WHO WILL COMMAND THE WATER?
A water resource war is brewing in a land where whoever controls the scarce water supply, holds the reins of power.
The Last Stormlord
(Stormlord Trilogy, Book 1)
Genre: High Fantasy
Format: Paperback, 640 Pages
Date: 4th March 2010 (First Published 2009)
Have you ever pondered why the villains in literature, particularly in fantasy and science fiction are invariably defeated? Why their schemes are constantly thwarted at every turn? Personally, it’s not something I ever gave much thought to. But reading the first book of the Stormlord Trilogy inadvertently brought both the question and the answer into sharp focus for me. The villains, even when their motivations make sense (which is very rarely), their decisions and actions in pursuit of their aims are so stupid and counterproductive that it almost seems as though they want to fail. The principal antagonist of Glenda Larke’s, The Last Stormlord, certainly appears intent on following in that fine tradition of incompetent villainy.
I will avoid identifying the said antagonist, for while it is glaringly obvious who it is, the author makes very good use of a red herring to deflect attention away from this person, while causing another character to come under suspicion. I actually berated myself for ignoring what was right under my nose once Larke let the cat out of the bag. However, this individual’s power grabbing scheme is so hair brained it won’t come as a surprise to any reader that things don’t exactly go according to plan.
Imagine, if you will, a land where water is so scarce that fresh water is literally the most valuable commodity anyone can possess. Where a person’s social status is determined by how much water they have access to. In this land the rationing and distribution of water has been tightly controlled for generations by the Rainlords; a tiny percentage of the population who, over time, have evolved to develop the power to sense, manipulate and control water. Among this small group of “water sensitives” is an even smaller number of individuals with the power to create and control rain clouds; to determine where and when it rains. Without the existence of these Stormlords the four regions of the Quartern would revert back to the “time of random rain” which would mean the collapse of civilisation and the death of much of the population.
Larke’s antagonist has ambitions to come to power in this land, despite not being a Stormlord, which under normal circumstances would preclude someone from assuming the position of Cloudmaster. But the current Cloudmaster, as the title of the book suggests, is now the last living Stormlord. And he is old and dying, which presents the antagonist with an opportunity. The “brilliant” scheme, however, requires not only the bumping off of the small number of children known to be potential Stormlords, while concealing the existence of an unknown potential Stormlord, to be used as a puppet later on. But also the engineering of a crisis intended to compel Cloudmaster Granthon to name the antagonist as his successor, rather than his own son, Rainlord Nealrith. The emergency situation involves forming a secret alliance with a bloodthirsty nomadic tribe from the Red Quarter, whose sadistic leader, Sandmaster Davim, would love nothing more than to bring a permanent end to the rule of the Stormlords. This would permit him and his followers to pursue their own agenda of raping and pillaging their way to conquering the four lands of the Quartern.
There are so many potential problems with the plan that when things do go wrong (which is rather frequently), it makes you wonder why anyone would be reckless enough to risk causing the collapse of civilisation itself, just to acquire political power. Not to mention how could anyone be be stupid enough to ally themselves with someone who is clearly untrustworthy and has no real desire to honour their side of the bargain.
But that’s enough about incompetent villains. Let’s move on to the question of, what is The Last Stormlord actually about? Well, it is hard to give a full answer to the question on account of the book being the first part of a trilogy, so a complete picture doesn’t fully emerge. What is apparent, however, is that there are two distinct plots (which presumably will become linked) following two young protagonists.
The first is a young boy named Shale Flint, from the impoverished region of the Quartern known as the Gwibber, who unwittingly becomes the pawn at the centre of the plot to grab power in the Quartern; a plan that ultimately costs Shale his family. Unbeknown to himself or others, Shale, is a water sensitive with the potential to become a Stormlord. Once Shale discovers the truth about how and why he has been manipulated and used, he sets out on a dangerous quest to throw a spanner in the works.
The second protagonist is a pubescent young girl called Terelle, raised since early childhood in a tavern-come-brothel in Scarpen City, where her elder sibling earns a living. Terelle is acutely aware that the Madam of the establishment intends to put her to work as soon as her “monthly friend” arrives for the first time. When that day comes Terelle’s virginity will be sold to the highest bidder. Terelle, for her part, has other plans that don’t involve following in the footsteps of her sister, Vivie. She goes on the run, eventually finding sanctuary in the home of a mysterious artist; a man with the uncanny ability to paint the future. But the greater mystery is whether his paintings merely predict the future or actually cause the future events depicted to occur. And why does Terelle also possess this ability?
In some ways it is unfortunate that much of the book focuses an Shale and Terelle. Though their respective storylines are interesting, they themselves are less so. The adult characters, for the most part, are considerably more compelling than either Shale or Terelle. I would have appreciated the opportunity to get better acquainted with some of these secondary characters, particularly two of the story’s female Rainlords, Ryka Feldspar and Laisa, the wife of Nealrith.
If for no other reason, Ryka, would be an interesting character simply because she is so antithetical to many of the contemporary heroines of fantasy literature. She is not the drop dead gorgeous, flawless beauty who men lose their sanity over. In fact the author makes a point of stressing how average looking Ryka is and how unattractive she believes herself to be due to the lack of interest shown towards her by her male peers. There is one amusing passage where, Kaneth Carnelian, another of the books Rainlord heroes, is shocked upon finding out that Ryka is not a virgin, even though she is in her thirties. Also, despite being one of the very few people to possess the power of a Rainlord, Ryka, is not the self-assured, butt-kicking bad-ass of the type becoming increasingly prevalent in science fiction and fantasy today. On the contrary, she is a woman plagued with self-doubt. Yet what makes her such a likeable character is that in spite of the insecurities, her courage, commitment and competency are never in doubt.
As for, Laisa, if I had to identify the best character of the book, it would be her, even though she is never truly front and centre at any stage of story. But that didn’t prevent me from being intrigued by her; principally because she is such a grey, ambiguous character. At no point is it really apparent which side of the good/evil divide she falls on. The cliffhanger ending of the book would seem to suggest the latter, but it is far from conclusive.
Though not overtly ambitious, Laisa, is clearly a woman who appreciates the power and privilege that comes with being a Rainlord. This attitude is reflected in her marriage and family life. She makes little effort to conceal the lack of respect she has for Nealrith; seemingly because of his lack of drive and self-serving ambition. And it is readily apparent that she doesn’t love her husband, and never has. Her sole reason for being married to Nealrith is his status as the son of the reigning Cloudmaster, making him the likeliest choice of successor. Being wife of the ruler of the Quartern would very much suit, Laisa, which explains why she stays in the marriage, though it is plain to see she has eyes for another Rainlord.
If it wasn’t obvious from her own personal conduct that, Laisa, favours being close to power over any considerations of personal happiness or well-being, it can be deduced from how she raises and instructs her obnoxious young daughter, Senya. She frequently drums into Senya the importance of pursuing relationships that are most advantageous to oneself; which essentially means with men who have influence and power. It will be very interesting to find out if and how Laisa’s role expands as the rest of the trilogy unfolds. I have a suspicion that she will become a more influential figure, moving forward. But whether it is as a villain or maybe an anti-hero is difficult to determine.
The Last Stormlord is a very enjoyable read which I breezed through rapidly. Yet upon completion a part of me was left feeling dissatisfied, but I couldn’t immediately put my finger on why. I initially wondered if perhaps it was the cliffhanger ending: As a general rule I hate them, and it certainly annoyed me in this instance. But, no, that wasn’t it. Eventually it came to me. I realised that for all the author’s originality, it was restricted, almost entirely, to her world building efforts. Larke successfully creates a very compelling and original backdrop for her story, but the manner in which the narrative ultimately progresses is disappointingly cliché and predictable.
The only truly surprising moments in the story come from Larke’s willingness to bring harm to her characters, and in some cases, kill them off outright. One particular instance of this willingness brought about the rather disturbing demise of one of the book’s main characters. It involves Sandmaster Davim explaining in graphic detail, to the doomed character in question, the horrific torture he will be subjected to. Naturally enough I assumed there was no chance of this actually occurring to a main character, so imagine my surprise when it did indeed come to pass.
All in all, irrespective of how predictable I found much of the story, there is no question that Larke does succeed in providing plenty of incentive to read the sequel novel. Even if I had disliked the book, the cliffhanger ending alone ensured that I feel compelled to pick up the second instalment of the trilogy. But aside from the ending and the uncertainty it creates as to who will still be alive at the start of book two, there are still other mysteries to be resolved. Especially with regard to Terelle’s storyline for which the author gave several teasing glimpses as to her true origins. And hopefully it shall become more apparent how her ark will tie into the overall plot. I also can’t wait to discover what Laisa is really up to; I wouldn’t trust that woman as far as I could throw her. I don’t think she is quite as harmless as she appears to be.
In summation, The Last Stormlord is a tale of ruthless ambition, with no regard for the consequences. It may not quite qualify as a must read book, but it is a title with a compelling premise, a memorable setting and some intriguing characters, which promises better things to come in the follow up books. Potential readers can rest assured that it is always an engaging read, as Glenda Larke is one of the best, most accomplished contemporary female fantasy writers.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.