Fiona McIntosh

The Quickening trilogy

Myrren’s Gift, Voyager (2003) 

ISBN: 0-732278-66-X

Blood and Memory, Voyager (2004)

ISBN: 0-732278-67-8

Bridge of Souls, Voyager (2004)

ISBN: 0-732278-68-6

Reviewed by Gillian Polack (these reviews were first published in January 2006)

Myrren’s Gift

The judicial murder of a young magic-wielder, Myrren, plotted by Cerimus (heir to the throne of Morgravia), changes the future of three countries. The execution of Myrren and how her final legacy to unwilling observer Wil Thirsk plays out is the main subject of Myrren’s Gift. We are introduced to the main characters, including Wil (who receives Myrren’s gift of inhabiting the body of whoever kills him) and his family, and the various royal families of the region.

There is a great deal of action in the set-up volume for the trilogy and this book ought to be fast-paced, but it is actually quite slow. The reason for this lies mainly in McIntosh’s style. Her sentences tend to determine the pace, and her explanations and backgrounds are sometimes guilty of being longer than the action they describe.

It is worth pushing past the slowness. While this is not a great work of literature, it is a fantasy trilogy that relies more on politics and plotting than on a quest. It is all about personal ambitions and their effects on other people. The consequences of actions are clear and comprehensible and the world and its people are interesting and well enough drawn to make it enjoyable to read. The women are more interesting than the men, in fact, because McIntosh gives most of them far more capacity for independent action than is traditional. Even victims are capable of actions with vast consequences.

The good guys are perhaps a little too good, and the beautiful women just a bit too perfect. The world feels a bit like a Hollywood movie in that way. Wil Thirsk’s perfection of character is redeemed in volume one by his shortness and plainness, but the whole conceit of the trilogy is that this doesn’t last.

While Myrren’s Gift doesn’t create in my soul a slavish adoration of any character or a fascinated addiction with the setting, it is the sort of entertaining read that one would expect from a fantasy trilogy. Bear with the slowness, because the pace picks up in the sequels.

Blood and Memory

The pace picks up with this second volume, although it is still a bit drawn-out and sometimes plods.

Wil Thirsk is trying to save his sister from the murderous King Celimus, and his friends are trying to save her too. Celimus is trying to expand his kingdom into neighbouring Briavel through marrying its queen, whom Wil loves. Yet he cannot declare his love, for Myrren’s gift drives him from body to body. Some of the bodies he inhabits are easier for him than others. For much of the book he has to deal with learning how to be a woman. (The sex-change is not played for laughs, and becomes one of the most interesting parts of the plot.) The mountain country is further drawn into the destruction and confusion set off by Celimus’ murders in Myrrren’s Giftand the future of three realms looks dire.

Frequently in a fantasy trilogy, the middle volume suffers. It is normally the filler that holds together the material of the first book while preparing for the third. Blood and Memory is not simply a filler. In fact, it is a better book structurally and in terms of pacing, than Myrren’s Gift. It is still a little slow, but it has far less feeling of plodding. It draws the reader into the excitement of the various chases and betrayals. It is in this book that we discover that no character is safe from death and that not all the good guys will live happily ever after.

Its biggest weakness for me was that I did not feel the deaths sufficiently: there was a distance between me and them. The plot is clever and the story well told. I ought to have been agonized and wrung-out and was merely clinically interested. The reason for my distance was, I suspect, that McIntosh gives us very few moments with characters that are not specifically pushing the plot forward and she tends to repeat explanations of why things are happening rather than to demonstrate them with actions by characters. There are a lot of conversations meant to explain past events and reasons for events, for instance. Very few of her characters have cute quirks, and the boy Fynch acts like no child I have ever seen. All this means that we do not enter fully into most of the characters’ lives and so we do not fully feel their deaths.

This is not entirely McIntosh’s fault. One of the signposts of a Big Fat Fantasy trilogy is to have exquisitely beautiful women and men who are brave and handsome. Near perfection in human terms is almost requisite for protagonists, if not early in the trilogy then by the end. McIntosh fulfils this requirement admirably and shows us idealised people very early on, but the cost is the personal development of characters and in the capacity of characters to command our affection.

Blood and Memory is still a good narrative and by half way through the book I wanted to keep reading to find out what came next and how characters were going to solve their dilemmas. However, it could have been significantly improved with fewer iterations of the same information and by showing us more of the personality of the main characters. I would have liked a demonstration of how those personalities were growing and changing from the events of the novel.

Bridge of Souls

This is the best book of the Quickening trilogy. It brings together all the threads of the first two books and provides a series of dramatic denouements. We find out what is going to happen to the kingdoms and just how many innocents insane King Celimus is going to kill.

I was annoyed by one small element of the book, which is probably immaterial to most people. McIntosh finally relaxes in this book and puts in a few jokes between her characters. These are like rain in summer – they really make a big difference to my enjoyment. The trouble is that she seems uncomfortable using them and each and every time she has this character chuckling at someone’s wit or being relayed that a joke was made. It is as if the reader can’t be expected to suspect that the humour might be humour unless we are told.

The explanations don’t just diminish the humour, they make the repartee between various characters sound a bit repetitive because it is always accompanied by the note that it is repartee, or that it is witty, or that a joke has been made. Narratively speaking, this causes a problem. Well, for me. My mind remembered the comments and elucidations rather than the jokes. The jokes should have caused me to notice the characters who made them and given me (at last) a way into that character and an identification with them. Instead I linked characters one with another – it diminished that differentiation – simply because the thing that stuck in my mind was not the joke itself, but the explanation that a joke had been made. On panels at speculative fiction conventions McIntosh communicates a very real and funny presence – it is a great pity that she had not the confidence to wield it in this trilogy.

The third volume of a trilogy enables a reader to look back and discover more about the earlier books. I look back and find that information dissemination was a problem throughout. Some events are known instantly and everywhere (the death of Romen Koreldy) and yet other, more major incidents are not known anywhere (the death of Wil’s sister’s husband – who is a minor character, but a major lord). The importance of a character in the trilogy is tangled with the importance of the character in the world and so everyone knows of the fates of all the wrong people.

Looking back, my feeling is that lovers of fantasy trilogies will get a lot out of this series. It is flawed, but still worth the effort. If you don’t love Big Fat Fantasy, these are not the books that will change your mind.