Serpent Mage, book four of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman‘s DEATH GATE CYCLE, is not as good as its immediate predecessor but also manages to be significantly superior to the first two installments in the series. For the most part, the focus on Alfred and Haplo continues to be a good move and the tension is certainly ratcheting up as we get closer to the endgame, but on the other hand this one just didn’t feel as tightly constructed as the more gripping Fire Sea.
Following our cliffhanger ending last time, Haplo’s master has discovered that his disciple is lying to him. He catches Haplo before he can escape the Nexus into Death’s Gate, but by that time Alfred is already long gone. Said master, Lord Xar, punishes Haplo and ultimately manages to strengthen his resolve. Haplo embarks for Chelestra, world of water, determined to set aside his doubts and obey his lord. Meanwhile, Alfred has also arrived on Chelestra (because of course he has), where he at long last discovers his heart’s desire: living Sartans of his own generation. Alfred is initially blissful, but (inevitably) begins to disagree with his brethren, whom he begins to realize are judgmental, narrow-minded, and haughtily convinced of their superiority to the lesser races (those being humans, dwarves, and elves). Yep, the fantasy races are back again in Serpent Mage, once more represented by rather flat characters, though fortunately not so painfully clichéd as the cast from Elven Star. Haplo lands amongst a human/elf/dwarf alliance that has lately been forced to deal with an attack by creepy sea serpents. Said serpents try to make a case for being misunderstood on account of just looking incredibly malevolent, and I’m honestly not sure whether the audience was supposed to buy this for a second. If so, it didn’t work. This is THE DEATH GATE CYCLE, not A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE: if the sea serpent next door looks evil and sounds evil, it’s probably not going to bring you a casserole when you’re sick. Or if it does, you definitely shouldn’t eat it. Anyway, as Haplo tries to organize both serpents and “mensch” (Patryn word for the lesser races) against the hated Sartans, Alfred uncovers the secrets of the Sartans’ past and investigates the dark mystery of the serpents and what they represent.
So far as plot goes, this one isn’t too bad, but it’s not quite the breath of fresh air that Fire Sea turned out to be. Once again, our main characters seem to have arrived at a suspiciously fortuitous moment for Big Things to start happening; and there are several subplots regarding minor characters that seem to be there mostly to fill up space. Also, for all of Alfred’s protestations that the mensch are to be respected as beings fully as complex as the Sartans, Serpent Mage tends to use them as convenient fodder for Haplo’s character development. Haplo needs to reflect on an old flame? Here’s a convenient human girl to make calf-eyes at him for six chapters straight! Haplo needs to be hero-worshipped by the mensch to fuel his guilt? Oops, that elf lad is in danger! Haps to the rescue!
Fortunately, the mensch who gallantly laid down their arcs for Haplo’s sake did not do so in vain. Haplo continues to be far and away the most interesting part of this series, and while he’s no FitzChivalry Farseer, his characterization here is appealing and solid. Alfred does fairly well out of the events too, though it’s fairly obvious that he’s in more of a deuteragonist role this time around, not a co-protagonist. The book works its way to an exciting and impactful climax, and does include a number of fun scenes along the way, but it’s noticeably slower than its predecessor, and once again there’s the disconcerting impression that Weis and Hickman are not fully in control of their various plot elements, or at least aren’t entirely sure what to do with them. For one thing, the plot once again feels purposefully constructed to keep the Patryn/Sartan rune magic off the table for as much of the narrative as possible, and even when said much-hyped superpowers are briefly used, the passages are more exposition than scene and feel like a letdown after all the build-up. On the upside, though, there’s a palpable sense of the series beginning to draw together now that all the worlds have been explored, which gives me hope that the next book is where the premise will really start to hit the gas.
Overall, a fair to middling piece of work. It’s a reasonably fun little novel that in all honesty feels like it was always intended more to get the reader from point A to point B than it was to be a big deal in its own right. On that level, it succeeds, and hopefully the destination in the next part will be worth the journey this one makes. I admit that I’d hoped after the last book that the series had finally hit its stride, but if Serpent Mage stumbles a little, it never actually falls.