Children of the Serpent Gate by Sarah Ash

   From the outset, Sarah Ash’s work has had a distinctly Eastern European style that is both rare and welcome in a genre suffering from an excessive dose of Tolkien clones. There are no distinct villains and heroes, rather a complex combination of emotions that compel characters to take actions. Unfortunately this also seems to be somewhat of a problem for the series as the viewpoint is constantly flipping between a multitude of threads that are, at times, a little easy to lose track of. Indeed Children of the Serpent Gate gives the reader no time to dwell on what has happened previously before we are once again dealing with the consequences of those most recent events.

Picking up from Prisoner of Ironsea, Children of the Serpent Gate deals more deeply with the questions that the first two books have raised about the nature of the Drakhaouls and their relationship to the Rossiyan Empire. It is this mythical element to the books that has slowly taken over the narrative, evolving almost into a separate story that has forced the importance of the human events into a secondary position. This is a key factor in Children of the Serpent Gate, that the Drakhaouls become unique characters in their own right, having distinct personalities that whilst quite stereotypical allow the reader to perceive them as something more than parasitic symbiotes.

Unfortunately Sarah Ash has left it too late in the series to adequately cover enough of the ground required to really add to the series, leaving the book to meander uncertainly between the events taking place in the human world and the byplay of the Drakhaouls. As a result the pacing for this final book is a problem. Events, irrespective of import, slowly unwind until suddenly the end races up and the last page is turned. Whether this is reflective of either the author having more to say or needing to wrap up the book hastily is unclear, but the final outcome is that the book feels a touch rushed. The transitions between scenes have been improved yet there is still occasionally an abrupt nature to the swapping of viewpoints that is disconcerting and attempting to grasp an overall picture of what events are occurring at a certain moment can be tough.

The main complaint that can fairly levelled at the whole series is that despite attempting to convey the complexity of human interactions, the characters seem a little detached and reflective, stuck if you will in a very rigid class system, when a dose of blood and thunder wouldn’t have gone amiss. To balance this argument the nature of the Drakhaouls and their means of taking sustenance stands as a stark warning to the inevitable desensitisation of the human hosts and also works worryingly well as a metaphor about the costs of war. Nonetheless many of the characters conform very closely to familiar fantasy stereotypes that detract from the intriguing narrative and blunt the emotional aspect of several scenes. Nowhere is this more evident than in Gavril Nagarian who, as a microcosm of the work as a whole, neatly defines it’s faults and qualities.

Gavril’s tale comes full circle in Children of the Serpent Gate, his complete transformation from meek painter to Drakhaon and more is an intriguing journey detailing how corruptible the human soul is and yet how powerful hope remains within our literature and lives. What the reader experiences through Gavril is the sorrowful emotions that life can throw at an individual with incredible responsibilities and secrets that slowly erode his very being. His anguish at each new killing of an innocent for sustenance is poignant and Gavril’s whole demeanour throughout the series is that of a pained man. Perhaps Ash writes this part of Gavril too well, eclipsing any uplifting emotions and events that happen to him. Thus as a character Gavril is a little too distant and lacking in depth for the reader to completely empathise with him. Despite his tentative position as protagonist of the series it is hard not to have ambivalent feelings towards much of his actions and emotions, particularly in lieu of any attempt to balance his pain.

Ash seems more confident writing Kiukiu’s part, using her as a focal point for sympathy, which is shown by her relationship with the Drakhaoul’s children and also through her loss of youth and beauty. Kiukiu’s link to the Drakhaoul’s children in the realm of shadow is a significant section in the book, being well written and adding some much needed depth and variety to underpin the Drakhaouls emergence. It also offers a change of pace and forces the reader to think through how events in the realm of shadow tie into what is occurring in the Rossiyan Empire. Despite her importance in this final volume though, Kiukiu is often a peripheral figure in Children of the Serpent Gate, leaving the reader a little disappointed that her role as spirit singer isn’t more fully used and explained. Indeed many of the women in the Tears of Artamon series have been on the periphery, portraying classic female archetypes that have added little to the story and at times, Astasia in this last book, been quite irritating.

There are several positives to Children of the Serpent Gate, key amongst these being the Drakhaouls. By expanding the storyline to include not only their release but also the relationship between each Drakhaoul and its child, the story creates a familial bond that is both surprising and open to exploitation. The children understand the Drakhaouls in a way that, Gavril excepted, their new hosts do not, allowing each Drakhaoul to subvert their host to its wishes. Each Drakhaoul’s method of subversion is different, tapping into the hosts’ weaknesses and displaying the contrasting personalities and egos of each. Although the delineation of the hosts and Drakhaouls is classically ‘good’ and ‘evil’, the ways in which each is corrupted or accepts the Drakahouls’ agenda is an interesting aspect to the book. Although the Drakhaouls are too powerful, prevented from achieving all their goals only by the necessity of feeding, their insertions into human events heighten the drama, if not the inevitability of each conflict, greatly. Another idea that has been quite thought provoking through the series is the Francian Commanderie and it’s desire to stamp out magic and to a degree, free thought. Throughout the book there is a distinct feeling that this is a world going through strong political changes, not just as a result of the Tears of Artamon changing hands on a regular basis. In this final book the changes become evident and manifest, with events bringing into question how the nations will be ruled. Although this plays only a relatively small part in the book, it is evidence that the world Ash has created continues to revolve away from the main narrative threads. With so many narrative threads, the reader does experience a range of environments and locales that adds to the impression of a well rounded, thought out world. The darkness of tone throughout the book is palpable and an enjoyable change from the fluffy fare often served to fans of the fantasy genre, although the ending comes as a bit of a let down, reverting to the most traditional of fantasy endings which, without spoiling it, belies the nature of the story and the difficulty with which it was woven.

If this review seems overly harsh it is not because the book, and by extension the trilogy, aren’t enjoyable pieces of writing but because there was so much potential within the works to have suggested Sarah Ash was and is capable of more. As a reader it is therefore frustrating to find yourself wishing on a few occasions ‘if only the author had gone a bit deeper into this’ because there are several areas that really hook you but are never covered beyond a few paragraphs. In conclusion then, Children of the Serpent Gate is an enjoyable finish to a trilogy that offered much but remained a touch too subdued to be a great piece of writing. It nonetheless exists as an enticing glimpse of what future Sarah Ash projects could be.

Reviewed by Owen Jones © 2005

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