Have you ever read a book where the author so vividly describes a setting that it affects your mood while reading it? Say you're reading about a festival, and the author is so good that you not only feel like you're there, but you feel your spirits rise as the author describes the surroundings? Sean Russell is that kind of author. Unfortunately, it can work against him, too. In The Isle of Battle, a large part of the action takes place in an oppressive swamp so dank and dreary that it affects the reader as well. That's the only explanation I can think of for why I disliked that book so much. Perhaps I was a bit too harsh on it. I still stand by the review, but perhaps the tone was a bit too critical.
What can account for this change? I just finished The Shadow Roads, the final volume in The Swans' War. With one book, Russell has made up for everything that was wrong with The Isle of Battle. The prose is evocative, but this time the story keeps up with it. While Russell still doesn't give us the story motif that I so loved in The One Kingdom, he also doesn't just pay it lip service as he did in the second book. I was amazed at how good this book was, and it seems all Russell had to do was get the story out of the swamp.
War between the Renne and the Wills has exploded with an invasion of the Isle of Battle. While this conflict simmers, however, a war of a different kind is taking place - a war to prevent the specter of Death from washing over the One Kingdom. Three ancient sorcerers, their spirits inhabiting new bodies, have awakened and now vie for the power over Death itself in a war that goes back thousands of years, to the formation of the One Kingdom itself. Hafydd, dark knight and the new host for the evil Caibre, is trying to awaken Caibre's father and open the gateway to Death's domain. Caibre's brother and sister, inhabiting bodies of their own, race through the shadowy lands to stop him. If they can't, it won't matter what happens between the two families. There won't be anybody left in the world to worry about it.
There are so many things to recommend about The Shadow Roads, but the best thing is still the prose. Russell has a way with description that I have only seen matched by Barbara Hambly, but in a much different way. Hambly describes the everyday surroundings of her characters. Russell concentrates more on the world itself.
"A maid curtsied him out onto the balcony, where he stood, gazing over the walled garden. By day, he had never seen it. By night it was a mysterious place, filled with shadows and unrecognizable shapes in shades of gray. Lavender was the scent of the place, and a small tinkle of running water was its voice. That, and the sighs and whispers of the trees." (p. 103)
Russell doesn't just evoke the setting. His descriptions of battle scenes are vivid, too. They make you feel like you are there, experiencing everything the character is:
"The shock of their landing buckled the floor, throwing the little man into the air for a moment, then slamming him down. He thought he heard someone whimpering and realized the voice was his. Something fell so close that he was tossed up again, and again smashed down. Smoke stung his nostrils, then darkness fluttered over him, like a fall of black snow." (p. 346)
The characters are another strong point in The Shadow Roads. They all grow to some extent, and all have three dimensions. The Valemen, who were innocents in The One Kingdom, have grown hardened to the violence that they have been forced into, yet they still contain that kernel of their former selves, sickened by what it is they must do to survive. None of them come through this crucible the same as they went in. It affects them in logical ways, with some tragic consequences as well. Cynddl, the Fael storyfinder, is also extremely well done. As they journey through the shadows, he is almost overcome with the horrible stories he can feel emanating from the ground that has been host to many atrocities through the ages. His final act in the book is extremely touching and fitting the character that we've seen throughout the series, a final gift that is logical in hindsight but one I never saw coming. There are too many characters to name, but not one of them is a cardboard cutout.
The only mild complaint I have about The Shadow Roads is the climax of the story, which comes a little out of left field. I didn't think it was necessary for the character who commits the final act to have done so, as I found the character's arc interesting by itself without having to have been involved in the ultimate resolution. Also, while I think the story motif came full circle in this book, it still felt a little detached. In The One Kingdom, the motif was as much a part of Russell's narration as it was a part of the story. This time it's an element of the story, but Russell doesn't really get the reader involved in it. There's no message to it like there was in the first book, where Russell appeared to be saying that life is a series of personal stories that sometimes interact with others stories. This time, Cynddl's storyfinding is just part of the plot.
Sean Russell has saved his Swans' War series with this conclusion, making it well worth getting through the second book to get to. His world-building is wonderful, his descriptions of the various lands our heroes travel through put you into the story, and the politics in the "real world" make an interesting contrast to the mystical elements that everybody else is dealing with. I was reading a discussion of George R.R. Martin and his Song of Ice and Fire series, and somebody said that The Swans' War series took some good influences from Martin. I can't help but agree. Go out and get this series now. You'll be glad you did.