The fifth volume of Kate Elliot's ambitious 'Crown of Stars' series has been awhile coming, as the author quite nicely notes in an opening message to her fans.
As the time of the Aoi's return draws nearer, Skopos Anne and her cabal of sorcerors are rebuilding the ancient stone crowns, where a powerful spell of banishment was used millenia ago. Desperate to cast the Aoi out of the world once and for all, they have possessed King Henry in order to rebuild the empire, bringing the crowns in foreign land under their control.
Wendar and Varre are on the brink of rebellion, as their King seems more concerned with reclaiming an emperor's crown than dealing with matters at home. Sanglant has been approached to restore order, but he realizes the true threat lies with Anne. He journeys into the desert to seek the mythical griffin, who's feathers will provide protection from magic for his army. Having been abandoned by Liath years ago, he's left to raise their daughter, the unfortunately named 'Blessing', himself. Liath eventually returns however, and between civil unrest and the impending doom of the world, the estranged couple has plenty of time for child-like bickering.
Alain has been cast back into the present, after witnessing the cataclysm of the Aoi's original banishment in the dim history of the world. He seeks asylum in the church, and struggles to understand the twists of fate that have almost ruined his life. With his return, his link with the Eika leader Stronghand has been re-established, and the two begin to share visions again.
Stronghand and his people have invaded the land of Alba, and true to his unique nature, they seem poised to rule; not just raid. Soon however, Stronghand realizes a more important battle is being fought, and through the wisdome of the OldMothers even the Eika have a part to play.
Elliot brings her fifth novel out of the world of Wendar and Varre. It's a welcome change, and a needed one. Although she's put a considerable amount of effort into building a believable and enjoyable world, it's a refreshing change of scenery to explore a handful of new locales. Although Elliot doesn't flesh out any of these settings much, she still provides the reader with enjoyable descriptions of these alien lands.
Character development struggles a bit in this entry. It seems with so many pages of growth, the characters are starting to regress. Liath is assuredly more confident, but her doubts and timidity still remain. Sanglant is as headstrong and impetuous as ever, even when the fate of the world can hang in the balance. Alain as always shows the most growth, and his latter chapters are some of the most intriguing. Through Stronghand, we're given more fascination insights into the nature of the Eika, and the change their new leader is willing to embrace. As in previous books, all of Stronghand's chapters are excellent.
There's plenty of plot resolution at the end of 'A Gathering Storm'. The closing however seems rushed, as several key events unfold in a span of fifty pages, which is inexcusable in a novel of this length (977 in PB). In fact, several parts of the novel tend to falter under it's weight, and its quite disconcerting to have a veritable frenzy of plot resolution thrown at you, after hundreds of pages of satisfactory plodding. Although there's plenty of action throughout the rest of the book, it's seperated by large tracts of lethargic narrative. It's well written, but it's not going to keep you up turning pages into the wee hours of the morning. In fact, it can do just the opposite in parts.
To make matters worse, the resolution seems almost too final. There are very few plot threads left untouched, and at the close of the novel the reader has the sense that even should the sixth book never materialize, enough of said threads (that's fun to say) have been tied up at the end of this one. There's no real anticipation for the next novel, as all that seems to be left is a mopping up procedure, with the fate of a few characters left to be finalized.
To sum up, 'A Gathering Storm' is a good book. Unfortunately, the length of the series is beginning to tell, and the length of the novel itself is unwieldy. The narrative has a slow pace until the end - when big things happen much too fast. The ending is too final for the series of a whole, leaving the nature of the sixth book as a mystery. Nevertheless, we're curious to see what Elliot has in store in the sixth and final volume of her landmark series.