By Cheryl Morgan
The new series from Chaz Brenchley has been a little time in coming, but the first volume is due out from Ace in early May and it looks like the series is going to be well worth the wait.
It being an Ace publication, thereís a good chance that Iíll have something to say about the cover. In this particular case people looking at Bridge of Dreams in a shop will jump to the conclusion that it is a harem novel and therefore probably intended for romance readers. This would be a mistake. Not a total mistake, because half the book does actually take place in harems. But the book certainly isnít a romance novel, and the other half of the story is very different indeed.
For decades, maybe even centuries, the cities of Maras and Sund have glowered at each other across a broad river. Sund is a peaceful place inhabited largely by merchants and craftsmen. Maras, on the other hand, is the center of a vast military empire. Various Sultans of Maras have long coveted Sund, but the breadth of the river and the cadre of water mages protecting the city have always been able to keep the Marasi armies at a distance. Then one morning the Sundain awoke to find a vast magical bridge spanning the river, and Marasi soldiers already thronging their streets.
It looked like a bridge in the mist, in the soft monochrome shadows of first dawn, when there would be light but no sun yet. It steamed, or smoked perhaps, lending an acrid tang to the air. It seemed to be no work of man, no honest build. It lacked a proper parapet; it had no piers, no trusses to support it. It might have been poured of molten stone, if stone could melt like glass and be cooled like glass and look so insubstantial. It defeated the mind and the imagination; it defeated the eye altogether, rising through its own fog to overleap where walls had stood, rising higher and stretching further, overleaping all the width of the river beyond, the great unbridgeable river of the world.
Creating the bridge was not easy. All magic has a price, and in this case the price was children. As the title of the novel explains, the bridge is maintained by dreams, and only young children are suitable dreamers. The Sultan takes hostages from noble families. They are well cared for, and are always returned to their loved ones when they grow too old to dream the bridge, but their minds are always damaged. Jendre, the eldest daughter of one of the Sultanís most favored generals, had always expected to be taken as a dreamer. As the book opens she is shocked to find that her younger sister, Sidië, is taken instead. Whether this is a mercy or not is another matter, for her father has entirely different plans in mind for her: marriage.
Meanwhile, on the banks of the river in Sund, people are finding out that magic is dangerous stuff. The bridge glows at night, and the homeless people who live by it develop deformities. Some turn into hideous creatures with dog-like faces. Slowly but surely, the magic of the bridge is polluting Sund. Issel, a young beggar, is desperate to find some means of making enough money to escape the riverbank before he too succumbs to the degenerative effects. The one advantage he has is a talent for water magic Ė a rare thing now as the Marasi have executed all of Sundís known sorcerers.
The Shine was like its own dawn rising, like an oil-slick dawn with all the colors of disturbance washing at pale stars like surf on shingle, the suck of river water on the strand. Except that it was there all night, unshifting; all its movement was internal, smoke in a bowl, swirling and sliding and going nowhere.
This being a fantasy novel, Issel turns out to be a very powerful mage indeed. This means that he comes to the attention of various people. Some are trying to preserve the ancient knowledge of the city; others are actively trying to kick the Marasi out. They would doubtless call themselves freedom fighters. To the Marasi soldiers on peacekeeping duty they are, of course, terrorists.
Brenchley is well aware of how all this works. Issel is immensely valuable to the rebels. He knows that if he lends his powers to their cause then the reprisals from the occupying army will be terrible. The rebels know this too. Indeed, like revolutionary groups everywhere they are counting on it. Here the rebel leader, Lind, explains to Issel how the execution of some rebel sympathizers is a good thing.
"And their wives, their mothers, sisters, yes. Issel, I have their names, every one of them. They have all been counted, and none will be forgotten. But the city needs these cruelties or it will forget, it will learn to live with occupation. Today wins more to our cause than we have lost on the scaffold there; the Marasi act against themselves."
Isselís half of the book is extremely strong, with a lot of powerful things to say about the relationship between conquerors, the conquered, and those who would fight for freedom. Brenchley has no rose-tinted spectacles here. He knows just how inevitably brutal the whole process is, and he doesnít let sentiment get in the way of telling it like it is. You can expect leading characters to die.
The other half of the book, while equally well written, is somewhat less intense. Jendre goes through the usual process of having to learn to play harem politics in order to survive. She and the Sultan have a story, and Brenchley tells it well. In the back of Jendreís mind, however, is always the desire to rescue Sidië from her dreams before her mind is ruined.
What Jendre doesnít have is any connection to Issel and the Sundain. Shut up in the harem, she knows next to nothing about what goes on in the outside world. When you get to the end of the book and there is still no connection you realize that Brenchley is playing a long game here. There is much about his world that you donít know. There are plot mysteries left unresolved. The whole story is building slowly and inexorably, and so far youíve only sampled one small limb. You will see that there must be more books and you will want them now, or preferably yesterday. Letís hope the wait for the next volume isnít too long.