You may have heard me tweeting about this one-off and on since the Autumn, when I started rereading it. Here are the vital stats:
Title: The Silver City
Author: Pamela Belle
Series/Standalone: Book one of the Silver City Trilogy
First Published: 1994
Edition Reviewed: 1995
Price: N/A Out of print, but available from £0.01 + P&P on Amazon Marketplace at time of posting
Cover ArtI don’t always review the cover art along with the book, but sometimes it’s either relevant or worth it for its own sake. If you want to know more about the plot before deciding to give your attention to the whole review, feel free to scroll on down to the ‘Plot’ section. I usually find, though, that having a look at a cover can help in deciding if something is my sort of book. I used to think judging a book by its cover was a bad thing, but I don’t anymore. Judging by the beautiful Michael Whelan artwork that used to adorn the covers of The Dark Tower led me to one of the most influential books in my life. But that’s another story. The point is that books can be wonderful objects as well as wonderful stories, and a good cover conveys information as well as added entertainment.
Unfortunately, my scanner squiffed the colours substantially, and try as I might I couldn’t get the silvery blue of the city at the same time as the fiery red of Halthris’s hair. This is an unfortunate compromise. To see what the colours should be like, please refer to the slightly blurry image here at Library Thing. (Neither version reflects the fact that the author’s name is actually in gold-coloured metallic lettering, but that’s the sort of thing scanners can be forgiven for struggling with.)
I like this cover. It’s maybe not the most exciting cover you’ve ever seen. It hasn’t got a man with a sword, or a dragon, or a wizard, or all three. But even though I like men with swords, and wizards, and dragons, I like this cover not only in spite of their absence, but because of it. This book doesn’t have a dragon, but it does have men with swords, and some wizards, and you could easily have slapped them on the front and made it look like all the other covers with men and swords and wizards on them. The protagonist is a woman, but there are a lot of other significant characters, including a love interest who is a wizard who sometimes uses a sword. In a lot of other book covers you might see the female protagonist depicted, but in the embrace of her lover, and surrounded by the other significant features of the book. Take a look at this cover for Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight – a deliberately feminist novel that (despite the problems a modern reader might find) was pretty significant in its day, and that I still rather like. I like this art, too. But can you see Lessa in this picture? Oh yes… she’s way down there underneath the dragons, being embraced by F’lar.
I’m not saying that all covers of books that contain women have to have a woman dominating their cover art, but it does say something about this book that it does. And that’s what the cover should do: tell you something about the book at a glance. I look at this book and I instantly feel a little more included. It’s possible that others will look at it and feel a little more excluded – I understand that – but there are plenty of other books out there without (fully clothed) women on their covers, and I think it’s good to have a bit of variety. If I’m browsing a bookshelf in a bookstore (those bookstores that are left!) my eye is caught by those that look a little different. The pale background amongst all those blacks and dark blues on the fantasy shelves probably helps, too.
Well, enough of that – it clearly can’t have been that good a marketing tactic; the book’s out of print! But I liked it. There are other things that are more prosaically good about this cover, too. First thing is that I can tell the artist was actually given a fairly detailed description of the character. The only things that’re missing are the tattoos, and it’s implied that most of those are in less visible places, anyway. The artist has also used those details, along with the background, to tell us a lot about the story. Here’s this strong woman, but she’s clearly tribal, and she’s out of place against the pale city in the background. Yet she’s not ill at ease – her stance is one of readiness and strength. She’s a warrior, and she’s not intimidated by her unfamiliar surroundings. Her splash of colour over what we assume must be the towers of the Silver City is a contrast that speaks of breathing new life into something old and staid. Yet she’s gazing off into the distance, not down at the city, thinking about some problem that they will both face that comes from the outside. That’s a pretty good introduction to the central enigma of the book. I’m intrigued, aren’t you?
Well, then: on to the plot!
Halthris is a warrior of the Tanathi, a nomadic people who wander the plains and steppes near Zithirian, the Silver City, famed for its wealth and pale stone buildings. Whilst out hunting with her tribe, Halthris stumbles upon a massive army of the terrifying Ska’i. The Ska’i have always been vicious raiders, but, like the Tanathi, they were composed of wandering tribes who rarely came together with one purpose. A fearsome new chief, Quenait, has somehow joined them together. Reasoning that Zithirian is too juicy a temptation for the Ska’i to pass up, Halthris and her band decide that the city must be warned.
Upon reaching the city, however, Halthris is caught up in courtly intrigue, and fears that her message will not get through. At first it seems that she’s had the worst possible luck. When she first comes to the palace she is taken to meet Prince Ansaryon – second of the king’s three sons, rumoured to practice forbidden magic, generally reviled by the populace, and unpopular at court. Although he says he is keen to help her, and seems concerned at her words, the pace of ceremony at court is frustrating for the forthright tribeswoman, and she wonders if he is deliberately obstructing her. Would it have been better to have met first with the youngest Prince – the healthy, active, handsome, and popular Tsenit? The crown prince (if you were wondering) is a drunk and largely irrelevant, except perhaps for the fact that his death would advance the ambitions of either of his brothers, should they be murderously inclined.
Finally, she is heard, but the king doesn’t sense any urgency – he suspects that she is exaggerating, or that her ‘uncivilized’ mind has multiplied the Ska’i numbers in fear. Unsurprisingly, the Ska’i appear on the scene before the king comes to his senses, but with enough time for him to close the city gates once they have been seen. The king is belatedly terrified and demands that the Tanathi warriors who have come with Halthris to the city bolster his personal guard. And then: treachery! Someone opens the gates in the night, not only to the city, but to the palace. The Ska’i butcher most of the royal family, and it seems likely that either Tsenit or Ansaryon is in league with the Ska’i and has made a play for the throne.
Much of the tension of the first few chapters is probably meant to be about whether Ansaryon or Tsenit is truly EVAL. If you don’t want to know the answer to that, look away now, as most of the rest of the book assumes knowledge of this. I don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler anyway. This is a fantasy novel. Strikes me that the target audience is most likely to be rooting for the dark, mysterious, bookish social outcast over the handsome, jock-like Tsenit. Ansaryon’s character becomes progressively more interesting as the book progresses, and we’ve seen from the get go that he’s complex and troubled. I’m going to put my hands up and say that I actually read the second book in this series first, by mistake, but I really don’t think anyone else is likely to be fooled. Belle gives Ansaryon too my screen time and sexual tension with her protagonist for me to have much doubt in my mind.
So, by fortune, Ansaryon ends up with the Tanathi as they flee the palace. The Tanathi have personally seen his sister, the king, and the crown prince die, which leaves just Ansaryon and maybe Tsenit as immediate heirs. (Oh yes, there’s a sister – didn’t I mention her before? She’s sad, and probably mad, and that’s about all we need to know about her. She is important, but why isn’t revealed until the very end, and it really is a spoiler.) But the suspense as to who’s the evil one doesn’t stretch out much further. Everyone’s a bit freaked as Ansaryon reveals that he is indeed a mage (it’s illegal in Zithirian for anyone save the priesthood), but he uses his magic to save their lives and guide them to the secret city of Sar D’yenyi that guards the mountain mines from which Zithirian draws its money. He keeps it together just long enough to reach the city and tell his cousin to avenge him and the rest of his family, before keeling over. At which point it’s pretty clear that he’s a goody.
Fortunately, he doesn’t die (this is still fairly early on in the book, so is hopefully not too much of a giveaway). It turns out it’s not just getting stabbed up by the Ska’i that’s ailing him. One of the more interesting things about this book is that to do magic you need to take the drug Annatal. But once you take it you’re addicted and you’ll die if you stop. (Yes, yes, the drug/magic link that that Buffy storyline made tiresome, but Belle honestly doesn’t harp on that aspect.) Ansaryon left Zithirian with a horse, a sword, and not a lot else. He’s in withdrawal. Fortunately, Halthris has a rare natural ability to thought-link, which she has only used to communicate with her hunting cat prior to this point, but whilst sitting vigil over Ansaryon, he is able to reach out to her via this link, and she keeps him alive. He becomes the only known person to survive Annatal withdrawal, and, miraculously, keeps his powers.
Having recovered, Ansaryon reveals his powers to the shocked populace of Sar Dyenyi, but they grudgingly accept him as ruler over the usurper Tsenit, especially after he uses that power to repel an attack by the Ska’i on the mountain fortress itself. He then sets off on a trip to garner support from the local kingdoms and the Empire of Toktel’yi. Halthris goes with him, leaving his cousin Kefiri behind to man the fort and stay safe as the last heir to the throne if Ansaryon dies.
Naturally, Kefiri, being 17 and foolish, doesn’t like being told to stay put, and she sneaks away to try and help build a resistance in the city of Zithirian, which, fortunately for her, a woman named Kaydi was already doing. This gives the opportunity to reveal the last (and in some ways most important) significant character of the book: Bron. Bron is a small waif of a child who first appears to Kaydi’s son, Herris, in Zithirian. Then to Kefiri and Halthris in Sar Dyenyi, apparently as a refugee… then shortly afterwards in one of the kindgoms Ansaryon goes to for help, at about the same time that Kefiri is meeting him again in Zithirian; and lastly in Toktel’yi, in the heart of the emporer’s palace, a place he couldn’t possibly have been. How can he be in so many places at once?
There’s a darkness that surrounds Bron, a darkness that stinks of socery. Yet he’s also just a little boy, apparently terrified of his ‘grandmother’. In some ways, The Silver City is more about the mystery that is Bron than it is about the political intrigue of Zithirian and the menace of the Ska’i. Which is probably a good thing, as he’s a much more interesting character than the generic menace of the Ska’i whose motivation seems solely founded on greed and their worship of the death god Ayak.
This is a book with plusses and minuses. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The Wolf Within, its sequel, is a much better book, and in many ways The Silver City would work better as a prequel. I don’t think that’s just because I read the second book first, not realising it was part of a series. Although the focus of the action is on Halthris, wherever you go (both figuritively and literally) there’s Bron. If you wanted to regard it as an origin story, it’d make a very good one. A haunting one.
Naturally, I like this book because it has a lot of strong women – it’s like a balm to my soul. But what I really like about it is the gender balance. Yes, Halthris is a strong warrior woman, but there are plenty of strong men, as well. We also see a strong mother, in the form of Kaydi, and a strong woman who very definitely isn’t good, in the form of the High Priestess D’thliss. And then there’s Kefiri, who… pretty much performs the traditional role of the feisty princess that the Evil King seeks to subdue. I think we’re meant to see Kefiri’s role as important, too, but I can’t think of a single thing she does that actually helps the resistance. And that’s… OK. There should be crap women as well as crap men in a book that really reflects reality. There’re role models enough in Halthris and Kaydi.
Some of the characters are not as well-filled out as they could be. The Ska’i, D’thliss, and Tsenit, whilst they all have personalities and motivations, are fairly stock fantasy Evil. If you see the real baddies as Ayak and emperor-in-waiting Ba’alekkt, you can find some much more interesting hints, but they don’t really come into fruition until the second book.
This is a long book that could be shorter. Belle excels at creating vivid impressions of differing societies and their customs, but I did sometimes find myself looking ahead to where the next dialogue was. The action doesn’t really get going until after the Ska’i attack, and most of the really good shit happens in the last third. However: this is also a woman who can write passion, and who can craft a punch.
The love story between Halthris and Ansaryon is a slow build, sublimated to much of the other action. But that’s OK. It’s surprisingly realistic. It’s rare to read a book where the protagonists get together in a way that would amount to anything more than a one night stand in real life. But not only that, when they finally realise and reveal the full extent of their feelings for each other on a hot Toktelyan night, the tension between them is palpable and vibrantly real.
As for punch, well. I can’t give too much away, but it’s quite an ending. I knew what was going to happen, rereading it, but it still managed to sock me one good.
It’s not a perfect book, but you can get a second-hand copy for practically nothing. This is not a YA novel – it’s long, it’s not about teenagers, and it’s barely about love – but if you know a teenage girl who’s looking to move on from Anne McCaffrey to some role models with real bite, you wouldn’t go far wrong with this. And for adults, too, if you like a fantasy novel that does something a little different, then I think, despite the cookie-cutter bad guys, this could be one for you.
If, on the other hand, I’ve put you off with the negative side, let me say this: the sequel to this book is one of my all time favourites. I don’t feel I suffered much by starting there, but I don’t think you’ll suffer by starting at the beginning either. I promise to review The Wolf Within soon, but in the meantime, spend a penny (plus P&P) on The Silver City – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.