21 October 2009

To Ride Hell's Chasm (Janny Wurts): Guest Review

As I mentioned in Is The Grass Greener?, my lovely friend Kerry (from Saving My Sanity) decided to read To Ride Hell's Chasm (Janny Wurts), one of my favourite fantasy novels ever, as part of a GoodReads Book Club!

When Princess Anja fails to appear at her betrothal banquet, the tiny, peaceful kingdom of Sessalie is plunged into intrigue. Two warriors are charged with recovering with the distraught king's beloved daughter. Taskin, Commander of the Guard, whose icy competence and impressive term as the Crown's right-hand man command the kingdom's deep-seated respect; and Mykkael, the rough-hewn newcomer who has won the Captain of the Garrison - a scarred veteran with a deadly record of field warfare, whose 'interesting' background and foreign breeding are held in contempt by court society. As the princess' trail vanishes outside the citadel's gates, anxiety and tension escalate. Mykkael's explanations lead him to a radical explanation for the mystery, but he finds himself under suspicion from the Court factions. Will Commander Taskin's famous fair-mindedness be enough to unravel the truth behind the Garrison Captain's dramatic theory: that the resourceful, high-spirited princess was not taken by force, but fled the palace to escape a demonic evil?
I was reading To Ride Hell's Chasm concurrently with Kerry and yes, I did think of reviewing it. However, you would have been reading a review consisting of three words - I loved it - repeated endlessly *grin* So, with Kerry's kind permission, here are her final thoughts on To Ride Hell's Chasm:

I've finished. I'm afraid I didn't end up loving this book and I think I have at least something of a handle on why. It's like it was three different books - or perhaps rather types of books - in one binding and for me they didn't sit well together.The first half of the book drove me insane, for the reasons I outlined as I read it. But the reason it made me so nuts is because it was really well written. The characters all had strong solid personalities and back stories. And they acted according to what the author had given them even when it made me want to grit my teeth and scream. It was gritty and uncompromising (things I admit I usually avoid) and excellent, even if it was bad for my blood pressure.

Then we moved to the action-adventure story. And compared to the power of that first half, the realism seemed to suffer. We got Energizer Bunny Mykkael who should have keeled over ages ago but conveniently only does it when rescue has arrived - but then he's going to die, but wait, no, we can fix it because we are a wonderfully powerful convenient rescue.

And now we're into the third type of book - the fantasy with an absolutely perfectly tied off ending. There's that perfectly timed rescue I just mentioned. By people who we want to avoid because we've been told they'll want to kill Mykkael except that, hey, they don't. And then there's Anja who makes all the right decisions for a classic fantasy ending, and after that gritty and uncompromising first half (remember that?) suddenly it all seems to be driving towards an ideal ending. Yeah, she had to marry the prince, but she's a princess with an imperilled kingdom. That was always going to happen. But wait, the prince is young and beautiful and even a nice guy. How convenient for Anja. Too many things were tied up conveniently. Everything had a reasonable explanation sure, but it all turned up neatly at the end to get a happy ending. Oh, let's bring in the shamans, who happen to be powerful enough to not only save Mykkael and Anja, but also to find out the demon's name, save and cleanse Sessalie, save Prince Kailen (even if he's dead) [Anja's brother], give Anja suitable visions of the future to make the right choices, heal Mykkael's physical injuries, heal Mykkael's emotional and spiritual injuries (at a distance from all the people involved, many of whom were dead) and, whoo-hoo for an encore, heal Orannia [not me, Mykkael's beloved] as well (and also at a distance) and see a vision of Mykkael and Orannia living a long life together and having lots of babies together. Oh yeah, I forgot. We also had a revelation that Mykkael wasn't really an outcast at all and we'll welcome him to the clan while we're at it.It's all too pat. I think I would find it that way anyway, but after the uncompromising nature of the first half of the book, all these convenient happenings to tie off all these loose end with ribbons and bows feels rather like a betrayal of what the characters, especially Mykkael, suffered in that first half. And then there's all those characters in the first half who are suddenly abandoned by the narrative. We leave the action in Sessalie in the middle of a battle for goodness sake. And we never go back. Sure, we get told bits and pieces of what happened through moments of witch thought or the intervening little bits of narrative but it's not enough. After all those characters went through in the first half, they deserved a proper ending that was shown and not told.

Hmm, it's becoming clear to me that I actually had major issues with this book. I think at its simplest, for me, the perfect fantasy happy ending and the contrivances required for that betrayed the stark power of the first half. The first half felt painfully real, so to shift to a more standard, over the top kind of fantasy fare in the second half was a huge disappointment. Also, as much as I like a happy ending, the second half wasn't in tune with what the first half set up and promised the reader. This was a schizophrenic book for me. Or perhaps more a case of multiple personality disorder with two distinctly differently toned books inside the one binding (I'm lumping the adventure part and ending together here). I think I would have preferred either a second half that matched the first half (hard though that would have been to read) or a first half that matched the second half, rather than the mix that I actually got.

Rating: 6/10
Thank you Kerry! And you may have noticed the name of one of the characters - Orannia - in the review. This is the book from which I found my name *grin*


  1. Fantastic review Kerry - thank you so much for letting me post it!

  2. How cool--I didn't know you got your name from this book, Orannia!