There are a couple of traits Janny Wurts’ The Wars of Light and Shadow series shares with with the current trend of New Grit in fantasy literature: her characters have a plausible psychology, she is willing to have bad things happen to good people if the story requires it, her world is populated not just with nobility, but with middle and lower classes who are more than just decoration and have an active role to play. But in Wurts’ novels, unlike those of, say, George R.R. Martin or K.J Parker, those elements do not serve to achieve a greater degree of realism. Instead, she is aiming for something quite different, namely the grand scope of the truly Epic, and that is nowhere as pronounced as in her use of language.
No Knights Who Say Fuck here – all the expletives Wurts’ characters use are colourful, often bizarre and sometimes quite imaginative, but always far removed from anything people would realistcally expected to say. Nobody talks “naturally” here, but everyone uses an artificial, archaic-sounding language, emphasizing the fact that those characters are not constrained to normal human proportions but considerably larger than life. And this holds true not just for the dialogue, but even more so for the descriptive passages, where one can almost feel how the writing strains to mold itself to the epic content of the tale it tells, feel it vibrate from the urge to transcend mundane diction towards the epic and the poetic. Sometimes it overreaches, and as a result the imagery is occasionally off, the prose purple rather than sublime – but I for one had rather see an author take the risk of grasping for greatness and fail at times than stay safely in the realm of the bland and boring.
What never falters, though, is Janny Wurts’ sense for the music of language – the compelling rhythm and colourful sound of her prose draw the reader in, and when I read her, I always have the sound of her sentences echoing in my head. There is (to name just one example) a passage of just a few pages in this novel that describes a caravan journey across the mountains in winter – nothing much happens in it, and it’s not of much consequence for the plot, but the way is written makes it so achingly beautiful that I was holding my breath while reading it. I usually do not like audio books at all, but I think Janny Wurts’ prose really lends itself to being read aloud, and I’d be very curious to actually hear the cadence of her prose some time.
As for the plot of Grand Conspiracy, like in the previous installment there is a slow build-up that gradually gathers momentum to then explode into a compelling grand finale – which is in turn a set-up, moving the characters into place for the next volume. Again, the main pleasure derived from this novel comes not from following its plot, although there are some nicely spun intrigues and surprising twists here, those being another trademark of this series.