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The Way of Light
Storm Constantine
Victor Gollancz, 408 pages

Anne Sudworth
The Way of Light
Storm Constantine
Storm Constantine was born in 1956 in England. She attended Stafford Art College in 1971-72 and worked as a finance officer in Staffordshire. Her writing career began with The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit in 1987. Storm Constantine's other novels include The Bewitchments of Love and Hate (1988), The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire (1989), The Monstrous Regiment (1990), Aleph (1991), Hermetech (1991), Burying the Shadow (1992), Sign for the Sacred (1993), Calenture (1994), Stalking Tender Prey (1995) and Scenting Hallowed Blood (1996).

Storm Constantine Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Crown of Silence
SF Site Review: The Oracle Lips

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

This has proven a difficult trilogy to assess.  There is much to recommend it: a genuinely epic vision; an often unvarnished look into human relationships; the embracing of love in all its varied manifestations; the skill at times with which the adventure is presented; a decidedly spiritual quest; and, in the second volume, Crown of Silence, an imaginative use of allegory and symbolism through which to couch the author's message.  Yet, having completed The Way of Light, there persists a sense that this is a trilogy in search of an identity, the three volumes remaining in part separate and distinct in character, outside the bare outline of their overarching story, never comfortably nor completely coming together.

The opening work to this epic, Sea Dragon Heir, had a decidedly split personality, literally divided between the characters of Pharinet, who, despite her prominent and informing role in the first volume, is largely abandoned as a character in the books that follow, and the princess Varencienne, who returns to center stage in the third volume.  Aside from the dichotomous structure found here, Sea Dragon Heir remained vaguely focused in terms of its narrative development, drawing upon fantasy tropes that were largely conventional and a story, except for Pharinet's sexual proclivities, that failed to rise above the ordinary, remaining only marginally imaginative.

The second book, Crown of Silence, represented an abrupt shift, both in terms of characters (granted, there is some continuation of players in new guises, but anyone who reads this trilogy will recognize the changes I am referring to), locality and content, concentrating upon a magical and spiritual series of quests that is firmly founded upon an imaginative recontextualization of traditional folklore and myth in which allegory and symbolism is used to express ideas and themes in a way unusual for conventional fantasy.  The strength of writing, composition and narrative development here is assured and sharply focused, each element and character contributing to a larger whole, and, unlike the first book, the segue prompted at the end leaves the reader logically anticipating more, a continuation of the saga fitfully and only tenuously hinted at in the first volume, but by now firmly established in the second.

However, in The Way of Light, we experience an alteration in tone and focus once again, this time to a more conventional and linearly progressive storyline, combining adventure and a quest towards a buildup for the final conflict anticipated at the conclusion.  Gone is the twin and largely disconnected perspectives of the first book, as well as the allegorical underpinnings of the second.  Instead we follow the rather logical story lines revolving around the struggle for power between the sons of the dead emperor and the empress, Tatrini, the gradual acceptance of Valraven in his role as the True King, the abduction of Varencienne and her daughter, Ellony, by Taropat and Shan, and the culmination of these various plot threads into the long anticipated, climactic battle between the new Sea Dragon King and the Malagash successors to the Empire. 

As the title to this book suggests, the thematic content of this novel becomes a kind of pseudo-New Age narrative, in which the light of our spiritual nature enfolds the dark, "everyone who walks the way of the light [casting] a shadow," light and darkness being "the same thing."  The struggle building within this novel is "not so much [a] physical fight as a conflict of souls."  Seen through this context, it is perhaps not surprising that Taropat and Shan's abduction of Varencienne and Ellony becomes transformed into a spiritual quest to fabled Hanana, in resemblance a veritable Shangri-La, complete with a boy priest, the Supreme Vana, who I couldn't help thinking -- not to the book's credit -- resembled The Golden Child from the Eddie Murphy movie.  Unlike the recontextualizations occurring in the second volume, the borrowings here are far too obvious, replete with their Tibetan-like landscape and religious observances framed with mystical mumbo jumbo -- "She will survive with awareness and there is no greater penance;" "If you serve the light and hold the silence of awareness with you, you become your own Golden Land." -- which, while they may be perceived as representing truisms by some, within the context of their presentation here border on the trite.

The author is far more successful in her continuing exploration of themes of redemption, betrayal and love, the prison the past can hold for all, the observation that "If I choose to live in the past I am still its victim."  There is a strong reverence for the natural world that runs throughout the trilogy, at times poignantly rendered, as in the paean that occurs on pages 172-173 of this edition.  And the author's treatment of human love and sexuality continues the bold beliefs first announced in Wraeththu, perhaps best summed up here by the declaration:

"What is perverse?  A man loving a man, a woman loving a woman, a sister loving her brother.  Love goes beyond mere human constructions... True love, utter giving, is never perverse."
While other authors have since embraced similar themes, most notably and best expressed by the recent work of Jacqueline Carey or Ricardo Pinto, Ms. Constantine remains the first voice to fully explore these issues, and regardless of one's sexual preferences, one must admire her for acknowledging that love should not be defined solely by the heterosexuals of our society.

Unfortunately, despite the strengths noted, as well as the novel working at a certain level as simple adventure, taken as a whole, the trilogy remains somewhat muddled and incongruent, without the appearance of any truly unifying compositional or thematic element.  As stated earlier, the three volumes comprising this saga remain disparate and distinct from one another.  There is a sense of large spiritual quests at play, but it is as if the author, while aware of their semblance, is never fully able to bring her various plots and themes fully into comprehensive focus, various threads and characters, such as Pharinet, left dangling.   While Shan, in book two, plays one of the leading figures in the story, by The Way of Light he is reduced to almost an afterthought, tromping around largely as Taropat's shadow, playing no real purpose other than to provide momentary sexual amusement for Varencienne's pleasure (Varencienne's indifference towards Shan, while perhaps realistic, is hardly endearing), his supposed significance as the True King's Champion never amplified or realized.  In fact, the anticipated role of all three of the True King's companions established in the second book remains in the third for the most part incomplete. Like Shan, Merlan Leckery, another key player from the second volume, becomes similarly disposed of by a jaunt off to Cos.  The "shadow court" of Mordryn, Senefex and Maycarpe introduced at the end is so briefly touched upon as to seem but an addendum.  And it is difficult to believe that the anticlimactic confrontation between Valraven and Bayard will satisfy anyone.

Finally, for magic or the fantastic to truly work requires a refashioning of reality, the provision of either an alternative realm or suspension of belief that never fully occurs in the final book.  Unlike Crown of Silence, where magic is grounded in allegory, the magic in The Way of Light is only tenuously apprehended.  Further, some of the action remains unclear, such as in the first attempt by Tatrini to summon the elementals, Tayven's identification with air, or Almorante's intervention near the end.  Unlike the Great Hunt sequence in the second volume, some of the action here seems only barely sketched out, and the author displays a singular inability to render battle scenes in any compellingly detailed manner.

Ultimately, this trilogy seems as if an example where the author wished to use her far from negligible story skills to embrace much more, but in the end was unable to successfully carry her ambitious vision to conclusion.  Some of the themes remain stillborn, others only partially realized, and as simple adventure, much of this tale fails to become fully rousing.  This is a shame, for all the components appear at various times present to create a gripping and compelling saga, one which, based upon elements found in the second volume, could have elevated this series beyond the conventional adventurous saga.  In the end, too much remains attenuated, and the story is only partly successful as adventure, and never completely thought-provoking in terms of its content.  And the peripatetic character of my comments becomes but a reflection forced from the narrative's failure to finally provide a comprehensive compositional integrity, one plus one plus one, in this case, not equaling a whole number.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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