Cry of the Newborn by James Barclay

(2006-05-08)

   

Cry of the Newborn by James Barclay

Book One of the Ascendants of Estorea.

608 / 819 pages

Published by Gollancz, UK. October 2005.

ISBN: 0575076208 (Trade paperback) 0575076178 (Hardback)

(Mass Market Paperback: 057507812X. Due September 2006.)

Review by Hobbit.

So: what happens in a magic-free world when magic appears? Is it a gift from God or heresy? James Barclay’s latest looks at these ideas.

Set in a late era Romanesque setting, James’s latest book is a major step up from his previously well-received books about The Raven. Good though The Raven books were, this is more wide-ranging, more in depth, more mature. This book shows an already up and coming British writer displaying his rapidly growing skills and confidence.

The action of the plot takes place in a Roman Empire type scenario - the Estorean Conquord, which has stood omnipresent for 850 years. At the start of the book, its leader (or Advocate), is a woman, Herine Del Aglios. She is principled, young and idealistic, and knows that she presides over the greatest civilisation in history. For many, this means that life is tranquil and serene, protected by the Empire.

The Empire is kept running by the actions of Herine’s accountants, the Gatherers, who collect taxes for the Empire, and who are seen as the uncompromising strength and administers for the Advocate. Their leader, Paul Jhered, is both respected and treated with awe - a supremely loyal citizen whose sometimes harsh, yet rational, actions are seen as ultimately for the benefit of Estorea.

But as is often the case in history, the continued growth of the Empire means that Herine must continue to expand the Empire in order to sustain it. She decides to use her mighty armies and navies to expand the Conquord into the neighbouring Kingdom of Tsard from the fairly recently colonised country of Atreska. The expansion of the empire into the Kingdom of Tsard means that at the beginning of the book a situation arises where people who were once allies, old friends and neighbours are forced to fight each other in the cause of, or defence from, the ever-growing Conquord.

The Conquord, after initial success, and partly due to overconfidence on the part of the Estorean military leaders, disastrously miscalculates their adversary and thus precipitates a consequential reversal in the war. Instead of annexing the Kingdom of Tsard, Estorea finds itself fighting battles on two fronts – from the Kingdom of Tsard and Atreska. Instead of attacking, the Empire  has Tsardon troops flooding into the Conquord and suddenly having to defend itself against an opposition underestimated and determined to retaliate.

This would be a complex book in itself. What James does to make this book attention-grabbing is that at the same time as these world-changing events, the Conquord has the arrival of the Ascendants – children who have the powers to change things around them.

Like R. Scott Bakker’s series, this is a complex world, and like Scott’s, one which can take a little following. At first, the book can take a little while to get going. There’s a lot of characterisation, place introduction and back-story in the first hundred pages or so. Like a lot of Erikson’s books you are seemingly thrown into events early in the book.

In order to follow the stream of names, places, countries and states, I did find myself wishing for help. Though I do not always feel the need for one, I did feel that in this case the book desperately needs a map (though there is one available on the Internet and may be one in the mass market publication of this book).

However, though it takes a little time, at about 300 pages in I found that the book had me hooked. James’s ability to write ‘epic’, as shown in his earlier series, here is given an even wider canvas to work on. Complex motives, political schemes, aggressive battling on a widescreen scale – all that you might expect from major Fantasy - are here. As ever, James handles the conflicts with aplomb – the many confrontations that occur here are as terrifying, thrilling, and visceral as you can get. The sheer power of empirical military might and tactics are all shown to good effect here.

What is also more apparent here is James’s maturing as a writer. This book is more complex and less black and white than his earlier work. It is not always possible to engage the reader with characters that you care about – one of the failings of many epic stories is that their broad canvas means that there is a failure to engage the reader with the individuals and characters whose actions make the epic memorable.

James manages this by concentrating mainly on the actions of a surprisingly few key individuals: (though there is a Cast List at the front of the book) – in particular, Paul Jhered, the leader of the Gatherers, whose professional aloofness conceals a deep love and concern for both Herine and the Empire, Herine Del Aglios herself, the naïve yet well meaning advocate of the Estorean Conquord, her son Roberto Del Aglios, the heroic General of the Army of the North, Felice Koroyan, Chancellor and religious zealot, and Thomal Yuran, leader of Atreska, eventually forced to turn and fight the Empire. Indeed, one of the strengths of the book is that James’s ‘good characters and ‘bad’ characters are never wholly that. There’s enough justification there to make the characters more complex and better rounded as people. It takes some doing to make what are basically accountants a viable (and even likable) group with a difficult job – but James manages it supremely well.

And then there are the Ascendents – the children whose prophecy has been foretold, the four children (Mirron, Ossacer, Gorian and Arducius) who each have different skills sensing the elements, (Wind Harker, Land Warden, Firewalker, Waterborn ) whose birth and evolution (the result of centuries of careful study and selective breeding) make them a magical force to be both feared and respected.

This idea of 'outsiders with powers beyond the understanding of most' is a very common theme in Fantasy. Though I was a little worried when I read the initial brief summary of the book that the characters would start (or become) stereotypes of the genre, I was pleased to find that generally they are not. As the book progresses, the characters grow convincingly. The characters evolve into that difficult teenager period with incredible results.

One of the main intriguing differences between this book and The Raven series is how much James has used religion as a motivational theme here. The Raven books used it in a fairly minor way, but in Cry of the Newborn it is a major force that both causes and stultifies change. Interestingly, there is a much stronger religious presence in this book, because James examines the development of a society with a long background of a single religion (unlike the Romans in this aspect) and how it would view the return of magical powers to a society – the idea of the powers being seen as a gift or as heresy is well examined here, and the consequences depressingly familiar. This is what makes the book out of the ordinary as the Ascendants are seen as something to fear as well as protect.

By the end of the book events (and pages) were moving rapidly. There are surprises and interesting developments along the way, which I do not wish to spoil. There were moments when I was pleased, shocked, and horrified. As with James’ earlier books and George RR Martin’s recent Fantasy work, do not expect all the characters to make it to the end! The ending is very satisfying and worth the effort of the previous events.

At the risk of sounding clichéd, if you want an epic Fantasy, then this comes highly recommended. What makes James’ book stand out from the majority of similar sounding Fantasy is that this is more than just ‘another Fantasy’, and pleasingly well written to be different from the usual.

I can see this being one of my favourite reads of the last few years. I look forward to the second book, A Shout for the Dead, due out late 2006.

Hobbit, May 2006

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