Dangerous Waters by Juliet E McKenna

Rating 8.4/10
I ended understanding why the author has a place within the pantheon of British fantasy authors.

I've managed to conduct an experiment here by deliberately making this the first Juliet McKenna book I've read (for some reason I have most of her novels on that "must read sometime shelf at home). I have to say that you can get away with not having read the previous series but it made it a trifle difficult. I had a disquieting sense of arriving in a world where there was information I should already have known, that lay just out of my grasp. As such I found myself constantly putting the book down during the first two thirds of it as it mainly seemed to be a salutary investigation of the internal struggles of three key people - Zurenne, Corrain and Jiselle - to discover themselves and their place in a world that sits uncomfortably around them. Still, by the conflagatory end, where the grubby Mandarkin mage cuts through the prevarication and pontification that dominates the core characters, the book was rocketing along (almost in a Brent Weeks fashion) and I finished looking forward to reading the next installment. I'll also spend time reading the earlier novels.

The story commences in the Barony of Halferan in Caladhria with the earth mage Jilseth from Hadrumal hunting the renegade Minelas who has broken the cardinal rule of neutrality to hire his services to the desperate Lord of Halferan whose lands are constantly being raided by the Aldabreshin corsairs. The treachery of Minelas results in Captain Corrain (mandolin anyone?) ending up on the brutal corsair ships as a manacled slave. There, he and his youthful protégé, Hosh, nurse a festering grievance to return and hunt down the mage who betrayed them all.

The novel becomes a struggle of ideology, a book dealing with the constraints that bind us physically, emotionally and intellectually. The Hadrumal mages, led by Planir who advocates non-interference in worldly matters, debate endlessly whether to end the policy. The recently widowed Zurenne starts to come to terms with understanding that her idealized notion of life within a strongly patriarchal society is deeply flawed, only finding an outlet through her strong daughter, Ilysh. Jiselle chafes at the injustice she sees when the corsairs start to loot and burn with arrogant impunity, finally finding an ability to express her need for action during the razing of the castle Halferan. Corrain, who commits himself to finding a mage who will come to Caladhria to help defeat the corsairs and free all their slaves, sails off with Kusint to Solura.

It is a world of contrasts. For Planir "division is an excellent thing. Why do you suppose I spend so much of my time encouraging every mage, from highest to lowest, to pursue their individual passions... It's factions of mages banding together that would threaten wizardry most." Divide and conquer. For the Caladhrians life is about "interminable, inconclusive discussion that kept baronies and all their inhabitants... as dumbly as a donkey in a harness." For Corrain it is simple: "Yes, these wizards would pay.". The struggle between constancy and the need to change, to improve is the dominant theme of the novel and the strain on society and individuals is palpable. As a reader we are stretched as taut as a bowstring with the procrastination, our frustration building with Corrain until, at the last, the world McKenna has corralled us into explodes in a maelstrom of violence that is merely the tinder spark for what must come in the next books.

I began this uncertainly; it is evident that reading the earlier novels is a key factor in retaining the attention - particularly as a browse on the author's website reveals some characters have previously appeared; I ended understanding why the author has a place within the pantheon of British fantasy authors. This isn't (despite my comment above) Brent Weeks. It's not Feist, not Eddings. I could draw a parallel to Fiona McIntosh - both authors spend considerable wordage on telling us what characters are thinking in order to justify actions which can be detrimental to the pace any good high fantasy requires - or David Drake's excellent Lord of the Isles but I think McKenna exhibits traits from many previous great fantasy authors pulled together in threads that make her eminently accessible to fantasy readers.

Definitely worth a look.

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