Earlier this year I promised myself I would finally finish all the volumes in P.C. Hodgell’s Kencyrath series so far. I did that yesterday, with my completion of The Sea of Time (2014). I’m really enjoying the series and book 7 is a blast. Regular readers will be shocked to read my one complaint: it’s too short. Before I explain that, let me fill you in on the book and tell you all about its good points.
First, one more time, the setup:
Thirty thousand years ago, Perimal Darkling began to devour the series of parallel universes called the Chain of Creation. To fight against it, the Three-Faced God forged three separate races into one: feline-like Arrin-Ken to serve as judges; heavily-muscled Kendar to serve as soldiers and craftsmen; fine-featured humanoid Highborn to rule them. For 27,000 years, the Kencyrath fought a losing battle, one universe after another falling to the darkness. Three thousand years ago, the High Lord Gerridon, fearful of death, betrayed his people to Perimal Darkling in exchange for immortality. Fleeing yet again, the Kencyrath landed on the world of Rathilien. Since then, they haven’t heard from their god and Perimal Darkling has seemed satisfied to lurk at the edges of their new home. Monotheists trapped on an alien world with many gods, the Kencyrath have had to struggle to make a life on Rathilien.
Now, the power of the Three-Faced God seems to be reappearing. The Kencyrath believe that only the Tyr-ridan, three Highborn reflecting the three aspects of their god — destroyer, preserver, and creator — will be able to defeat Perimal Darkling. Jame, raised in the heart of Perimal Darkling, is fated to be the Regonereth: That-Which-Destroys.
At the end of the previous book, Honor’s Paradox, series heroine, Jame, had survived all the tests and trials thrown at her by the curriculum and her enemies at the Kencyrath military academy, and was promoted to second year cadet. The Sea of Time opens with Jame arriving at the Southern Host. The Host is the main force of Kencyrath soldiers, hired out to the wealthy city of Kothifir.
The previous four books of the series were confined in their settings: Seeker’s Mask to the cossetted halls of the Kencyrath Highborn Women’s World; To Ride a Rathorn, Bound in Blood, and Honor’s Paradox to Tentir, the Kencyrath military school. With their restricted, often gloomy, settings, there’s a Gothic atmosphere to those books.
The Sea of Time explodes with color, light, and sounds from the very beginning. After spending two years in the drear northern climes of the world of Rathilien, Jame finds herself in the hot southlands on the edge of the great Southern Wastes. The ancient city of Kothifir is alive with magic, strange customs, and clashing guild masters, and ruled over by an obese, immortal god-king, Krothen. Walking from the Host’s camp to her first meeting with him, she is almost overwhelmed by her new surroundings:
For all the avenue’s dash and glitter, however, the eye was drawn upward toward Kothifir’s famous “Painted Towers,” half obscured by lines of fluttering, bright flags and, higher up, by no less colorful laundry. Jame now saw that most of these towers were actually faced with travertine, limestone, and marble ranging in color from white to tan to moss green to rose to black. Some featured solid blocks in geometric patterns. Others were faced with mosaic tiles depicting faces, animal masks, crests, and obscure symbols. It made one’s head spin to take in their lively variety even lit as they were by filtered sunshine, for wispy clouds cut off many towers some ten stories up. Rents in the cover let through shafts of light and gave filmy glimpses of the heights above, gold, bronze and verdigris copper, laced together by catwalks, bridges, and buttresses.
With her usual nose for mystery and trouble, Jame is quickly embroiled in the chaos that saturates Kothifir. The god-king is facing a challenge to his divine rule from his aunt and nearly-as-gargantuan cousin. The wealth of Kothifir is based on riches brought back from caravans into the deep desert, that are somehow able to traverse time and reach the once glorious city of Langadine in the days before its ruination. The Karnids, a sect of fantatical cultists led by a mysterious prophet in black, are lurking in the city’s shadows for some unknown purpose. The senior cadets of the Southern Host, veterans of the terrible battles depicted in The Dark of the Moon, are bent on harrowing the new cadets with sometimes deadly hazing.
Added to these is the mystery of the old gods and elemental gods living in the slum-like Undercliff district below the edge of the great cliff atop which Kothifir rests. And her servant, Graykin, whom she sent ahead of her months earlier, has managed to become the master of the city’s spies guild. Soon enough, Jame is dancing from one crisis to another with her usual mix of aplomb, fierceness, and occasional gracelessness.
While Jame is tangled up in events in Kothifir and among the ranks of the Southern Host, her brother Tori, Highlord of the Kencyrath, finds himself facing his old enemy from The Dark of the Moon, Caldane, Lord of House Caineron. Unsatisified with the considerable power and wealth he already has, Caldane attempts to carry out an utterly ridiculous, but nontheless dangerous, scheme to unseat Tori. In his effort to foil Caldane, Tori ends up facing a truly dangerous enemy from his youth.
Finally, The Sea of Time delves into the past and reveals the facts of Tori’s youth and his early service with the Southern Host before his true idenity as the rightful Highlord was revealed. For five books now, we have heard how he was captured by the Karnids and tortured with wire gloves, glowing red with heat. Now we see a straight line from Tori’s past through his current adventures, his confrontation by an old enemy, and on to the dangers Jame confronts.
All three stories converge in a major disclosure that moves the series’ main plot along for the first time in what seems like a very long time. That lack of developement is probably the most consistent complaint I’ve read from readers over the years. Hodgell’s writing is so strong I’ve never cared, but there’s no denying she’s jolted the Kencyrath cycle onto a whole new level. In answering a major question raised in The Sea of Time, at least one other major mystery from the earlier novels is answered as well. Without unveiling the nature of any of these things, I will say I the answers were extrememly satisfying and made tremendous sense.
For all the words and effort Hodgell dedicates to imbibing her creations with breadth and depth, she never stints on the action and violence. Sometimes it comes in the wake of major story developments, like the swelling of some great chorus. Other times it detonates like a hand grenade out of nowhere. A caravan trip into the past brings an encounter with dinosaurs (more or less), and werewolves (again, more or less) battle with tooth and claw. There are several major battles, a few desperate duels, and a fight up the spiral staircase of the god-king’s royal tower:
Outside, someone shouted a warning. Jame heard the scrabble of steel claws on the stair, circling the tower. Rotating, she followed the silver body as it surged up the steps. Gaudaric’s men hastily made way for it. The mechanical hound slammed into the barricade raised by Ton’s followers and shattered it. Debris hurtled into the room and over the balustrade, likewise most of the militia. Cella screamed. Then someone caught the dog in midstride, off balance, and tipped it sideways. It hit the railing and bumped along it from baluster to baluster, legs churning, until stone gave way. The metal dog flew out into space and down, to a cry of protest from Ruso.
Hodgell never includes violence for fun or stoops to reveling in gore. Those elements are included, though, with purpose: Rathilien is a dangerous world and she never lets you, or her characters, forget that.
Now I, and every other fan of Hodgell’s, will have to wait nearly a year for the next volume, The Gates of Tagmeth. Hodgell reported on her website it won’t be published until July, 2017. It’s taken over thirty years to get to this point, so I guess I can wait another eight months.
So why do I think this book is too short? From the cycle’s second volume, The Dark of the Moon, on, each book has had two distinct story lines, one about Jame and another her brother, Tori. With Tori’s past story thrown in here, at only 350 pages the book’s not big enough to comfortably contain all the things Hodgell set out to do. By the time the three narratives come come together for that massive series reveal, the book feels overstuffed.
I write as a tremendous fan of Hodgell’s writing (but you all know that, right?). Together, the previous three books, To Ride a Rathorn, Bound in Blood, and Honor’s Paradox, covered a year in Jame’s and Tori’s life in about a thousand pages. Even Seeker’s Mask needed nearly five hundred pages to depict a year’s happenings. Hodgell is never content to hoe the same ground again and again, so there’s something new, be it a piece of history, a cultural element, or a side-plot on every page. Almost nothing in Kothifir is like any other place we’ve been to in Rathilien. It’s just too dang much, and needed more space.
And still, I liked the book very much. Jame continues to be a character imbued with great energy and wit. You can’t help but be swept up alongside her in each new exploit. Her heroism continues to grow as she finds herself forced to make dangerous decisions even when they seem bound to cause her death, or at least dismemberment.
Tori, too often given to misgivings and uncertainty about himself, is starting to become more heroic. Just as his friends and retainers are starting to warm to him more, so am I as he finds his footing and stands up for himself much more in this book than in the previous ones.
Lastly, all those things I called out Hodgell for including, they’re all good — I wanted more pages, not less stuff. The Kencyrath and Rathilien are two of the most developed creations in any fantasy books I’ve ever read. For over a thousand pages now, Hodgell has been exploring the whys and wherefores of Kencyrath society and beliefs. The same thing goes for Rathilien. Each book has raised new questions and she’s never seen fit to leave them unaddressed. Doing that, she’s made her invented world and its inhabitants come to life, invested with brio and never seeming untrue.
Yeah, you can’t even think about reading The Sea of Time without having read the previous six books. That just means you should read them. P.C. Hodgell is one of the best fantasy writers, and for over thirty years has been, almost surreptitously, creating one of the most complex and orginal series bar none.
You can read reviews of the previous books in the series here:
Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Swords & Sorcery: A Blog when his muse hits him.