Lord of Souls (Greg Keyes)
Lord of Souls is the second of two books set in the Elder Scrolls universe, both dealing with the threat of the floating city of Umbriel. It continues the three plot lines from the previous novel, The Infernal City, while introducing a fourth point of view character that is inconsequential but nevertheless entertaining. With mostly strong plotting, an excellent writing style, and a vividly imagined world, Lord of Souls is a strong conclusion to this story.
The book starts with Attrebus and Sul, and their quest to recover the sword Umbra. They start off at the hands of yet another daedra prince, again managing to persuade the prince not to kill them. They disappear for a long time after this, and when they re appear they find themselves at the mercy of another character on more than one occassion. It really sullies their story when they are basically relying on the whims of more powerful characters in order to complete their quest. Overlooking this, the plot is pretty strong. Attrebus continues to grow as a character, confronting the old image he had of himself and slowly becoming a more forceful, knowledgeable man. Central to this is his relationship with Annaig, a girl who he has never met, yet is determined to save. For much of the book, this seems to be the result of a desire to right his wrongs, and do something heroic for somebody he may never actually see. Unfortunately, the relationship between Attrebus and Annaig takes a turn for the worst after they meet up, resulting in an ill advised romance to conclude the novel. The romance is completely random, and it paints Attrebus in an unfavorable light after some of his actions elsewhere in the series, which is something Sul actually alludes to. Like the fates of most characters, it isn't expanded upon at all (the ending is kind of abrupt), and there certainly didn't seem to be any sparks during their earlier interactions. This was easily the most disappointing of the three returning stories.
Annaig has a much more interesting experience. We learn more about Umbriel through her advancement in the ranks of the chefs, while she becomes more and more cutthroat to achieve her goals, ultimately questioning herself in one of the book's most compelling character moments. We see Annaig attempt to please the nebulous tastes of even more lords, extending all the way up to Umbriel himself, while attempting to sabotage the city in any way she can. The cooking stuff does wear a bit thin, and if any of the concepts in this book are hard to digest (har-har) it is the idea of emotions as food, but it is still a refreshingly unique premise. Further complicating things is her ever changing relationship with her only true friend, Mere-Glim. Glim has become friends with the skraws that he works with in the underbelly of the city, and has forged a close relationship with a woman named Fhena. Glim comes to be attached to Fhena and the trees in the portion of Umbriel known as the Fringe Gyre, and comes into conflict with Annaig about their goals in the floating city. Between her inner turmoil, Glim's changing persona, and the treacherous kitchens of Umbirel, Annaig has quite a bit on her plate, and surprisingly the sub plot with the least amount of "traditional" Elder Scrolls elements is the most enjoyable.
Colin, a character who didn't seem to have much of a purpose in the previous novel, finally begins to have a more concrete role in this book. The lead he is investigating eventually brings him to discover that the appearance of Umbriel may have been perpetrated by none other than an important minister of the Empire. His quest to find proof of this causes him to become entangled with Letine Arese, the minister's assistant, as the two attempt to put a stop to the traitor's actions. Much of the tension in this plot has to do not with the ongoing investigation, but the ever changing and mysterious dynamic between Arese and Colin. This side plot works much better when Colin is actually investigating though, as the relationship between Arese and Colin is very wooden and Arese as a character just fails to come to life. Most importantly, Colin's story finally finds a place in the overall narrative, dovetailing nicely with the story of Attrebus and Sul, and he plays an important part in the resolution. Despite the forced romantic tension between Arese and Colin, this arc is a nice surprise and yet another excellent element of the book.
The new point of view character is female Orc warrior Mazgar gra Yagash. Mazgar is a protector of the sorcerer Brennus, and spends nearly all of her time in the novel protecting refugees and fighting "wormies"- the undead soldiers of Umbriel. Nearly every scene she is in features some kind of action, and in fact most of the book's battle sequences take place from her point of view, but her story doesn't play any real bearing on solving the threat of Umbriel. She never makes her way to the floating city or helps to dispatch the conspirators, hers is just a common perspective from the ground, detailing the measures the Imperial Army has undertaken to eradicate the threat and chronicling important events that wouldn't fit into the other character's experiences. The banter between Yagash and Brennus is surprisingly good, and the action is great, so this otherwise excessive, random sub plot gets a pass from me, but it could have easily been omitted if the two books needed to be combined into one.
The writing isn't as stylish as in the first book, but it is still top notch work. The floating city of Umbriel is a bizarre world with strange rules, even by the Elder Scrolls' standards, yet it is brought to life masterfully. The author tells us enough to develop an interesting world with a defined set of rules, but leaves certain elements open to the imagination. It is an exceptionally visualized world and almost makes the base world of Tamriel seem bland by comparison. My only complaint with Umbriel is that the layout is a tad confusing. A map or a more straightforward description of the geography of the world would have been appreciated.
The rest of the prose is good too. Dialogue is strongest when it is light hearted in tone, like the constant jabs between Mazgar and Brennus, but a bit faultier when it is being used to develop unconvincing romances, where it too often turns overly sentimental and far fetched. Action scenes are really good and we get a great look at Imperial Legion tactics through Mazgar's eyes, but even the more personal combat sequences involving the other characters are well written. There aren't any major concerns with the writing overall, it is a very solid piece of work, just not quite up to par with the previous book.
Lord of Souls is a fantastic conclusion to the series. Tying up the stories of each character while intertwining them in a sensible fashion, the story is a strong one, even if parts of it feel better suited to an original fantasy universe as opposed to one as established as the Elder Scrolls. The characters are mostly entertaining, with some vapid yet humorous characters and more solemn ones mixed in nicely. The book does a poor job handling romances though, with even the better romantic relationships feeling like unnecessary, overly dramatic bits of padding. Despite the fact that it feels more like a book chopped in two as opposed to a true duology, Lord of Souls is well worth the read.