Last Updated, July 2010
The plot is straightforward: Sylvio, a former senior advisor to the old king, is living out his life in quiet exile when unexpectedly recalled to the capital. The question Sylvio and his companions have to work out as they head towards the annual fall market is whether the summons represents a legitimate request for help by the new king, now that the country is faced with the renewed threat of invasion, or whether it is merely a ploy to be rid of Sylvio once and for all. The court intrigue that develops addresses questions of loyalty, integrity, and responsibility, but the main conflict is Sylvio's internal one of seeing one's duty clearly and accepting the costs associated with it.
Three elements set this novel apart from run of the mill fantasies.
First, I greatly appreciated the portrayal of the relationship between Sylvio and his lady wife. One tires of stories of young love, typical of many quest fantasies, that suddenly end after the first kiss with a vague 'happily ever after'. It is refreshing to have depicted instead what true love means 30 years on. And at times it's hard to tell if Sylvio or his wife is the true protagonist, so the depiction of how two strong, independent characters blend together to make a marriage, is wonderfully original.
Second, the political intrigue reflects Stephen's Canadian sensibilities. Like Guy Kay's Great Canadian Fantasy, Tigana, Stephens sets her novel in a tiny nation of artisans trying to maintain their separate identity when overrun by their larger, militaristic neighbour. The importance of maintaining one's national identity, and the sense of betrayal at those who would sell out their countrymen, will resonate strongly with Canadians. The theme is sufficiently implicit, however, that it should not be distracting to other readers.
Non-Canadians will likely have more trouble reconciling themselves to Sylvio's determined pacifism, his refusal to take up arms against his oppressors, and his insistence on finding a solution that arises out of his nation's own historical-cultural context, rather than accept foreign assistance. I greatly fear that American reviewers might mistakenly characterize Sylvio as indecisive and weak simply because he refuses to take the easier, more obvious, and quick solution he is offered. In fact, greater courage is often required to do the right thing, especially when it is less showy and less clearly understood by others. (Sylvio doesn't quite strike a committee on parliamentary reform, but close enough to qualify the ending as archetypal Canadian.)
Third, and most fundamental, is Stephens' superior style. Stephens is a master world builder, not just in the design of the culture, politics and magical systems within which the story is set, but down to the portrayal of every little detail. Stephens is so grounded in renaissance culture and technology that the novel feels meticulously researched even though, on another level, it's all made up. The world around Sylvio is so vividly described that the reader can almost reach out and touch the decor of the houses, smell the sweat of the horses and feel it itch as it rubs against the rider's legs, all with an economy of words that is completely astonishing. Unlike other authors who stop the action for pages of redundant description, Stephens seems able to seamlessly integrate crucial details directly into the action. Here, for example, Sylvio is trying to come to grips with his maybe hearing the voices of the dead from a crate of long bows:
He heard whispers, dry and chittering, looked up sharply into the dust and gloom of the warehouse. Only the scuttle of a mouse. In the distance a horse whickered, followed by the firm but gentle command of an ostler. A burst of laughter then, plainly from the traders viewing Danuto‘s horses. Whispers again beneath his hand, fading like a breeze lost in leaves. A swallow swooped along the vaulted ceiling, blade-like wings almost silent. Almost. Like the voices in the boxes beneath his hand.
On the one hand we have the unsettling action of Sylvio trying to discern the ghost voices from the other sounds around him, nicely integrated with description of the immediate setting of the warehouse. On the other, the inclusion of distant laughter and the sound of horses from off stage is a great example of how Stephens is able to give her universe 'depth of field': the feeling that it is real and has permanence beyond wherever her characters happen to be at the moment. In Stephens' novels, when a tree falls, it makes a noise, even if none of her characters are there to see it.
My only criticism of the novel is that there were one or two aspects of the ending that struck me as a bit too pat, or that were left hanging. It occurs to me, however, that Stephens may have glossed over a couple of points by way of setting up a sequel – it would be wonderful fun to watch the protagonists recognize that the solution to their current problems necessarily gives rise to a whole new set of issues. Given that Stephens has created four or five unique and fascinating character studies in this novel – Sylvio; his wife; their adoptive daughter; the Queen of the neighbouring state; and said Queen's butler, among others -- it would be criminal not to use any of them again. In spite of my routine rants against bloated trilogies and never-ending series as a plague upon the genre, I would, in this one instance, relish such a sequel.
For most readers, From Mountains of Ice will be their first exposure to Lorina Stephens, so it's tempting to talk in terms of 'a great new voice in Canadian fantasy' or to describe her as 'one of the most promising new writers in Canadian SF', but such sound bites would be grossly unfair to someone who is already writing top of the genre. 'Promise' be damned; it doesn't get much better than this.
Disclosure: Since writing this review, I have joined Five Rivers Chapmanry as an acquisition editor.