I’m unlikely to be the first to wonder about this, but I’m starting to suspect that a not unsubstantial part of the enjoyment readers derive from long series of doorstopper Fantasy novels might lie in the mere fact of having made it through the massive of printed paper – maybe indeed not unlike mountain climbing (a pastime I do not indulge in, so just speculating here) a feat of endurance with its main reward the consciousness of having surmounted a huge obstacle.
So, after having read all five fat volumes of the Alliance of Light arc of Janny Wurts’ epic The Wars of Light and Shadow in slightly over three weeks I’m feeling a bit exhausted when I look back on it and, yes, a bit proud at the sheer amount of novel I’ve managed to get through. There’s something almost physical about it, like a marathon runner making it through the whole distance, maybe even slightly masochistic – but then, it is definitely not limited to big Fantasy novels; the reader who turns the last page in the final volume of War and Peace or the Recherche feels exactly the same way.
It’s a literature of exhaustion, if you want, and I think the arrival at that state is an integral part of the reading experience – that deep sigh that mingles with the soft thud of the book clover closing, merging into a sound that signifies relief, satisfaction at an achievement and a bit of nostalgia for all things ending. And there are some things that are only possible if you do not rush but go for the slow, long duration – like a sense of development, be it of characters changing for better or worse, be it for history unfolding. You get both in Alliance of Light – looking back, the characters that survived until the end have come a long way indeed, both secondary characters like Sulfin Evend or Lirenda and major ones like Arithon, who is significantly less annoying by the end of this arc. (As an aside – with all his wallowing in self-pity and tragic postoring he reminded me more than once of Dorothy Dunnett’s Francis Crawford of Lymond – in fact, seeing how both Dunnett and Wurts have a penchant for convoluted, intricate plotting as well as a highly stylized language, I am sure there is a distinct and most likely conscious influence on The Wars of Light and Shadow here.) I also liked to see Lysaer get some attention in Stormed Fortress – in the previous volumes he seemed on his way to become a one-dimensional villain, but here he is once again presented as the tragic figure he is (much more so than Arithon, in my opinion at least).
This final installment of the Alliance of Light arc revolves, as the title indicates, mostly around a siege – and while that would appear mandatory for any work of Epic Fantasy, you do not get anything usually associated with this kind of thing in Stormed Fortress – no grand military action, no dashing sorties, no desperate last stands. What you get is almost the contrary of all that, humanity and compassion in the face of overwhelming aggression (and how many Fantasy epics are there that have given the ethics of their world and the characters populating serious thought? The only other one I can think of straight away is Kate Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy), and in general the siege of Areston is a fine example of how Janny Wurts only rarely does what you’d expect her to.
A lot of threads converge in this novel and it moves at an unusually brisk pace for this series – but that is to expected at the climax of an arc. Of course, there are even more threads left hanging, as there are still two more arcs composed of three more novels to come which I am eagerly looking forward to reading.