PLOT SUMMARY: The mountain fortress Duradh Mal, mysteriously destroyed centuries ago, has many legends, but only one truth. And now, in the shadow of that once-mighty fortress, something evil is stirring. Unaware of the danger, the high priest of the Dome of the Sun has sent two inexperienced Illuminers to the village of Carden Vale, at the foot of Duradh Mal, on what should be a routine tour of religious service. The warrior Asharre, strong and tall, her face scarred with runes, her heart scarred by the loss of her sister, is assigned to protect the young Blessed. But in Carden Vale they find unspeakable horrors — the first hint of a terrifying ghost story come true.
The Sun Knight Kelland, whose faith is his power, has been set free by the daring woman he loves, the archer Bitharn, but at the cost of undertaking a mission only he can fulfill. Joined by Malentir, a Thornlord steeped in the magic of pain, they follow the footsteps of the long ago ill-fated expedition to Duradh Mal. There lies the truth behind the frightening tales of the dead come back to life, flesh ripped from bones, and creatures destroying themselves in a violent frenzy. For a black magic that had been sealed for six hundred years has been unleashed, and now must be contained again — or an entire world will fall victim to a Mad God’s malevolent plague…
CLASSIFICATION: Where The River Kings’ Road offered readers a traditional, medieval European-influenced epic fantasy in the vein of Greg Keyes’ The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, David Farland and J.V. Jones, Heaven’s Needle is a horror novel wrapped up in fantasy clothing — think James Clemens’ Godslayer Chronicles and Tim Lebbon’s Noreela stories crossed with Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft.
FORMAT/INFO: Heaven’s Needle is 480 pages long divided over a Prologue, 27 numbered chapters, and an Epilogue. Narration is in the third person via the archer Bitharn, the Sun Knight Kelland, the sigrir Asharre, and the entrepreneur Corban. Heaven’s Needle is the second novel of Ithelas after The River Kings’ Road, but is self-contained and only loosely connected to the first book. April 26, 2011 marks the North American Mass Market Paperback publication of Heaven’s Needle via Pocket Star Books.
ANALYSIS: Despite its conventionalism and failure to bring anything new to the genre, I really liked Liane Merciel’s The River Kings’ Road, which was an enjoyable fantasy debut that left me looking forward to the sequel — a sequel I became even more intrigued by after the author described her new book as a “fantasy-horror hybrid.” As a huge fan of both genres, I loved the idea of mixing horror with epic fantasy and was pleased to see the combination successfully executed in Heaven’s Needle.
Heaven’s Needle is the second novel of Ithelas, taking place a few months after the end of The River Kings’ Road. However, apart from the setting, a magic system based on the blessings of gods — Celestia, goddess of the sun; Kliasta, goddess of pain; Baoz, god of strength and war; Anvhad, god of treachery & deception — and returning characters in the Sun Knight Kelland and his companion/lover Bitharn, Heaven’s Needle has little to do with The River Kings’ Road. Basically ignoring what happened between Oakharn and Langmyr in the first book, Heaven’s Needle introduces a new storyline that finds Kelland & Bitharn joining forces with the enemy — Avele diar Aurellyn the Spider, leader of the Thorns (Kliasta’s disciples) and wife of the Baozite’s Lord Commander — in order to defeat an even greater threat in the Mad God Maol. Also caught up in this situation is Asharre, a sigrir — an ancient custom among the northern clans that allows a woman the rights of a man — accompanying two young Illuminers on their annovair, their first task as full Blessed.
The central premise in Heaven’s Needle is fairly simple, much the way it was in Liane Merciel’s debut, but it never becomes an issue thanks to competent writing, chapters that move along at a quick pace, and effective characterization. Of the characters, I enjoyed delving deeper into the minds of Kelland and Bitharn who remain caught in a heartbreaking struggle between love and duty, but it’s Asharre that really intrigues even though the internal conflicts she faces (loss of a loved one, thoughts of revenge, finding purpose in life) are familiar ones. Malentir, the Spider’s student, is another interesting character because of his dark powers and unknown intentions, while Corban is mostly a pawn although he plays a role in both Maol’s resurrection and defeat.
What separates Heaven’s Needle from its predecessor and other epic fantasy novels is the horror element. At first, Heaven’s Needle is more fantasy than horror with only a few hints of the true horror yet to come — ritual killings, an eyeflowers torture device, stories about ghosts and cannibalism, the crossing of Spearbridge (a bridge built from the items of people killed by Baozites which haunts all those who cross it with the last memories of the dead) — interspersed throughout the first couple of hundred pages in the book. Once the novel shifts to Carden Vale, Duradh Mal and Shadefell though, Liane Merciel really cuts loose, unleashing a dark and twisted imagination that includes such horrific things as the maelgloth — humans warped by the power of a god, their bodies grotesquely transformed — and the monstrous manifestation of Maol himself. At this point of the novel, the horror element takes center stage with even the prose conveying a sense of dread:
Its mouth gaped open so wide that its chin sank into the putrefying flesh of its chest. Its dessicated eyes rolled back in its head. The worm-like guts that she had glimpsed in its throat had pulled themselves into its mouth, where they pulsed like a mass of chewed tongues.
It hung there, a ghastly wound in the world, edged in bleeding wisps of black. All Bitharn saw within the gate was a wall of black and poisoned red, pulsing like an exposed heart through a mask of clotting blood.
Negatively, I was a little disappointed that the situation with Duradh Mal was left unresolved — Was the Maol infection completely eradicated? Why are the Thorns so interested in the Baozite fortress? — but as long as these issues are addressed in a sequel, it’s not a big deal, especially since the novel stands well on its own otherwise.
CONCLUSION: Fans of The River Kings’ Road will no doubt be surprised — and possibly disappointed — by the new direction Liane Merciel takes in her sophomore novel, Heaven’s Needle. After all, the new book has little to do with the author’s debut, while offering a much darker and more horror-driven reading experience. Of course, it’s for these very reasons that I found Heaven’s Needle to be much more engrossing than its predecessor. While I enjoyed reading The River Kings’ Road, it was a typical epic fantasy novel with few surprises, whereas Heaven’s Needle with its almost perfect mix of horror and epic fantasy provided something different and exciting. Granted, Liane Merciel took a major risk in writing a book that may alienate many of her fans, but in the process, I believe the author has improved her craft while coming a long ways toward finding her own voice. In short, I completely respect Liane Merciel’s decision to try something different and can’t wait to see what the author does next.
Ithelas — (2010-2011) Publisher: A fragile period of peace between the eternally warring kingdoms of Oakharn and Langmyr is shattered when a surprise massacre fueled by bloodmagic ravages the Langmyrne border village of Willowfield, killing its inhabitants — including a visiting Oakharne lord and his family — and leaving behind a scene so grisly that even the carrion eaters avoid its desecrated earth. But the dead lord’s infant heir has survived the carnage — a discovery that entwines the destinies of Brys Tarnell, a mercenary who rescue the helpless and ailing babe, and who enlists a Langmyr peasant, a young mother herself, to nourish and nurture the child of her enemies as they travel a dark, perilous road… Odosse, the peasant woman whose only weapons are wit, courage, and her fierce maternal love — and who risks everything she holds dear to protect her new charge… Sir Kelland, a divinely blessed Knight of the Sun, called upon to unmask the architects behind the slaughter and avert war between ancestral enemies… Bitharn, Kelland’s companion on his journey, who conceals her lifelong love for the Knight behind her flawless archery skills — and whose feelings may ultimately be Kelland’s undoing… and Leferic, an Oakharne Lord’s bitter youngest son, whose dark ambitions fuel the most horrific acts of violence. As one infant’s life hangs in the balance, so too does the fate of thousands, while deep in the forest, a Maimed Witch practices an evil bloodmagic that could doom them all…