A Cavern of Black Ice by J.V. Jones

A Cavern of Black Ice by JV Jones

Sword of Shadows, Book One

Published 1999 by Orbit UK

736 pages

ISBN: 978-1857237436

Review by Mark Yon

Thought it was time I read a series that’s been staring at me for over a decade.

JV Jones’s series (now up to Book Four, Watcher of the Dead, with Book Five currently being written) is initially set in a sub-Arctic-type world, with a culture and a subsistence lifestyle which made me think a la Inuit. Raif Sevrance is a young clansman with a secret magic power (the ability to guide, with his mind, arrows to the heart of a living thing) whose father and clan group are mysteriously murdered whilst they are on a hunting trip. Raif and his brother Drey return to the remainder of the clan, to find that the dead clanleader’s foster child, Mace Blackhail, has not only taken over as tribe leader but also has stirred the tribe into war with the neighbouring Bludd clan, blamed for the massacre. Raif finds the new leader, violent, unpleasant and vindictive and also suspects Mace to be the cause for the slaughter, wanting to lead the clan into a takeover of the other clan groups.

After women and children of the Bludd clan are massacred in a revenge ambush, Raif runs away from the tribe with his uncle, Angus Lok, and he ends up in Spire Vanis, one of the southern cities. There he meets runaway Asarhia March (Ash), a young step-daughter of Penthero Iss, a sorcerer and Surlord (overlord) of the city.  Raif, Ash and Angus escape the city, chased by Marafice Eye, Iss’s repugnant Protector General of the Rive Watch, and at Ille Glaive meet crippled sorcerer Heritas Cant. Cant tells them that Ash is a Reach, the first person for centuries that can connect the worlds of the underworld, called The Blind, and Ash/Raif’s world.  Ash is under attack by the Bound Men, who are trying to possess her through her dreams and use her to return from The Blind to the world of the living. Unless Ash discharges her Reach-power she will die. The characters travel through icy wastes to find the titular Cavern of Black Ice to do this and where Ash’s fate awaits.

What put me off this one for quite a while is what I thought were the clichés: tribespeople and primitive lifestyles of leather and wolf/seal/bearskin, which when combined with shamanistic ramblings and token magic seem to have wandered out of a Jean M. Auel novel. There’s also a bad guy being evil, a shy young hero with a destiny, a feisty young heroine under threat with her own destiny to reach, a romantic interest, and a quest for a token of power. Many readers at this point would say, “Been there, read it (and read it and read it…)”

And to start with, that’s pretty much what we seem to get. Routine quest fantasy.

BUT… after the initial concern that it was a typical quest novel, after a rather slow start this is quite a page turner. Whilst there was still too much Clan of the Cave Bears at first for me, once our hero and heroine meet in the city of Spire Vanis, it’s a fast paced and intense read. What really works here is the characterisation. In particular, in the characters of Ash and Raif, we see the growing up of two young people who cope with varying degrees of success in situations neither would want.  It’s a brutal world. As the book goes on, wider aspects of this world are revealed in an interestingly written, rich history and background rather reminiscent of George RR Martin’s rich tapestry of A Song of Ice and Fire. We have a long history of different clans and quite different races, details of previous rulers and famous people which deepen our knowledge and understanding of Raif and Ash’s world.

This harsh environment is also reflected in the scenes of battle, rape and torture which are throughout. The book begins and ends with a character whose life involves perpetual torture. In the fighting scenes there are some very gruesome details created, which are shocking in their depiction. The massacre of women and children by the Blackhail clan is wincingly heart-rending and there’s some quite visceral torture scenes. Bearing in mind that this book’s over a decade old, it’s quite a shocking revelation. Whilst it’s not quite in the same league of grue as, say, George RR Martin or Joe Abercrombie, nevertheless, it may not be for everyone.

There’s a couple of very moving cliffhangers at the end of the book. I’m pleased to say that, although my disinterest in Arctic dwellers was not altered, by the end of this hefty tome I was happy to readdress my initial pessimism and even though I could see where this one was going, even with the twist, I found I really wanted to know what happens next.

Not perfect: but a book that improves as it goes along until a cracking finale. A solidly entertaining start to the series, and one that I should’ve read earlier, perhaps.

Mark Yon, October 2011

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