Eric Van Lustbader, The Ring of Five Dragons (Tor, 2001)
Eric Van Lusbader, The Veil of a Thousand Tears (Tor, 2002)
Eric Van Lustbader, Mistress of the Pearl (Tor, 2004)

In bookstores, my younger self always used to wonder why the science fiction novels and the fantasy books were so often lumped together into the same section. I was a huge reader of fantasy, but where sci-fi was concerned, I tended to shy away. I was turned off by the (stereotypical, I'll admit) ideas of aliens and spaceships and evil robots wishing to take over the world, as opposed to stories of princes and castles and evil wizards wishing to take over the world. Even now, the books I have read that could be considered science fiction all have strong elements of the fantastical blended into them. In fact, the range of sci-fi tomes I have read starts at Frank Herbert's Dune and ends at Tad William's Otherland series.

Right at the beginning of The Ring of Five Dragons, a stark line is drawn between the opposing forces of science and magic. The series takes place on the planet of Kundala, where the native Kundalans are suffering under the yoke of the V'ornn, a technologically superior alien race who conquered the Goddess-worshipping humans one hundred and one years ago. While the nomadic V'ornn's usual routine after enslaving a planet is to rob the land of its natural resources, learn a few new things, and split, the mysteries of Kundala, most notably the legend of the powerful Kundalan artefact known as the Pearl, have resulted in the V'ornn extending their stay in order to root out the answers.

Meanwhile, Giyan, a Kundalan slave with magical powers who is in the service of Eleusis Ashera, is beginning to believe that the regent's son Annon may just be the Dar Sala-at, the Chosen One who can free Kundala from slavery and reinstate the worship of the Goddess Miina. After Eleusis is assassinated in a coup set up by rivals who are far less sympathetic to the "inferior" Kundalan cause, Giyan escapes with the boy, and the two beat a hasty retreat to Giyan's former village. When Annon's enemies raid the village in search of Eleusis' heir, Giyan and her twin sister Bartta, a priestess, are forced to cast a dangerous body-switching spell that transplants Annon's spirit into the form of a comatose female Kundalan named Riane. Needless to say, the sudden transition from being a pampered teenage V'ornn boy to an orphaned teenage Kundalan girl does not rank very high on Annon's list of pleasant experiences.

While Eric Van Lustbader sets up a veritable treasure trove of juicy concepts to dig into, the execution of his ideas onto paper is sadly disappointing. Underneath the veil of political subplots lies the principal premise of comic-based children's cartoon — involving a race against time to stop a doomsday device. Huh? Also, his story is rife with inconsistencies and last-minute answers that appear to be a little too convenient. Many of the tricky problems or picky questions are swept under the rug with the insufficient answer of "it's part of the Prophesy." Exactly what is the Prophesy? That's never fully explained, but there always seems to be some obscure verse of it handy to smooth over any rough bits in the plot.

The characterization of the book is also spread rather unevenly in the first book. While some of the players are granted a chance to evolve into better, or worse, people, the changes range from realistic to completely unbelievable. For instance, the character of Annon is promptly ruined soon after his change. Annon begins to consider himself a "she" a little too easily for me, and resigns himself (I'm sorry, herself) to fate with an abruptness that is disturbing. In fact, Riane completely swallows Annon's character within a few chapters, with the V'ornn male part of him (argh! I mean her!) resurfacing only rarely.

The realization of the characters improves only slightly in the second novel, The Veil of a Thousand Tears. This time around, the V'ornn are swiftly cast off the top of the Evil Villain heap in favour of the Archdaemons of Kundalan legend. Due to a flaw in the original spell that put Annon's soul into Riane's body, one of the Seven Portals to the Abyss has been breached, and Horolaggia, the son of Pyphoros, King of Daemons, has effectively managed to escape and promptly possesses Giyan. The only way to save Giyan's soul from being devoured by the powers of darkness is for Riane to obtain a special magical object, which is supposedly impossible to find and can only be found once Riane has overcome threatening obstacles (of course!). Like a giant, universal, magical band-aid, the Veil of a Thousand Tears is supposed to make everything alright, at least where daemons are concerned.

Clichéd plot aside, the author actually deals with a few catchy concepts on his second try. While Riane is physically a female, her sexual desires are still attuned to Annon's male psyche. The Dar Sala-at is now forced to deal with her powerful feelings for Eleana, a Kundalan Resistance leader Annon met and briefly dallied with before he woke up with blond hair and breasts. Of course, Eleana has no idea Annon is undressing her with Riane's eyes, but somehow feels an inexplicable pull towards the Dar Sala-at as well. Meanwhile, Horolaggia takes his new human form for a test drive and infiltrates the Abbey of Floating White, a temple to the Goddess Miina, and finds that most of the work of corrupting the sacred religion has already been done for him by power-hungry priestesses. Eric Van Lustbader spins an interesting idea about how the true religion of Kundala was slowly warped and twisted over time, but it is overshadowed by the rest of the story. As it was in the first novel, the V'ornn politics are thick and intricate, and have no ties to the Riane half of the tale. If you took the book in both hands, and tore out every page of Kurgan (Annon's former best buddy who is swiftly descending into evil madness) and his solitary adventures swimming the treacherous waters of V'ornn life, the legend of the Dar Sala-at would continue on almost completely uninterrupted.

What is the most frustrating about the second novel is that Eric Van Lustbader seems to be sabotaging every good story element he brings up. A colourful subplot emerges, only to be quashed within two chapters. Or else two well-known characters are bound by a rare, fated magical occurrence that causes their contrasting personalities to clash, but just as it seems that Eric Van Lustbader is building up to a fabulous plot twist, he kills them off. The sudden destruction of such ideas before they could come to fruition only points out the utter pointlessness added to the storyline because they remain uncompleted.

This anomaly is explained somewhat in the third (but sadly, not final, as I was initially hoping) novel, Mistress of the Pearl. The author is doing the literary equivalent of cracking walnuts by dropping nuclear warheads on them. Eric Van Lustbader writes in monumental occurrences to solve minor loose ends, and then destroys what could have been a pleasurable plot thread. In the third novel, the evil sauromicians (male sorcerors who were banished from Miina's priesthood when they attempted to steal the Pearl) have unearthed eight out of a total of nine magical objects called banestones. Using these banestones, they have created a cage that has entrapped Seelin, magical Dragon of Transformation, but in order to complete the prison and gain control of the dragon's power, they are desperately searching for the ninth. As luck would have it, Kurgan, the young, deviously clever V'ornn Regent of Kundala, has found the ninth banestone. Once again, the main conflict in this book has little or no real connection to the story of the second novel, which in turn is only loosely connected to the plot of the first. To be perfectly blunt, Mistress of the Pearl is the worst of the three, as it proceeds with the same flaws of predictability and inconsistency of the first two outings, and on top of that is weighed down by a significant lack of originality. Starting near the end of the second novel and continuing in the third, the tale begins to borrow heavily from the far superior works of Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry (a half-breed child of rape grows into an adult within an unnaturally short time, and possesses unique, fantastic powers) and Kate Elliot's The Crown of Stars saga (with the idea of a city of memory built within one's subconscious, a city that eventually reveals a deeper secret hidden within).

I realize that juggling two different genres can be difficult, but the author's tightrope act between a modern tone and a "sword and sorcery" atmosphere is far from perfect. The dialogue is laughable, a jumble of contemporary phrases with alien words substituting for Earth culture references ("This is a narbuck of quite a different hue, isn't it?" quips one character), cheesy clichés ("We are V'ornn! We are the masters of the universe!"), and inexplicable similes ("Are you mad?" "Mad as a Kraelian sundog."). The whole saga plays out like a badly-written action movie, predictable and repetitive. Every section in the chapter ends with a cliff-hanger. Every potential disaster of epic proportions is defused at the last possible moment. In every battle, the hero is bludgeoned to smithereens by the enemy, only to return and vanquish evil with a combination of their last kernel of strength, a newly-discovered ability, magical phenomenon, or miraculously appearing reinforcements, etc. Couldn't there be one situation where Riane can easily blow up an opponent within five minutes? Does every encounter have to be stretched out over page after bruised page? You'd think that since the good guys' only war strategy is to beat down the villain with a surprise move right when the villain thinks they're done for, that any bad guy worth his salt would learn from his comrades' mistakes and not jump to victorious conclusions. Sadly, no, as the main characters manage to survive long enough to fill up three books with their tedious, confusing experiences, and they aren't even done yet.

If Mr. Science Fiction and Ms. Fantasy both got really, really drunk at the Christmas party and had wild, unprotected sex, and then Ms. Fantasy proceeded to descend into alcoholism and drug addiction during the pregnancy, the twisted, mentally unsound baby they would have would be Eric Van Lustbader's The Pearl Saga. To be frank, it is disorganized, dull, sloppy, repetitive and ridiculous. If this is why science fiction and fantasy books are placed so close together in the local Chapters branch, this saga is simply another reason why my perfect bookstore would have the magic-based novels on one end, the alien books kept wisely at the other, and nothing but pure, empty space in between.

[Elizabeth Vail]