"It was true, though, as Cynddl said: life was short, memory limited to the lives of others, but stories lasted. It seemed to Tam just then, with the storm raging around him, that men flickered into being like lightning, cut a single stroke into the earth, and were gone, but the single stroke they made might last for hundreds of years. A brief instant to find one's place in the larger story, and then darkness." The One Kingdom, p. 212
When it comes right down to it, life is a series of interlocking stories, one of your stories interacting with that of someone else, or maybe those of a few other people. Every one of them means something to you at the time, though if it's not a very interesting story, it may fade into the mists of time. If it's particularly interesting and affects a lot of people, it may be recorded and become part of society's memory, which will allow it to live past the end of your life.
The One Kingdom by Sean Russell is a book that is about, ultimately, stories. Neil Gaiman writes about stories and how they affect us, but Russell is writing about how we write stories with our very actions. He wraps this in a story of his own, an epic yet strangely personal story about a group of young men from a remote village, out for a little adventure, who find a lot more than they bargain for. Also included is a story about a young girl who is a pawn in an evil scheme, and a mysterious man who is trying desperately to avert a war. Russell does a marvelous job of tying these disparate stories together into a tight narrative, engaging the readers' interest as we wonder just how they are all going to come together.
Russell uses the ultimate story of two warring families to create this unity. The Renné and the Wills have been divided for over a hundred years, with the land never having a true ruler. Instead, it's been two factions in an unsteady peace rife with conflict and tension. As the book begins, a murder is being plotted. The cousins of Toren, head of the Renné family, try to avert what they feel is a fatal mistake. Toren is about to give back the legendary Isle of Battle to the Wills, from whom they took it all those years ago. The cousins plan to kill Toren to prevent it. Meanwhile, plots abound on the Wills side, with the Prince of Innes allying himself with Sir Eremon, an evil knight with more to him than just villanous smirk. Eremon has long hated the Renné and lives for war. Both of these drives come together in the fact that his alliance with Innes will produce the armies he needs to make war on his bitter enemies. He also plans to bring the Wills over to his side by forcing Prince Michael, the son of the Prince of Innes, to marry Elise, daughter of the head of the Wills family.
Russell uses these stories to illustrate the fact that we all have stories to tell or to live, or maybe just to hear. He uses one more story to do this, by using the time-honored tradition of a group of people going out in search of adventure and finding that adventure isn't always something you want to go looking for: sometimes you stumble into stories that you had no intention of writing, much less starring in. Tam and his friends Baore and Fynnol meet up with a group of Faél (a gypsy-like people) who ask them to accompany a "Story-finder" named Cynddl down the river, to record its stories from generations long-past. Ultimately they stumble into all the intrigue and become pieces in a game that goes back hundreds of years.
The river becomes the metaphor of choice for Russell, and he uses it well. "'It is a strange old river,' Rath said, 'Like an open vein bleeding the past out onto the land between the mountains. Staining it with forgotten history.'" The river represents all the stories that have happened along it, and the flow of the river represents life flowing as it goes by. Sometimes it's rough (as when Tam and the others have to survive some raging rapids), and sometimes it's the ultimate in calm. The small group journeys down the river as people come and go from it, interacting with them along the way. Slowly, the story unfolds around them and they get swept up in events. The ending, set up by the mysterious man known as Alaan, is a blaze of action, mix-ups, misdirection and interacting plots. Is Eremon one step ahead of our heroes? Perhaps that's how we get to the second book in the series (The Isle of Battle).
While there are some slow bits and seemingly pointless characters in the book, Russell does an effective job of keeping the pace moving and the characters at least mildly interesting. Some characters (such as the man with his deaf and mute children that the group of heroes meets on a deserted island on the river) don't seem to have much purpose, though they are clearly set up for the rest of the series. Russell succeeds in making us care about them at least a little bit, so we don't mind what seems like a pointless side-trip. At times he goes a little too far with the story metaphor, making it seem obvious and trite (he does go on about the river just a little bit too much), but overall I found the whole book fascinating.
Elise, a woman who has always been bored by life, gets caught up in these events and has to learn what it takes to not only write your own story, but to write the story you want to write:
"It seemed that she had escaped her uncle but not his pronouncement. Childhood had run its course. She was a girl no more, and if she did not make decisions for herself, others would make them for her. She must write her own story, or it would go terribly awry: an unwanted marriage, isolation in the house of Innes, a broken, melancholy man for a husband. It was not the story she would choose." The reader really starts to care about this girl who started out seeming like a spoiled brat, even as Russell uses her to emphasize how we must wrest control of the stories we create or risk letting the story write us instead.
Sean Russell is not a new face in fantasy fiction, but he's a new one for me. I really enjoyed The One Kingdom and am already deep into the second book of "The Swans' War." If you want a grand yet intimate fantasy story with interesting characters and fascinating themes, this is a book you should pick up.