“Circle of Night” by  Stephen de Villiers Graaff

This book illustrates many of the strengths and weaknesses of the Epic Fantasy genre. As expected, a lot of ink is spent on detailed and evocative setting descriptions, and especially in the opening chapters there is a huge and detailed hierarchy of metaphysical beings.

The plotline opens with a series of intricately described but unrelated vignettes, introducing many characters and seriously stressing our ability to hold multiple ideas at the same time. Finally, about seventy pages in, the narrative starts to come together. We begin to figure out who the important characters are and how we’re supposed to feel about them.

At this point, the story moves down the social scale, and the “royalty and diplomacy” aspect of the Epic is sidelined by far more interesting members of the lower classes and the underworld. The entertainment values are raised by many tense, detailed (and gory) fight scenes.

The later chapters are taken up by a City Watch borrowed from Pratchett’s Disk World, but on a more serious note, sometimes slipping into hints of a modern Police Procedural. Here, too, some inexplicable scenes and people we didn’t understand at the opening come back into play, aiming towards a solid ending.

A couple of things bothered me about this novel. First, it’s a huge cast list and a highly complex set of interlocking conflicts. This is to be expected in Epic Fantasy, but the writer treads a fine line. You must limit the use of conflict of the ‘author knows and won’t tell the reader’ variety. I found too many strangers showing up out of nowhere, demonstrating supernatural powers, and manipulating humans to do their will. This deus ex machina plot technique reduces conflict and irritates the more independent reader.

This large and diverse cast also combines with a very loose sense of point of view to really mix the reader up at times.

The bottom line, however, is that these are sympathetic characters acting in realistic ways to unrealistic events, just as Epic Fantasy promises. Highly recommended for all Fantasy fans.

Five stars.

About the Author: Gordon Long

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