The Scarlet Tides by David Hair
The Scarlet Tides is David Hair’s second book in THE MOONTIDE QUARTET series, picking up pretty closely after book one, Mage’s Blood, which I gave a 3.5 to last year. The Scarlet Tides has many of the same strengths as Mage’s Blood, and fewer of the problem (though still a few), which is why I’m giving it four stars. As a quick recap, I’m going to paste in a condensed and slightly updated copy of my setting/character summaries from that first review. Warning: the summary will include a few spoilers from book one.
The setting and premise is given to us in an early exposition by two of the characters:
When Kore made this land, he made two great continents [Yuros and Anitopia], separated by vast oceans… Meiros, an Ascendant… built that cursed Bridge… For a century we have seen the bridge open every twelve years, when the tides drop… Two Moontides ago… we marched our armies into Anitopia and we punished the infidel. We conquered Dhassa and Javon and Kesh… In 916 [we] strengthened our hold on Hebusalim… Now the Third Crusade is upon us; in one year’s time the Leviathan Bridge will rise and we will march. The Amteh Convocation in Gatioch has recently declared shihad, Holy War, which obliges every man of the Amteh faith to take up arms against us… This will be vast, epoch-shaping.
Vast indeed. You can see the obvious parallels to the meeting of the Islamic (Amteh) and Christian worlds (a third land, Lakh, in the south of Antiopia clearly parallels India),
though as if they were set on North America and South America, with Central America being replaced by a massive, magically constructed bridge that only appears every 12 years. That magic, the “gnosis” in the book’s terminology, was discovered by chance several hundreds of years ago and the descendants of the original 300 “Ascendants” (some still living) inherit the ability, though in weakened form depending on purity of blood.
The POVs stick to a select few, including but not limited to:
- Alaron: A young mage whom we met in his last year at gnosis school, along with his fellow student/best friend Ramon and another friend (though he’d like to be more), Cym. The three of them stumble upon a conspiracy/mystery involving a powerful artifact. In The Scarlet Tides, Alaron is seeking Cym, who has the artifact, while he himself is being hunted by the Empire’s Inquisitors. Ramon, meanwhile, is marching as a battle mage with the Third Crusade into Anitopia. Both Ramon and Cym have their own POVs as well.
- Elena: Alaron’s aunt and a powerful and experienced battle-mage/spy who has a history of cold-blooded efficiency. Sent to worm her way into the Javon court as a prelude to assassinating the royal family prior to the coming invasion, she, surprisingly to all including herself, discovered a conscience, which left her a prisoner at the end of Mage’s Blood.
- Gurvon Gyle: Another battle-mage and the head of Imperial Intelligence (Elena’s boss and former lover). He is the true source of power in Brochena, Javon, one of the more powerful cities in Antiopia and spins plots within plots within plots.
- Ramita: a relatively poor Lakh girl who was chosen by the ancient Ascendant Anton Meiros as his new wife based on his divination that his children will be key to saving the world. Pregnant and widowed at the end of Mage’s Blood, Ramita has begun to show signs of being a powerful mage herself, and finds she has a greater destiny than she knew.
- Kazim: Ramita’s original fiancée whose bitterness and anger was used by an Amteh sect preaching extreme holy war to manipulate him into killing Meiros. An unwilling “souldrinker,” he loathes his burgeoning power even as he begins to question all he has believed.
- Cera Nesti: Once Queen-regent in Brochena, now under the thumb of Gyle, Cera desperately seeks a way to restore her people to freedom.
The Scarlet Tides is slightly less geographically sprawling than Mages’s Blood, sticking mostly to Antiopia, though it ranges across several settings in that continent’s wide expanse. As you can see from the not-exhaustive list of POVs, the number of characters remains high. The movement from one POV to the other is handled with a consistent fluidity and Hair shows a nice sense of balance and of knowing when to shift away for sake of heightened suspense. And while in Mage’s Blood I thought some storylines were noticeably weaker than others, I found each plot line here equally interesting, though for differing reasons. Alaron’s story, for instance, is basically a chase scene, as she tries to stay ahead of the implacable Inquisitors (which he manages to do with the aid of some surprising and intriguing allies). Gyle’s narrative, meanwhile, is mostly centered on political intrigue as so many wheels within wheels are set in motion that the reader is never quite sure what Gyle is up to, a feeling his own allies and enemies share one assumes. A ponzi scheme sits at the center of Ramon’s story, with some suspenseful worry about what happens if it collapses, while Ramita, Kazim, and Cera’s arcs could all be labeled coming-of-age, as all three are forced into confront some truths about themselves and how they are changing.
Hair takes his time with all these narrative arcs, allowing the characters lots of space within which to grow. Depth of character was a strong point in Mage’s Blood and it is here as well. Many of the characters are realistically complex, few remain the same by the end of the novel, and many are thrown into situations that either reveal or create different facets of their personality. Some of these changes are predictable, but they are handled so well, and occur in such a realistic time frame that the predictability is not at all an issue.
Giving his characters that time and space to grow means The Scarlet Tides is a big book, 600+ pages, but unlike my experience with Mage’s Blood, I never had a sense that this one ever lagged or bogged down. Pacing was spot on, the prose was smooth and easily carried me through, and the storylines and characters were compelling/engaging enough that the book sped by relatively quickly in two sittings.
Thematically, Hair does a nice job of forcing his characters, and thus the reader, to ponder some age-old questions: do the ends justify the means, can violence or evil ever serve good, is religion more bane or balm, how can a woman make her way in a male-dominated world, is it money, love, or power that conquers all, is good stronger than evil, and would you rather be attacked by a half-human/half-reptile whose bite is venomous and who can use magic or by a woman who can unhinge her jaw and bite your head off (OK, maybe that last one isn’t so age-old).
THE MOONTIDE QUARTET does not move at a blistering pace. Book One was over-long and had a lot of world-building and context-setting to do, sometimes clumsily. The Scarlet Tides has much better pacing and the world-building is already out of the way. It still takes its time, and though I think it does so in good fashion, it wouldn’t surprise me if some find the series a bit too slow, though I’d at this point advise them to stick with it. My guess as well, and I could be way off here, is that the pace will pick up a bit in book three. I say that because for a series centered around a great crusading war, there is very little warfare to be had. By the end of The scarlet Tides, however, the war is clearly in motion, and so those looking for a bit more “action” might just find some in book three. It also bodes well that book two was a general improvement over book one. Recommended.