The Aldabreshin Archipelago consists of a number of domains (clusters of islands) which are ruled by a Warlord, who is the absolute ruler there, and who is aided and abetted by his wives – on average there are three wives in a Warlord’s household, although a young man may become a Warlord while he is still unmarried (as occurs in the final book in this quartet).
In the first book of this quartet Daish Kheda, Warlord of the Daish domain, finds himself facing the worst possible foes, wildmen encouraged by magic-wielders. Such wizards are unknown in the southern reaches of the Archipelago, so far from the wizard-infested unbroken lands that lie so much closer to the northern domains. These wizard-led savages have come out of the southern ocean, where it was believed nothing existed, and Kheda, as nearest neighbour to the beset Chazen domain, finds himself compelled to find some way of fighting back against the magic. He laboriously makes his way north across the Archipelago until he reaches the domain of Shek Khul, where he learns that Khul had been forced to deal with northern magic some three years earlier (as detailed in The Swordsman’s Oath, the second book in McKenna’s first series The Tales of Einarinn). Shek Khul gives Kheda a paste that is known to inhibit the powers of wizards and advises him to locate a man named Dev, whom Khul believes to be involved with wizardry, if he is not a barbarian wizard himself. Kheda manages to locate Dev, with the aid of Rhisala, a poet from the Shek domain, who is far more than she seems. Together they persuade Dev to assist them in dealing with the southern threat to the Archipelago, but having seen off the last of the wildmen, and killed off their wizard leaders, Kheda finds himself rejected by his first wife because of his involvement with magic – to the people of the Archipelago, magic is anathema – the kind of magic practised by most wizards of Einarinn is elemental magic, and the Aldabreshin people believe it corrupts the elements, making them unreliable for the forms of divination which they practice.
Janne Daish encourages Kheda to become the Warlord of the Chazen domain, after the sudden death of Chazen Saril from food poisoning. Since Janne Daish is not a woman to be argued with when she sets her mind to something, Daish Kheda unexpectedly finds himself obliged to turn his back on his three wives and their children, in order to take up the role of Chazen Kheda instead. Little does Kheda know, however, that he has not seen the last of the wildmen and wizards of the south…
For those who’ve read McKenna’s first series, The Tales of Einarinn quintet, the novels of the Aldabreshin Compass quartet take the brief background of The Swordsman’s Oath and add colour, depth, life, and history in greater measure. They also show the reader the Archipelago from a native’s point of view, instead of from an outsider’s (largely unsympathetic) point of view, and this naturally gives the reader a different perspective on many aspects of life in the Archipelago, particularly the hatred of elemental magic that is felt by the Aldabreshin. Indeed one only has to consider the chaos caused by the wizard Azazir (who is regarded as a madman even by his fellow mages) in The Thief’s Gamble, (the first book of McKenna’s first series) to understand that the disrupting influence of elemental magic on the patterns of nature would be abhorrent to the Warlords who read portents in earth, air, fire and water in order to guide the lives of themselves and their people.
The chief protagonist of the quartet is an Aldabreshin Warlord, and this book opens with Chazen Kheda (formerly Daish Kheda) still struggling to come to terms with his forced assumption of the role of Warlord of the Chazen domain after the abrupt death from food poisoning suffered by its previous Warlord, Chazen Saril, half a year ago.
Kheda is initially engaged in an attempt to round up the last of the barbarian savages who, the year before, had come from somewhere in the southern ocean to wreak havoc with a different sort of elemental magic to that used on the mainland to the north of the Archipelago. Kheda had been forced into an uneasy alliance with the unscrupulous northern mage, Dev (who had briefly appeared in The Swordsman’s Oath as an agent of the Archmage of the northern mages). Dev is now acting (with the emphasis on ‘acting’) as Kheda’s personal slave/bodyguard in order to ensure he gets paid for his assistance in getting rid of the savage wizards who had accompanied the southern invaders, and he and Kheda are visiting the pearl beds of the Chazen domain in order to assess what they will have to barter for the materials and goods that they need to continue the rebuilding of the Chazen domain.
Their plans to round up the last of the surviving savages and get back to normal life are abruptly interrupted by the arrival of a dragon created from elemental magic, a beast that has never before been seen in the Archipelago. Kheda thus finds himself and his domain under threat for a second time, and once again he is forced into an uneasy, but necessary, alliance with a northern mage in order to defeat and destroy the dragon. This time, however, the mage is a woman named Velindre (a character who briefly appeared in The Warrior’s Bond, the fourth book of McKenna’s first series) whom Dev suggests may know how to deal with the dragon.
Velindre knows that her mentor Otrick knew how to summon an elemental dragon, but he is dead, so she is forced to seek out Azazir (who also has this ability) in order to acquire the necessary magical knowledge to create a dragon of her own. Lest anyone think this mere altruism on the part of Velindre, who knows that if her nature is revealed she will killed to save the Archipelago from her corrupting influence, it should be pointed out that Velindre is still smarting from being passed over for the post of Cloud Mistress (Otrick was Cloud Master before his death), and she hopes that mastering this magic will force Planir and the wizards on the ruling Council in Hadrumal to acknowledge that they picked the wrong mage for the job.
The opening chapter of the third book of the Aldabreshin Compass quartet opens with Chazen Kheda sitting with his wife, Itrac, who is about to give birth. Soon afterwards the northern mage, Velindre, arrives back in the Chazen domain bringing news to Kheda. When I first met Velindre in The Warrior’s Bond, I confess to finding her so abrasive I disliked her almost instantly, and I only slowly warmed to her during the course of that book as it became ever clearer that Velindre is very much a square peg in a round hole, and it’s not surprising that she prefers life away from the fabled wizards’ isle of Hadrumal.
I was also delighted to see Naldeth return. The last I saw of him, he was suffering badly from a very painful run-in with pirates during The Assassin’s Edge (the final book of McKenna’s first series), so it was good to see him recovered, to a certain extent, and joining Velindre, Kheda and Risala on their journey south into uncharted (for the Aldabreshin people) waters. Naldeth is certainly a more likeable mage than Dev, and far more conscientious; after his experiences with the pirates, he’s even less interested in having power over others, than many a mage. He and Velindre work well together, and their final battle at the end of the book was intense.
The four of them discover things aren’t as straight-forward down in the southern reaches as they’d hoped, and their venture does not go as easily as they’d have liked when they discover that they cannot communicate with the wildmen they find on the island there – except by demonstration of Naldeth and Velindre’s powers. The presence of both elemental dragons and mages from the far Eastern Ocean (the latter of whom Naldeth and Velindre encountered in McKenna’s first series) further complicate matters, and although matters are somewhat resolved to Kheda’s liking, there is no easy solution to a complicated situation. In the end, Naldeth remains on the island, despite his inability to communicate easily with the natives, in the hope that he can help them and ensure that they aren’t exploited by either Hadrumal’s mages nor those of the Eastern Ocean.
The Aldabreshin Archipelago continues to be plagued by dragons and its people live in terror of the coming of the dragons to their island homes. Chazen Kheda, along with the poet Risala, and the Northern mage Velindre, are chasing rumours of a water dragon, since they are the only ones who know the secrets of how to repel these fearsome beasts. In spite of the fact that they have saved hundreds of lives since the first dragon invaded the Chazen domain, they are forced to travel incognito, putting their lives at risk with their masquerade of the poet (Risala) and the zamorin scholar (Velindre disguised as a eunuch), and their slave (Kheda, who is really a Warlord).
The ever-changing political balance between the Warlords of the Archipelago is teetering dangerously as various rival factions seek to gain advantage over their neighbours and warfare is threatened. Kheda finds himself reluctantly drawn into the rivalries as his fame as a dragon-fighter become more widely known. His apparent skill in defeating dragons is a powerful political tool and various Warlords seek to bribe, seduce (via their wives), or threaten Kheda into sharing his knowledge; but the one thing Kheda cannot do is reveal the source of his apparent power over dragons because then the lives of himself and his companions will be at risk for they are tainted by forbidden magic from the Northern lands. If anyone was to uncover Velindre’s true identity as a powerful mage from the feared island of Hadrumal, they would all be killed outright.
Unfortunately for Kheda, his contact with the magic of the northern mages has caused him to have doubts about the very foundations of his people’s ancient beliefs in the reading of omens, which places his future as the Chazen Warlord in doubt, and threatens the future health and happiness of his wife Itrac Chazen and their twin baby daughters.
To add to Kheda’s woes, Velindre is forced to enlist the aid of another mage, Sirince, as they’ve discovered there are more dragons in the Archipelago than anyone had ever guessed or believed possible; two of Kheda’s former Daish wives have married out of the domain, leaving his unmarried son Daish Sirket in charge of the domain with only the support of Kheda’s timid third ex-wife – hoping that Daish Sirket will fail in his responsibilities, thereby proving that the Kheda domain is tainted by magic just as Chazen was; Orhan, the son of Kheda’s hated rival, Ulla Safar, is busy leading an uprising against his father – and he’s proposing to marry Kheda’s eldest daughter of the Daish domain, of which he was formerly the Warlord.
At the conclusion of the fourth and final book Kheda resolves to remain a free agent rather than taking up the role of Warlord of Chazen again – fearing that he is too mired in the magic of Hadrumal’s mages to be a sound bargain to Itrac Chazen, who has already lost one husband to the taint of magic. He leaves Itrac in charge of the domain, despite the fact that such a move is wholly unprecedented, sees his daughter married to Orhan, and is free to take Risala as his lover since he does not have a wife any longer.
These is a deeply satisfying quartet of books – and I encourage you to read them, particularly if you’re looking for a less Westernised take on the epic fantasy genre (and it’s worth noting that most of the characters are people of colour).
Aldabreshin Compass banner by tayryn)
(I apologise for a lack of reviews of late – real life had its teeth in me and finding time and mental energy to write reviews wasn’t easy.)