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Lord Of Snow And Shadows: Book One of The Tears Of Artamon
Sarah Ash
Bantam paperback £10.99

review by Simeon Shoul

At the southern tip of the continent of Rossiya, in the tiny, warm, sheltered republic of Smarna a young painter, Gavril Andar, is busy at his chosen work, painting the portrait of a spoiled young aristocrat, never suspecting that his comfortable existence is about to be uprooted.
   All his life, Gavril's mother has successfully hidden from him the truth of his parentage. Little does he know that he is heir to the distant, icy kingdom of Azkhendir, and heir as well to the terrible power of Azkhendir's ruling line, preordained host to the burning spirit of the Drakhoul (golly!). Well, in short order, Gavril's father dies (foully murdered!), the spirit of the Drakhoul flies south, possesses Gavril, and leads a band of Azkhendiri warriors (the Druzhina) to his home. The Druzhina knock Gavril on the head and hustle him north to be the new Drakhouan of Azkhendir.
   Now, many people would quite like being handed a kingdom on a plate, especially after a life of artesian obscurity that leaves them panting at the gates of elegant palaces (if not flung into the gutter for flirting with the wrong people). Gavril, however, doesn't. He doesn't like Azkhendir, or most of the (insensitive, boorish) people who live there. He doesn't want to exact blood vengeance against the murderers of his father. He doesn't want to be Drakhouan, or host to the malign, sinister, corrupting power of the Drakhoul, or responsible for the safety of a whole kingdom, caught between the intrigues of Muscobar to the south and the brutally efficient invasion plans of Tielen to the west.
   Also, he's not very good at any of these things. His lack of motivation is well matched by complete ignorance of statecraft. He's all at sea in a welter of conspiracies, spies, assassination attempts, old family history, magical influences he can't control and the surly, superstitious, bloodthirsty expectations of his new subjects (he can paint a nice picture though!) Marching along to (almost certain) doom with Gavril is the serving maid Kiukiu, despised as the child of an Arkhel clansman (what rotters), but heir (though she doesn't know it) to the mysterious spirit powers of a Guslyar (gosh!) Gavril's mother, Elyssia, is also sucked into the vortex of his troubles (though she, at least, should know better), as she tries to barter for his safe return at the decadent court of Muscobar and slowly falls under the influence of the sinister Count Feodor Velemir (boo! hiss!). To add a little salt to the stew (it needs it) there's plenty of action on the sidelines; Muscobar is fragmenting as the decaying ruling house loses its grip in the face of radical new political movements (think Tsars, think Bolsheviks...). In Tielen the implacable King Eugene plans his coming onslaught with the aid of the mysterious Francian sorceror, Linnaius, while his arcanely gifted daughter Karila (good lord, another one!) frets soulfully in her palace prison...
   And what, in the end, does it all amount to? Well, funnily, this is not actually a bad book. It also isn't a good book, because it contains absolutely nothing original, or even very clever. The motifs are stock, the plot devices formulaic. If you've read ten fantasy novels before, then there's nothing here that will surprise you. The characters are not shallow but they come painted in over-bold, simplistic colours, their emotions and thoughts thrust at the reader in a "Gavril felt terrible despair" style that spares the author any hard work. But, nonetheless, the story drags at the reader's attention. In this Scandinavian/Russian smorgasborg that Ash has created, there is enough pathos, and eventually, enough tension, to make a decent novel. It's one cut (just) above the standard genre-fodder we're so often forced to consume.
Lord Of Snow And Shadows

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