Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Windsingers - Megan Lindholm

The Windisngers is the second book in a series of four featuring Ki and Vandien. It was first published in 1984 but is still available. A Dutch translation appeared a while ago too, lifting on the success of Lindholm's book under the Robin Hobb pseudonym. I got an English language reprint years ten ago and am now in the process of reading them. The first novel, which was also Lindholm's debut, showed some serious flaws in pacing and structure but I still thought it was an interesting book. In this novel, Lindholm clearly improves in those areas but she looses some of the dynamic between Ki and Vandien in large parts of the novel. In the end I did think the first novel, Harpy's Flight, was a more entertaining read, even if the second was better written.

Ki and Vandien are meeting up in the town of Dyal where Ki hopes to find a new cargo to haul. Vandien has been in town for a while and thinks he has come upon a bargain too good to refuse. Salvaging a chest from a drowned temple in a fishing village a few days away from Dyal. Ki knows about this bargain, it is a mission impossible offered to an unsuspecting teamster each year. The villagers have created a festival a out it. Ki refuses to commit her team to this fool's errand and is quite annoyed that Vandien as already accepted. She leaves Vandien to sort out his own mess as she pursues a more lucrative deal. Transporting some household items to a manor in the same direction as the fishing village. She promises to meet up with Vandien to see if she can help him after she is done with her own job. Ki soon finds out that her job is the more dangerous of the two as it earns her the enmity of the powerful, weather controlling Windsingers.

Where Ki and Vandien spend most of the story together, in this novel they spit up early on. Ki spends most of the novel in the company if Dresh, a wizard engaged in a long running conflict with the Windsingers, the true depths of which are not explored in the story. Dresh is a nasty piece of work. He constantly uses his power to control Ki and enjoys showing her just how powerful he is. Fortunately of Ki, he also needs her. His body is split up in several parts, which makes him extremely vulnerable to the Windsingers. Personally I thought the background of this conflict is very sketchy. The world Lindholm created is full of sentient species, many of which are never really developed. The Windsingers and Dresh get more attention than most but it still leaves me with the feeling that even after four books, Lindholm wasn't really done with this series. It makes me wonder why she stopped writing in this world.

The interactions between Ki and Dresh themselves are fascinating though. Dresh may be very aware of his power, he also desperately needs Ki's aid. Ki is more or less forced to cooperate but every time Dresh crosses a line, Ki isn't afraid to slap his wrist. Still, their relationship is forced upon Ki and Dresh remains a thoroughly unpleasant character, always looking to exploit some weakness and push people into doing his bidding. The interaction with Ki is well done, but when you get right down to it, Dresh is little more than the evil mastermind in this story. I think it could have done with a bit more ambiguity.

Vandien faces a more worldly challenge. After arranging to hire a team to meet his obligation to the village, he soon finds out he set himself an impossible task. The Windsingers, whose ancient temple he will be searching, are set to oppose him and nobody in the village actually expects him to succeed. The history of this festival goes back beyond living memory and most of the villagers consider the chest more of a legend than truth. Not everybody agrees with that assessment however, and it causes tension in the village. He has to carefully navigate this minefield not to upset his hosts.

I thought Lindholm captured the village mentality and the tensions running though the community better than the magic of Dresh. She didn't really spend more words on it than on Ki's side of the story but somehow the conflict Vandien faces is more sharply drawn. I suppose there is a bit of magic in this side of the tale as well, but mostly it is about human emotions. Vandien's reasons for accepting the job, the villagers' attitude towards their past, the reasons why a few villagers believe in the legend and want the chest to be found, and the reasons for the Windsingers' involvement. There are a lot of people who have a stake in this and that makes it a very interesting conflict.

The finale of the novel is also a very well written section. On top of the knot of conflicting interests Vandien is faced with, Ki introduces her own complications. Their separate experiences change the relationship between Ki and Vandien. It isn't spelled out in the novel, there are quite a few subtle hints and unspoken thoughts. The relationship between Ki and Vandien adds another layer in this novel and Lindholm will continue to build on that in the next two books. The author brings together the strands of the story skilfully, without forcing a too neat resolution. Ki and Vandien are adults, life is messy and they know it.

I'm not entirely sure which novel I would rate higher. Harpy's Flight is more frantic, I liked the tension in that novel and the plot better. The Windsingers is definitely better structured though. I felt some of the tension in the sections with Ki and Dresh was lacking a bit although some readers might appreciate the surreal surrounding Ki finds herself in. I guess it is a matter of taste, there is something to be said for each novel. Whichever you prefer, The Windsingers is a solid entry into this series. Ki and Vandien are a more mature set of heroes than you normally find in fantasy and that is refreshing, even thirty years after they were written. I can't think of many fantasy series that have achieved that.

Book Details
Title: The Windsingers
Author: Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 392
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-00-711253-X
First published: 1984

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