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The Way into Chaos  (The Great Way, volume 1)

By Harry Connolly 

5 Jan, 2015

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2014’s The Way In to Chaos had the working title Epic Fantasy With No Dull Parts. That’s a goal ambitious enough to make this the first new book that I have read in 2015. The sunniness of my outlook and the degree of malice I will bear toward the hundreds of books by hundreds of authors I will read over the next twelve months may well be affected by my reaction to this book. But no pressure! 

The story begins optimistically enough, with the assembled aristocrats of the Peradaini empire preparing a festival in honour of the Evening People, who visit Peradain when the gate to their realm opens. The Evening People’s exact nature is unclear, but they are nonetheless welcome. They are the source of the basic magical techniques that the Empire has used to conquer all lands within reach of their capital city of Peradain. Without magic, the Empire is barely Iron Age1. With it, they are in many ways technologically equal to the advanced societies of our 21st century. 

The Empire does not rely entirely on the spears of the soldiers and the magic of the scholars; it’s also a firm believer in the value of aristocratic hostages. Cazia Freewell is one of them. She and her brother Col have been handed over to the king and queen of Peradain to ensure that the Freewells do not repeat past transgressions. Prince Lar, the heir to the throne, may see the cousins around him as playmates and friends but the adults and the hostages themselves know why they live in Peradain.

The Evening People are touchy and easy to offend. They are also seemingly easy to dupe. There is no reason to think that this Festival will be any different from the previous Festivals and that the Empire will not once again be able to trade some entertainment for new magic. The first hint that this time something may have gone awry is when the gate opens and ravening monsters pour through to begin dismembering those unfortunate enough to be present, which, as previously mentioned, includes a large fraction of the people who make the empire work. In a few blood-soaked minutes, the Empire is decapitated.

I would like to pause here for a moment. The beginning of this novel pours a flood of unfamiliar names over the reader and I would just like to assure readers who are intimidated by that sort of thing that the number of characters Connolly introduces early on is highly deceptive. Once the monsters appear it becomes a lot easier to remember all the names of the living characters. 

King Ellifer Italga and his Queen Amlian die in the first few moments of the invasion, but Tyr Tejohn Treyar manages to get Prince King Lar and a handful of the imperial hostages out of the city to safety. Tejohn, who rose to his current exalted state from very humble roots, has pretty realistic grasp of how loyal the remaining Tyrs, ambitious men all, will be to the young King, no matter how legitimate Lar’s claim to the crown. What was a horrific tragedy for the Italgas is an opportunity for the Freewells, Holvos, Grimwoods, Redmudds, and other would-be rulers. Civil war is very likely coming, possibly the collapse of the Empire itself.

Except that the gate in Peradain is still open and monsters are flooding out from that slain city almost as fast as the news itself can travel. Worse yet, the monsters are more than the beasts they appear. They are armed with dark weapons none of the humans suspect exist until it is too late.… 

First the bad news: the map in my copy is rotated ninety degrees, making it hard to read. Well, unless I turn the Kobo on its side.…

Actually, it’s still next to impossible to read: that map needs to be a full page. On the plus side, I didn’t need the map to follow the plot. 

Back when Connolly was writing the Twenty Palaces books, I got the sense that the main thing keeping protagonist Ray Lilly alive was Connolly’s decision to write the books in the first person. This book is not written in first person. 

The combination of the comparatively low technology, abundant fantasy lifeforms (from ant-people to giants), the imperial set-up, and utilitarian2 magic reminded me a lot of classic Runequest (first or second edition) even though the specifics are very different. The way people fly apart after just a little mauling also reminded me of RQ and its cheerful hit-location chart. Admittedly, the effect magic has on users who rely on it too much isn’t like RQ’s reliable and safe Battle Magic at all. It is more like the magic from an entirely different Chaosium product.

A lot of the plot can be summed up with and then it got worse”, over and over, at very high speed. What it does not do is come to any sort of conclusion. This is not the first book in a trilogy of novels but the first third of a story, one that will be continued in The Way Into Magic and concluded in The Way Into Darkness. Like most sensible readers, I believe that stories should fit between two covers of one volume and that the current fashion of spreading books out over a few (or even many) volumes is an abomination3. That’s my main quibble with this book, that and the fact I couldn’t read the map. Otherwise I enjoyed this work and will not devote the rest of the year to taking out my rage on all who stumble into my sights. 

Happily for impatient readers, I can recommend that you buy The Way into Chaos right now, knowing that readers only have to wait ten more days to buy The Way into Magic and until mid-February for the final novel. 

I already have all three volumes. Being a reviewer has its perks.…

  1. Well, they do have steel but some people are still stuck with bronze equipment.
  2. By which I mean, using the various magical effects in ways that are not necessarily spectacular (although the flying carts are pretty neat) but useful in day to day life. It’s less fireballs and chain lightning, more stone masonry, healing, and water purification, all useful technologies based on creative applications of the Thirteen Gifts, the basic classes of Peradaini magic. 
  3. Don’t get me started on what I think about open-ended stories that will only terminate when the author does. And possibly not even then.