Having run out of Alan Black novels to review last month, I made sure to stock up at Phoenix Comicon by buying everything from his wife Duann that I didn't already have. Then I sat back and wondered which to review in June. Should I continue to explore the 'Metal Boxes' universe with the first of what currently number three sequels? Should I look at another of his various standalone sci-fi novels? Or should I check out a new genre, following last month's thriller with a fantasy novel?
Well, even if you couldn't see the cover art of 'Quest for the White Wind', with its dragons flying over the ocean, the title itself suggests that I went with the fantasy and that's just what I did. However, I should emphasise that the White Wind of the title isn't as ethereal as it sounds; it's the name of a ship and we begin with its captain, Tanden, being unceremoniously relieved of his command by his crew. It's not a regular mutiny; he's a good captain and he's followed loyally by a number of them, to the degree of being tossed right off the ship after him. No, Gregin, a blue wizard of the air, and his followers are here to kidnap a passenger, the Lady Yasthera al-Ildigg, who has been pledged in a political marriage, with the White Wind and its rich cargo merely a bonus for them.
It only takes a few chapters for the initial confrontation to resolve and set the stage for what will follow. Gregin sails off in the White Wind with his captive and a reduced crew of collaborators. Everyone else is left in its wake, struggling for their lives in the dark waters of the Black Sea. As you can imagine from the title, we follow the latter group, who mostly make it to shore, team up and pledge to follow Tanden as he quests to catch up with the White Wind and steal it back.
On the surface, it's pretty much that simple. Tanden leads the group as he led the crew and he sets that goal immediately. Most are Holdenites like Tanden, all quite some distance from home. The ever-complaining Gadon is Tanden's oldest friend and Tuller is Gadon's younger brother. The elder Durrban is an acolyte of green magic, which is looked down upon by practitioners of blue magic. Seenger is an ogre from Huzzuzz, an unusual inclusion on a Holdenite crew but a worthy one. With Alton failing to reach shore, that leaves the eastern woman, I-Sheera. She was Lady Yasthera's maid and, in that role, spoke for her on board ship, making herself very unpopular in the process. None of the men want her with them, but Tanden saves her anyway.
It's possible, of course, to read this as a simple quest, following the time-honoured style that goes back at least as far as Homer. We're given our characters, who are thrown into peril and tasked with a single goal. We just have to follow them on their journey to realise that goal, hardly a difficult task for us given that Black quickly bounces the group from one cliffhanger to another, so leaving both them and us with little time to breathe in between old peril and new.
Of course, quests aren't usually quite that simple and there are other factors in play beyond the next life-threatening obstacle. With the exception of I-Sheera, these folk are part of Tanden's regular crew, so the people he's been relying on for years. Even given that, there's growth here to their respective characters and how they interact; there's nothing like shared doom to bring people closer together. Each of these folk have opportunities and they take them, without the divvying up of responsibilities ever seeming forced. They work together and they bicker together in a believable fashion.
The odd-man-out, of course, isn't the ogre but the girl, or 'the woman' as she's referred to for most of the book. This isn't any misogynism on behalf of Alan Black but a clever way to highlight how these men see I-Sheera in different ways as their quest runs on. She's unwelcome baggage to begin with, not because of her gender but because of how she acted on board ship. When she explains why, they understand but fail to really acknowledge the reason because they're too busy trying to stay alive. As they move on, sharing and enduring danger together, her part in their picture changes accordingly and, in many ways, without the men realising why at the time. I like how Black neatly references her like his characters reference her, changing with them.
This human level is mostly successful. There may be a couple of points where progression is treated with a little too much acceptance, but it's a decent character study, explaining how human beings are able to continue driving themselves forward to reach a goal, even when what seems like everything in the world is thrown in their way. I've always liked Black's characterisations, even from my very first time through one of his books, but novels like 'Metal Boxes' with their sprawling casts inherently led him to concentrate on his leads, sometimes to the detriment of supporting characters. 'Quest for the White Wind' is far more of an ensemble performance. While Tanden and I-Sheera are clearly the leads, the rest of the group are solid backup and even minor characters are attended to well, regardless of their page count.
If I have a complaint, it's how Black explores magic in this world. He dedicates a little time to explaining the system of green magic, blue magic and red magic, each of which keys off one of the four elements (earth, air and fire respectively). He allows Tanden, not a magic user, to ponder a little on why the logical fourth doesn't seem to exist; apparently there is no yellow magic for water. He also introduces the concept of white magic, which nobody really believes exists because the preserved purity of each of the others precludes anyone from merging them. It's all there for a reason and it factors into plot progression at points, but it's never the focus and I wonder why Black kept it suppressed so much. I was also a little disappointed in how this angle ended and felt that he could have tied it together a little better.
Overall, though, I'm impressed yet again. This one took me three days to get through, but only because I was sick and my hours asleep escalated. In regular circumstances, it would have been another one or two session read because, as usual, I didn't want to put it down. The cliffhanger approach helps that, because I always wanted to see how Tanden and his group made it past each hurdle, but the relentlessly episodic nature is also a hindrance, as there's little escalation to these threats, once we've gone from snake to dragonette to dragon in the early chapters; they're just threats and they could have been increased or decreased to the page count of Black's choice.
Most of all, I'm reminded of something Alan used to say to prospective customers. Instead of, 'Do you like to read?', he always asked, 'What do you like to read?' Beyond being a neat little hook, it ably highlighted that pretty much whatever they read, he wrote. Sci-fi? Everywhere. Romance? Yes, throughout. Humour? The same. Fantasy? Here, check out 'Quest for the White Wind'. Thrillers? There's 'Chasing Harpo' over there. Westerns? Try 'A Cold Winter'. Not into genre fiction? Here's the Ozark Mountain trilogies of historical fiction. Non-fiction? Over at the end.
This one is emphatically a fantasy novel but it's not the high fantasy of a Tolkien or a Martin or the urban fantasy of a Hamilton or a Harris. Beyond adhering to the age-old rules of the quest, it's not really a fantasy novelist's sort of fantasy novel. Black feels more at home in space than with magic, but this works because all his stories are about people rather than places and he's best when exploring what makes them all tick. This is further proof that he could easily apply that to another style at will.
See you next month for another Alan Black sci-fi novel, assuming that I can decide which one I want to devour next! ~~ Hal C F Astell