3 March 2015

Keepers of the Dawn, by Herb J Smith II

I grew up reading the classics of fantasy and science fiction, and these genres have always been dear to my heart. In recent years, however, I have come to despair at the overblown and bloated thing that fantasy (in particular) has become. It is a pleasure, then, to read and review an SF/F novel that avoids many of the pitfalls into which fantasy is prone to fall.

Keepers of the Dawn, the first volume in Herb J Smith’s Dawn Cycle series is every bit the epic SF/F novel, at around 668 pages in the paperback version. It is set in what (it quickly becomes apparent) is some kind of post-apocalyptic, future earth. The precise nature of the catastrophe that overwhelmed the earth some two thousand years earlier remains unclear. We are introduced into a society populated by the Penitents and the Viles, two offshoots of the human race long at war with one another. The Penitent world is dominated by a Church led by a Popess. The Vile world is united into a Kalifai by a Vile called Rue-A-Kai, who has the ability to transfer his spirit from body to body: as one body wears out he claims another, using a powerful Stone. The Viles are all severely mutated, although it is clear that the Penitent peoples are also not entirely free of mutation. Both peoples of this world participate in the ‘ether’, via which they are able to communicate mentally with others.

The Penitents of this world have for two millennia kept the Viles contained within a particular section of the world, a kind of badlands. Rue-A-Kai has united the Kalifain people in their attempts to break out of this confinement.

The world inhabited by these people is only part of the entire earth. It is bounded on each side by powerful fields of energy known as the Teeth. Religious belief holds that Paradise lies beyond these Teeth, and that both the Viles and Penitents have been excluded from Paradise by a divine being, a Nameless One, as punishment for past sins. One day a Saviour will appear to bring down the Teeth and admit people once again to Paradise. The Viles and the Penitents adhere to different religious interpretations, but there are many commonalities among their beliefs. That there are reflections here of the religious divisions in our own contemporary reality is apparent, but this not laboured too much.

Into this world is born Bartu, the son of a blacksmith in a small village. Bartu is a ‘mishappen’, one born amongst the Penitents who nevertheless has some kind of mutation. Bartu’s physical mutation is emerald eyes, but his other mutation is far more serious: he is a mental deaf-mute. He is heir, via his father, of a secret tradition among the Penitents: his family is committed to protecting the Book of Ancient Power, which ultimately will have a role to play in the redemption of the Penitents. Rue-A-Kai longs to seize this book which, together with the Powerstone in his possession, an ancient prophecy claims can be used to break through the Teeth.

Eventually, circumstances force Bartu on a quest to save the Book and defeat Rue-A-Kai. On this quest he is joined by Penu-Um-Brah, a Vile and former key figure in Rue-A-Kai’s forces, Braxon, a Prince of one of the five kingdoms of the Penitent world, his advisor, Volar, a renegade wizard called Zandow, and Zandow’s enigmatic foster child, Shadow.

I begin my assessment of this book with some negative praise. I will mention some of the things the author does not do.

Although there are minor characters and occasionally other narrative streams, the author invests most of his time and energy into the characters just mentioned. The reader is not overwhelmed by a plethora of voices, or lost in a bewildering array of parallel narrative streams. You do not struggle to remember who that character is, who was last encountered a hundred or more pages ago. You do not drown in the points of view of a hundred minor characters who play no real role in the story, and may never appear again. The narrative is disciplined and constrained.

The author does not drag the reader through every single conversation in which every single character participates. He does not force us to share every meal and every random thought. It does not take the characters one hundred pages to undertake a journey of a few miles. The author knows how to focus on what is important.  At times, years—yes years—pass by in just a few sentences. Again, this is about being focussed and disciplined.

There are battles scenes here, but these are largely sketched out in an impressionistic style, occasionally zooming in on a key conflict. Mercifully, they do not stretch on for page after page of mind-numbing maiming and beheading.

There is political intrigue; there are religious and social systems to be explained. This is done sparingly, on a need-to-know basis. This in no way detracts from the understanding the reader has of this world, or his/her involvement with it.

On a more positive note, the story is engaging, intriguing, and fascinating. The admixture of science fiction and fantasy is not new. However, I found myself hanging on the hints about the world of the Ancients, and about the remnants of that world that persist into the present. The reader quickly understands what the Book of Ancient Power actually is or, at least, what it closely resembles. It is not difficult to work out what the Mountain of Titans is. My one criticism here is that the author occasionally labours over these descriptions past the point at which the reader has ‘got it’. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see the characters struggling to understand these things, and their own interpretations are often engaging.

The characters are all well-developed and multi-dimensional, with complex and fleshed-out back stories. There are no simple goodies and baddies here, except perhaps Rue-A-Kai, who is unrelentingly evil. However, he provides background for the narrative, and rarely assumes the role of an active, present character. The relationships are also complex and realistic. The love relationship that develops here bears no resemblance to the romantic, dewy-eyed, naive romances that often characterise fantasy.

There was one point in the narrative, about three quarters of the way through, when I felt it became bogged down. The action virtually ceases and for a time there is little but conversation, planning and the characters’ ruminations. This provides some additional back story and explains more about the world, but much of this I felt was redundant. This is in contrast with the scene at the end of the book when the magician Zandow is filling in some of the missing pieces. This conversation comes to life, and quenches the reader’s thirst.

Finally, this story comes to a satisfying resolution. Yes, there is clearly more to come. But the reader is not forced to wait years for the next volume in order to find out what happens. There is no cliff hanger here, although there is plenty to whet the reader’s appetite about what is to come. There are many unanswered questions about the nature of this world and its future, but I felt satisfied at the end that I had read a complete story.

I have no hesitation giving this four stars.