Seven Books in Seven Weeks – The Lightstone
… Part four of a seven part series…
Welcome back to Seven Books in Seven Weeks. After beginning our journey in the realm of classic children’s fiction and then retreating to the far reaches of the galaxy, with a Vogon Constructor Fleet hot on our heels, we return to Earth with a bump. Well, not Earth in the sense that we know it, but the magical land of Ea, home to Valashu Elahad and the Ea Cycle. Yes, folks, it’s epic fantasy time and where better to begin than with The Lightstone by David Zindell?
Those of you who have read any of the interviews I have given on various blogger and self-publishing sites will know that I hold a special place in my heart for David Zindell and his Ea Cycle. Born in Ohio, in 1952, he began his writing career in the mid-1980s, with several, critically acclaimed, science fiction stories, before moving into the realm of epic fantasy, of which, The Lightstone was his first foray. Critics have praised the depth, skill and complexity of his work and I cannot think of any other author, whose books have had me at the bookstore on their day of release, waiting to get a pristine copy into my grubby little hands, before eschewing the real world, to lose myself in theirs for days on end.
However, my literary love for the man who lives at the end of the bookshelf nearly didn’t happen at all…
Like many of the books in this series of blogs, I was given a copy of The Lightstone by someone else. In this case, it was a good friend of mine, who, many years ago, worked at a university bookshop in the UK. I think that I was reading another great book, The Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb, at the time, when he passed me an early reading copy of The Lightstone, to see what I thought about it. Flattered by his generosity, I went home, put the tome on my ‘To Be Read’ pile and promptly forgot about it!
It was only later when I had finished with Robin Hobb and was between books that I returned to The Lightstone. Sitting at around one thousand pages, the book was one of the longest that I had ever contemplated reading, but undaunted by the monstrous word count therein, I settled down and turned the first page.
A few pages in and I nearly closed the book for good. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t empathise with the main character. Maybe the fact that The Lightstone was written in the first person was to blame, but Valashu Elahad, a man who would rather play the flute than go hunting, was, to my mind, a simpering, soft-hearted fool, who had no place in the pages of a fantasy novel, which promised war, conflict and bloodshed on a biblical scale. I have to admit that despite Zindell’s own description of Valashu, I was put in mind of Prince Herbert in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who did his best to burst into song at every opportunity! In the end, frustrated and annoyed, I did put the book down and turned my mind to other distractions.
Several months passed before I decided to give The Lightstone another go, and boy, this time, was I glad that I did!
I struggled past my previous sticking point and was rewarded by an assassination attempt in the woods, followed by intrigue, shame and regicide in the Grand Hall, on a scale hitherto unimagined by my impressionable young mind. Before I knew it, I was immersed in Valashu’s epic quest in a way that had never happened to me with other fantasy books that I had read.
Part of what I liked about David Zindell’s writing in The Lightstone was, rather ironically, considering my initial reaction, his characterisations. As the story progressed, so did Valashu and while his sensitivity remained throughout, it was gilded with a hard edge of gritty realism, as he took on the mantle of leadership and led his rag-tag team of adventurers into the jaws of death and back out again, battered, scarred and forever changed by their journey.
On the subject of Valshu’s companions, some might see it as cliched, but I loved the physical and behavioural contrasts that Zindell created within the group. From the hedonistic and larger than life, Prince Maram, whose many voracious appetites ruled his heart and his head, to the grizzled monk that was Master Juwain, Kane the warrior, tortured by his past life and, of course, Atara, the warrior princess, who needed to kill one hundred men, in order to be released from her tribal bonds, each provided a perfect counterpoint to the ambitions and foibles of the others as the story progressed.
Talking of clichés, you can’t help but notice the significance of the number seven in The Lightstone and indeed, the entire Ea Cycle. Valashu is the seventh son of the king. He and his companions’ grow to number seven in total, and there are seven magical stones or gelstei, which they discover during their travels, which ultimately make them the most powerful group of warriors in the land and a real threat to Morjin’s plan to enslave the world.
Oh, Morjin! What a wonderful villain! Utterly ruthless and possessed of a twisted, bitter darkness that verges on madness, he is a brilliant character and the perfect opponent for the overly sensitive Valashu. The way that he shapes the truth to his own ends and challenges Valashu’s own view of the world around him, is nothing short of genius. I have no idea where David Zindell conjured him up from, but he did a great job and as a result, the Lord of Lies would be at home in any rogues’ gallery that you cared to name.
And the violence! Few things shock me these days, but the first time that I came across the climactic confrontation between Valshu and Morjin, in Argattha, his mountain stronghold, I was genuinely horrified. I will admit that I am not particularly well versed when it comes to contemporary epic fantasy, so I don’t know how common graphic violence is in these books, but for me, The Lightstone contains one of the most disturbing passages that I have ever read. I won’t spoil it for you here, but if you do ever read The Lightstone, then be prepared for a sleepless night when you reach that point and don’t worry, you will know when you’ve got there, trust me!
If there is one criticism that I have of The Lightstone, then it is the fact that it contains poems and songs. Lots of them! I am not saying that there is anything wrong with the ones that David Zindell came up with or that they are not an effective device to impart important parts of the backstory. It is just that I don’t like to see them in books, period. They set my teeth on edge and make my skin crawl. I guess I must be allergic to them!
In my view, The Lightstone is a wonderful piece of writing and deserves far more exposure than it has received in the years since it was first published. David Eddings and J.R.R. Tolkien were mentioned on the front cover of the early reading copy that I was given, and I would have no doubt in recommending it to anyone who has enjoyed The Lord of the Rings. The other book that it puts me in mind of, is, oddly enough, Parsival, by Richard Monaco. Both works have a strong Arthurian element running through them — a whimsical fool’s quest to recover a golden cup that will heal the world — and it is surely no coincidence that the rear cover of the early reading copy of The Lightstone references Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.
One last aspect of The Lightstone and indeed the complete Ea Cycle that I absolutely adore is the way that, despite being a series, each book is a standalone story in and of itself. I despise cliff hangers and while I couldn’t wait for the next book to come out, at least I wasn’t left wondering what was going to happen to Valashu and his companions for the twelve months or more between each instalment.
I think that you can probably tell that The Lightstone made a huge impact on me, both as a reader and a writer. It introduced me to magnificent world-building and epic storytelling on a par with The Lord of the Rings, and, in some ways, to the idea of having an anti-hero as a lead character. Valashu does end up as a hero but his journey is a difficult one, made no easier by his many flaws. Did he influence my main character, Drin, in Drynwideon – The Sword of Destiny (Yeah, Right)? You’ll have to read it and make your own mind up!
Finally, I have to say that having completed The Lightstone, I was hooked and followed the entire series until its end, after only four books. When I realised that book four was indeed the last and that the journey was coming to an end, I was genuinely upset and that, for me, is the mark of a truly great read! Well done, David Zindell!
Right, four down, three more to go. Stay tuned for the next instalment of Seven Books in Seven Weeks and in the meantime, please do have a look at the others in the series and check out the free sample chapters of Drynwideon.