John Dickinson, The Cup of the World (David Fickling Books (Random House), 2004)
The Widow and the King (David Fickling Books, 2005)
Three hundred years ago, Wulfram led his people across the sea and conquered the lands they found, awarding each of his seven sons a kingdom. It seems, however, that there was an eighth son, Paigan, the Prince Under the Sky, who envied his brothers their realms, and who never died. One by one, the royal lines have died out, leaving a single Kingdom of restive barons ruled by a king not of Wulfram's line. The Counts of Tarceny are the only direct descendants of Wulfram; their lands sit on the border, in the mountains inhabited by the hillmen, the descendants of those they displaced.
John Dickinson's The Cup of the World duology is the story of Phaedra, daughter and heir of the Warden of Trant, one of the strongest fortresses in the Realm; Ulfin, the last Count of Tarceny, who knows the Prince Under the Sky quite well; their son, Ambrose; the Widow of Develin, a powerful ruler who has made her land a haven of scholarship and peace; and Sophia, her daughter.
It's a fairly grim story: justice and mercy seem to have been forgotten by the kings, and even law is the servant of politics. In some measure, this is the work of Paigan, who has learned to use the powers of what its practitioners call the "under-craft" and others call "witchcraft," the practice of which is punishable by death. Paigan has sworn to destroy his brothers' lines, while prophecy has said that he himself will be destroyed by the last of Wulfram's sons, and so Ambrose, son of Ulfin, becomes his target.
My reaction to Dickinson's tale is somewhat mixed. On the one hand, the concept and universe are intriguing: the world exists in a cup bounded by the coils of the great snake Capuu. The power of the under-craft comes from a pool, the Tears of Beyah, mother goddess of the hillmen, who turned her back on the world when her son was killed. The magic of Beyah's Tears also gives passage to a shadow world, allowing witches to move unseen. Angels, the messengers of the deity, are the source of good, although they do not themselves interfere in the lives of men. The conflicts between the kings and their barons have the potential for an intricate and absorbing story of political intrigue.
I think my problems with these books stem mainly from character: the various protagonists are fairly unappealing. Phaedra, for example, is a spoiled, headstrong girl who runs away from responsibility. Ulfin, while at first displaying a suitably romantic mystery on the order of Heathcliff, soon reveals himself to be equally selfish, and ruthless to boot. Sophia is equally childish and self-centered. Ambrose has possibilities, but he is more a pawn than an actor himself, being, at the close of the story, all of twelve years old. And these are the good guys. Sympathetic characters are generally killed off sooner or later -- usually sooner. One might surmise that Dickinson meant the major characters, with all their flaws, to be realistic, neither perfect nor fatally flawed (though their flaws often prove fatal to those around them), but, even though they do change their behavior, one is not convinced that this evidences a change in character. (The exception is possibly Phaedra, but by that time, she's not exactly alive, if not really dead.) There is no brightness in these people, no joy, no enthusiasm for life, and that becomes wearing. (Even King Lear has its lighter moments.) The "villains" -- the various pretenders to the throne, for the most part, and, of course, Paigan -- are largely sketches, if, indeed, we meet them at all.
Pacing is a severe problem with these books, and again this hinges on character. While there are passages that are tight and compelling, there are many that are not, particularly those involving introspection by the main characters, who are, after all, not very interesting people: Phaedra and Sophia occupy forefront, and neither of them really ever questions her attitudes, so that the overwhelming impression is a deep look into a pampered, selfish child, although we somehow never discover any causes that might justify such an exercise. Writers refer to the "aha!" moment, that point where events meet character in a revelation that changes the course of individual history. In these books, the "aha!" was more of a "thud" -- there just seems to be no tension in this story.
I don't mean to condemn these books out of hand -- in formal terms, they're pretty good, except for the pacing problems, and that can be a fairly subjective reaction. (Even the characters are well drawn, if not very appealing.) I'm just not sure what the point is -- one expects a novel, even the pulpiest, to have a theme of some sort, and I just can't figure out what Dickinson's is, unless it's simply that "Life is hard, then you die." I hardly needed two volumes to figure that out, and it's not something that I needed to hear about anyway.
[Robert M. Tilendis]