For the most part the sword and sorcery sub-genre of fantasy fiction really hasn’t evolved too much from its early days as a staple of pulp fiction magazines in the 1920s. There’s still far too many cases of lone heroes overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in order to defeat some sort of evil dude and win the hand of the young nubile woman. Thankfully the past decade has seen the rise of a couple of writers with both the wit and imagination to find ways to improve upon that rather basic and base premise. The best of them have done this through a combination of inventive world creation, interesting characters, and by retaining the elements of action and adventure which made the genre so appealing in the first place.
British author James Barclay is one of the new generation of writers who has done successful job of breathing new life into the genre. In his three previous series, The Chronicles Of The Raven, The Legends Of The Raven and The Ascendants Of Estorea, both the characters and the worlds he has created have been memorable and believable while the storylines have been imaginative and made for page-turning excitement. Now in his latest trilogy, Elves, of which the first two have been published by Orion Book’s fantasy imprint Gollancz, he returns us to world he created for the Raven books, but to a far earlier time and a whole new cast of characters.
In Elves: Once Walked With Gods the story opens in the Elves home dimension with their elite warriors making a desperate last stand against an implacable enemy. They are desperately buying time to allow as many of their people to escape to a new dimension as possible. With the portal about to close to prevent their enemy from following them, the leader of the defence, Takaar of the elite fighting force theTaiGethen, breaks from his position on the front lines and flees through the portal leaving his troops without their leader. Although there’s no way the elves could have won, seeing him run destroys their morale and causes wide spread panic. With defensive cohesion lost as elvish soldiers of all stripes make for the portal while there’s still time, countless lives that might have been saved are lost.
The new world should have been a haven for the elves as the continent they’ve settled on, Calaius, is almost completely covered by dense rainforest, the environment they feel most at home in. While those elves who continue in the old ways and live in the forest protecting the temples and other holy places of their people are content, the same can’t be said for those who have chosen to live in cities. Drifting further and further away from the beliefs that brought harmony to their lives, old resentments and prejudices between the various races of elves have started to take root. Only one race of elves are immortal and while the rest of them live far longer lives than most mortals could hope it appears they are no longer satisfied with the places in society their shorter life spans have relegated them to. For while all have equal say in the governance of the people some among the other races have come to believe the immortals have more influence than is justified for their minority share of the population.
However, it turns out the ferment among the various factions is actually being encouraged by leaders of the immortal race so they can use it as an excuse to become the absolute rulers of the elves. To give themselves an advantage they hired mercenary armies of humans from the neighbouring continent of Balaia. For although men can’t hope to match the TaiGethen’s fighting prowess they possess something elves don’t – magic. The human mages are able to cut down any elves that resist them and quickly beat down all resistance. Unfortunately for those who hired them it turns out the humans weren’t just there as soldiers of fortune, they were the advance of an invasion force bent on the conquest of Calaius.
While the TaiGethen resist as best as they can, with no power to resist magic they are soon overwhelmed. Even the discovery that their former leader Takaar still lives isn’t enough of a boost to lift them to victory. They are forced to abandon their cities to the invaders and flee into the rainforest with as many people as possible. The one note of hope they have as the first book ends is the discovery that the power to perform magic is latent in all elves. If they can only tap into the means of activating it they could sweep their continent clean of its invaders. Unfortunately, in Elves: Rise Of The TaiGethen, the second book of the trilogy, they discover not only is this process incredibly difficult, the magic they need to defeat their enemies may also be what leads to their ultimate defeat.
It’s a hundred fifty years after the human invasion of Calaius and not only are vast numbers of elves still enslaved, the humans are using them to destroy their sacred rainforest. Even when the elves manage to strike back at the humans they end up hurting themselves. For every time a human soldier or mage is killed or hurt ten elvish slaves are killed. While Takaar still holds out hope elves will one day be able to wield magic like humans progress is so slow by the time they learn how it may be too late for not only most of their race but their continent itself. What’s even worse is the human mages can detect their magic from afar and hunt them down.
First they trace the core group of novices to a sacred temple the elves thought hidden in the depths of the rainforest and attempt to kill all they find there. It’s only because the a core group of TaiGethen happen to be at the temple and are able to fight the humans off that any survive. However when Takaar leads the last of the magic users to the last free elvish city deep in the jungle hoping to find some way of strengthening elvish magic, the human ability to track magic means two armies aren’t far behind him. While the TaiGethen are able to take a toll on the humans through hit and run attacks and carefully staged ambushes, magic and numbers still tip the balance in favour of the humans.
Those who have read any of Barclay’s Raven series will recognize the names of the human and elvish continents and realize the events described in Elves take place in an earlier era. However you don’t need to have read any of his other works to appreciate and enjoy these books. What these two books have in common with all of Barclay’s work is his ability to balance the action and excitement of traditional sword and sorcery with intricate and thoughtful story lines and characters who can’t be easily categorized as heroes or villains. The humans aren’t just faceless oppressors and the elves aren’t all heroes. There are characters on either side who are selfless and brave and those who are selfish and weak. Just because one side is in the wrong and the other is in the right doesn’t make them all necessarily evil or good. Our world doesn’t work that way and neither does the world Barclay has created, making it all the more believable.
While Rise Of The TaiGethen ends with something of a resolution, the story is far from over. The elves still have to deal with healing the rifts in their society. The dissension between the various races prior to the human invasion resulted in atrocities being committed by elf against elf and those aren’t wounds that can be smoothed over with just a band aid. Of course unless they can learn how to harness their magical abilities the threat of another human invasion will continue to be a reality. In the first two books of his Elves trilogy Barclay showed us how easy it is for even a supposedly advanced society to be brought to the brink of destruction. What will it take to rebuild it? Judging by the first two books there won’t be an easy answer but it should be a great read.