The Infernal City (Greg Keyes)
The Infernal City is the first of two novels that deal with a new threat to the Elder Scrolls universe (home to popular video games Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim) four decades after the conclusion of Oblivion's storyline. Well researched and competently written, Infernal City suffers only from a seemingly needless side plot, a terrible conclusion that settles nothing (leaving all plot points for the next novel, Lord of Souls) and painfully obscure (yet correct) use of lore. It does present some fantastic character relationships, compelling mysteries, and a brilliantly original setting, ultimately becoming one of my favorite video game tie in novels thus far.
The main cast of the book is five characters strong, including two duos and a lone Imperial spy that has a role of questionable importance in this opening novel. The spy, Colin, is a decent character, but his purpose in the story is tracking down the Prince- another point of view character- who has recently gone missing and is presumed dead. We don't spend a lot of time with this character, and much of it involves stuff we already know due to our connection with the Prince. His story arc can easily be redeemed in the second book, but that conjures up another issue with this novel.
Infernal City's ending is extremely disappointing. It ties up very little in the way of plot points from the first novel. All three point of view characters are still immersed in the same conflict they faced during the rising action, and the threat of Umbriel (the floating city seen on the cover of the book) is not lessened nor does the ending serve to clear up some mysteries surrounding the place. This book has no proper climax, and certainly lacks any kind of conclusion. This results in an extremely unsatisfying standalone novel, though how the duology works as a whole depends on how all of these dangling sub plots are resolved in the next novel.
The other storylines are infinitely more pertinent and enjoyable. The first concerns a young girl, Annaig and her Argonian companion, Mere-Glim. The two are the only outsiders to make it onto the strange world of Umbriel. Their first hand experience and developing relationships with the inhabitants of that world forms the most compelling plot of the novel. Additionally, the two share a well written, sympathetic bond that produces some great banter and nearly all of the book's heartfelt moments, despite the fact that the two are separated for much of the time.
The third story arc concerns the Prince of Tamriel, Attrebus, and his quest to bring a halt to the floating city through the use of his legion of warriors. Things don't go as expected, and before long Attrebus is alone, questioning his beliefs, and ready to head for the hills. Luckily for him, a mysterious mage saves him from his predicament and together the two set out to destroy the city. The mage, a Dark Elf named Sul, is an appropriately shadowy character with an obligatory personal connection to Umbriel. He is the most effective fighter in the book, and he also assumes something of a mentor role to Prince Attrebus, helping him regain some of his shattered confidence and become more of a leader and less of a poser. This arc is somewhat trite, but it is saved by some of the books best fight scenes, a harrowing trip into Oblivion, and a tense conclusion that sets up a great second act in the next book.
Much of the story takes place on Umbriel. We don't get much variety in the setting here, but this is atoned for by the sheer oddity that is society in this city from another realm. The caste structure is carefully explained and seems to mainly revolve around chefs that prepare meals for lords of varying influence. Competition between the kitchens is fierce, often resorting in kidnapping, poisoning, and murder. Additionally, the price for serving a disappointing meal is quite high, as our protagonist learns early on. This element of the world building is unlike anything we've seen in the Elder Scrolls universe, yet it works fairly well, and is certainly unique. There are some mysteries involved in the creation and functioning of the planet, most of which go unsolved for this first novel, but all of which are reasonably intriguing.
The actual continuity and lore featured in Infernal City is good, too good in fact. The author has clearly carefully researched the universe, and certainly seems enthusiastic about the project, but this leads to some surprising flaws. Infernal City's entire opening sequence is couched in obscure terminology and set in a place that only die hard Elder Scrolls fans actually know anything about. Furthermore, an explanation of the various languages and sub species will go over the heads of all but the most rabid fans, those who have read nearly every piece of lore they can get their hands on. People reading this book without any kind of exposure to the series will be utterly confused, as terms like "Argonian" "Dunmer" or "Daedra" are very briefly explained. A lack of explanation for anything is why the obscure descriptions are so hard to get into. Even the game's target audience will have a hard time following all of the references, as most of this stuff is tertiary at best in the content of the award winning video games. That isn't to say fans of the games will be unable to find things to enjoy about this book. The fate of Morrowind plays a prominent role in the plot, and Umbra, a character appearing in both Morrowind and Oblivion, is expertly woven into the storyline.
Infernal City is a promising first half to this series, though the conclusion could have been much better. It delivers enough in terms of world building and action to be deemed worthwhile, with a nice mix of characters to spice up the plot. This book is not for the casual fan or somebody experiencing the Elder Scrolls for the first time, but if you can get behind the vague descriptions and poorly explained jargon, there is a good story here that has great promise for an exciting conclusion in the follow up novel.