In Fire Sea, the third novel of the seven-book DEATHGATE CYCLE, authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman finally seem to find their footing. Where the plots of the first two novels often felt haphazard and clunky, Fire Sea has a relatively streamlined sequence of events that not only makes sense but takes care to involve its setting and characters. What’s more, the clichéd fantasy archetypes from the first two are largely set by the wayside. In fact, there aren’t any elves or dwarves at all in this one, and Haplo — the only truly interesting character from the first two books — at long last takes over as formal protagonist.
What’s that, Mormon Tabernacle Choir? You have something to add?
So, anyway, after traveling to Arianus, the world of air, in Dragon Wing; and Pryan, world of fire, in Elven Star; Haplo journeys in book three to Abarrach, world of stone (no, not the world of fire, though honestly it feels more like it than Pryan ever did). Along the way, he encounters and quasi-captures Alfred, the clumsy Sartan from book one. Now, we’ll recall that Sartans and Patryns (Haplo’s race) are sworn nemeses, which makes the following trip rather awkward, but the two men are forced to work together (it’s a little unlikely, but it’s cute) as they confront the Sartans of Abarrach, who have degenerated from their semi-divine origins into a race of barbaric necromancers. With both Haplo and Alfred determined to get to the bottom of necromancy and what went wrong in Abarrach (albeit for very different reasons), they’re quickly caught up in a feud between warring tribes.
I will say that this is not the most ambitious narrative we’ve had in the series so far. There are no genocidal giants or Marxist revolutions in the offing. That actually seems like a wise choice, though. The authors finally present us with a fascinating world that imposes on events and has driven the entire development of its native civilization. The slow death of Abarrach and the decline of its inhabitants cast a long shadow over the narrative and lends the text a sense of urgency that the other books could not quite reach. For the first time, I really felt engaged in events and eager to see the heroes succeed. Haplo gets some interesting development in this installment, and Alfred proves to be a far more interesting figure than he did in his original appearance. The plot is to-the-point and direct, but this allows for exactly the kind of quick, tidy adventure that Weis and Hickman seem to have been aiming at all this time. There’s even some interesting thematic work in regard to necromancy, although a later focus on monotheistic religion does seem to come somewhat out of the blue (I imagine it’s going to be a bigger plot point in later books).
That isn’t to say Fire Sea is without flaws. Weis and Hickman’s third person omniscient voice can get a little scatterbrained on occasion, especially now that we’re effectively dealing with two protagonists. Most of the time it works, but sometimes the hops between Haplo’s headspace and Alfred’s can start to feel too rapid. Also, while the dialogue and prose are serviceable and do have moments of charm, no one is ever going to claim this series is particularly subtle work. It’s a children’s adventure and doesn’t try to be anything more. Finally, I must say that the much-hyped Sartan/Patryn rune magic is beginning to become a bit of a problem for the series. It’s like the world’s biggest Chekhov’s Gun: almost every turn of the series’ broader plot keeps referring back to these godly magical powers, but the people in the story who possess said abilities keep running into stumbling blocks around actually using them, which is starting to feel a bit contrived. We’ve had two books running now where the Patryn/Sartan rune magic has been almost completely ineffective against the major foe, and I’m beginning to think that Weis and Hickman are afraid of what will happen if they ever pull that gun off the wall and fire it.
Overall, though, I’m actually a little shocked by how much of an improvement Fire Sea is over its predecessors. Sure, it’s not high art, but it achieves its ambitions and provides readers with an engaging, cohesive storyline led (finally!) by an entertaining protagonist. This is a fun read, and I’m interested to see where the series goes next. Good for you, DEATHGATE CYCLE. This is not exactly what I pictured my review looking like when I started reading, but I’m glad this is where we ended up.