Casket of Souls is Flewelling’s ninth novel, and the sixth to feature the dashing duo of Alec and Seregil: lovers, noblemen, housebreakers and spies. But while Casket of Souls is entertaining, much like 2010’s The White Road, it’s a deeply uneven book.
The casual reader can be forgiven a certain amount of confusion in catching up in the opening chapters of Casket of Souls. To a large extent, Flewelling seems to be relying on the reader’s previous familiarity and investment in the milieu: the political intrigue with which Alec and Seregil involve themselves in the early chapters rather seems to assume that one already has a clear idea of which princess is who and who can be expected to do what to whom. (I regret to report that in the year-and-change which has intervened since my read of the preceding volume, I had forgotten who all the important players are and what has Gone Before. Casket of Souls didn’t do much to catch me up.)
In the city of Rhíminee, Alec and Seregil—in their guises as noblemen—become patrons of a new theatre troupe while getting themselves in the middle of at least two plots revolving around the succession of the royal house. At night they burgle house to gather information for the defence of queen, kingdom, and their friends. Meanwhile, a mysterious plague has started in the slums, the “sleeping death,” which will soon come to strike closer to home.
At the same time, we see the on-going war between Skala (adopted homeland of our heroes) and Plenimar (previously revealed to be home of many unpleasant persons) from the point of view of Beka Cavendish, a captain in the queen’s sister’s regiment.
While the house-burglaries and court intrigue in the city are unevenly paced, particularly since they share pagetime with the problem of the plague and the cagey doings of the chief of the theatre troupe, it’s Beka Cavendish’s thread that pulls the book off balance. I cannot quite work out what it is doing here, other than reminding us that certain characters from the previous books still exist and are the focus of political machinations: Casket of Souls would have been a much tighter book if it had left the war to second-hand reportage and focused more closely on the plots in the city. There is quite enough already going on in Rhíminee to drive a novel, and the resolution of the intrigue is handled rather oddly.
No, really, I’m about to spoil the ending. If that’s the kind of thing that annoys you, then, as Gandalf the Grey said to the Balrog, Go back! Or at least skip the following paragraph.
The prime movers of the intrigue plots all kick the bucket (bite the bullet, buy the farm) because of the “sleeping death” plague. Which turns out not to be a plague at all, but the result of the chief of the new theatre troupe working a sort of vampiric magic in order to maintain his youth by feeding on other people’s souls. As large hints about his unsavouriness have been dropped in the sections from his point of view throughout – and as his soul-eating is made obvious by page 200—the fact that our heroes take 400 pages out of a grand total of 475 to link consequence to cause, instead of being a source of tension, serves rather to make events feel as though they’re dragging on. It feels almost as if the plots of two separate stories have been sandwiched together into the one novel—a disconcerting impression, to say the least.
Major spoilers over with.
Perhaps you now have the notion that I found nothing in Casket of Souls to enjoy. Quite the contrary: I read it in one sitting. It’s a story that sits comfortably in the “noble thieves and dashing rogues do politics” vein of second-world fantasy, and I do enjoy the odd consolatory fantasy filled with disguises, secrets and intrigues—not to mention burglary for a good cause. There are moments of humour and tension. And on occasion, it’s pleasant to see a committed couple in the starring roles.
The prose is workpersonlike and mostly unobtrusive, but, moments of humour aside, this is not Flewelling’s finest hour. Compared to Luck in the Shadows, or The Bone Doll’s Twin, both of which I’ve reread more recently than other books in the Nightrunner series, it comes off very much the worse.
Liz Bourke can be found on Twitter @hawkwing_lb.