Review: The Curse of the Mistwraith, Janny Wurts

Rating: 5 out of 5

Well, I changed my mind about this completely from the start to the end. Ms Wurts’ style is dense and getting through this almost required me to find an axe to chop through, but somewhere mid-way through, it started to grow on me. I picked the book up as I had just finished a trilogy by Raymond Feist, and one of the first fantasy series I ever read was a co-authored trilogy by Ms Wurts and Mr Feist. Having not seen the former’s name much after that, I was intrigued when a Reddit thread described this series, for which “The Curse of the Mistwraith” is the opener, as one of the more brilliant sagas there is. Seemingly ticking two boxes, I came into this hoping to find another Mara of the Acoma. That did not happen—but possibly, quite possibly, I stumbled onto something much better!

To start with, the two protagonists, Lysaer and Arithon, are almost never as likeable as Mara is from the start of her series. The author’s approach to her characters is much more gradual: we learn about them as we go along. Indeed, much of what defines the characters is revealed rather late in the book (or, perhaps, not revealed yet at all). This makes it much more fun to see a new aspect of the protagonists when they are faced with a specific challenge but certain patterns do develop: with neither of the two are things exactly as they seem to be. Arithon is revealed earlier, his secrets laid bare and the very pattern of his behaviour described — and if the reader matches the later events to these characterisations, these suit rather well. Lysaer is kept more guarded, but walks down a path that is more familiar to the casual reader. Elaira is the person outside of these patterns and her observations are most useful to the reader while generally going ignored by the people who send her on her tasks. Elaira’s story-line is more complicated than the other two, but it is also full of promise for future books.

Ms Wurts won me over with the scale of her world. The characters in broad terms are likeable or not, but they are made so by the clever prose of the author — and because we get to know everything situationally. There are no lectures for the reader about the rules of magic, but one learns by the doings of a character. The reader is still ahead of other in-world characters, at least where we follow this plot, but it is clear that there is so much more to the characters we don’t (yet) find out about. This also makes it complicated to draw many conclusions: I know some things that magic can achieve in this world, but I don’t know how or when this is governed. Magic is the easiest example because in many cases there are very fixed rules which the authors explain (first explain and then rethink): either these words need to be mumbled or this stick needs to be held at such an angle.

There were some downsides as well. I was disappointed in the original townsmen versus barbarians description of the world. It didn’t feel right. But some revelations along the course of the book made this more likely, if still not plausible. I don’t know whether this is better explained in the next books, but the idea that a rebellion turned all former nobles into huntsmen-barbarians while merchants took over the running of the civilisation sounds a bit… simplistic? I don’t know; I hope that this gets a better answer in the future because right now it is an unsolved part of the equation and the weakest link in this world-building.

The other aspect I did not like is the reliance on foresight, especially by people who have lived thousands of years. Foresight exists alongside free will and prophecies. Apparently, the prophecies are mutable and there is free will. In addition, the people who are able to see the future (especially their own future) indicate that the future is written, which begs the question of how free will operates. In one case, a scrying of the future reveals numerous options (thousands), yet all of these bring about the same fate (including for the caithdein of Rathain). Meanwhile, the sorcerers seem to not have deduced that both running towards and running away from a prophecy will generate the same result. But, my misunderstanding of these aspects could be linked to a part of the world’s laws that I do not yet understand.

Overall, this was a very strong book. The style, though dense and complicated, describes a world of wonders and characters who come alive on these pages. Worth the time and effort!

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