A Fortress of Grey Ice by J.V. Jones
As one might expect from the obvious length, there’s a lot going on in J.V. Jones’ second work of the Sword of Shadows series. A Fortress of Grey Ice is constantly shifting between locales and characters, offering many storylines, each of them interesting and tension-filled in their own right. Jones has a nice touch for when to turn away and when to return, seemingly having no trouble juggling the multiple plots, which in turn means the reader also has no problem.
The important characters are too many to name (another testament to Jones’ juggling ability), but again we spend a lot of time with Raif the clan outcast and the various members of his family — brother, sister, widowed mother, uncle; Ash March — the girl “Reach” whose ability is a danger to herself and the entire world; and the Dog Lord who is having some buyer’s remorse about the means employed and the end result of his attempt to become king of the clans. Whereas in the first book Ash and Raif come together, in this one they are separated and become two wholly independent storylines, giving Jones the opportunity to broaden and deepen our understanding of the world. Through their two stories we spend a lot of time with the Maimed Men (a semi-clan formed of outcasts) and the Sull, an older race than man whose history is given in more detail than in the first, giving the reader a sense of the larger battle between good and evil that is raging above, beyond, and through, the more petty human wars.
New side characters are introduced and as is typical of J.V. Jones, given full flesh so that they stand as characters in their own right as opposed to plot movers. Raif’s time with the Maimed Men and Ash’s journey to the heartland of the Sull are both well-plotted and paced and filled with tension. Meanwhile, the clan wars grow as I’ve said in complexity as motivations become cloudy, unintended results become clear, new characters enter the stage, new alliances form, even between former enemies. Through it all stand the Dog Lord, one of Jones’ best characters and most human and even at times most humane (even as he orders the deaths of many) and Raina, Raif’s mother who sacrifices her own happiness to do what’s best for her clan, though she struggles throughout the book with just what that means. Then there are the storylines involving Raif’s younger sister, terrorized by Mace Blackhail and accused of witchcraft; the sorceror’s former servant who escapes the mines and treks across the land to try and rescue his lord from below the Splinter, the various machinations of those who would be rulers — the surlord Iss, his general One-Eye, his sorcerous accomplice.
What most impresses is not simply the complexity of the plot or the manner in which Jones manages to make that complexity readable, but also the complexity of the characters and their decisions. While grey is the color of the ice in the title, it could also stand for many of the situations the characters find themselves in. There is little clear-cut in this work. Characters are seldom if ever given an easy — there is rarely a choice between good and bad but rather between bad and less bad. Our characters can’t avoid killing and Jones doesn’t give them or the reader an out by making everyone they kill evil. Characters are torn, they are unsure, and even their best intentions sometimes rebound on them in horrible ways.
And here comes the bad part. She does such a good job of creating, maintaining, and raising the tension, such a good job of creating complex situations and complex characters, that several of the endings to the storylines feel anti-climatic in the way in which they happen so abruptly. Resolved or unresolved, they come to a close in a rushed fashion, robbing the book at the very end of much of its power. But, if the biggest complaint is a few dozen pages out of several hundred, I can live with that. A Fortress of Grey Ice, rather than be a placeholder for the trilogy, moves the story in interesting, exciting, and unexpected ways and I look forward to the next book, hoping that its ending keeps the promise of its middle.
Sword of Shadows — (1999-2010) Publisher: As a newborn Ash March was abandoned — left for dead at the foot of a frozen mountain. Found and raised by the Penthero Iss, the mighty Surlord of Spire Vanis, she has always known she is different. Terrible dreams plague her and sometimes in the darkness she hears dread voices from another world. Iss watches her as she grows to womanhood, eager to discover what powers his ward might possess. As his interest quickens, he sends his living blade, Marafice Eye, to guard her night and day. Raif Sevrance, a young man of Clan Blackhail, also knows he is different, with uncanny abilities that distance him from the clan. But when he and his brother survive an ambush that plunges the entire Northern Territories into war, he yet seeks justice for his own… even if means he must forsake clan and kin. Ash and Raif must learn to master their powers and accept their joint fate if they are to defeat an ancient prophecy and prevent the release of the pure evil known as the End Lords.
Raina isn’t Raif’s mother. Raif’s mother died in childbirth.