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Shadowhawk reviews the second novel in Gemmell Morningstar Award winning author Helen Lowe’s Wall of Night series.
“A brilliant sequel to a brilliant debut, The Gathering of The Lost is even more entertaining and rewarding than its predecessor. It exceeded almost all my expectations.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
I’ve remarked before that sequels are often a strange beast because there are so many automatic and built-in expectations going in. There’s always that fear, that when the sequel is preceded by a stellar debut such as Helen’s Heir of Night, the sequel will just not match up. Its even more tense in the case of The Gathering of The Lost since Heir of Night won one of the most popular awards in fantasy fiction: the David Gemmell Morningstar, awarded the best debuts of a particular year. I put off reading the book for a long time, almost a year in fact, because I wanted to hold on to my experience with the debut for that much longer, and also because the the third book in the series is still being written. GRRM fans know well how it is to wait for years on end for a successor book, and I did not want to go through that same experience.
I’m happy to report however that from the first fifty pages of a monster book (clocking in at just around 650 odd pages), Helen had me hooked. Interestingly enough, the two protagonists of the previous book, the titular Heir of Night Malian of the House of Night and her priest-apprentice friend Kalan, are missing from much of the early sections of the novel. Instead, Helen focuses at first on the Heralds Jehane Mor and Tarathan, two of my favourite characters from Heir of Night. Through them, we are introduced to the larger political situation across the world of Haarth. I would have preferred if the story had started off with Malian and Kalan but with Jehane Mor and Tarathan we get to see how the larger setting works, since Heir of Night was focused almost exclusively on the outworlder Derai and the House of Night. We also get treated to the Heralds as a much more important faction in Haarth, especially through their interplays with the various other factions, such as the Patrol, who guard the River Ij and are one of the most important factions in the entire continent.
Ultimately, that’s what the novel is about. Its not just an adventure story or a mythic one. It is not just your typical fantasy either. What it is, is a very involved and nuanced political book. C. L. Werner’s Dead Winter, which I read last year and is the first in Black Plague trilogy for the Warhammer Fantasy setting, was a full-on political thriller that dealt with all levels of society in the Old World, specifically the Empire. The Gathering of The Lost comes very close to that same concept, but with a much tighter focus on the characters. Essentially, it has a smaller cast of main protagonists, although the events as they unfold have a similar development.
Contrary to my opinion from roughly the first third novel, Kalan and Malian do appear in the novel and are quite central to the rest of the book. The reveal about their characters came at just the right time in fact, right when I was getting almost disheartened that I wouldn’t get to see them. The Wall of Night is a series that ties in very closely to the personal journey of these characters, and for them to be missing from the sequel was odd, at best, early on. But then, the reveal happened and I was blown away. It was entirely unexpected and the ramifications of how the reveal would reflect on the rest of the narrative were immense. But Helen rose to the occasion and she delivered on the inherent promise and expectations created by the reveal. Trust me, if you are a fan of Heir of Night and while reading the early parts of The Gathering of The Lost you are missing out on some Kalan and Malian action, you will not be disappointed later on. The suspense is well worth it.
Of course, once Kalan and Malian are revealed and take their place in the narrative proper, things kick off in high gear and from that point on the book is near relentless with its pacing. There is so much mystery and tension that is built up to that point and its as if the flood is let loose, because from then on, Helen holds nothing back. We get treated to some spectacular set piece battles, lots of high magic of all variety, Haarthian politics of the most profound sort, and some good old-fashioned fantasy-style espionage and cloak-and-dagger stuff.
Considering as a whole, there are several more remarkable things that make The Gathering of The Lost really stand out, other than what I’ve already mentioned.
For starters, the story is set five years after the climax of Heir of Night. It sets up some really interesting plot development. All the characters that we saw in Heir of Night have changed to a greater or lesser degree in that brief interval, and the entire political landscape of Haarth has changed, and not for the better it seems. Agents of the Darkswarm, the enemies of the Derai who have followed them to Haarth from their homeworld have begun traveling all over the world in attempt to broker treaties with the various Haarthian kingdoms and factions. The Earl of Night, Malian’s father, has become ever more isolated at the Wall, especially after the unexpected death of someone close to him and the fortunes of Night have begun waning. Kalan and Malian have spent the last five years honing their various abilities and are well on the path to mastering them and living their new lives as appropriate. And for Jehane Mor and Tarathan, travel across Ij and north and south of the River’s border has become even more fraught with danger since in addition to the Darkswarm agents, the Derai have also begun to take a greater interest in their “neighbours”.
Its easy to throw out terms like “natural, organic development of the meta-plot” and so on, but in the case of The Gathering of The Lost this is quite true. Up until I read the book, I had wondered how Helen would progress the story of Kalan and Malian, where their travels outside of the Wall would take them. I had wondered also how the larger world of Haarth would be explored, a rather obvious point to work on after Heir of Night since that book was almost exclusively on the Wall and the House of Night. In those terms, the sequel has surprises plenty.
All the reveals and the character arcs that we get to see are worked through brilliantly. Something you read in passing in the opening chapters comes to the fore in the later chapters and gains a higher prominence in the narrative. The narrative also goes along in several unexpected routes. which kept me on my toes and got me to really pay attention, in case I missed something. That is the level of writing in the book. And in that respect, it is no different from the other “complex” SFF novels I’ve read this year or the last, books like the aforementioned Dead Winter, or Anne Lyle’s Night’s Masque novels, or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire, or Stephanie Saulter’s Gemsigns to mention a few.
Then, there is the overall development of our four protagonists: Jehane Mor, Tarathan, Kalan and Malian. Yes, the two Heralds are now much more important characters in the series, certainly for a good two-thirds of the novel when all is said and done. What’s interesting is that the relationship between Jehane Mor and Tarathan mimics that of Kalan and Malian, or perhaps it is even the other way round. There are hints of romantic attachment between both couples, but there is also something more: trust, honesty and friendship. These are the three central themes in the novel that Helen explores to the fullest, and ultimately leaves the reader wanting more. To be perfectly honest, The Gathering of The Lost could have been another hundred or even hundred and fifty pages thicker, and I wouldn’t have minded at all. Would have taken me an extra day to read it, but I would have considered that a perfectly good investment.
There is a lot of growth in each of these characters. By the very nature of the novel’s timeline, Malian and Kalan are already maturing into adults and have grown in every possible way: physically, mentally, their abilities, and their stature as protagonists. They are much more aware of events around them, and know how to affect these events. With Jehane Mor and Tarathan, their roles as Heralds is much more prominent and we see completely different sides of their character this time. Not to mention, we learn about their origins as well, an element of the narrative that was truly astounding in its ramifications. Seeing all four interact with each other was one of the most fun aspects of the novel, which in itself reflected the growth of their relationship from the concluding events of Heir of Night.
What this all comes down to is the fact that in The Gathering of The Lost Helen Lowe has written a much more deeply layered story than she did in Heir of Night. She made me care about the characters all over again, albeit in different ways, which reflects the changes the characters have gone through. She expands, almost poetically, on the world of Haarth as she introduces us to several brand new factions, each of which adds to the Haarthian political and cultural landscape. Her characters are once more characters you can relate to, sympathise with, cheer along with, and root for. And she certainly puts them all through a wringer.
All the new characters that we get to see here, such as Orth, Emuun, Ser Raven, Prince Audin, Maister Carick, Lord Emer, Queen Zhineve-An, and the others, they all added to the entire story, start to finish. With all of them together, the story of The Gathering of The Lost is one of the most richly-layered fantasies I’ve read to date.
Any and all action scenes in the novel, given the pacing of the novel in general, are well-choreographed scenes that are complex as well. There is always a large cast of characters involved, highlighting all these disparate people work together, in turn highlighting the themes I mentioned before: trust, honesty and friendship.
For me, The Gathering of The Lost has no downsides. The overall experience is at least on par with that of Heir of Night. Following that novel was always going to be a tough act, but like I said, Helen Lowe rises to the occasion and in doing so, she proves that all her success is well-deserved.
Note: This novel is graded according to a new ratings system, the details of which can be found here.
To make a point, in the context of some of my recent reading, the overall state of SFF, and my own feelings on the matter of sexism and misogyny in the industry, I will say that is it extremely rewarding to read women authors who write so well, and often go beyond what their male counterparts are doing. Last year, a friend made me realise that I was reading books that were almost exclusively by male authors, and that my percentages in terms of gender were quite low. Its not something I had thought about before, but it was definitely an eye-opener, that I can say without a shade of doubt. I consider myself to be extremely privileged to be reading all the authors that I’m reading right now, whether male or female. In just the 20 months or so I’ve been hobbying as a reviewer, I’ve read some really great books, and have discovered authors I would call the gems of the industry right now. Helen Lowe is right at the top of that list, right alongside Jean Johnson who is currently my favourite writer of military science fiction.
Normally, I try and stay clear of gender politics within the industry, but as a reviewer and a blogger, it is not easy. Especially not when we have controversies such as the SFWA double-whammy of recent weeks. In light of that, all I want to say, other than what I’ve already said on social media and my own blog, is that if you, as a reader of whatever gender or cultural, religious, ethnic (etc) background or fiction preferences, are deliberately choosing to not read anything by women authors, then you are truly depriving yourself of some of the best that the industry has to offer.
In fact, I’ll lay it out straight: women can write just as well as men, if not better. They are also much more open to taking bold chances with their work then the men. The myth that the fairer sex writes inferior fiction, or just flat out cannot write good fiction at all, is just that, a myth. And the worst myth that we as intellectuals in a world hyper-connected through social media can propagate. Help the industry grow by recognising that good fiction is not determined by the gender of the writer, but by the skill and talent.
And it is writers like Aliette de Bodard, Juliet E. McKenna, Jean Johnson, Helen Lowe, Stephanie Saulter, Sarah Cawkwell, Elspeth Cooper and others who are proving all the detractors wrong.
That is all.