You're driving down the road, heading into some of the most beautiful scenery you've ever seen. It's fall, and the trees are gloriously orange, brown, and gold, the colors vibrantly hitting your eyes and washing over them. You think to yourself, "I could travel through here forever and it never would get old." Then you hit the state line, but that's okay. The author of such beauty doesn't need to worry about arbitrary boundaries. He will continue to produce this breathtaking sight despite that. And sure enough, as you keep going down the road, the trees are the same, the mountains in the distance are the same, and you are content. Then, you start to notice something strange. The trees are cardboard cut-outs. The beautiful prairies surrounding you and leading up to the distant mountains look pleasant, but are really mud-filled and don't bear up to closer examination. As you drive along, you notice that this is seeming more incredibly fake with each passing mile, and all of the cut-outs are the same. Before, each tree was its own creation, but now it's not even a reasonable facsimile.
Those are my feelings in a nutshell about The Isle of Battle by Sean Russell, the second book in the Swans' War trilogy. The first book, The One Kingdom, is beautiful, full of wonderful metaphors about stories and how we create them. The second book, however, loses almost all of the magic of the first, abandoning the metaphor except for a few token references and concentrating on a war between ancient beings who have come back as avatars, inhabiting people in the present to continue their battle. When I first began the book, I was anxious for the rest of the wonderful story I had been reading, and I wasn't disappointed. This book starts right where the previous one left off, and I was enthralled. I even commented as such. But then everything started feeling the same, Russell started using other characters that I didn't care about, and most of the main characters got stuck in one locale for almost the entire book. It started getting tedious, and the story metaphor that I so enjoyed seemed to have disappeared.
What could have happened to cause such drastic changes? What's so different? The first book concerned two families, the Wills and the Renné, who have been warring over the kingship of the "Land Between the Mountains," or the "One Kingdom," for centuries. Elise Wills was going to be forced to marry Prince Michael, son of the Prince of Innes, to cement an alliance and to force a war into this situation that had been simmering for many years. A mysterious stranger, Alaan, was trying to stop this war from occurring, and Elise finally made a drastic decision to keep from having to take part. Alaan and the villainous Hafydd were shown to be new incarnations of two old enemies (and brothers), Sainth and Caibre. They had given themselves to the river Wynnd and avoided having to pass through Death's Gate. Instead, they've been waiting, existing as creatures called the Nagar until they find a person to make a bargain with. They then inhabit that person. Hafydd and Alaan made that bargain long ago, but the sister, Sianon, hadn't found anybody yet. Until Elise came along. Now, with all three returned, the war begins again. Sainth is wounded, and Sianon must find him in the strange swamp where Sainth tried to lure and abandon Caibre. Meanwhile, the more innocent adventurers from the first book (Tam, Cynddl, Baore, and Fynnol) are forced to join in this battle, protecting Elise as much as they can -- and sometimes having to be protected by her as well.
The more I read of this book, the more I missed the characters I had grown to love in the first book. It's not that Russell does a bad job of characterization. He doesn't change the characters without them learning something or being changed by events. However, he uses the surface of the characters that he had made so rich, making them part of a plot that doesn't really involve them, and doesn't make them grow. They are fairly stagnant in The Isle of Battle,and Russell concentrates on this ancient war. He doesn't neglect the situation between the Renné and the Wills, however. They still go to war over the Isle of Battle, and there is a battle scene or two. Lord Carral, Elise's father, is fairly well-characterized as a blind man who has forsaken his duty to his family for too long and is trying to make amends however he can. He had voluntarily relinquished the leadership of his family to his corrupt brother, and now he believes his daughter is dead. He is forced to make some hard choices and do some things he has never done. He is one of the few characters who I actually liked more in the second book.
Unfortunately, this doesn't stop Russell from making some seemingly unnecessary side-trips. He has a few chapters dealing with Carl (a name confusingly close to "Carral", but at least the characters are very different), a young prince of a family playing both sides of the war between the families. The trouble is, he is not very interesting, and the chapters devoted to his running from one side of the war just drag the book to a screeching halt. Plot-wise, his character and the events surrounding him seem to be very important,at least to the next book, but that doesn't mean the reader enjoys hearing about it in this one.
Most of the action between the characters we know takes place in a stagnant swamp, with constant descriptions of standing water, fog, beasts and wandering characters filling the text. Much of the time is spent despairing that they will get Alaan out in time, as they must get him to the river Wynnd to save him and he's the only person who can get them out of this land. More seemingly immortal characters show up, some interesting and some not, who have been involved with this war between the siblings for generations. These sequences became repetitive quickly, and the oppressive atmosphere that Russell describes becomes the reader's mood as well. That's not a good thing when an author is trying to capture his readers and make them wonder what happens next. I got to the point that I didn't care.
It's too bad that Russell abandons his story motif, because it really made the first book interesting. Lip service is given to it, as Cynddl repeatedly talks about the land they're trapped in, and how "so many people's stories have ended here." It's too little, however, and what there is of it also becomes quite repetitive as well. In fact, that's the main problem with this book: repetition. You start to feel like you've read the entire thing before, just a few pages ago. The plot is so obvious (Hafydd is going to let them rescue Alaan and then follow them out so he doesn't get trapped there as well) that even the characters constantly remark on it.
There are two things that make this even remotely worth reading. First, it's a continuation of what could be an interesting story, and there is hope that Russell can make the third book more interesting (though I haven't heard of a publication date, so who knows how long you'll have to wait). Secondly, Russell still has a way with prose. Even as he's battering you with the dreariness of the swamp, he's describing it so well that you feel like you're there. His prose is a joy to read, it's just too bad that he had to wreck the story that went along with it.
Buy this one in paperback or get it from the library. Read it to continue the story, but that's it. What a disappointment.