northern plains, from the Sky Mountains in the west to Hurk Hranda and Mesanthia in the east, meandering through the neglected canal system along the way. And there are the peculiar magic slugs, called Flickers, which were meant to be thoroughly creepy and turned out to be quite cute. There’s also history, in the shape of a once-great Empire with the ambition to restore its former glory and several different cultures duking it out over the water supply.
There are also some key components of later books. Allandra, the new Keeper of Mesanthia, and possible future Empress, plays a key role in later books. The prophecies that drive Findo Gask came from the Spirit that speaks through Allandra. Those dragon eggs deep in the mountain, which don’t contain dragons at all, came to be crucial to the whole series, and the starting point of Return of the Mages. The blue pools are another critical component of later books.
How much of all this did I know when I wrote The Magic Mines of Asharim? Not much, I suspect. I never did any of the world-building that most fantasy authors tackle before they write a word. Instead, the Brightmoon world revealed itself to me as I wrote each book. I may have had a clue that the eggs would contain something important, and I may have had an inkling of which direction that would go, but the concept wasn’t fully realised until I wrote The Dragon’s Egg. I clearly had some thoughts about the blue pools, because this book sees the reappearance of the morodaim, first seen in The Plains of Kallanash, and there are some strong clues as to how they are made (but not why, of course; that’s a different point, because why are there all these different magical artefacts, which are seemingly not connected?).
I’ve always written a strong romantic component into my books, but I’ve no idea how well that sits with the average fantasy reader (supposing there even is an ‘average’). Do readers get impatient with all the angsting Allandra does over Zak? When she sees Hytharn in the ruins of Hurk Hranda and despairs, are they muttering, ‘Just get on with it?’ I have no clue about that. I’ve always written what seemed right to me. I like to say that I take characters and place them in a certain situation, then I just watch where they go and record what they do. When I sent Allandra into the mine, I had no idea that Xando would turn up, or that she would later get the hots for Zak. I just watched it unfold, and I have to say, reading it again after several years, I enjoyed the whole thing tremendously. It worked for me, and if it works for anyone else, that’s a bonus.
There was one scene in this book that I absolutely hated, though. When it became obvious that Allandra was going to have to go into Hurk Hranda and actually form an alliance with one of the Princes, my heart sank. I had drawn the Hrandish as the cruellest of people, and I knew I couldn’t dodge that for my heroine, however much I wanted to. It would have been easy to write an escape route for her, but I had to accept the reality of the setting I’d created and go with it. So Allandra had to suffer unspeakable cruelty at the hands of the Hrandish warriors, and the only relief I gave her was her flickers. That was one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever written.
Xando is an interesting character, because he’s the first Tre’annatha we see up close, and as a sympathetic (I hope!) character, someone who is an outsider even in his own culture, yet is still desperate to be accepted by it. And I have to say, the Tre’annatha are turning out to be a very peculiar people. I’d forgotten a lot of these details, like not having a puberty and having to be ‘awakened’ only when they’re chosen to breed. That and the whole living underground thing. I saw them, I think, as being ant-like, bred or evolved to do the job assigned to them and not think too much for themselves. In Kallanash, the Tre’annatha were out and out villains, tying the population up in a pointless war against their own people that could never be won, and even here they aren’t exactly good guys, but their machinations are more political and overt, rather than covert (Kallanash had a whole invented religion to keep people in check).
I liked the juxtaposition in this book of three very different cultures. Mesanthia is the faded remains of a once-glorious empire, with its great buildings and self-assured air of a great civilisation, both deeply learned and also spiritual, the ruling Akk’asharans and the servant class of Dresshtians. In some ways it reminds me a little of Saraykhet, from Daniel Abraham’s Long Price quartet. Then there’s the anarchic and violent Hrandish, with their warrior clans and overly aggressive male culture. And although we don’t see the city of Caxangur itself, we see its army twice, and glimpse its methodical, doing-everything-by-the-book attitude. And through all of these groups, there’s the recurring presence of the Tre’annatha, enigmatic and somehow alien.
I really enjoyed rereading this. It feels more of a ‘proper’ epic fantasy, and there’s more depth to it than the previous three. There are also hints of an emerging world mythology. But now it’s back to Bennamore, and The Fire Mages’ Daughter.