Review of Sean Russell's 'Moontide and Magic Rise' series

I fell in love with Russell's work after a chance encounter found me reading The Initiate Brother [1], which led very quickly to my devouring Gatherer of Clouds [2], the sequel and closing book of the series. And I still believe those two books are quite possibly the best work of fantasy anyone has ever written.

This series, Moontide and Magic Rise, comprised of the two titles World Without End and Sea Without a Shore (each 600 pages in length) tell the story of Tristam Flattery, a young naturalist in a country similar to Victorian England, several decades after magic and the last mages died out from the world. But it becomes clear that magic hasn't been entirely quenched, and that Tristam (despite his dedication to empiricism and his disbelief in magic) may well be the focal point of the return of magic. The setup reminded me to some extent of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell [3], but the similarities are fewer than they initially seem.

The first hundred or hundred and fifty pages are set-up, and are quite lovely - his writing is very good, and his characters very well drawn. But somewhere around the 200th page, Tristam gets on a ship bound for a Hawaii-like island nation, and things don't go quite so well after that. I read these books in 2015, years after Russell has shifted the focus of his writing to historical naval novels. And with that in mind, the very long-winded, nautically-detailed, and not overly comprehensible sections about life aboard ship show where his interests lay. Not that it was actively bad, and in fact it's good to believe that it was all technically correct. But the second half of the first book and the first half of the second book consisted of trudging through not terribly exciting naval and political details, interspersed with a very slow spray of the tiniest hints about magic and what is coming.

All books do this to some extent: you can't (generally) tell the punchline at the beginning of a novel and actually have any tension in the telling of the story. So the truth comes out slowly. But there needs to be suspense, things going on (as there were in The Initiate Brother). But here, the pace is glacial until the last 300 pages of the total 1200 pages, when quite a bit happens - although still perhaps in too much detail. He even had us listen in on some of the characters who actually knew something of what was going on conversing with each other - and yet they spoke in vague terms to each other to give nothing of the central mystery away. This is a literary mechanism that annoys me, and a weakness in the book: if you feel that much need to disguise the actions and motivations of these characters, only show them in the third person, let us learn of their actions through the characters whose eyes we are meant to see through.

Overall, somewhat better than the Swans' War series, but nowhere near the quality of The Initiate Brother and Gatherer of Clouds.

SPOILER ALERT: if you want to read these books, stop reading now. I'm about to blow the ending because I have a major gripe with it.

Why do people read fantasy? The commonest reasons are escapism and the desire for magic. And this book appears to be about magic re-entering a world from which it's been, in effect, exiled. Very exciting. And near the beginning of the second book, it's revealed to us that a world ruled by empiricism would lead to a future very similar to our world, dominated by war, pollution, and poverty. The people in the story don't recognize that similarity of course, they just see it as ugly and undesirable in the extreme - but Russell is clearly targeting the modern world. But very near the end of the book he reveals that if magic is returned to their world, it will mean the complete destruction of mankind and possibly a world-level extinction event. So they slam the door on magic, shut it down forever, and steer their world to become our world. Wait, what? I just stumbled through 1200 pages of heavy prose to end up in MY WORLD and without magic? Not the kind of escapism I'd hoped for.

[1]Review of "The Initiate Brother"
[2]Review of "Gatherer of Clouds"
[3]Review of "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell"