Darkland by Liz Williams
Published by TOR UK, February 2007 (Originally 2006)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
Recently in SF there has been a pleasing rediscovery of stories of adventure: fast paced, action-packed. Think Peter F. Hamilton, Neal Asher, Richard Morgan, Iain M. Banks, for example. This fast moving, far-future set SF book from Liz Williams is one that seems to fit in there too.
The book follows a narrative from two points of view: the first account deals with Vali Hallsdottir, an agent for The Skald, on the snow-covered and stormy planet of Muspell. Vali becomes involved in not only investigating a build-up for invasion from the mysterious neighbouring country of Darkland, but at the same time dealing with personal demons from her past.
The second storyline is seen from the eyes of Ruan on the planet of Mondhile, and his dealings with the vampyrric Gemaley in a mysterious tower.
Eventually (of course) these two narratives combine. Vali goes on the search for an ex-lover, Frey, a vitki from Darkland, with special powers, and one who left her in the lurch and psychologically scarred. This leads her to Mondhile and her involvement in bigger issues.
Liz is a writer of SF and Fantasy who, in previous work, has tended to give a feminist slant to her writing. Liz has things to say about gender roles here. Therefore as you might expect, Vali comes over as a strong female character - rather like a female James Bond, but with a beguiling depth.
Looking at the book in terms of positives and negatives, the book has a very dark background (the book’s not called Darkland for nothing!) and graphically shows the nastiness of spying. Unlike the escapism of older JB, Liz’s characters are not given a positive spin, glorifying in the excitement of espionage. Instead, Vali is an agent who is raped and tortured in the line of duty. Vali has issues with her past, and self-harms in order to cope with her personal disappointments. The graphic nature of such scenes makes very uncomfortable reading. There are tortures aplenty, from males torturing females, as well as males torturing females. This may not be for everyone.
Furthermore, though it is pretty obvious from what I’ve mentioned above, some may not like the strong female lead narrative of the protagonist, which in places feels like she has wandered in from the huggy, cosy environment of a McCaffrey novel, whilst in other parts appears whingey, whiny and self-absorbed. Some in a more positive frame of mind will clearly revel in a complex, yet strong female lead. The male bad-guy is not as clearly delineated as the baddie of old SF, but it is less subtle than Vali. Sex and violence may not be for everyone.
On the positive side of the equation, I liked the range of places visited here: from the hot desert world of Nhem to the near-Scandinavian style setting of Vali’s homeworld, the places visited are not outlined in detail but seem well realised. There’s a pleasant wintry feel to Mondhile. It was interesting to see a world built with reference to Scandinavian folklore and settings – in this future universe people have settled on worlds which reflect their previous heritage; on Mondile there are links to people from ‘Iceland and Greenland, Orkney and Eire’ (page 69) for example. Thoughts of Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai/Childe Cycle sprang to mind a little.
Liz also has a good use of SF-nal ideas – the idea of mental shields of well-being (called the seith) was used effectively, whilst using the idea that positive and negative land energy (similar to ley lines) to affect environments on an alien world gave it an unusual combination of New-Age ideas with SF. One of the interesting themes was how the book mixes elements of SF, Fantasy and Horror, though clearly an SF book.
Perhaps most importantly the book has a pace that makes it easy to read and engaging. Whilst not dealing with big cosmic issues – collapsing galaxies, universal rifts and all – it deals with the story in an exciting and appealing way. For all of Vali’s faults, there are signs there of a likeable person.
In conclusion, this is a good read with some interesting takes on old SF ideas. Darkland is reminiscent of Neal Asher, particularly in its use of narrative pace, and Iain M Banks in its use of SF ideas and violence with a deceptively straightforward vocabulary.
There is a big cliffhanger ending which leads to the next book (Bloodmind) and may be felt as a cop out. However, I was left with the feeling of wanting to read the next one almost straight away, which can only be a good thing.
Mark Yon / Hobbit
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