The seventh volume of a vast and detailed fantasy series has a lot riding on it. Everything must be wrapped up with a satisfying sense of conclusion, no matter how intricate the story may have become. Yet a straightforward and indeed necessary survey of all the various characters’ fates risks undermining the whole series with a fatal sense of anticlimax. There must be surprises and final, unexpected twists, but these absolutely cannot outrage the logical progression of events established thus far. That presents the author with considerable challenges, as the burden of continuity inexorably steers the narrative in directions that are as clearly indicated for the reader as they are for the writer.
Kate Elliott charts a course through these potential hazards with as sure a touch as she’s demonstrated throughout the Crown of Stars series. The final volume is also called Crown of Stars, and we begin by picking up Alain’s story. His narrative has been one of those threaded through these books and thus tying the series into a coherent whole. Alain is initially a witness to the chaos following on from the cataclysm in the fifth volume that returned the Ashioi to this world. As a solitary traveler, he’s actually having an easier time of it that many of the nobles trying to find a way home through all the destruction with their retinues trailing after them.
It’s entirely logical that everyone would be trying to get home after all the upheavals they’ve faced and, as a result, the encounters between characters who’ve been long separated feel entirely unforced. Naturally, they share tales of what they have done and where they have been, enabling Elliott to recap events for the reader with admirable subtlety. I do like writers who appreciate that even the keenest readers may simply not have the time to go back and re-read previous volumes. And as has always been the case from the first volume, these personal stories anchor this series to a human scale. Great events are not merely being played out as intellectual abstraction. Real people, whom we can sympathize with or loathe with a passion, are living through these momentous times.
Nobles whom we’ve seen plot and counter-plot through the series are now showing their essential character. Some, like Constance and Theophanu, do their best to keep faith with their religion, and with the feudal relationships that oblige them to protect the poor and humble in return for the rewards of their status. Others, such as Conrad the Black and Sabella, are heedless of the suffering around them. They’re still fixated on satisfying their own lusts and ambitions and taking revenge, renewing or discarding old alliances as they see fit. As a consequence they’re heedless of the dangers that threaten their position. If lords and princes are not fulfilling their feudal obligations, how long can they expect the allegiance of the peasantry? The series has consistently been underpinned by an unobtrusive exploration of such wider issues of power and responsibility, personal and political. While this never interferes with the wholly engrossing adventure, it gives it an intellectual depth for those readers that like to consider such debates.
With all this turmoil around him, Sanglant is striving to hold onto the kingship his dying father bequeathed him. Yet he lacks so many of the advantages that Henry enjoyed. The Eagles have lost their magical Sight now that the Ashioi’s return has changed the whole balance of enchantment in this world. His right to the throne remains disputed, thanks to his illegitimacy, his Ashioi blood and his devotion to Liath with her even more perilous dual heritage. There’s also the question of his heir. Their daughter Blessing remains unaccounted for.
Sanglant’s enemies, by contrast, have somehow retained their malevolent magic. Thanks to the undying enmity of the vile Antonia, the ghastly galla are still pursuing Sanglant and his beloved, sorcerous Liath. The couple’s defenses against these shades are finite, and diminishing. The Ashioi too continue their pursuit of Liath and her daughter. If humankind don’t want them, the Ashioi most certainly do. They continue to pursue their own war while the ancient horse-people and their Kerayit allies still contrive against them. And we must not forget Hugh of Austra, a man with magical skills whose heart is as vile as his face is fair.
Nor should we overlook Alain, for so long our useful witness. There’s considerably more to him than this role, and his strange link to the rock-born Eika remains as strong as ever. Their self-proclaimed Emperor Stronghand is determined not to see all his valorous achievements undone even when the consequences of the cataclysm undo the magic of the wise-mothers that his people have so long relied on, rousing a sleeping marvel in the process.
The pace of this final phase of the story is swift, fluent and exciting. This is definitely not one of those final volumes that rely on the reader’s dogged determination to find out what happens to keep them turning the pages. There’s no bogging down in minutiae due to failing inspiration at the end of such a long and complex work. Twist by turn, Elliott deftly satisfies and then confounds expectation, with the narrative as fresh and immediate as when it first began.
The sweeping events of the previous books come full circle and spiral towards a climactic final battle. Just as Sanglant must win through force of arms, Liath must wield the knowledge that is her birthright. All the key players are brought to crucial meetings, some unexpected, some anticipated but with wholly unforeseen consequences. Shock follows on from surprise, right through to the multifaceted negotiations necessary once the battle has been both lost and won. The splendidly creative final resolution is a fitting conclusion to what has been a truly inventive series drawing on all the classic strengths of high heroic fantasy.