Beneath the Vaulted Hills (River Into Darkness #1)

Title: Beneath the Vaulted Hills

Author: Sean Russel

Series: The River Into Darkness #1

Eldrich is the last mage, and when he dies, magic will die with him. Eldrich himself is determined to see this come to pass, but others aren’t so sanguine. A shadowy organization gambles everything on the results of their auguries, while more ordinary men seek to uncover the secrets of the mages. But mages are much like a force of nature: unknowable and unstoppable . . .

I liked several things about this book very much, but I’m on the fence about the book as a whole.

First, the worldbuilding is excellent. It took a bit to get me into it, since we start in the middle of things, and the supporting detail, like the levels of technology and so on, take a while to emerge. This is a world that has just invented cannon, where the intellectual elite compete to join a society of peers, where nobles are made or ruined at the king’s whim. The prose is beautiful, and the method of telling is as important as what’s being told. People talking to each other, exchanging stories, is most of what happens in the book, and the trick is figuring out what is truth or lies, and how much remains unsaid.

Second, the cast of characters, although large, is well-drawn. Erasmus was easily my favorite, and I was happy to see him move to a more central position by the end of the book. A member of the society, famous for his knowledge of grapes and grapevines, intense, focused, oblivious to the world around him—a man of secrets, who had once lived in the very home of the mage Eldrich, though he never speaks of that time. Perhaps a man with some small (or not so small?) measure of talent for the magical arts. If anything, I wish the plot had focused more on him and his journey, and less on everyone else even tangentially involved in this mess.

Because the giant downside is that this feels like the slow exploration into the lives of these people. The central mystery for most of the book isn’t what the back cover would indicate (except maybe for the shadow organization). Most of these people are living their own smaller lives, with their own concerns, gradually swept into a larger concern . . . that doesn’t go much of anywhere. And the ending doesn’t even have the decency to confirm without a doubt who survived.

I just wish it felt like there was more of a plot here. Eldrich versus the shadow organization is the most compelling piece, but it gets the smallest part of the whole. Both sides are exceedingly sparse with the information given. I thought for sure once everyone was in the hall at the end, some new mystery or magic would come to light, but instead it turned into a simple quest for survival (and with a most dissatisfying way of getting out, mind…. nothing to do with the alter, the door, or the crypt).

So I’m not sure I want to go on and read the second book, since the reviews I’m seeing indicate it also ends in a rather ambiguous fashion. And I like plot. I like movement and things happening, and this book has a lot of slowly boiling mystery. Good characters and layers of intrigue, though. Overall I have to rate this book Neutral, though I’m sure some people will enjoy it more than I do.

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