Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Books – The Age of the Five trilogy, by Trudi Canavan

The Age of the Five is a fantasy trilogy published between 2005 and 2006 (yes I know I’ve missed the boat by ten years; in my defence I’ve only just gotten into fantasy). The set-up for the first book is as follows. In a land ruled by five gods and their earthly representatives, The White, Auraya, a young sorcerer and priestess soon rises to the rank of White herself, joining four others to serve the Gods. Together they fight off the invasions of sorcerers from the South. However, this is not the only difficulty Auraya faces. There is also the problem of relations with the Dreamweavers, a cult of oppressed healers who do not serve the gods, and the distant threat dead of the Wilds, who may or may not still exist – immortals who once set themselves up against the gods.

I love the world Trudi Canavan creates. It takes a few chapters to get a sense of what’s going on, but once you do it’s a fascinating world, geographically and culturally. The ongoing battle between Northern Circlians, led by the White, and the Southern Pentadrians, led by the Voices, creates a very dramatic and interesting set-up. The Dreamweavers too are a fascinating idea, brought into focus in the first book by Auraya’s connection with her childhood mentor Dreamweaver Leiard. I find the idea of their dream links especially interesting, and complex moral issues are thrown up throughout the trilogy as the White attempt to deal with the oppression of Dreamweavers. Beyond this, I especially like the Siyee – the winged humans from Si – and the Eli – who live half in water. They create more and more layers to this complex place, and curious parts of the world for the reader to explore. The magic is interesting too. How it works is never quite explored, but having many characters able to read minds and some others able to sense emotions makes for interesting narrative perspectives.

The characterisation is mainly very strong. My favourite characters thorough the series were by far Emerahl and Leiard, especially in terms of his character development later on. I also loved Danjin, Reivan and Tryss – and I did, somewhere along the line, especially in the final book, really come to like Auraya too. In figures such as these, we find complex and fascinating characters, that Canavan explores and shows well. She has a lot of characters over the three books, and manages to keep your interest in and sympathy for almost all of them – or certainly the ones that Canavan is most concerned about keeping your interest in.

However, I think I’m almost most impressed by the plot itself. It’s complicated, and twists and turns, and Canavan switches characters, sub-plot and perspective a lot – but it’s brilliant, and it works. I was thoroughly hooked on these books, especially when it came to the second and third. I sped through the final book grinning as I thought I could only grin while reading nineteenth century literature. They’re such thoroughly engaging books. They really draw you into the world, making you desperate to find out what’s going to happen next. Because the plot is so gripping, Canavan thereby manages successfully to make all the deep and at times confusing politics of this world interesting too. It’s consistently well-paced. The series is just a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable read.

And now that I have established how much I loved and thoroughly enjoyed these books and was intensely gripped by them, I come to a few criticisms. For me, I’d have to say that the writing itself doesn’t quite live up to the plot. The Age of the Five trilogy consists of fairly decent writing enhanced by brilliant ideas. In my opinion, the writing is at times a little clunky or clumsy, especially in the re-caps Canavan often fits in during the first few chapters of the second and third book. They are a little too much like “information dumps”, much as I hate that term. 

I have two massive pet peeves in literature. The first thing I hate is the over-use of the word “which” to join two sentences who would surely be quite happy separated (an entirely irrational hatred, and one that is perhaps mine alone). I have no problem with “which” in essays or reviews, but the moment it appears in fiction I for some unknown reason get really annoyed. However, Canavan isn’t guilty of this one. She’s guilty of my second pet peeve, which I have a feeling is shared with a few more of the world’s readers than my first. This is the constant use of words other than “said” in dialogue tags. When I’m told that Auraya and others warned/mused/admitted/huffed/agreed/reminded/explained/offered, I find it really clumsy and unnecessary. “Said,” in dialogue tags are invisible, but “admitted”, etc, can make the reader stumble. Besides that, if it isn’t clear from what the character is saying that they’re admitting something, perhaps that’s a problem with their speech. However, this is a very minor thing that I get overly annoyed about it, so it shouldn’t impair your judgement of the book. I only mention it here because I can’t help myself. I apologise for my minor rant.

Another more serious criticism I have is that of the representation of some minor characters. As I said earlier, in general the characterisation in the trilogy is strong, but there are several characters who seem present only to fill a space. Obviously this is The Age of the Five series: fives are clearly important. Yet of all the groups of fives we find in the book, there tend to be two or three characters out of five who are actually developed, while another two or three seem to be only there to make up the numbers. Of the White, obviously Auraya is fully developed, as I would say is Mairae, at least in the first book. Juran is one of the most interesting characters in the series, although I do wish we got to see a little more of him. However, Dyara and Rian never really seem to have much personality to me. I kept on forgetting which was which as I read. I found the same with the Pentadrian Voices. The First Voice (I won’t give a name to avoid spoilers) and Imenja are well developed characters, and Genza is maybe half-developed, but Vervel and Shar seem to simply take up space. I consider myself a fairly careful reader, but I had to check the novel while writing this review because I’d forgotten Vervel’s name. I only finished the last book two weeks ago. It’s the same with the Gods; Chaia and Huan are full characters, but Lore, Yranna and Saru are just names really. I understand that many of these people are minor characters in the terms of the novels. However, they are very important figures in the world – and in the lives of many of the central characters in the books – so they surely ought to be slightly more developed, at least enough to make them memorable.

However, overall the writing didn’t seriously impair my enjoyment of the books. I love this series for their creativity and intrigue, for the world and the characters, for the situations and plots that they get caught up in. It’s full of great ideas and is overall a really enjoyable read.

Greatest strength: I suppose the plot and pace of novel. And the character of Emerahl. I love her.

Greatest weakness: The writing. Ultimately it was fine, but it just wasnt as good as everything else in the series. For me the writing lets down the power of the ideas and plot. 

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘This is the Age of the Five, and I have no place in it.’

Next week: I’ll be reviewed A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

1 comment:

  1. I have just finished these books myself and by and large, I have said the same things about the series myself. However I personally found the second book to be somewhat of a non event. Emerhal essentially helps Leiard out at the beginning and then spends the rest of the book travelling about largely fruitlessly. I just feel she was wasted in the second book as her whole plot could have been condensed to a few paragraphs and lose none of the meaning. Danjin also in the second book just drops out of the story. Auraya makes sure she can communicate with him then never does and one of my favorite characters just dissappears. Most of the second book is taken up with too much Auraya moping about and it just feels like a middle book and not a novel in its own right. So pacing in books 1 and 3 I am right there with you but book 2...