Like a multitude of fantasy readers of my generation, I was a big fan of Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince and Dragon Star series back in the 90s. And when The Ruins of Ambrai, first volume in the Exiles trilogy, was published in 1994, I purchased the hardcover edition as soon as it came out. Did the same when its sequel, The Mageborn Traitor, was released. Daunted by the proliferation of big fantasy series on the market, like I did with several other SFF sequences, I elected not to read them until the entire trilogy was done. Which, in this case at least, was a good thing. For as most of you know, the final installment, The Captal's Tower, has yet to see the light. But now that Rawn began working on the third volume last year, I've decided that it was high time to give this series a shot.
According to most of the author's fans, Exiles is by far Rawn's best work to date. Understandably, I had lofty expectations when I sat down to read The Ruins of Ambrai. Other than her latest high fantasy series, The Glass Thorns, published by Tor Books, I've read everything she has written. Hence, I know what she brings to the dance, so far be it from me to doubt anyone's claim that this trilogy is Melanie Rawn writing at the top of her game. But as I've said before, expectations have a way to come back and bite you in the ass, and this is exactly what happened to me with this one.
After a confusing beginning and an uninspired few hundred pages, I had a feeling that this novel would be a complete disaster. I mean, nothing worked for me and this was by far the author's weakest book that I had ever read. I should have known better than to throw in the towel, for Rawn came through with a captivating engame and an interesting finale. Sadly, it wasn't enough to save the book. It's not a total loss, mind you, and I do want to read the subsequent volumes to discover what happens next. But even though it got better toward the end, The Ruins of Ambrai suffers from too many shortcomings to be a satisfying reading experience in its own right. Given how much love this series has been getting over the years, one has to wonder if The Mageborn Traitor raises the bar to another level, for the first installment cannot possibly warrant that much appreciation. Only time will tell. . .
Here's the blurb:
A thousand years ago, Mageborns fled prejudice and persecution to colonize the planet Lenfell—pristine, untouched, a perfect refuge for those whose powers were perceived as a threat by people not gifted with magic. But the greater the magic, the greater the peril—and Lenfell was soon devastated by a war between rival Mageborn factions that polluted land, sea, and air with Wild Magic and unleashed the hideous specters known as Wraithenbeasts. Generations after that terrible war, with the land recovered from crippling wounds and the people no longer threatened by genetic damage, Mageborns still practice their craft—but under strict constraints. Yet so long as the rivalry between the Mage Guardians and the Lords of Malerris continues, the threat of another war is ever-present. And someone has been planning just such a war for many long years, the final strike in a generations-old bid for total power…
Worldbuilding is a facet in which Melanie Rawn usually shines and to a certain extent that's the case with this novel. She created an intriguing matriarchal society and is in complete control of the genealogy and the convoluted history of her universe. Problem is, the presentation of everything leaves a lot to be desired. As far as the setting is concerned, the world and its people truly come alive through the author's vivid narrative. But most of the information is conveyed to the reader through some massive info-dumps that really bog down the narrative. Too often the reader is subjected to a barrage of names/family trees/family connections/history. This is as confusing as it is overwhelming, and makes it quite difficult to keep track of everyone's loyalty and where they fit in the greater scheme of things. Interestingly enough, I didn't have any problem with the over-the-top matriarchal society and its ramifications until I got to the Selective Index at the end of the novel. When I learned the planet was colonized during what is referred to as the Second Great Migration by thousands of mainly Catholic settlers following a 7-year intergalatic voyage, things immediately went downhill. Since Rawn doesn't elaborate on any detail that could have explained the shift from a more patriarchal to a decidedly hardcore matriarchal society, all of a sudden one of the underpining elements of the series' backdrop lost most of its credibility and didn't make any sense anymore.
The political intrigue at the heart of the tale is also a bucket that doesn't always hold much water. True, there are many unexpected political twists and turns, but the inherent details suffer from just a little bit of analysis. Ambrai, for example, appears to have been one of the world's largest economic and cultural centers. And yet, when the city gets destroyed gratuitously, the majority of its citizens murdered like vermin, an act of utter cruelty and violence, the council doesn't seem to mind much. For all that one of the greatest cities that world has ever known has been devastated with extreme prejudice, it's pretty much business as usual afterward. Even an incredibly ineffectual organisation like the UN would have, pointless as the exercise would have been, vehemently criticized and condemned in no uncertain terms such a barbarous act. The same thing occurs following the apparent destruction of the Lords of Malerris. In addition, the political system as a whole doesn't always make much sense. Early on, we learn that a democracy governs the various provinces. Be that as it may, it is evident that Anniyas rules over the council with an iron fist in what is essentially a dictatorship. And yet, when the time comes for a meaningless motion to be accepted, an extremely tight vote is necessary to see it go through. I understand what the bad guys are attempting to accomplish, but it's just that the politicking involved is at times quite gauche in its execution. And the much-anticipated revolution, when it finally comes, occurs "off screen." As a result, unless you can overlook such weaknesses in the backdrop of this tale, the overall plot finds itself on very thin ice throughout the entire book.
Moreover, having what could be one of the most pivotal plot points of the story rely on the decryption of an old nursery rhyme did stretch the bounds of credulity past their breaking point. Melanie Rawn is not usually a writer that takes cheap shortcuts, so it was disappointing to see the good guys puzzle out this secret so easily.
If there is one specific aspect Rawn habitually excels at, it would have to be characterization. She has a knack for creating endearing characters and her works are usually filled with memorable protagonists. The Ruins of Ambrai does indeed feature a few, but there are also too many characters that don't remain true to themselves and act in ways that goes against everything we've been told about them. I liked the idea of having three sisters seperated and warded so they can't remember each other and I was looking for some kind of balance between the different perspectives. That didn't quite happen and this lack of balance influenced the plot in a negative way. There is too much of Sarra, period. And a good portion of the scenes she appears in are ultimately unnecessary and could have been replaced by a brief summary of her comings and goings. All that traveling across the world to retrieve Mage Guardians turned out to be extraneous for the most part and did little but bloat an already too large pagecount. Regarding Sarra, I'm still trying to understand why anyone in the Rising would defer to a petulant, annoying, and often clueless adolescent girl. Sarra and her sister Glenin are two sides of the same coin. The former is over-the-top good, in that she wants to end poverty, inequalities, etc. Glenin, on the other hand, due to her upbringing is the polar opposite and is over-the-top evil and cruel. In the end, their being too much, one way or the other, makes it impossible to relate to either sister. Collan, the bard, was interesting at the start, but the inevitable love story with Sarra more or less killed whatever he had going for him. Which leaves young Cailet, by far the most compelling of the sisters. Her storylines offers the most fascinating surprises and I'm looking forward to discovering what Rawn has in store for her in the future. The supporting cast is made up of quite a few engaging men and women, chief among them Gorynel Desse, many of which die before the end of the novel. Melanie Rawn has never been afraid to kill off important characters, so it was nice to see her add a few to the bodycount in this one. I just wish Sarra would have been part of those dead bodies. I found her to be insufferable throughout and I'm aware that she's in for the long haul. So there's no helping that. . .
Having everyone warded and not remembering each other makes for some confusing storylines and it can be rough going through some sections. And once the wards finally come down, it defies comprehension how quickly everything comes together between Collan and Sarra and Cailet and their entourage. The final showdown, with the rebellion not even part of the narrative, is also a bit weird. Also, the aftermath of the Captal's battle with the man responsible for so many atrocities is never truly explained. I'm still not sure how or why everything happened the way it did.
In terms of pace, The Ruins of Ambrai is a slog for more than two-thirds of its length. The beginning introduces all four main protagonists before they are warded and is very slow-moving. The action takes place over the course of 25 years, and it is often confusing because at this juncture it is impossible to know how these different threads are connected. In the next few hundred pages, Sarra, Collan, and Cailet don't remember who they are, so again the reader is often left wondering what the heck is going on. Gorynel Desse appears to be the only one who knows and he's definitely not telling anyone. The last hundred pages or so see the rhythm pick up as we move toward the endgame. Things finally start to make sense and, even though a lot of storylines are rushed, the resolution of these elevates the plot to another level. Too bad all the info-dumps, the poor political intrigue, and the occasional clumsy execution prevented this book from achieving its full potential. In the long run, Rawn closes the show with style and aplomb with an ending that promises a lot of good things to come. It's just that you have to go through a lot of extraneous material to get to the good stuff.
Now that all of the groundwork has been laid out, I'm hoping that Melanie Rawn can return to form and that The Mageborn Traitor will be everything it can be. Unfortunately, although it gets much better at the end, all those aforementioned shortcomings make The Ruins of Ambrai Rawn's weakest work to date.
Please note that both The Ruins of Ambrai and The Mageborn Traitor are currently not available in digital format. I asked the folks at Daw Books and they said that they wouldn't be made into ebooks until they had a manuscript for The Captal's Tower in hand.