NZ author does the trick with fantasy

THE GATHERING OF THE LOST: THE WALL OF NIGHT<br><b>Helen Lowe</b><br><i>HarperCollins</i>
THE GATHERING OF THE LOST: THE WALL OF NIGHT<br><b>Helen Lowe</b><br><i>HarperCollins</i>
Although once an avid reader of fantasy, a surfeit of David Eddings in my mid-teens has left my appetite for the genre decidedly jaded. The Gathering of the Lost, the second in New Zealand author Helen Lowe's The Wall of Night tetralogy, has gone a long way to reawakening my interest.

The world she has created is home to two races, the Haarth who inhabit the hinterland, and the Derai who guard the Northern reaches and the Wall that keeps the forces of a demonic power called the Darkswarm at bay. Once adept at the arts of both magic and the sword, an ancient conflict within the Derai has led to a schism between warrior and thaumaturge, weakening Northern defences to the point where the Darkswarm once more threatens the world. And although it is foretold that they can only be defeated by someone adept in the power of both body and mind, reunion between the two is now anathema.

In the first book of the series, The Heir of Night, we are introduced to Malian, daughter of the ruler of Derai and heir presumptive to her family's warrior house. When her magical abilities become apparent during a Darkswarm attack on her stronghold home she is disowned by her father, and, despite the prophecies and the massing threat beyond the Wall, forced to flee into the wastelands of Haarth.

The Gathering of the Lost picks up her story five years later as she searches for the weapons and allies she will need if she is to return to the Wall and defeat the evil that lies beyond. Meanwhile the Darkswarm has begun to encroach Southern lands, fomenting trouble and discontent between Haarth and Derai alike.

Haarth itself is a complex society of competing nation states, with the obligatory feudal structure rich in political intrigue and internecine power struggles, and a culture in which knights, sages, assassins, heralds and minstrels fill their roles in accordance with ancient and well-defined rules of conduct. In this respect it resembles any number of other fantasies on the market today (not least the fabulously popular Game of Thrones), and the novel is as much about the intricacies of the world itself as it is about Malian - so much so that I initially found myself frustrated by the intrusion of such structural elements into the plot.

But as the story progressed and a wider pattern began to emerge from the layers of hint and allusion I found myself increasingly involved in this fascinating world. There are several other aspects that raise it above the standard "sword and sorcery" formula, too, not least the hint that the Derai did not originate on this world.

Despite relative obscurity in New Zealand, The Heir of Night has been critically acclaimed overseas, earning two nominations in this year's Gemmell awards and the endorsement of such luminaries as Robin Hobb and Catherine Asaro. I expect The Gathering of Lost will be equally well-received, and for the first time in many years I am tempted to return to a literary form that I once loved.

Dr McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.


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