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In The Ruins
Kate Elliott
Orbit paperback £12.99

review by Simeon Shoul

The Crown Of Stars is a vivid epic of love, war, magic and conspiracy set in a beautifully rendered 10th century pseudo-Europe. At the end of the previous volume, The Gathering Storm, an appalling cataclysm swept over the world. The land of the Ashioi, banished from Earth 2,700 years earlier, returned. The mere physical consequences were appalling. Tidal waves and hurricanes devastated most of the 'European' continent, volcanoes blossomed, rivers over-leapt their banks, or died, the sky closed beneath an impenetrable layer of cloud that shut out the sun for month after month.

Politically the damage was almost worse. With King Henry dead and Sanglant, his bastard son, absent, Wendar (Germany) is caught in the squabbling clutches of a dozen weak nobles. In Aosta (Italy), Henry's faithless wife (now widow) Adelheid, flees for safety to the provinces, as the realm disintegrates. To the east and west authority founders as every pillar of governance is undercut by the devastation. For the Ashioi themselves there is a homeland that is semi-desert, almost depopulated, and now riven by factions as they strive to re-establish their society and protect themselves against the hated humans. These are the ruins with which the characters must contend.

The essential pattern of the book is the struggle of the great majority of the characters to return to safety, which for most of them means Wendar. Here Sanglant, now struggling to establish himself as King, has the dual challenges of persuading the Church to accept his half-human wife, Liath, as Queen, when she has previously been excommunicated for sorcery, as well as yearning for the return of his lost daughter, Blessing. The secondary characters (of whom there are many, for the story has a marvellously broad canvas) having scattered to the four winds, spend the bulk of the novel trying to get back to Wendar, or some appropriate haven. Many of them endure periods in captivity, pursuit, or suffer the malign attentions of Machiavellian schemers such as Presbyter Hugh or the new Skopos (Pope) Antonia, who is (impossible as it may seem) an even nastier piece of work than her predecessor, Anne. Kate Elliott has, marvellously credibly, created a batch of eminent clerics whose religious convictions only bolster their ruthless pursuit of power.

The book is a rich and satisfying instalment in a story that has been gripping since the very first page, though it lacks some of the tautness of pace of the previous volume. Possibly this is because what we have here is really only half a book. As Elliot's author's note explains, this was supposed to be the final volume in the series, but on completion it was more than 430,000 words long; and hence impossible to bind into a single set of covers. Accordingly, she chose to split it in two (rather than cut it drastically).

The good news then, is that after (hopefully) a fairly brief period, we'll have another volume to enjoy. The bad news is that there are places where the pace does sag, as with the lengthy introductions and examinations of Ashioi culture. Furthermore certain characters (such as Hannah and Rosvita) appear briefly... and then are not heard from again. Clearly this would not have been the case if the book had remained a single, coherent whole. Nonetheless, it remains superior work, one of the best sustained epics of recent decades, and as Presbyter Hugh twines more and more strands of conspiracy about Sanglant and Liath, and the pressure piles on from other quarters, you find yourself clutching the book tighter and tighter. Very much recommended, and let's hope the final volume appears soon.
In the Ruins by Kate Elliott

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