Cas Peace’s debut novel and the first installment of a planned “Artesans of Albia” trilogy, King’s Envoy spins out an unusual new world comprised of five discontinuous realms linked by temporary portways. Most often, portways are constructed by inter-realm raiders, but Peace initiates her exploration of the five worlds, and of the magical system that conjoins them, through the trials and errors of young Taran Elijah, an orphaned journeyman seeking a mentor to help him develop his craft and advance through the ranks of the artesans, or practitioners of the elemental magic that binds this pentapartite world together.
The coming of age premise unfolds to reveal a plot emanating from the fifth realm, Andaryon, and threatening to unseat the reigning power there and undermine the political stability that maintains an uneasy truce between Andaryon and Albia in the process. That plot and the Albian response to it will presumably occupy King’s Champion and King’sArtesan(due out in August, 2012, and August, 2013, respectively).
The strength of King’s Envoy resides in its imaginative world-building and in the working out of its elemental magical system within the context of competing military and political structures that employ, impede, co-opt and corrupt it. Peace convincingly integrates the impersonal “metaforce” with an artesan’s psychic patterning in a way that lends both structure and utility to powers that nevertheless feel inherently unwieldy, acting upon as well as through the artesan. As a malevolent symbol of the metaforce’s intractability and of the looming threat to the political fabric of the five worlds, a magical staff lies buried (but never quite forgotten) throughout most of the book. While giving occasion to the main action of the novel, after its dramatic disappearance into the rubble of Taran’s cellar, the staff plays no active role—at least not in Book One. As a potent source of the upstart villain Rykan’s confident ambitions, having been twice stolen and seeming almost unwilling to be returned, we should (I think) expect the staff to demonstrate its power more directly in the next installment.
There is much to praise about Peace’s world-building in King’s Envoy, and more to anticipate in later installments. Taran Elijah has gained mastery over earth and, finally, water, but more remains for him (and us) to learn about the elemental forces and how they relate to the physics of this five-folded world. We’ve encountered only one tangwyr (the winged creature on the cover) and have yet to excavate the nature and purpose of the staff that zaps it. Yet more intriguingly, to my mind—and perhaps it’s a clue to the inter-connectivity of her story-telling—Peace allows her artesans to layer their psyches one upon another, merging them into a holistic force greater and more useful than the sum of its parts and suggesting, without openly declaring, that an intimate social underpinning lies at the heart of her metaphysical reality. The difference between good and evil appears to hinge not on the means by which power is accessed and shared. King’s Envoy can’t be regarded as a stand-alone novel; as an opening gambit, however, the complexity and power at Peace’s disposal bring us to the brink of cataclysm and leave us, not hanging, but braced for more.
The imaginative foundation of King’s Envoy provides a rich source of dramatic material. Its heroes, heroines and villains by turns amuse, charm and intrigue us. A pervasive reliance on passive voicing, however, drains the narrative music of much of its inherent charge, while an overindulgence in amusing antics, gratuitous sniping, dueling, and an inconsequential rape attempt—all of which seem to come at the expense of more pivotal scenes that get rushed by us (or omitted altogether)—weaken the story. The missing scenes include: the abduction of one powerful artesan by another, setting up the crucial and climactic endgame; the (metaphorical) rape scene(s) in which that wizard is robbed of power, left depleted and abandoned; and an important half of a rescue attempt. So much important dramatic action occurs off-stage that we come away feeling not just disappointed but a little played, even. We get to participate in the planning and setting up for the novel’s big events only to find ourselves, at the last minute, uninvited.