"Dark of the Gods," P.C. Hodgell

Pros: Fascinating main character with cool back-story
Cons: Where to begin? Unsatisfying ending, meandering missing plot threads…
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 6/28/2002

It’s the case of the amazing bouncing book rating! First, I must tell you that “Dark of the Gods” is not one single novel. It consists of two shorter novels sandwiching a short story. Throughout the first part I was thinking to myself, “eh, three out of five.” Throughout most of the last part I was thinking, “wow, five for this part! I guess it’ll average out to four.” Then I read the very end and decided to drop my rating back down to three after all.

God Stalk

“God Stalk” is part one, one of the two longer pieces. It is the story of Jame, a young woman who remembers nothing of the years that have transpired since her father cast her out from her home, calling her tainted, unclean. Jame belongs to the Kencyrath, one group of people made up of three races and bound to serve a powerful three-part god. It is their job to stave off the powers of Perimal Darkling, a corrosive force that beats at the door to all creation.

Unfortunately, some time ago, the leader of all the Kencyrath (Gerridon) fell to darkness out of the desire for immortality, and with him his sister-consort (Jamethiel). Jamethiel sucked out the souls of most of the Kencyrath, dragging the races into death, chaos, and despair. Disheartened, the Kencyrath fled before the renewed power of Perimal Darkling. Now the Kencyrath, fractious and weakened, make their stand on what may be their last world. If they lose this one, they could lose to Perimal Darkling forever.

Jame, who has stumbled out of the Haunted Lands carrying her brother Tori’s birthright (their father’s sword and ring), must find him at all costs. Unfortunately she can only cross the dangerous mountain pass during a few weeks out of the year. So for now she’s trapped in the city of Tai-Tastigon, a city gripped in the power of old gods. Here she will find a family of sorts – one that eventually comes to accept her as her own mad father never did. Here she will learn thieving skills her honorable race would possibly kill her for using. Here she will find glimpses of her past, and omens of her future.

And then…

“God Stalk” was interesting, but it definitely had its problems. It meandered and wandered for a couple of chapters, not really picking up any kind of steam until at least chapter three. Dialogue didn’t always ring true, particularly toward the beginning. Sudden religious crises on the part of the protagonist arose very early on, without any background to anchor us or make us care about or relate to what was going on. Many characters started out as stereotypes; a couple of those also finished up as stereotypes.

The disgusting and the insipid both were sometimes delivered in the same bland voice, making it seem as if the horrifying really wasn’t that bad after all. There were some awkward point-of-view shifts that jarred a bit. Most of all, far more plot threads were introduced than there was really space for, causing an odd hurried, unsettled feeling to the story.

I still can’t really figure out why Jame felt such a need to learn the skills of a thief (maybe I missed something, but I failed to see anything so overwhelmingly convincing that it merited her intense inner conflict over honor). Then when she finally managed to apprentice herself to the master thief, who had never taken an apprentice before, who should by all rights have been a major figure in her life – we almost never saw either him or any effect that he had on her life. It was as though he was an afterthought, a convenient plot device to give Jame the skills she’d need for the next book.

It felt as though the author didn’t hit her stride until well into the story, and she never went back to fix the problems. I was interested in the characters by late in the story, but never felt particularly satisfied with how they were treated. By the end of the story we’ve still found out precious little about Jame that wasn’t fairly evident at the beginning, and those missing memories of hers are little closer to the surface.

Bones

“Bones” is an interesting little short story that presumably takes place sometime during the events of “God Stalk.” It begins with one of Jame’s heists as a thief and ends up with her trying to save her mentor’s life. It almost felt as though the author had suddenly realized that she’d left out Jame’s relationship with her mentor and felt it necessary to make up for that.

The story was interesting and fun, with some nifty little head-twisting ideas in it. It was a neat diversion from the more serious events of the longer-term story.

Dark of the Moon

“Dark of the Moon” picks up where “God Stalk” left off. I guess I should try to give away as little of the end of “God Stalk” as possible, so I’ll just say this for the moment: it follows in parallel the stories of Jame and her twin brother Tori, who is now Highlord of the Kencyrath, as his father was before him. Jame is still trying to find her brother in order to give him his birthright. Tori prepares to fight a war against impossible odds while trying to survive the machinations of the rest of the Highborn Kencyrath.

Most of this story is amazing – gripping, tense, fascinating. We learn much about Jame’s missing years, her unusual heritage, her dangerous powers and more, and it’s wonderful stuff!

“Dark of the Moon” doesn’t have “God Stalk’s” meandering problems, although it does have a very minor version of its tendency to introduce more plots and plot threads than it can really handle within its short page count (a few minor threads do seem to go missing during its pages). The characters in this story are more believable, less stereotypical, easier to get a handle on, and more fun to watch. I had a minor problem with the number of times Jame was separated from her precious items (over the course of this entire book, not just this story) and miraculously managed to find them again – it did get a little ridiculous after a while.

Where the real problem comes in, however, and what caused me to drop this book back down to its three-star rating, is the ending. Here I’ll just say that the ending fails to deliver on the promises of the story and has one character acting, in my opinion, decidedly out of character. If you want to know more about this, read the spoiler section that follows. If not, just skip past it to the end.

–BEGIN SPOILERS–
First of all, much of what made this story so enchanting and gripping was the tension between Tori and Jame during the long course of a story during which they don’t meet until the very end. The beautifully-drawn tension between their personalities, their prejudices, their beliefs, their experiences, their ways of acting, and so on. Gorgeous! I kept picking up the book to read on and on just because I had to know what happened when they got back together again.

So what happened when they got together? Not bloody much, that’s what. She saved his life, he shut her in a tent because Highborn women aren’t supposed to be seen in public, and then brought her out in a ridiculous dress to meet everyone else. That’s it. Very little of the cool tension, and then only between Tori’s desire to make her behave like a normal Highborn woman and her desire to do her own thing. Gee, I feel so fulfilled (sorry for the inadvertent slip of sarcasm there).

To make matters worse, what does she do? She goes along with it!

Since when has she done anything she doesn’t want to do? This is a powerful young woman who cut off the hand of Gerrison himself, who knows the secret of dancing souls out of other people’s bodies, who became one of the best thieves in Tai-Tastigon, who killed a god and then resurrected him, who has NEVER done what other people told her to do… And she meekly complies, like a good little girl.

Oh, I guess she paces and fumes a bit, but so what?

UGH!
–SPOILERS AND RANT OVER–

A Few Last Details

You’ll find the staple of most epic fantasy works here – lots of appendices and such identifying characters, positions, and so on, as well as maps. Did I need them? Not often, which is good – I happen to think that if you write a single book and in the space of that single book you so totally confuse the reader that she can’t make it to the end without maps and character notes, then you’re doing something wrong.

So, do I recommend this book? Yes, reservedly. I really did enjoy most of the ride. The first story is enjoyable if not amazing, and Jame’s background story alone is fantastic enough to be worth reading this book for. Just be ready, when you reach the end, to imagine your own version of what might have happened. The one provided feels hasty, off-key, and very unsatisfying.

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