Children of Chaos by Dave Duncan

(2006-05-31)

Tor Hardcover June 2006

Scottish-Canadian author Dave Duncan's latest offering is Children of Chaos, the first book in a fantasy duology dubbed "the Dodec books." This is a reference to the story's world Dodec, which is shaped like a dodecahedron. However, one should not assume that a story taking place on a twelve-sided die is a Dungeons & Dragons knockoff, as Children of Chaos places a greater emphasis on intrigue than action, with a little bit of humor thrown in for good measure.

Children of Chaos focuses upon two of the twelve faces on Dodec, Vigaelia and Florengia. Vigaelia is populated by a race of people Scandinavian in appearance and name, whereas Florengia is populated by a race of people Mediterranean in appearance and name. Although the two faces have some fundamental differences, they do share a common pantheon of gods called the Bright Ones. As is common with polytheistic cultures, each of the Bright Ones embodies different aspects of the physical world and their worshippers' daily lives. Thus, Weru is the god of storms and war, Veslih is the goddess of the hearth and home, Mayn is the goddess of wisdom, Anziel is the goddess of beauty, Ucr is the god of prosperity and abundance, and Xaran, the Mother of Lies, is the goddess of death.

Children of Chaos opens with the Vigaelian army, led by Stralg Hragson, at the gates of the Florengian city of Celebre. Piero, doge of Celebre, tries to save his defenseless city by offering his eldest child, eleven-year-old Dantio, as hostage. Stralg demands all four of Piero's children, and faced with no other choice, Piero acquiesces. Stralg takes the children and sends them to four different cities in Vigaelia.

Fifteen years pass. The Vigaelian empire, led by Stralg, his sister Saltaja, and his brothers Horold and Therek, continues to send forces over the alpine spine of the world separating Vigaelia and Florengia. However, Vigaelian casualties are increasing because Florengians trained to fight for the Vigaelian cause have rebelled against their masters. Even more disturbing, large numbers of Vigaelian soldiers are deserting before even crossing into Florengia. The Vigaelian empire is overreaching itself and collapsing under its own weight.

As Stralg's army in Florengia falls back to the strategically important Celebre, a new development arises: Piero, doge of Celebre, is dying. Saltaja Hragsdor, who rules Vigaelia in Stralg's absence, decides to replace Piero with one of his hostage children to act as a puppet ruler in Celebre. The eldest child, Dantio, died mysteriously in the intervening years, so she must choose one of the three remaining children: Piero's sons Benard and Orlando, and his daughter Fabia.

Benard Celebre, the eldest of the three, has become a worshipper of Anziel, goddess of beauty. He is a master artist and a romantic who cares little of politics. Orlando has become a Werist, or worshipper of Weru, and dreams of slaughtering Florengians as a soldier in the Vigaelian army. Fabia, the youngest, has not yet learned of her noble parentage, nor that her foster mother promised her to a particular goddess when Fabia was an infant.

Who will become the next leader of Celebre, and will he or she be a puppet ruler or a rebel? Which army will prevail, the Vigaelians or the Florengians, and is there a third army mustering for battle? What role will the gods play in all of this?

Children of Chaos establishes the world of Dodec and its principal characters with chapters narrated through the viewpoints of these characters, focusing on the Celebre children but also including Saltaja, Horold and Therek, Ingeld Narsdor, wife of Horold, and Horth Wigson, Fabia's foster father. This method of narration allows the reader to gradually learn about the politics of Dodec and see the Vigaelian-Florengian conflict from all sides. Although not all of the apparent "bad guys" in Children of Chaos are simply evil, there appears to be an underlying malevolent force at work that will likely be revealed fully in the concluding novel of the duology, titled Mother of Lies.

Piety is an important element of Children of Chaos, and serves as the moral framework of the story. The faithful are rewarded by their gods and the hubristic have things turn against them. The gods play a significant role in Children of Chaos, not actually appearing but instead manifesting themselves through a variety of divine interventions. For instance, Horth's financial prosperity is attributed to his worship of Ucr, and Ingeld, as a servant of Veslih, is able to see people and events from afar through the hearth's holy flames.

Much less subtle (alright, downright spectacular) are the Werists, who are able to "battleform," or transform partially or wholly into giant beasts such as cats, boars, bulls, bears, wolves, and birds. However, this gift from Weru comes with a price, as remaining in battleform for too long can result in problems when one "retroforms," or becomes human again. Duncan gives the cult of Weru the most attention of all the faiths in Dodec (followed by the Maynists, who act as unwilling accomplices to the Vigaelian political agenda), making the Werists the most interesting aspect of Children of Chaos, and the vivid imagery of Werists in battle could prove to be the most memorable part of this series.

In a recent interview in Locus Magazine, Duncan discussed the danger of mixing religion and politics, and this danger can be seen in Children of Chaos. The Vigaelian Empire is a product of the cult of Weru's ambition, and that same ambition is the cause of the crisis the Vigaelians now face. The Maynists' reluctance to use their seer-like abilities to help the Werists reflects the aversion to mixing religion and politics, and the Werists' chauvinism amounts to hubris in relation to the other gods. It will be interesting to see how this crisis is resolved in Mother of Lies. Duncan's views suggest that the story may end with harmony between public and private life and the cult of Weru's return to its place as just one of many religious groups. However, history has shown that when such a power vacuum is created, the void is often filled by another party that exercises the same abuses as that which was ousted. Will the Maynists, for all their protestations of political non-involvement, be liberators who usher in a return to religious parity, or will they be the next faction in control?

Children of Chaos is very readable, as Duncan keeps things at a quick pace through the intrigues and revelations while not taking things too seriously. Throughout Children of Chaos there is a sense of lightheartedness, as even in the most dangerous moments the characters are able to smile and crack the occasional joke. It makes for a very fun reading experience and prevents the book from wallowing in a sense of self-importance. The downside to Duncan's writing style is that the language occasionally slips into colloquialisms that don't quite fit the story. While an excessively formal English would not be appropriate for this story, the use of words such as "smooching" by a semi-omniscient narrator can be a bit jarring in their informality.

The story has several scenes that dance around adult content, with the more explicit stuff conveniently obscured by the little diamond shapes that mark passage breaks in the text. This, in addition to some detailed battle scenes, makes Children of Chaos less appropriate for small children, although teens and up should have no problem with it. After all, for all the politics and intrigue involved, it's ultimately a story about some teenage kids finding their place in this crazy twelve-sided world.

Children of Chaos establishes the principal characters and sets the stage for an exciting conflict between cultures, religions, and armies. As such, this first part works well as a stand-alone story while leaving much open for the concluding Mother of Lies. That being said, I think that the story may prove to work better as a single volume than as a duology. While Children of Chaos is an entertaining story in itself, for the most part it lays a groundwork for what promises to be an even more exciting and eventful second half. A volume twice the size of Children of Chaos's 350 pages would not be too ponderous, and with Duncan's writing style, would be a quick read. Of course, the bifurcation of stories into separate volumes can be the result of myriad considerations, often having to do not with actual content but instead with the economics of publishing. Perhaps a favorable reader response will result in a 700-page paperback volume containing the whole story.

In the meantime, readers can enjoy this first part of the Dodec duology, and look forward to next spring, when Mother of Lies will be published. For imaginative escapism with enough substance to satisfy that damned rational part of your brain, I recommend Children of Chaos. AEE!!!

Arthur Bangs 2006

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