Author: P.C. Hodgell
Publisher: Baen (anthology reprint)
Publication Date: January 2010
Paperback: 928 pages
Stand alone or series: Book 1 of the God Stalker Chronicles
Jame of the Kencyrath stumbles out of the Haunted Lands, away from the ruins of her home keep, to find the great labyrinth that is the city of Tai-tastigon. Unluckily, she arrives during the Feast of Dead Gods when all the gods who have lost their followers hunt the shuttered streets for souls to devour in order to maintain their shadowy half life. This situation poses an extra problem for Jame because her people are unwilling monotheists, chosen by their Three-Faced God to defeat the encroaching shadows of Perimal Darkling. Having once chosen his (or her or its) champions, however, the Three-Faced God left them on their own to fight a long, losing batttle from threshold world to world down the Chain of Creation. During her stay in Tai-tastigon, Jame not only struggles with this enigma of one diety or many but also joins the Thieves Guild ( another tricky situation in that Kencyr can’t lie), dances at the tavern that has taken her in, and in generall creates chaos wherever she goes. What she hasn’t quite realized yet is that she is becoming the Third Face of her detested god, That-Which-Destroys, while at the same time doing her best to save the day. Imagine collateral damage galore, followed by a rueful voice: “Oops. Sorry.”
DARK OF THE MOON
Leaving Tai-tastigon in flames (don’t ask), Jame, her ounce Jorin, and her elderly warrior friend Marc set out to find her twin brother, Torisen. All that lies in the way are the Ebonbane Mountains, a pack of ravenous wyrsa, the Anarchies, and an aging rathorn (think in terms of an ivory-clad unicorn with fangs and a really bad temper). Meanwhile, her brother Torisen has become the leader of the Kencyrath and, somehow, ten years older than Jame. He is also facing the challenge of his life so far in that the Waster Horde is about to march down Rathillien’s throat, eating everything and everyone in its path. Faced with treachery within and without the Kencyrath, Tori must lead the Kencyr Host against an overwhelming enemy. Brother and sister meet on the battlefield in time to encounter their long-lost, mysterious mother, who spontaneously combusts rather than hurt either one of them. Then comes the battle, followed by an ever greater conflict: how can Tori accept the sister whom he still loves but has been taught to fear for her darkling traits and nascent power?
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: It took no small amount of arm-twisting and book-pimpage from commenter Estara, that’s for sure! Ever since I had posted the cover for Bound In Blood on my “Radar,” Estara has been pimping this series to me – and hey, what can I say? It totally worked. Anyone that passionate about a series is going to get our attention, and The God Stalker Chronicles sounded like my kind of fantasy.
God Stalk, the first novel in the God Stalker Chronicles, opens with a silver-eyed, clawed heroine, stumbling from the mists of the Haunted Lands. Jamethiel of Kencyr (Jame, for short), is our heroine – named for Jamethiel the Dream-Weaver, consort of the Kencyr’s greatest traitor, Gerridon. Alienated by her own father and twin brother Torisen (Tori) for her Shanir appearance and abilities, Jame nevertheless is desperate to find Tori. Her journey takes her to the city of Tai-Tastigon, whose streets she discovers are oddly vacant, though clearly not an abandoned ghost-town. Receiving shelter and aid from a local tavern, the Res a’Bytrr, a feverish Jame learns she has come to the city on the eve of the Feast of Dead Gods (hence, the abandoned streets). Tai-Tastigon is a strange, eccentric city, with multiple religions and parties vying for power, and soon Jame finds herself firmly enmeshed with the local culture. Accepting an apprenticeship for the famed thief (and landed master) Penari – with the grudging consent of the Three-Faced Kenyr God, of course – Jame happens on many strange adventures in the strange city. Of course, her main goal and purpose remains unchanged, as she tries to find a way to get to her twin brother, Tori.
In Dark of the Moon, Jame and her companions the fellow Kencyr and elderly warrior Marc, and her ounce (the equivalent of a large cat), the blind Jorin leave a Tai-Tastigon consumed by flames. After being delayed in the city for more than a year from her quest, Jame seeks out her brother Tori to give him the broken sword and their father’s ring, while she also carries the pale-bound book, lost to her people for ages. It’s not so straightforward, however, as Jame and her companions must face wyrms, an ancient catlike Arrin-Kin judge, a changer minion of the fallen Gerridon, and even Jamethiel the Dream-Weaver and Gerridon themselves. Meanwhile, the narrative also follows Jame’s twin Tori, who has (despite the lack of their father’s ring and sword) become the Highlord of the Kencyrath as he deals with other young highborn Kencyr, squabbling lords, mysterious ruins and missing bones, and his own troubled, premonitory dreams. As Jame and Tori’s paths finally collide, the reunion between the separated twins is anything but tender, as Tori struggles with his fear of his sister and her Shanir powers.
God Stalk and Dark of the Moon are emblematic of 1980s fantasy: a heroic quest, surreal fancy high magic, action sequences that don’t exactly amount to much, and lots of the complicated, made-up names (NOTE: yes, fantasy always has many of the made up names and places, but at least in my experience, books from the ’80s are the most egregious offenders, throwing out as many strangely-placed vowels and unpronounceable names as possible). I’m not knocking on ’80s fantasy, as some books, God Stalk and Dark of the Moon included, are awesome – these novels simply reflect the popular trends in the genre during the time they were written.
The success of the God Stalker Chronicles rides on two factors – the strength of its heroine, and the awesome scope of its worldbuilding. The star of the series is Jame, a strong, powerful, heartfelt protagonist – who actually, in some ways, is something of an unexpected (even anti-) heroine. In God Stalk, readers meet a strong, funny Jame; a young woman that has a knack for attracting trouble, but has the skills and fortune to get herself out of tight spots. In Dark of the Moon, Jame is still naive, but comes to grips with her own past, her powers, her responsibilities, and her family legacy. Both versions of Jame are pretty cool, as Ms. Hodgell forces her heroine to confront truths and grow as a character – something I can definitely get on board with.
In terms of writing style, these two books are unquestionably dense, dealing with some dark story matter, but also tempered with humor (that doesn’t stray into parody – it’s actually a lovely balance that Ms. Hodgell achieves). God Stalk is much more lighthearted and quirky of the two novels, introducing readers to a heroine struggling with her memories and assorted political entanglements in the city of Tai-Tastigon. Fun and interesting, but God Stalk lacks the meat and potatoes, the central conflict of the series – and that’s what Dark of the Moon delivers. (NOTE 2: This is, in part, why I decided to hold off on my review of God Stalk and decided to read both novels collected in this anthology.) On its own God Stalk is entertaining, but feels somewhat…incomplete. Dark of the Moon, however, remedies that, delving into some dark, dark source material, as Jame is forced to confront her own nature. In terms of writing skill, too, Dark of the Moon is also a better written novel, alternating between Jame and Tori’s narratives, and revealing many more answers, especially considering the twins’ heritage and abilities, while leaving many tantalizing open questions (not to mention a cliffhanger ending).
And then, there’s the second strength of the series, as I mentioned earlier: the extensive – exhausting – worldbuilding. I’ve come to the conclusion that The God Stalker Chronicles are going to divide readers – you’ll either love these books to bits, or realize that they are not for you. Personally, I’m blown away by how detailed the world, cultures, religions, races, etc that Ms. Hodgell has created even within these first two books. BUT, at the same time (and this is coming from someone that revels in complex backgrounds, politics, and worldbuilding), Jame’s world(s) are as confusing as all get-out. I cannot imagine reading these without the handy dramatis personae or maps that apparently were not included in the original printing. As such, God Stalk and Dark of the Moon are not books that one can read casually – I constantly had to force myself to focus and process what I was reading, flipping back and forth to keep track of who/where/what the heck was going on. This isn’t a bad thing at all, it just requires effort on the part of the reader which, granted, isn’t for everyone (hence, the love it or hate it impression). At times, even with the most focused concentration, I found it hard to follow these books because of how complex and sprawling the story is, but with effort it all comes together in the end. And, as a reader, I appreciate Ms. Hodgell’s dedicated, nuanced universe and the effort it must have taken to create it immensely.
The God Stalker Chronicles are Epic with a capital “E,” and I have a sneaking suspicion that these are the types of books that get better upon rereading. Certainly, the books have a dedicated fan following (if Estara is any indication!) which is cool, and testament to the strength of Ms. Hodgell’s writing, worldbuilding, and fantastic heroine. Definitely recommended for anyone looking for classic high fantasy, with a strong female protagonist – with the lone caveat that you will have to set time aside to really focus on the novel in order to appreciate it fully.
Also, on one last note, I want an ounce of my own. That is all.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From God Stalk:
THE HILLS ROLLED up to the moon on slopes of wind-bent grass, crested, swept down into tangled brier shadows. Then up again and down, over and over until only aching muscles distinguished between rise and descent, climb and fall. A night bird flitted overhead. Jame paused to watch it, thinking enviously of wings. For a moment it showed clearly against the moon-silvered clouds, and then the wall of mountains to the west swallowed it. How near the Ebonbane seemed now that night had fallen. The range loomed over her, an immense presence filling half the sky, blotting out the stars. Two weeks of walking had at last brought her out of the Haunted Lands into these foothills, but that in itself was no help. Clean earth or not, this was still a wilderness. What she needed now was civilization—even a goatherd’s hut—but something, and soon.
Thin, high voices called to each other behind her. Jame caught her breath, listening, counting. Seven. The haunts had found her trail again.
She tensed to run, then forced her weary muscles to relax. Flight would only weaken her. Besides, they seemed to be keeping their distance, an odd thing after so many days of close pursuit. Should she finally turn on them? They were well spread out, tempting targets for their wounded prey . . . ah, but what good would it do to kill something already dead? She would make one last bid for life, then, Jame thought as she started up the next slope. If only she could reach shelter before her strength gave out and they overtook her.
Then, suddenly, there was the city.
Jame stared down at it from the hilltop, hardly trusting her eyes. It lay well below her, cradled in the curve of the foothills as they turned to the southeast. Even from this distance, it looked immense. The outer circle of its double curtain wall was miles from edge to edge; the inner seemed to strain under the pressure of the buildings it contained. Gray and silent it stood between mountain and plain, a stone city that appeared in the cold moonlight to be more the work of nature than of man.
“Tai-tastigon!” Jame said softly.
Behind her, the wailing began again, then faded away. In the silence that followed, a cricket chirped tentatively, then another and another. The haunts had withdrawn. Not surprising with the city so near, Jame thought, rubbing her bandaged forearm. They had followed her far beyond their own territory as it was, drawn on by the blood-scent. She shivered, remembering that first encounter in the Haunted Lands before the burning keep. Dazed by fire and smoke, she had turned to find a dark figure standing behind her. For a joyful moment, she had thought it was Tori. Then she was down with the foul thing on top of her, its fetid breath in her face.
Jame looked at her hands, at the long, slim fingers and at the gloves hanging in shreds from them. Each ivory white nail lay flush with the skin now, its sharp point curving halfway over the fingertip. They looked almost normal, she thought bitterly. Trinity knew what the haunt had thought when those same nails, fully extended, had ripped the rotting flesh from its face.
Not that that would stop such a creature for long. Even if she had killed it, nothing stayed dead forever in the Haunted Lands, just as no one could live there unprotected without changing as the haunts, once ordinary men, had changed. That was the curse that the Kencyrath, Jame’s own people, had let fall on the region when their main host had withdrawn from it long ago. No longer maintained by their will, the Barrier between Rathillien and the shadows beyond had weakened. Perimal Darkling, ancient of enemies, now gnawed at the edges of yet another world, poisoning the land, sucking health from the air. Still, it would have been much worse if a handful of Kencyr defenders had not remained, Jame thought; it was worse now that they were all dead. She, the youngest and last was getting out none too soon.
Or perhaps not quite soon enough. Though the Haunted Lands lay behind her, she could feel their evil growing in her bandaged arm even now.
You can read the full excerpt online, HERE.
And from Dark of the Moon:
“Wake, wake!” shouted city guards under windows barred for the night. Fists pounded on doors. Bells began to shrill. From the roof of the Council Hall came the sudden boom of the warning horn, all five of its mouthpieces manned at once.
The citizens woke. They tumbled bleary-eyed into the streets to find the sky alight overhead. From the north came shrieks and the crash of falling buildings. An unearthly wail rose from the Temple District as the gods, bound in their sanctuaries, felt the stones heat around them. Fiery motes danced in the air. What they touched, burned: roofs, clothes, flesh. Panic spread. Now people were running, some already on fire, down through the twisting streets, toward where the River Tone ran between dark buildings. Quick, the water. The swift, cold current bore them downstream under the soaring bridges to smash against the prow of Ship Island or drown in the white water along its sheer sides.
On the island itself, in the Palace of the Thieves’ Guild, an old man sat in a tapestry-hung room. On his lap lay a book bound in white leather with the texture of an infant’s skin. His head tilted back. Gaping mouth and empty eye sockets opened only into darkness.
The chamber room door burst open. A man clad in royal blue stood on the threshold, his golden hair shining softly in the gloom. He stared at the old man. An unpleasant smile twisted his handsome features, but when he turned to the dark figures crowding the corridor behind him, they saw only anger and grief in his face.
“The Talisman has done this,” he said to them. “Get her.”
A low growl answered him. The hallway emptied. Moments later, shadowy forms slipped through the streets, oblivious to fire and ruin, growling still. Swift as they were, rumor outpaced them:
The Lord of the Thieves’ Guild is dead, is dead. The Talisman has slain him. Brother thieves, the hunt is up!
The Talisman ran for her life, ran for home. One corner more, and there was the inn, the Res aB’tyrr, blazing. Dark figures came at her, silhouetted by the glare.
“The fire might have spared it, Talisman. We didn’t.”
You can read the full excerpt online, HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Those of you familiar with John Scalzi’s Whatever Blog know that he frequently has other authors over for “Big Idea” posts. Author P.C. Hodgell wrote her own “Big Idea” type of post on her LiveJournal, which you can check out HERE – it’s well worth visiting as she discusses the central theme of “What Do We Owe the Dead?” Jame’s world, and Ms. Hodgell’s motivations and inspirations for writing (especially for writing fantasy) are covered in this intriguing essay. Ms. Hodgell also posts a follow-up/Big Idea Redux after taking in reader feedback, which you can read HERE.
Thanks again to Estara for pointing out these essays!
God Stalk: 6 – Good, Recommended
Dark of the Moon: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Wolfsangel by M.D. Lachlan