In reading fantasy novels, one becomes aware of certain patterns, certain shapes such tales take. Among them are the quest, the defense of a realm against an evil invader, and the fulfillment of a destiny or prophecy. The best novels are those which combine those elements, like Tolkien's Rings saga -- and the best of these break the molds, and recast them in new shapes; Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn comes to mind, as does the work of Tim Powers. Add to them Wysard, the impressive first novel by the highly talented Carolyn Kephart. The familiar "plot-patterns" above are there for the reader to spot -- but rarely do they take familiar courses. Instead they take on unique forms, and in the process tell a tale that will enchant and delight any discerning reader of fantasy.
Wysard is the tale of Ryel Mirai, young Lord Adept of the otherworldly city of Markul. Ryel, like his fellow Adepts, is a practitioner of the sorcerer's Art. Kephart reveals, through the expert use of flashbacks, how Ryel was trained in both wysardry and swordcraft by Edris, his gruff but caring mentor. Scenes of Ryel's early life in a semi-barbaric Steppes village, and later of his inauspicious arrival at Markul, give the reader insight into the outwardly confident, inwardly uncertain man Ryel becomes.
As the narrative deepens, we learn that Edris has died under mysterious circumstances, and that Ryel, having practiced the "cruel Art of Elecambron" (a rival wysard-enclave), has become an Overreacher, a virtual outcast among his people. This Overreaching has turned his eyes a chilling, voidlike black -- even the whites -- and has left him open to the temptations of the powerful daimon, Dagar. It's Dagar who draws Ryel forth from Markul and into the World, where the young wysard must seek the truth about Dagar's intentions, Edris's death, and his own life. Along the way Ryel retuns to his Steppes home, and travels to the city of Almancar to heal its Sovrana, Diara, driven to madness by Dagar.
The answers that await Ryel on his journey are surprising, and deepen the mysteries which surround him. Kephart has a flair for the unexpected, which she uses to trememndous effect throughout Wysard...and I wish I could cite an example or two, but I'd hate to spoil anything! Instead I'll say that several times I thought I knew where Kephart was heading -- only to find I was dead wrong. Any writer who can surprise me that often and well is, in my book, a genuine treasure.
Another area where Kephart excels is her descriptive, lush, sensual prose. Whether describing Almancar and its surroundings, Ryel's first impressions of Edris, or the dramatic scene whee young Ryel is struck by lightning, Kephart brings each moment to vibrant life, filling the reader's mind with the sights, sounds, and scents of Ryel's world. World-building is vital to any work of fantasy, and Kephart succeeeds admirably at it. Wysard's settings come alive; her description of the smells in Ryel's Steppes village, "the compacted miasma of meat seared by fire, of hot spices, horses, human sweat, the gritty reek of dust and smoke," is just one of many vivid examples.
More problematic is the issue of character. Wysard is populated with a large cast, most of it minor supporting characters. It's hard on a first reading to keep track of their comings and goings (and, as in Wonderland, these people come and go with a most startling suddenness), though one can do so with a little extra effort. And while male characters such as Ryel, Edris, Diara's brother Priamnor, Ryel's rival Michael Essern, and especially Dagar, are well-defined and believable, I had trouble with some of the women in the novel. Diara, Ryel's mother Mira, and his sister Nelora, struck me as rough sketches in an unfinished painting, figures the artist neglected to flesh out. Diara in particular, important as she is, seems little more than a prop, a toy played with and then put away. More believable for me were Ryel's Art-sisters, the Lady Serah and Srin Yan Tai. Both are key to the story, and both made a significant impact with me. Perhaps the best female character was Belphira, encountered in Almancar's pleasure district, the Diamond Heaven, and whose brief but vital appearance is one of Wysard's most heartfelt and inspired moments.
And while I'm on the subject of the Diamond Heaven, now seems an appropriate moment to mention that Wysard is a dark, mature novel, meant for mature readers. Kephart doesn't shy away from scenes of violence and overt sexuality, and she's to be commended for her straightforward, adult attitude towards these subjects. She does not use them merely for the sake of thrill or titillation, but as moments vital to the narrative. This is the mark of a smart and confident writer, who knows how to achieve an effect without resorting to mere vulgarity -- save for the use of a certain four-letter-word, which I felt was anachronistic, jarring, and one of Wysard's few genuine flaws.
But the flaws are minor, at worst. Overall Wysard is one of the best fantasy novels I've read in some time -- and the best thing is that it ends with the tantalizing promise of more to come. Ryel's tale continues (and concludes) in a sequel, Lord Brother, which I've just begun reading; it promises to be even better than its predecessor. Kephart is without a doubt a major new voice in the field, and I hope you enjoy what she has to say as much as I did.