Recent Reading: To Ride Hell’s Chasm by Janny Wurts

You may remember that I mentioned this book recently and said ooh, I like the description. Here’s the description:

When Princess Anja fails to appear at her betrothal banquet, the tiny, peaceful kingdom of Sessalie is plunged into intrigue. Two warriors are charged with recovering the distraught king’s beloved daughter. Taskin, Commander of the Royal Guard, whose icy competence and impressive life-term as the Crown’s right-hand man command the kingdom’s deep-seated respect; and Mykkael, the rough-hewn newcomer who has won the post of Captain of the Garrison – a scarred veteran with a deadly record of field warfare, whose ‘interesting’ background and foreign breeding are held in contempt by court society.

As the princess’s trail vanishes outside the citadel’s gates, anxiety and tension escalate. Mykkael’s investigations lead him to a radical explanation for the mystery, but he finds himself under suspicion from the court factions. Will Commander Taskin’s famous fair-mindedness be enough to unravel the truth behind the garrison captain’s dramatic theory: that the resourceful, high-spirited princess was not taken by force, but fled the palace to escape a demonic evil?

Here’s the cover, one of several versions; this one shows a bunch of horses, so I prefer it to some of the other versions:

Those griffin-dragon things, called kerries, are MUCH BIGGER than implied in that image. They can easily pick up a horse, complete with rider(s), and fly off with them. They roost in Hell’s Chasm, in surprising numbers. There are other reasons why No One Has Ever Made It Through, plus for this particular attempt, besides having to run a gauntlet of kerries, the good guys are being pursued by demonic flying creatures, a problem that as you may imagine complicates the situation.

Okay, so, the story. It’s … um. It stands out in several ways, let’s say.

a) The florid style. This is nothing like the much more straightforward style I expected from author of the Daughter of the Empire series. Let me quote a snippet:

Commander Taskin bent his ice-pale gaze on the tearful maid who had last seen Princess Anja in her chambers.

“What more is left to say, my lord?” she despaired, her pink hands clasping and shaking. “I’ve told you all I know.”

Tall, gaunt, erect as tempered steel, with a distinguished face and frosty hair, Taskin radiated competence. His silences could probe with unsubtle, scorching force. While the distraught maid stammered and wept, he stepped across the carpet and bent his dissecting regard over the clutter on Anja’s dressing table.

Okay! That’s plenty to give you the idea. I was quite startled to discover how often Wurts uses words like “despaired” as dialogue tags. I mean, she does this A LOT. And those descriptions! Erect as tempered steel! Silences that probe! Regard that both bends and dissects!

And yet … I got used to this style surprisingly fast, just kind of reading over the dialogue tags and past the flamboyant descriptions and so on.

b) Villain points of view.

Toward the beginning, there are long stretches of villain points of view. I dislike that and just skipped those chapters. The only chapters I read for at least the first third were those that focused on Mykkail and Taskin.

Did something important happen in the sections I skipped? Not sure, but I have to say, I didn’t feel like I missed much.

At one point about halfway through, I was quite startled to find out this one thing about Prince Kelian, but actually that plot element worked great as a surprise. Probably it would have been a lot less surprising if I’d been reading the whole story, but who knows? Maybe the author managed to reserve that element even while lingering in the villain points of view.

c) Uneven pacing.

This story is like reading two separate books, a mostly slow-paced one about court intrigue, followed by a fast-paced one about a horrendous ride through Hell’s Chasm.

We take absolute AGES to meet Anja. I think we’re close to halfway through the book before Mykkael meets up with her. During the first entire half of the book, it seems like the central relationship is going to be between Mykkael and Taskin, as they circle around each other and develop trust in each other. Obviously this element appealed to me a lot. But once they separate in the middle, they never come together again. Taskin and everything in Sessalie recedes in importance — I mean, the fate of Sessalie is important to Anja, but it’s very much backgrounded as we move into the second part of the story. At that point the relationship between Mykkael and Anja becomes central.

Until the end, and then they’re thrust apart by events and everything gets tied off in a rapid-fire series of scenes that serves as an epilogue to let you know that everyone gets to live happily ever after. The threat is built up SO much and then bang! it’s over.

d) Animal character death

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a novel where so many animals were built into secondary characters with distinct personalities and then killed. Granted, it would have been highly implausible to get six horses and a dog through Hell’s Chasm. Still.

Just putting that out there, in case any of you appreciate the warning.

e) Now, having said all that … Wurts pretty much pulls ALL of this off. I’m not exactly sure how.

The style is consistently florid. Maybe that helps? I liked both Mykkael and Taskin quite a bit, despite the over-the-top descriptions. Mykkael, to be fair, was over the top in Every. Possible. Way. I liked him a lot anyway, but then I often like ubercompetent good guys.

I liked Anja, even though actually I’m not entirely sure why she COULD NOT LEAVE A NOTE. Not sure who to trust? Leave twenty notes, widely scattered! Good heavens, girl, use your head! But despite that, I did like her.

I liked a lot of the secondary characters — Jussand, for example, though I have NO idea what he was DOING in Sessalie, that makes NO SENSE, but he was a neat character. Honestly, lots of good secondary characters.

The situation in Hell’s Chasm is so dire, maybe that’s why the deaths of all those horses seems tolerable? Though not taking all the horses into Hell’s Chasm in the first place … not that there weren’t justifications for doing so. But still, the author can almost always avoid this sort of thing if she wants to. I can think of exactly how to have avoided it without changing a thing about the dangers the good guys face. I might have killed one horse. Not in that scene you might have just thought of. I have a different way to solve that problem. Oh! Two different ways.

The depth of stupidity of some of Sessalie’s court officials would have been super annoying, except I largely skipped or skimmed past almost all of that, so it didn’t get in the way. Anyway, toward the end, they mostly got their noses rubbed in the obvious fact that they were totally wrong.

So what I’m basically saying here is, I liked the story quite a bit, probably more than it deserves. The elements that appealed to me let me enjoy it despite (quite a few) elements that did not appeal to me at all.

If you’ve read this book, I’d love to know what you thought of it!

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2 thoughts on “Recent Reading: To Ride Hell’s Chasm by Janny Wurts”

  1. I remember liking it, and have read it more than once, but it’s been years since I’ve picked it up. That’s the cover on our copy.

    I remember noticing the pacing. I remember liking that Anja doesn’t end up marrying Mykkael, and it’s all handled with dignity. And the brother – it was unexpected how he was handled. I just looked at the end, and noticed how much better Wurts handles the shaman and warrior stuff than some others I can think of. (The Teen’s been using them for target practice in fanfics. Guess who is first reader.)

    Can’t speak to the villain narrative, it’s been too long since I read the beginning.

    Yeah, Wurts’ own style is best described as unique, and I haven’t figured out why it works as well as it does. She does get more information in short spaces than I’ve seen managed elsewhere – this is particularly noticeable in the Wars of Light & Shadow series. There are definitely elements in the writing that carry over to WARS: the music and magic stuff, if not identical, is very close.
    As well as, come to think of it, ‘villain’ narratives. Although most of them don’t see themselves as villains in that series, hence my quotes on the term.

  2. Well, in Hell’s Chasm, the villains pretty much see themselves as villains. Or as predators, I guess. Anyway, there’s no question about it.

    Interesting that the magic system carries over. I wonder if that’s why it seemed somewhat confusing in Hell’s Chasm — because the author (and reader) know a good deal more about the magic system from other related books. I wasn’t reading closely, of course, but I was definitely puzzled by “magic lines” and exactly what was going on with the magic and demons and so on, the difference between a minion and whatever the other type of enthralled person was called, all those kinds of things.

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