Initiate’s Trial: Epic high fantasy at its finest

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Janny Wurts’s latest novel in the WARS OF LIGHT AND SHADOW, Initiate’s Trial, is another rock-solid installment in what has become one of my favorite series. Janny’s use of the English language, her ability to sculpt characters with concepts and characteristics that make them live and her continuing commitment to solid storytelling make her work some of the best ever. Initiate’s Trial is a perfect example of why her books are always worth the wait.

As often happens in a series, there are elements of the plot that have happened in between books. In this case, Arithon has been placed under the custody of the Koriathian Sisterhood, loathsome spiders, to continue the process of freeing Athera from the lasting threat of the Mistwraith. Janny does a superlative job of not just describing the process that it takes to do this, but also how the lingering effects of his complete loss of memory enable him to develop his skills in other ways. It’s like the way that a person deprived of a primary sense, like sight, will often find that their other senses become sharper as their use is increased to compensate. Beautiful, lyrical descriptive efforts, such as the way Wurts envisions Arithon’s use of his innate skills as Masterbard and skilled sorcerer to complete such a peril-fraught task even without his full training and heritage to fall back on, are what make this series something special.

For Lysaer, the imprisonment of Arithon has bought his centuries of peace from the insidious influence of the Mistwraith’s curse. The stark, shocking realization that he underwent previously has carried over and he has distanced himself from the religion that he created to hunt and hound his nemesis and half-brother. The story of Lysaer has always been tragic and his life as the Mayor of Etarra has clearly not been satisfying, but I am led to respect him to a certain degree because he has realized the false nature and inherent evil of the political/religious cult that he created. Yet I loathe him still for being too cowardly to challenge and bring down the false priests and religious bigots who have overtaken his creation.

Inject into this caustic mix the ongoing feud between the Fellowship sorcerers who are tied at every turn as they seem to be outmaneuvered over and over again by the slimy and ruthless Prime Matriarch of the Koriathian. These overburdened, morally pure heroes never can seem to get ahead. I am left in awe of the fortitude that Sethvir shows as he reads the events of the world, at times powerless to intervene despite the incredible horrors that are being perpetrated on innocents. There are bright moments, things like Asandir’s continued role as Kingmaker, responsible for selecting and empowering the heirs to the Kingdoms and the awakening of the grand mysteries.

Initiate’s Trial is full of wonderful side stories as well. The youthful exuberance of young Clanmembers from Rathain who are bent on saving their liege lord, the humorous events surrounding the attempted execution of Arithon and his newly won friend, and finally the heart-wrenching service of the heir of Sulfin Event and her unstinting desire to save Lysaer from himself at any personal cost she must bear. These are examples of the moral fortitude and at times misplaced loyalties that have been the hallmark of the ethical questions that Janny Wurts has made a wonderful underlying theme of this series. Is misguided loyalty and service in fact evil when it enables bad choices to go unpunished? Such great ideas to consider, amid a story filled with action and adventure.

I am a die-hard fan of Janny Wurts and I love this series. If you are just starting with The Curse of the Mistwraith or you are returning to the world of Athera after a break, I can assure you that this latest book is worth reading. This is epic high fantasy at its finest and immersing yourself in this world of beauty, magic and characters that are both real and painfully flawed is simply a joy. I can’t wait for the next book.

~John Hulet

Initiate's Trial by Janny Wurts fantasy book reviewsFirst things first: Initiate’s Trial is the ninth book in the WARS OF LIGHT AND SHADOW series by Janny Wurts. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in this review, but if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series and want to enter into it without any preconceived notions, you may want to skip this review and instead check out the one I wrote about series opener The Curse of the Mistwraith . (Short summary: it’s brilliant, and any fantasy fan who enjoys intellectually and emotionally challenging novels should read this series.)

Initiate’s Trial may be the ninth book in this series, but it’s also the first book in a new arc, meaning the start of a new subchapter within the larger series. In addition, for the first time Janny Wurts has allowed a significant amount of time to pass between the ending of the previous book and the beginning of the new one: Initiate’s Trial starts about two and a half centuries after the events described in Stormed Fortress. Because of this, the new novel may initially feel like a series reboot, but you’ll quickly find out that this is somewhat deceptive.

After all, Wurts has been exploring the same basic conflicts and characters since the very beginning of the series. Despite the elapsed time since the previous book, Initiate’s Trial is very much a direct continuation of the ongoing story, following the same people (thanks to their unnaturally long life spans) and exploring the same setting. Back when I started reading this series, I was told that “it doesn’t sprawl, it deepens.” That’s about as accurate a description of what Wurts is doing here as I’ve read.

At its most basic, the WARS OF LIGHT AND SHADOW series follows the conflict between the two half-brothers Arithon and Lysaer, who have been cursed with lifelong enmity. Their fates are closely intertwined with that of Paravia, a fantasy world with enormous detail and scope.  As the series continues, Wurts gradually reveals more and more details about the history of the world and the origins of its various factions, resulting in a fascinating, multi-layered setting that, nine books in, still hasn’t released all of its secrets. Likewise, the two main characters and their large supporting cast grow and evolve throughout the series until they reach a level of depth that’s practically unparalleled in modern fantasy.

One of the surprising things about Initiate’s Trial is that Wurts does introduce a few new characters to this already very rich mix: we meet a small family of farmers and quickly get immersed in their simple lives. Even though these are brand new characters, after fifty or sixty pages they quickly become surprisingly tangible, real humans. Fans of this series know that Janny Wurts can generate a truly astounding level of emotional intensity with her main players, but even this brand new family’s relatively small, private drama very quickly becomes moving and memorable.

Another interesting aspect of this new novel is connected to the two and a half centuries that passed since the end of Stormed Fortress. I don’t want to spoil some of the bigger changes that occurred in that time span (the author gradually reveals them as the new novel progresses) but because of those 250 years, the events of the first three arcs in the series are starting to take on the aspect of history or even myth, embellished by years of recounting. It’s becoming easier and easier to see how we could have reached the situation described in that mystifying prologue that started off the very first book of the series. As Janny wrote back then, “the factual account lay hopelessly entangled between legend and theology.”

Out of all the many strengths this series consistently displays, its vast historical scope is probably the one I admire the most. In my mind, that aspect of it falls somewhere on the intersection of the MALAZAN books by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont, the RECLUCE SAGA by L.E. Modesitt Jr., and the Middle-Earth books by Tolkien. Going into much more detail would ruin some of the juiciest mid-series revelations, so I’ll leave it at that — as much as I want to throw some of them into this review to entice readers who may have no idea what to expect.

One more thing, maybe: despite the vast historical scope of this story, it always puts the human perspective at an equal, if not higher, level of importance. It’s just one of the many surprising qualities of these books: they contain elements that will please people who enjoy approaching a fantasy universe with an analytical mindset (let’s say, making a wiki or studying the Paravian language) while at the same time connecting to readers who first and foremost look for a deep emotional connection to story or characters. As a matter of fact, those two extremes feed off each other, with each one enhancing and emphasizing the other one as the layers are gradually revealed and the levels of emotionality reach new heights.

The only minor issues I have with Initiate’s Trial are in comparison to the rest of the series, because taken just on its own merits, it stands head and shoulders above 99% of today’s fantasy output. It’s a shame that the new novel doesn’t include a summary of the events that happened in previous books, like many of the earlier installments in the series did. Because this is such a complex tale, it would have been helpful to be able to review that information, especially at the start of a new arc. On the other hand, Wurts does weave the most pertinent bits of past story into the novel as usual, and the glossary has again been updated to include the events leading up to this point, so while you may experience some disorientation early on, you’ll be able to find your bearings.

Also, as the first book of a new arc, Initiate’s Trial is in a sense the start of a new chapter in the series. Much like with Fugitive Prince, which launched the previous arc, that means this new novel spends some time setting up the story and so may not be as fully satisfying as other parts of the series when taken on its own. Despite the familiar mid-book climax followed by the relentless onslaught of tension leading up to the ending, it’s clear that this is one half of a tale that will be completed in Destiny’s Conflict, the novel Janny Wurts is currently working on.

And after that, the eleventh and final volume of the series, Song of the Mysteries, which will conclude a series that’s already two decades in the making. I can’t wait. I may actually plan a vacation around that release, so I can seclude myself in a remote location for the first reading. I realize that I occasionally get a bit hyperbolical when reviewing the WARS OF LIGHT AND SHADOW series, but the simple truth is that it is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive accomplishments in all of modern fantasy. It’s just that good, and as mentioned at the start of this review, any reader who enjoys intellectually and emotionally challenging fantasy literature should check it out.

~Stefan Raets

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JOHN HULET (on FanLit's staff July 2007 -- March 2015) is a member of the Utah Army National Guard. John’s experiences have often left a great void that has been filled by countless hours spent between the pages of a book lost in the words and images of the authors he admires. During a 12 month tour of Iraq, he spent well over $1000 on books and found sanity in the process. John lives in Utah and works slavishly to prepare soldiers to serve their country with the honor and distinction that Sturm Brightblade or Arithon s’Ffalenn would be proud of. John retired from FanLit in March 2015 after being with us for nearly 8 years.

View all posts by John Hulet (RETIRED)


  1. I’m a little behind in the series, but only because I find they’re books I need to immerse myself in. Janny is such an amazing writer, with such a deft grasp of language, and she never plays to conventions. Her books are not to be skimmed or read quickly, but to be savoured.

  2. I’ve got the first two books in this series sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read. I have to get crackin’.

    • I have the first several, but I’m really waiting for it to come out on audio…. no plans yet for that, though… I know I just won’t have time to sit down with such a long saga.

  3. I have been reading this series since “Curse of the Mistwraith” came out many years ago. It is still the finest and most beautifully written series I have ever read!

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