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Wings of Wrath, by C. S. Friedman
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: DAW
Published: 2009
Review Posted: 4/19/2009
Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 8 out of 10

Wings of Wrath, by C. S. Friedman

Book Review by Thomas Beck

Have you read this book?

C. S. Friedman is one of my favorite writers. She is one of the few who are genuinely accomplished at both science fiction and fantasy. Her fantasy comes in threes (e.g., The Coldfire Trilogy), and it is the nature of trilogies that the middle book is often the least interesting. Although that Is not the case with the present book, Wings of Wrath (book 2 of her Magister Trilogy), I did find its predecessor Feast of Souls (2007) a bit more interesting.

In that novel, Friedman posited a world where sorcery requires the use of another person's "athra" (also called "soulfire"), literally the life essence itself. Magisters (true sorcerors, as opposed to witches, who can use only their own athra to access magical power), drain their "consorts'" life force before discarding them during "Transition" to find another human, and thus live eternally. In Feast of Souls, a young witch named Kamala is steely and selfish enough to become the first female Magister ever, although she needs to conceal her new power from the other, all male Magisters, lest they band against her.

Feast of Souls also showed us the world in which Kamala and the Magisters live, made up of a few large kingdoms and many smaller, weaker states, in which the Magisters play rivalry games with each other and slake their eternal boredom by contracting with kings to be their powerful advisors. The most powerful kingdom, the High Kingdom itself, is the center of most of the action. There are also lands to the north, whose dedicated inhabitants guard all of humanity from an ancient, poorly understood enemy, the Souleaters, massive birdlike creatures who can similarly suck out humans' life-force.

In Wings of Wrath, it becomes distressingly evident that these Souleaters have returned after an absence of over a thousand years. Not only that, but it turns out that they have human allies. Everything comes together and builds towards a climax in which the demands on one woman, the High Queen Gwynofar, become almost intolerably great. In addition, Kamala begins to question her own lust for life and its enormous cost to others. Finally, there are hints about the ties one particular Magister may have to the Souleaters. For all of which to resolve, we'll just have to wait for the third volume.

There is some fine writing here ("Fear would come in time, no doubt, but that did not mean she had to issue it a formal invitation"), along with some passages that could have used an editor ("The sky was a sullen, swollen purple with dark and angry clouds that seemed about to split open, spilling their festering contents upon the earth below"). There are also some occasional jarring anachronisms, particularly her frequent use of the word "paranoia" to describe the mutually suspicious Magisters. That's an intrusion of our own modernity that seems out of place in a medievalist fantasy world.

In general, though, Friedman is an excellent writer. Her pace never flags, she takes her stories to interesting places, the action is always shown and not just told. Her characters are well-realized, she has a knack for making a world that feels truly lived-in, and there is always a purpose underlying her stories, a movement toward an impending resolution. And there are a few moments of true horror that stop your heart while reading them.

That said, I was just a bit disappointed with Wings of Wrath. Although Friedman appears somewhat more interested in solving the riddle of the Souleaters than in continuing to explore the nature of the vampiric and parasitical Magisters, it is the latter that I actually find more fascinating. There are traces of this theme -- life literally feeding upon death, that Magisters will literally do anything to live forever, no matter what it costs others -- or themselves -- but not developed the way I was hoping for. Not until the end does Kamala muse, "From her earliest days she had fixed her own sight on a single goal, willing to sacrifice anything and everything to achieve it. Even her humanity. Yet in the end, what had she gained? Eternal life in which to do ... what?" More of that, please, next time, Ms. Friedman?

But in the end, Wings of Wrath carries the story along, tying together several threads from both itself and its predecessor, (which you probably should read before tackling volume 2), setting up what one can only hope will be an exciting, illuminating conclusion in the third part of the story, whenever that will appear.

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