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Title: The White Tree
Series: Cycle of Arawn #1
Author: Edward Robertson
Rating: 2.5 of 5 Stars
Dante Galand is a teenager living in the nation of Mallon, not far from the capital of Bressel. One day, while exploring the woods around the village where he grew up, he stumbles upon a ruined temple of Arawn, god of death and the power of the nether, summarily banned in Mallon on religious grounds. In the temple he finds a copy of the Cycle of Arawn, the holy book of Arawn’s followers. The temple is guarded. Dante kills the guard, takes the book, and heads to Bressel to research.
In Bressel, he hires Blays Buckler, an armsman of the same age as Dante, to watch his back while he studies, fearful of the other Arawnites who continue to hunt him and the Cycle. During a fight with the pursuing Arawnites in an alley, Dante subconsciously summons a shadowsphere, a basic trick of the nether. He and Blays flee Bressel and spend the next couple weeks camped by a pond in the woods outside Bressel before the Arawnites catch up and they move on. They make their way to the small city of Whetton, where they face down and kill another pair of Arawnite hunters, one of them a nethermancer. The next day, Blays is arrested by the guards of Whetton for the killings. Dante escapes by chance, having not been in their room at the time.
Unwilling to leave Blays to the gallows, Dante holes up in a mausoleum in the local graveyard where he meets an old man named Cally, who tells him about the Arawnites’ scheme to use the Cycle as bait for new nethermancers and begins to teach Dante how to use the nether, starting with the use of your own blood to amplify the nether’s power. Dante spends a good deal of the week reading the Cycle- particularly the story of Jack Hand- and contemplating ducks. On the day Blays is due to be hanged, Dante attacks the guards, causing a very large mess and saving Blays. As they ride away on stolen horses, Dante passes out after exhausting his control of the nether.
He wakes up in a temple Cally has been living in, and spends several days recovering and reading the Cycle- the part of it written in Mallish, at least. Cally eventually tells Dante, Blays, and the other two men rescued from Whetton that they’ll have to leave soon. He recommends heading north, to the Dead City, Narashtovik. It’s where Dante will be able to find teachers and knowledge about both the nether and the final third of the Cycle, which is written in Gaskan. It’s also the source of a string of recent attacks and general unrest centered in Bressel and Collen. Cally suggests that if Blays and Dante are able to work their way into the city and kill Samarand, the current High Priestess of Arawn and ruler of Narashtovik, they will be able to avert a religious war directed at Mallon in the name of Arawn, who they plan to release from his godly prison.
Dante and Blays leave Cally’s temple with Robert Hobble, one of the other men from Whetton. They’re attacked on the road by half a dozen Arawnites led by Will Palomar. They drive their attackers off, but Robert is badly injured. Dante heals Robert as best he can, and they continue on. They stop in the town of Shay, where they meet Gabe, a norren monk of Mennok and an old friend of Cally’s. While at Gabe’s monastery, the town is caught up in the Unlocking, wherein all of the undercover Arawnites hidden in the Mallish temples of other gods revealed themselves and attacked the others. After a fight for the temple, Gabe sends the three of them on their way. They cross the Norren Territories without incident and make it the rest of the way to Narashtovik unmolested. Robert leaves them just outside the city and they continue alone.
After a few days of research and resupplying in Narashtovik, Dante presents himself at the Cathedral of Ivars with a copy of the Cycle. It’s not the one he found in Mallon, the true original copy, but one of passably similar age found in a ruined building in Narashtovik itself. He and Blays walk right into the cathedral and all but throw the book at the first priest they find, which happens to be Nak Randal. Dante demands a place in the Arawnite order and a teacher. Larrimore, Samarand’s Hand, is summoned to deal with them. They are eventually granted a place inside the walls of the Sealed Citadel. Dante spends his time learning Gaskan with Nak and Blays spends his time training with the Citadel’s soldiers. After a brief stint in the dungeons over the issue of the non-original Cycle, a fact since discovered by the priests, Dante gets a minor promotion and Larrimore begins to send him and Blays on errands in the city like rounding up petty criminals with minor nethereal talents.
In time, Dante is set to creating reservoirs of nether by infusing old bones with the power and writing on them in blood. It also comes to light that Samarand was once a priest on the Council of Narashtovik under Cally. She spearheaded the effort to have him removed as the High Priest on the basis of advancing age. When Cally was finally forced out fifteen years before the start of the book, she took over the position. A week before the Council is set to leave to free Arawn, an assassin nearly kills Dante in the middle of the night, sent by Cally on suspicion that Dante had given up on the plan to kill Samarand. He and Blays hide the body in a haystack outside, and within a week they’re riding out of the city with Samarand, Larrimore, half the Council, and a large escort of soldiers and priests for Barden, the White Tree. They’re attacked by local rebels, displeased with Samarand’s war, partway to Barden and defeat them.
Under Barden, Samarand and the six Council priests set to a massive, draining ritual to unleash Arawn. Dante and Blays wait, biding their time until they can strike. The ritual is nearly complete when the priests realize something isn’t right. Dante steps forward with the true original Cycle and all hell breaks loose. Cally reveals himself, having been disguised as Jackson, one of the Council priests, for some time. He immediately goes into battle with Samarand while Dante and Blays turn on the rest of the priests and soldiers. One of the other Council priests, Baxter, turns on the rest of the Council, though he’s quickly killed by Larrimore, who arrives from the bottom of the hill and demands answers. During the fighting, Dante knocks a limb free from the great bone tree. It’s conveniently sword-shaped, and he takes it. In the end, the battle comes down Cally against Samarand and Dante against Larrimore. When Samarand and Larrimore both lie dead, along with the rest of the Council priests present, Cally speaks to the gathered soldiers and assumes command. On their return to Narashtovik, he tells the remnants of the Council what happened under Barden. Olivander, next in line for the seat of High Priest, nearly came to blows with Cally over his hand in Samarand’s death, but in the end let it go in the name of rebuilding the decimated Council. Dante demanded a seat, and Cally supported it, making Dante by far the youngest Councilman at sixteen.
After a couple months of learning the city and his place in it and of generally relaxing, Dante talks with Blays. Spring is coming and Blays is restless, and means to leave. Dante decides to go with him. He gets nominal approval from Cally to make the two of them official delegates to Bressel, though they intend to do whatever they wish and Cally knows it. Cally tells Dante to consider how Narashtovik might help the cause of norren independence- he had apparently promised Gabe that he would fight for it, in exchange for help reclaiming his seat at the head of the Council. Dante and Blays leave Narashtovik and head south. They stop in Whetton and visit Robert Hobble before continuing on to Bressel.
If you’ve ever read Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, or are even a bit familiar with Welsh mythology, the name Arawn should be familiar to you. He is a death god and as such is considered to be a pretty bad guy. Robertson either digs deeper into Welsh Lore than I care to, or just does whatever the feth he feels like and makes Arawn the great god who helped humankind and was locked away because of it. Not going to get any sympathy from me. Death is evil and at some point will be destroyed, thank God.
Anyway, this had potential. But that was it. It was overlong, over written, confusing at times and odd word choices that removed me from the flow of the narrative were used. The most egregrious was the word “smited”. I can’t find that word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. I have a feeling the writer used the rules of the english language and created that word based on that instead of looking up the proper form, which would been “smitten”. If any of you can find the word “smited”, please let me know.
The story contained should have been no more than 250 pages. Lots of extraneous detail (probably put in for “world building (heaven save us from that filthy thing)), little side journeys or happenings that didn’t advance the plot but fluffed the page count, it all just added up to one big Bloviated book.
Then you have the character of Dante. He’s this 16 year old who saw some guy heal a dog way back when and so decided to become a disciple of Arawn (or at least read the religious book of Arawn) to become what is in essence a wizard. How does he do that? He reads the book and his innate ability allows him to. There were a couple of times where he uses what is a huge burst of magic to push people back and I had to wonder why he didn’t use a much smaller amount to twirl a sword through the air and kill people. Nothing says “cool magic” like a flying sword. While the magic system wasn’t layed out for us the reader, that didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that Dante didn’t try to figure them out for himself. Or if he did, it was lost in all the wordiness and lost.
Finally, why did Dante interrupt the ritual near the end to prevent the return of Arawn? If he’s such an upstanding god who just wants to be buddy buddy’s with humanity, and whose religious book can empower people, why? The reason given is that then the acolytes of Arawn would go off to war. But don’t you think Arawn himself might have something to say about that? If they bring him back, he’s not going just be a puppet for them to use.
By the end of this book I was ready for it to be done and I had zero interest in the rest of the trilogy. Robertson isn’t a good enough author to cut down his own work, so I’m not going to waste my time on any more of his books.