Shout for the Dead by James Barclay
Book Two of the Ascendants of Estorea
Review by Justin Thorne
*** SPOILER WARNING – DO NOT READ BEFORE COMPLETING BOOK ONE***
I’ve always been a fan of James Barclay. That’s down to a combination of enjoying his earlier series, The Chronicles of the Raven, and the fact he is an active member at various online communities. I have never, and I mean NEVER, seen an author take negative criticism with such grace and humility. He always makes the effort to thank individuals who have taken the time to read his books and then feel compelled to comment, even if they disliked them. (Anne Rice, take note!) I should point out that it is a minority of readers who are negative towards his books, James has built-up a loyal fanbase around the lovable rogues of the Raven.
James maintained a friendship with the late, great David Gemmell, and was even charged with the honour of reading at his memorial. His (James’) rendition of Druss’ speech from Legend is likely to go down in genre folklore. Indeed, Shout for the Dead is dedicated to his mentor and there is a touching account of the friends’ last meeting, to discuss this very book, at James’ website. I mention the connection to David because I’ve always felt that some readers may have been turned-off by the constant comparisons to Gemmell’s work. Personally, I’ve understood the comparison but never really subscribed to it – the Raven is heroic fantasy, it is gritty, and James has the ability to write believable, likeable characters that the reader engages with. He has a mastery of dialogue, and manages to make you laugh out loud with his gallows humour. But none of these traits, although shared with Gemmell, are unique to Gemmell. For this reviewer, James has always had his own voice in the genre and I am a huge Gemmell fan!
James has always added an interesting take on magic systems and has been open in the past about his love for gaming and role-playing. I enjoyed the Raven (as previously stated) but I was looking forward to seeing what he could do outside of that universe.
I had no idea what to expect with the Ascendants of Estorea but was completely knocked over by Book One, Cry of the Newborn (SFFWORLD review here). Steven Erikson said it best when he described the books as ‘Extraordinary… impressively ambitious.’ The latter part of the blurb is an understatement!
Mark covered the first book extremely well in the above mentioned review, but for me, apart from the epic scale, cast and plot, it was some of the themes explored in this new universe, which kept me turning the pages. Some people picked up on the Romanesque setting of Estorea and the similar cultural and political traits shared between the Romans and the Conquord; others were excited by the theme of magic entering a fantasy world for the first time.
I was interested in all of that, but above all else, it was the concept of Paul Jhered – how many fantasy novels introduce a warrior taxman as a protagonist? I can’t think of one. It isn’t just the scale of the themes that makes this series a must buy for fantasy fans; it’s the execution of these themes through the eyes, hearts and minds of its characters. James has no black and white characters, they are all flawed in their own way and face internal conflict around very human emotions; as the plot unfolds it is with Jhered where I feel mastery of this device is most evident. We have an uptight, anal, loyal, efficient, imposing tax gatherer – not always the characteristics of a hero. However, by the end of Book One, you are totally behind him as he becomes a father-figure for the Ascendant children.
In Shout for the Dead we rejoin the Ascendants, now in their mid-twenties as they attempt to assimilate into the culture of the Empire. They are still viewed with awe and fear by their peers and matters are not helped by the fact they are now residing in the heart of the Conquord. Perhaps most interestingly, we are introduced to Kessian, the result of the shocking rape inflicted upon Mirron towards the conclusion of Book One.
The rogue Ascendant, Gorian, has allied himself with the Tsardon King, Khuran, and has found a new power amongst his already potentially disastrous arsenal. He can now raise and control the dead. This is both the central theme and the central threat for the Empire throughout the book and is executed in a believable and chilling way. To make matters worse for the Conquord and the three amiable Ascendants, Gorian decides that he needs his son by his side in order to implement his most fiendish of plans – to send an army of the dead upon the Conquord!
The impending attack on the Conquord is not the only threat for the Ascendant adults, as internal politics and religious zeal continues to apply pressure upon the matriarch, Herine Del Aglios, to either destroy or banish the magic-wielders from the Empire. Barclay very cleverly, never reveals which way Herine will lean, instead leaving it up to the Ascendants to sway opinion amongst the people and conversely, Felice Koroyan, to impose her will that they be named as heretics and destroyed.
I love Felice as a villain in that I hate her guts; turning the page to find out if she finally gets her comeuppance was just as compelling for me as a reader, as much as the major plot unfolding around the march of the dead.
This aspect of the plot shows that James Barclay could write horror; yet it isn’t what you would expect from a novel containing zombies. The real horror is in the exploration of the fear and confusion faced by the dead themselves, upon finding themselves resurrected. It is the horror of facing loved-ones and close friends on the battlefield, and the realisation that should you fall, you will get up again and attack the very people you were defending.
Another interesting and insightful plot arc is the development of Mirron as she searches for her son with all the anxious, frightening neurosis you would expect from a worried mother. She is in danger of becoming just as powerful and dangerous as Gorian and the tension dripped from the pages during her scenes. Ossacer also held my interest throughout the book, as his naivety and idealism nearly topples the Empire from the inside-out.
What the series is building to, and obviously so, is the inevitable showdown between the Ascendants. Gorian was a bad seed from early-on in Book One and his actions have been shocking, cruel and selfish throughout the story. The others should have destroyed him in Book One; the readers know that, Jhered knows that and deep down the other Ascendants know it too. And therein lays Barclay’s true mastery of storytelling – the tension and pace he manages to create as the story unfolds. You want Felice dead, you want Gorian dead, you don’t want the likeable characters dead – and if James is nice in real-life, he is deadly in his books. The reader doesn’t always get what they want, The Raven series is renowned for killing off major characters and this series is no different. If authors decide to go all WWE with nicknames, then perhaps we can call James the ‘Baby-Faced Assassin’!
If I have one big criticism, it’s that the conclusion was a bit of an anti-climax, though I read through over one thousand pages to get there after all! I’m not sure what I was expecting at the inevitable showdown between the Ascendants, but it did feel like a fizzle rather than a bang. I’m not sure if it is because there was simply so much going on, so many ends to tie-up or because I was just emotionally exhausted by the time I got there!
In any case, there is no doubt that this book and this series is an absolute triumph… perhaps even a master class. This is what happens when a talented author goes full-time with his writing!
Like Book One, Shout for the Dead is a massive book and a massive achievement, it is highly complex, political, chilling and utterly compelling. The series manages to pack more ‘Epic’ and more ‘Fantasy’ in two books than some other so-called Epic Fantasy Writers can manage in twenty volumes! Perhaps James has managed to create ‘Epic Horror’ as a genre?
Highly recommended for readers who want to be challenged, entertained, dazed and sometimes chilled to their very core.
Justin Thorne, May 2007.