Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: A Sliver of Redemption by David Dalglish

Rating: 5 out of 5

This is a special review, so let’s start things off with some reflection.

I first reviewed The Weight of Blood by David Dalglish in July of 2010. It was my first foray into fantasy in years, and I didn’t know what to expect. I walked away from the experience in a state of wonder. I didn’t know that a world populated by orcs, elves, and dark magicians could be so captivating, could mean so much. I immediately fell in love with the characters. I understood their background, their point of view, and found it to be, overall, a much more than solid (not to mention valiant) story.

From there I went on to The Cost of Betrayal, and if I hadn’t fallen in love with Dalglish’s unique voice before, by the time I reached the end of that second novel I was hooked. The emotion was palpable, the plot complex, and the message was clear.

This was a story with something to say, and it did so in spades.

The following two books, The Death of Promises and The Shadows of Grace, I plowed through. Though very well done in their own rite, they never quite reached the very high bar that Dalglish set with Betrayal. Not to say they weren’t fantastic stories – they were – but there was just something special about that second book, something that grabbed hold of me and took me down a path that made me care about these characters – their actions and contemplations, their failures and victories – more than any reader really should. By the time I wrote the review for Grace, I’d made up my mind that as talented a storyteller as David Dalglish is, there was no way in hell he could top what he’d achieved so long ago in a book that at the time I stated was one of the five best books I’ve ever read.

So here we are now, and I’m going to tell you that he has surpassed himself. The list has changed, folks, for the narrative that unfolds in A Sliver of Redemption, the fifth and final novel in the Half-Orc opus, is second to absolutely none, including that aforementioned special second book. Hence, it has replaced Betrayal on my list of great novels.

The story of Redemption begins, as always, with the resolution of the cliffhanger from book four. The god Thulos has been released into the world of Dezrel, and he’s in a sour mood. His arrival forces our heroes to retreat and regroup, as they now find themselves faced with the nearly insurmountable odds of having to fight not only the followers of Karak, the god of order, but also an army of demons with a War God on its side.

Qurrah, the miserable half of the brothers Tun, continues on his quest for salvation, which began halfway through The Shadows of Grace when his batty girlfriend Tessanna gave birth to their stillborn child. His doubt in himself only grows here, as he’s forced to confront not only war demons but those inside himself, as well. This is a man who’s inflicted immeasurable horrors upon the world, a man who’s slaughtered the innocent, including (in a roundabout way) his beloved brother Harruq’s own daughter. He doesn’t understand why Harruq should forgive him. Hell, he doesn’t know if he could ever deserve forgiveness. And yet forgiveness is what he’s given, and this turns out to be the impulsion for him to look deeper into himself than he ever did before. What we have here is Qurrah stripped of all pretenses as to who he is. For the first time in the entirety of the series he’s naked, and what he sees in himself he loathes.

As for Harruq, our big lug of sanctity continues on his own quest for forgiveness. What Qurrah fails to realize is that Harruq forgives him because he’s been forgiven, as well. It doesn’t matter that Harruq’s transgressions all occurred four books ago, that his personal body count is thousands upon thousands less than his brother’s. Murder is murder, sin is sin. Just because one individual carries this out on a large scale and another on a much smaller one doesn’t matter. Harruq understands this, and he gives his brother the grace that his understanding (and integrity) demands.

The forces of good hunker down for the coming fight. There are new allies made and old allegiances rekindled, all while Thulos is hard at work recruiting added reinforcements to his army, for the portal to his own world is closed and cannot be reopened. These scenes in between battles are actually the best in the book until the end, as this is where the seeds of Qurrah’s redemption are planted. We get to see all the characters come to grips with their love and loss, we get to see them hesitant and doubtful, we get to see them as real people with the weight of the world on their shoulders. No one is spared from this – not the wizard Tarlak, not paladins Jerico and Lathaar, not Deathmask or Veliana. Not even King Antonil himself is spared. They all have their moments of weakness, and we’re left hanging as to whether the choices they make end up being the correct ones.

The groups end up separating, with most heading up to Mordeina to reclaim the city from Karak’s followers. Qurrah stays behind with the army from Omn, to protect the Bloodbrick Bridge. This is one of many battles that take place in the novel, but it gets special mention here, because this is where Qurrah earns his redemption. It is also, without a doubt, the most perfectly illustrated action (or chain of action) sequence that Dalglish has ever written.

The fight is long and drawn-out, with Velixar guiding his undead, the human army Thulos gathered, and the demon army. It is rife with ingenious strategy, drawn-out stalemates, and edge-of-your seat action. This may sound like a contradiction, but even the sluggish procession of time held me rapt at attention. There are twists and turns, times you feel the heroes will fail, times you think they’ll win, and then it seems certain they’ll fail once more. All this is encapsulated in what might be the most breathless sequence of events I have ever read.

And yet through it all, the entire battle – and I mean all of it – is encapsulated by Qurrah. Finally, after more than four hundred thousand words worth of him faltering and hating his own existence, he shows the intestinal fortitude to sacrifice himself for his fellow man. He wears himself to the bone and refuses to quit defending his charges, even when things seem most dire. When the battle finally ends, when he’s given everything he can (and then some), he goes on to offer up the last gift he has left. It is a moment of selflessness five books in the making, and he goes about it with reserve and respect, much like a hero should. Some would say, “finally!” to that. This reviewer, understanding the nature of his character and the unfortunate circumstances of his life, simply let out a cheer and said, “YOU ARE FORGIVEN.” This was Qurrah’s moment of glory, his chance to not repeal all his transgressions, but pay for them. And pay for them he does.

However, this being a David Dalglish novel, Qurrah’s work is not done, and neither are his trials. After all, this guy did bring about virtually every hardship the peoples of this world experienced. You’d be kidding yourself if you thought the author would take it easy on him.

In the end, the city is retaken and a final, massive battle is waged at the gates (and above) Mordeina. I said the battle of Bloodbrick was the most perfect battle Dalglish ever wrote; if that is true, the siege of Mordeina is by far his most epic. There are uprisings and mythical creatures, both heavenly and not. There is heroism aplenty and seething vengeance to be had. This all plays out over only thirty pages, and yet it seems so much bigger than that. The writing here is amazing. There are no wasted words, no extraneous descriptions. Everything just flows. The whole series has boiled down to this very moment, to the time when the cruel forces of Karak, now joined by Thulos, face off once and for all against the magnanimous armies of Ashuur. The payoff is brilliant, and also foretold. If anyone remembers the stand at the gates of Veldaren way back in book three, it serves as the perfect presage to what happens next.

I’m tempted to say that words can’t describe how good this book is, but of course I’m now writing a review, so that in and of itself is a lie. But trust me, it’s wonderful, the best Dalglish has ever written. The emotional threads aren’t only equal to those in The Cost of Betrayal, but actually surpass them, which I thought impossible.

And yet it is not sorrow that I felt as I swallowed these themes. There were no tears of mourning shed, no shudders while I held my family close. Instead there exists a pervasive sense of kindship, of hope, both for the loved ones now passed on and those whose lives we’ve written off as worthless. There is one particular scene towards the end that brought real tears to my eyes, for it is among the most beautiful and bittersweetly hopeful events I’ve ever read in literature. It made me think of my own past, my own lost loves, and wish I would have the opportunity to relish in their presence once more, if only for a moment. In a real way it is confirming the importance of our lives; in a selfish way, it allows us to feel wanted, to feel that we’ve done well with what we’ve been given, and gives us the confidence to move on.

In the past, when writing reviews of these books, I’ve gone out of my way to describe (sometimes in annoying detail) the religious premises presented within. On this occasion I will only say that good wins out over evil, though evil as Dalglish describes it is sometimes hard to define. There is not a single character that has no virtues (well, maybe one, but I’ll just forget about him). Even Velixar, the prophet of Karak and the biggest antagonist in the novel, is in many ways a sympathetic character. He has given his life (and unlife) to the one he believes in, and he actually believes he is doing the right thing.

Here’s the conundrum; both major religions of the realm are incomplete. Both have positive and negative points. Sure, the positive is exaggerated in Ashhur’s followers and the negative in Karak’s, but let’s be frank here – both sects have their failings. The truth of the matter is, there needs to be order, even in forgiveness, and there has to be mercy in ardor. This is why I have a sneaking suspicion that the tale of these two opposing gods is nowhere close to being finished. I hope they someday do find a resolution, because honestly, when and if they do, it might be the most perfect belief system ever created.

But that’s almost beside the point. This story – hell, this whole series – isn’t about warring gods, even though that was the backdrop. No, it’s about two underprivileged kids who go in opposing directions. It follows their failures and triumphs, their mistakes and good decisions. It’s about love, family, friendship, trust, and sacrifice. Though disguised as a work of dark fantasy, I don’t think I’ve ever read a series that ended up having such a positive message as this one. It’s a triumph of literature. I tell you this much in complete honesty. And A Sliver of Redemption is more than a final novel; it is, in many ways, a philosophical text, a learning tool. Through it one can learn of the goodness, the beauty, the love that exists in the world, even through layer after layer of ugliness. We can examine our relationships and see that there is no correct way to go about it, be it the idealized bond between Harruq and Aurelia, the journey of pain and loss between Qurrah and Tessanna, or the call to righteous duty that both joins and divides Lathaar and Mira (Tessanna’s twin goddess). And what is the one thing that binds them all together? Love. Love allows them to overcome the greatest of odds, to make the difficult decisions, to look past each others’ failings and choose the path most righteous. Yes, my friends, at the end of the day it is love, between lovers, brothers, family, friends, and allies, that wins the day.

And it is with great love that I call A Sliver of Redemption the greatest book Dalglish has ever written. Hell, it might be the best he’ll ever write in his lifetime. The emotion is real, the cost is high, and the payoff at the end is both satisfying and hopeful.It's the perfect end to a fantastic series, by all means the best set of stories I’ve ever read. In the eyes of this reviewer, it even blows away The Dark Tower, which I adored. And when I say blows away, I mean there isn’t a comparison. None. Nope. Not even close.

I can’t think of a more fitting end to this review than that.

Plot - 10

Characters - 10

Voice - 10

Execution - 10

Personal Enjoyment – 10

Overall – 50/50 (5/5)

Purchase A Sliver of Redemption in the following formats:



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