May 18, 2004

The Ring of Five Dragons, by Eric Van Lustbader

I first read Eric Van Lustbader back in the 1980's, when he'd just written his Sunset Warrior trilogy. It had some good bits, but overall I wasn't impressed, and I stopped reading him. It's possible that the books went over my head, as my brother liked them then and still likes them now. Anyway, I heard Van Lustbader's name every so often through the years, until a couple of years ago I picked up a fat paperback called The Ring of Five Dragons. I was a bit skeptical, but I needed something to read, so I bought it--and was pleasantly surprised. Indeed, I liked it well enough to buy the sequel when it came out, but for one reason or another the sequel languished unread until just recently, when I discovered that the third volume in the series was imminent. It had been long enough that I'd forgotten much of the details, so I dug The Ring of Five Dragons out again, and dove in.

And once again I was alternately amused, bemused, and enthralled.

Let me say a few words about the plot, and then I'll try to explain my reaction to this truly weird book.

I suppose I can best describe the plot as the irresistable force meeting the immovable object. The irresistable force is the V'orrn, a spacefaring race that has been travelling through the galaxy for eons since their home world was burned to a crisp by a supernova. The heart of the V'orrn race is in the V'orrn fleet, apparently, but from time to time as new planets are discovered a contingent is spun off to exploit them.

Enter the immovable object, the planet Kundala. Before the V'orrn arrived, Kundala was a joyous planet under the special protection of the Goddess Miina. But some of Miina's worshippers rebelled, Miina withdrew her protection, and the V'orrn arrived to kick butt.

It's now about a hundred years later. The V'orrn are still in charge. All but one of the Ramahan abbeys that led the worship of Miina are in ruins, destroyed by the V'orrn; the only reason the remaining abbey is still standing is because the abbey leaders have been feeding information to the V'orrn about the Kundalan resistance.

But if Kundala has changed, the V'orrn have changed, too. The V'orrn are raised to be contemptuous of the races they conquer--but some of them are strangely attracted to the Kundalans and their ways, including the V'orrn regent, one Eleusis Ashera. More, it begins to appear that the Ramahan religion is true, and that the old prophecies of a messiah, the Dar-al-Salat, are coming true. And if that's true, then Kundala appears to be the center of the universe.

So much for the plot.

There's a lot to like in this book, amid the numerous subplots. The tale of the corruption of the remaining Ramahan abbey is particularly good, and chilling. The story of the Dar-al-Salat is equally compelling. The backstory unfolds like a mystery novel, and quite satisfactorily.

But then there are the weird things, which make it difficult for me to take the book seriously. V'orrn names, for example, often include weird spellings with tripled letters--name like "Stogggul" and "Rekkk" and "Khagggun" and "Salamuuun". I can't complain that they are unpronounceable--there's a pronunciation key in the back of the book--but they aren't pronounced like you'd think they should be. He could just as easily have chosen a more phonetic spelling.

Then there's the vocabulary, with which he does strange things--for atmosphere, I assume. The V'orrn and the Kundalans, though similar of appearance are two different races, and apparently neither of them are human; at least, the words "man", and "woman" are never used. He uses "male" and "female" instead, which is jarring. Similarly, instead of days he often has the V'orrn speak of "sidereal units" (because, of course, only V'orrn days are really days, and V'orrn days have no relation to the rotation of the planet Kundala). A little of this kind of thing is OK, but he takes it too extremes--as, for example, he invariably uses the word "quotidian" instead of "daily". Let me tell you, when you run across the word "quotidian" three times in thirty pages, you notice.

Then there's the "science". As I say, the V'orrn and the Kundalans are two separate races, though they look like. Although they are never called "men" or "women", Kundalans appear to look much like we do. V'orrn look mostly like Kundalans, but they are completely hairless, have two hearts, two stomachs, and one lung, and are slightly larger.

So tell me, how is it that the V'orrn soldiers can father bastards on the local Kundalan girls? They can, and they do, and nobody seems to think that this is at all unusual.

So honestly, what with the names, and the language, and the improbabilities, I found myself shaking my head or rolling my eyes regularly while re-reading the book--but the headshake or eye-roll was generally accompanied by a chuckle at Van Lustbader's audacity. I have to wonder whether it's supposed to be a little absurd!

This is going to be a multi-volume series, of unknown length (unless the third book ends it, which I doubt), and I want to make a prediction. Given Kundala's remarkably place in the cosmic scheme of things, and the length of time that the V'orrn have been travelling, and the vaguely Hindu/Buddhist feel about a lot of the fantasy details, I'm going to bet that Kundala is, in some sense, the V'orrn homeworld remade--that at long last, and after eons of genetic tinkering that have changed them almost out of recognition, they have returned home. We'll see.

Posted by Will Duquette at May 18, 2004 10:11 PM