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The Gathering Storm (Crown Of Stars vol.5)
Kate Elliott
Orbit paperback £12.99

review by Simeon Shoul

Kate Elliott's Crown Of Stars series has been enthralling reading since page one of volume one. A meticulously crafted epic of love, loss, war and magic, set in a brilliantly detailed 10th century pseudo-Europe, it tracks a dozen protagonists through helter-skelter peaks and troughs of fortune.
   What are the main bones of the plot? King Henry of Wendar (Germany), casting his kingdom to the winds and the doubtful care of his nobles, has been tempted into crossing the Alps and seizing the Aostan (Italian) throne in a bid to claim the Imperial title last held by Emperor Taillifer (Charlemagne) a century earlier. All unaware, he does not realise that a coming cataclysm threatens to devastate the continent. Two and a half thousand years before a mighty spell was wrought to banish the Elven Ashioi and their entire land from the Earth into the aetherical realms, now, as the heavens turn remorselessly, the land of the Ashioi is returning, bringing with it the threat of titanic upheavals.
   Tricked by the icy, implacable Skopos (Pope) Anne, herself a powerful sorcerer, the charming, malicious Presbyter Hugh, and his own young Aostan wife, Adelheid, Henry is ensorcelled and forced to serve their political and magical ends. Adelheid simply wants her own young children confirmed as heirs to the Empire, but Anne and Hugh have larger designs, to reweave the ancient spell that banished the Ashioi and send them once again hurtling out into the aether. Unfortunately, the conspirators are ignorant of the true scope of the devastation that was wrought when the Ashioi were first banished, and which they will recreate. Blind and arrogant, they continue to crush any resistance to their plot, ruthlessly killing or savagely mutilating anyone who opposes them. Regardless of which, the opposition is determined, courageous and defiant. Liath, Anne's own daughter, now wed to Henry's eldest son, Sanglant, has the understanding that Anne lacks. Together, Liath and Sanglant muster their allies, the centaur Bwr-folk, Quman nomads, disaffected nobles and wandering sorcerers in a bid to overthrow Anne's cabal and prevent the coming tragedy.
   To say all the above, is only to sketch the outlines of the tale, which has a quite astonishing richness and diversity. From the far Eastern steppes of Asia to the North African shore, Elliott has plumbed the depths of Western myth and European history to draw together a marvellous tapestry of characters and taut, vibrant storytelling. Whether in a peasant's cottage or the Pope's palace, the images are vivid and realistic. The desolation of one lost hero, Alain, is as perfectly depicted as the triumphal procession of Sanglant's conquering army. There is, above all, a terrific control of pace and tension. In a tale this long, with such a wide spread of characters moving along a dozen different storylines, there is always a danger that the narrative will meander, that the story will sag, or slow, that interest will flag, that too many names will become confusing to the reader or that we will leave certain people behind for too long to hold onto their place in the story when we next encounter them (a chronic problem for poor old Robert Jordan). Elliott, however, keeps it all under immaculate control, switching tracks at just the right moment, keeping each discreet element moving forward, steadily ratcheting up the tension level which achieves 'edge-of-the-seat' intensity by the climax of the novel.
   There is one more volume of Crown Of Stars pending, I'm glad to say, because this is as good as it gets within the contemporary fantasy genre. The broadest canvas, the boldest brush strokes, impassioned tale telling, and a cast of excellent heroes and villains. This is first-rate work from a first rate writer.
The Gathering Storm

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