To Ride Hell’s Chasm: Not fantasy lite

Janny Wurts To Ride Hell's Chasmbook review To Ride Hell's Chasm Janny Wurts reviewTo Ride Hell’s Chasm by Janny Wurts

To Ride Hell’s Chasm was my first Wurts novel. I actually have a copy of the first book of The Wars of Light and Shadow saga which I started (and liked so far), but I got a bit intimidated by the time commitment (and the fact that WoLaS is unfinished…), so I decided to try this stand-alone first to get a feel for Janny Wurts’ style before I leapt into a mega-epic. Along that line, I was also interested to see how she would affect an actual ending, since WoLaS doesn’t actually have one yet (at least not in print).

It took me a while to get used to Ms Wurts’ style. I haven’t had a lot of reading time lately, so the last several things I’ve chosen to read have purposely been a bit… light. Like chocolate mousse. Wurts is not light. The prose is, in fact, heavy:

Only small details bespoke the grave trouble slipped in through the well-guarded gates. Taskin’s patrols came and went, double-file rows of neat lancers threading through the carriage traffic in the broad avenues above Highgate. In the queen’s formal gardens, amid lawns like set emeralds, two dozen tiny surcoated figures enacted the midday change of the guard.

The sun, angle shifting, sparkled off the polished glove of a flag spire. The slate and lead roofs of the palace precinct dropped in gabled steps downwards, in cool contrast to the terracotta tile of the merchants’ mansions, crowded in rows like boxed gingerbread above the arched turrets of Middlegate. There, the tree-lined streets ran like seams in patchwork, jammed by the colors of private house guards helping to search for the princess. Their industry seethed past the courtyard gardens, scattered like squares of dropped silk, and stitched with rosettes where the flowering shrubs adorned the pillared gazebos.

Farthest down, hemmed by the jagged embrasures of stone battlements, the lower town hugged the slope like a rickle of frayed burlap, the roofs there a welter of weathered thatch, and craftsmen’s sheds shingled with pine shakes. Mykkael’s garrison troops kept their watch on the outermost walls, the men reduced as toys, bearing pins and needles for weaponry.

When I first started reading, I felt like my dainty dish of chocolate mousse had suddenly been replaced by a 20 oz sirloin, and I had some initial trouble digesting it. It probably didn’t help that I wasn’t finding the time to sit down with the book before midnight. By the time I got to it, I was about as alert as if I actually had consumed that 20 oz sirloin. But, I liked the story and characters immediately, so I started reading earlier in the day, and by the time I was about 1/3 of the way through the book, my pace had picked up significantly. By the time I was 1/2 way through, the language was no longer a barrier and the story was so gripping that I actually could stay up past midnight and read. In fact, I stayed up reading until 2 am for the last two nights without any trouble at all. I actually had to force myself to go to bed. At first I thought that as the pace of the story got faster (it flies for the second half of the book), Wurts writing had become more succinct. But, I went back and read some of the first half again to check my theory: No. It hadn’t changed — it was me. I just got used to the writing style and had learned to appreciate it.

Janny Wurts is an artist (she does her own cover art and maps) and she uses words like she uses her paint. They put us in the scene; they show rather than tell.

This book is finely crafted in other respects, too. The plot is interesting, original, and tight. There are moments of horror, grief, and humor. There are no clichés, unbelievable romances, plot holes, stereotyped characters, or deux ex machina. The plot is unpredictable, too. In fact, there were a few times that I thought “how are they going to get out of this mess?” and I had no clue, and even if I’d had a clue, I would have been wrong. The ending, also, is unexpected, realistic (realistic for a fantasy novel, that is), and satisfying. And, importantly, Wurts writes knowledgeably about all those little details of ancient lifestyles that we love to read about in high fantasy — sword fighting, horses, war strategies, servants, weird food, boiling laundry, dressing wounds — at no time did I suspect that she was bluffing.

The system of magic that Janny Wurts creates is unique and fascinating. There’s an explanation of it at the back of the book that I wish I had seen before I finished the novel. And, speaking of the actual physical book, it was well-crafted, too. There’s a glossary and maps, nice cover and gorgeous interior art (painted by Ms. Wurts, of course), and I found NO spelling or other editorial errors in this edition. It’s too bad the publisher — Meisha Merlin — has gone under. (And too bad I dropped this copy in a puddle when I jumped up to pull my 2 year old out of the pool.) (Later update: I now own a new pristine copy.)

So, now that I’ve finished To Ride Hell’s Chasm, I think I have a small idea of what I’ve been missing by not reading The Wars of Light and Shadow. A long epic by Janny Wurts sounds like a very good thing.

To Ride Hell’s Chasm — (2002) Publisher: When Princess Anja fails to appear at her betrothal banquet, the tiny, peaceful kingdom of Sessalie is plunged into intrigue. Two warriors are charged with recovering the distraught king’s beloved daughter. Taskin, Commander of the Royal Guard, whose icy competence and impressive life-term as the Crown’s right-hand man command the kingdom’s deep-seated respect; and Mykkael, the rough-hewn newcomer who has won the post of Captain of the Garrison – a scarred veteran with a deadly record of field warfare, whose “interesting” background and foreign breeding are held in contempt by court society. As the princess’s trail vanishes outside the citadel’s gates, anxiety andtension escalate. Mykkael’s investigations lead him to a radical explanation for the mystery, but he finds himself under suspicion from the court factions. Will Commander Taskin’s famous fair-mindedness be enough to unravel the truth behind the garrison captain’s dramatic theory: that the resourceful, high-spirited princess was not taken by force, but fled the palace to escape a demonic evil? Read an excerpt here. Listen to the first three chapters here.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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