The Secret Names of Selenoth

Daniel reviews A Throne of Bones from a literary perspective:

Subtext flows fast through the story, providing a skeleton that never
shows through the story’s skirts. However, if you want elegant critiques
on the distancing effects of television, the nature of cruelty, the
excellence of warfare, the culture of the Church, the narrowness of
postmodern expectation, the daft inner workings of pseudoscience, the
shortcomings of theory versus application, the invisible nature of
Modalism, or the psychological impact of human flight you’ll find them,
like a rake in his prime, waiting, ready and rich.

But this is a
book designed with a single primary purpose, to revive epic fantasy as a
rooted form, and most readers of fantasy are going to receive this
story as such.

They will not be disappointed.

Names are
important in A Throne of Bones, and I’ll highlight two: Selenoth, the
continent upon which the action takes is, a nod, I believe, to the
element selenium, which occurs naturally in volcanic areas. Considering
the photosensitivity of the material, it seems natural that the land
provides an elemental basis to the development of Selenoth’s primeval

Even more interesting, however is the name of the main
country: Amorr. Yes, it is a play on the legendary “secret name” of
Rome, which provides a clever signal that this strange society will in
some way mirror the Roman republic. However, more deeply, it is also a
direct tip to the Latin word for “love” and this is where, if the magic
of Selenoth draws the bow, the arrow of Amorr strikes the heart.

is, after all, an incorrigible romantic, and not of the hopeless
variety. The nostalgia, realism and richness of Selenoth is crystalized
through the lens of Amorr, and, to put a fine point on it, love is all
around. Love in degraded, if happy, form in the camp followers and
brothels among the soldiery. Love between sibling reavers on a mission
to draw former victim states into an alliance against certain doom. In a
scene stunning, dreadful, long-coming but still shocking scene, love
grips in stoic, complex anguish.*

The raw and needful love
between man and wife. Long-distance love between the clever (yet
earnest) and the cruel (yet sympathetic). Love of complex relational
intrigues. Love of language. Love of order. Love of family, of honor, of

Love of dragons. Love of gold. Love of knowledge. Love of
good men, of good life, of good death. A love of the hope that all
things, not some or most, will pass away, and yet that all things, not
some or most, will be restored by the hand of the Almighty. Every page,
for its grit and realism, its tragedy, folly and danger, the thwarted
plans, curses, whoredom, brutality, the death of youth, the loss of
ideals, the temporary victory of murder and evil, is an out and out love
letter to the Immaculate. Death, in all its towering, all-consuming
bleakness, is small, and soon to be swallowed by a love so great it lays
its life down, and in defeat, quite literally overcomes all.

Throne of Bones is doorstopping fantasy for far more than its physical
dimensions. Metaphysically, it shuts the door to the world we know and
provides an escape to a better reality, and one far more dangerous than
the one in which we now dwell. It expresses longings (to master dragons,
to find treasure, to save the world on a mission from God, to restore
and enjoy the family, to live abundantly and in reality, enjoy and
defend the relationships that matter, and many, many more) in such
richness of detail.

An aside: fantasists are the bastard children
of organized theology. I don’t mean that fantasy is allegory, and
certainly not direct, symbol for symbol theology. Instead due in part to
the fact that every fantasy, from Phantastes to His Dark Materials, are
created worlds that don’t pop into existence at random. They each have
creators who can’t help that they leave traces of themselves in the
handiwork of their model worlds. While science fiction is typically a
practical exercise or applied thought experiment in galactic or atomic
creation, fantasy distinguishes itself by fabricating the middle ground:
the world as it is commonly known. A Throne of Bones expresses a
theology that views an Almighty who is coming to restore all things, and
the things, even in corrupted state, have their origins in good. Evil
is small and dark and nothing, whose major temporary advantage is its
ability to poison hope and occlude the truth.

Ensoulment, the
major theme of the previous novel in the series, Summa Elvetica, gets to
play in A Throne of Bones in a way that was impossible when it was the
primary pack mule for the plot of the previous work. As previously
established, love is not possible without ensoulment. What is most
fascinating is to see the care in which the author has ensouled each of
his own characters, down to the idiotically short-lived and naturally
evil goblin cannon fodder.

Forget if elves might be ensouled. Can goblins win a fight?

book has tremendous surf. There are waves of no fewer than seven
chapters that are powerful, climactic, moving: not just great writing,
but great in meaning. I have been surprised to see (more than once)
complaints about dropped plot threads (such as the dragon) which to me
were quite obviously not dropped, characters that do not naturally
develop (such as Severa) who seems to me to very naturally develop and
comparisons to A Song of Ice and Fire where I see very little

A major criticism I have of the book is something I
naturally expected after reading a chapter or two: music. The book
itself is not lyrical, but technical (though elegant in technique), but
the world of Selenoth, especially with its peculiar response to the
Immaculate, simply cries out for various bits of poetry, hymn and common
song to be in greater evidence. Aside from a muscular (and welcome)
public recitation of poetry (during which Corvus, the listener, falls
asleep!) they are not.

I know, I know. Bad form knocking a book
an entire half-star (out of ten) for what it did not include, but it
really was that noticeable. It isn’t like the author hasn’t included
poetics in previous works: the decision had to be conscious, and all I
can say is that I missed the music. The reader gets smells, sights,
sounds, textures and action, but the lack of music is curious. The
lyrics are there, mixed in with more mundane plot-drivers – they are
simply not drawn out and set to music to make it more obvious for the
reader. There are prayers, but no psalms.

On the other hand,
despite an off-hand reference to musicians, there are also no minstrel
bards to be found, and of that I can’t complain.

Despite its
length, A Throne of Bones is a fast read, and perhaps would benefit from
the occasional gear-shifting song cycle or original poem, just to
remind the reader to linger and look around a moment longer.

course, to truly succeed, the series will need to out-do itself until
the penultimate book (where, if the series is to be great, it must peak,
then echo that peak through the final book and achieve an elegant
slight downslope), which will certainly be a challenge, perhaps an epic
one. However, I simply can’t express the joy in knowing this is a
planned set – a part of a larger story (but don’t worry, this one stands
just fine on its own. Though it ends with a satisfying suspense, it is
no annoying cliffhanger. It will build expectation for what comes next,
but also satisfies.) – and that I have only just begun a lifelong escape
into the reality of Selenoth and Amorr: or, as I think of their secret
names – Magic and Love.

A Throne of Bones (Vox Day, Hardcover Edition)
9 out of 10

note on this, yet trying to avoid major spoilers* – the scene of
anguish is subtle and intensely complex, and argues, in a very brief
moment, a detailed theological argument. I view it as a significant
underpinning to the way the world of Selenoth “works” from a creator’s
point of view – a creator who fully intends to restore all things, and
one who therefore allows space for a man to work out many critical and
seemingly impossible choices for himself.

While every author enjoys knowing that his readers enjoy his work and appreciates support, it is a particular pleasure to read substantive reviews written by those readers who not only enjoy the book, but show a deeper understanding of it as well.  Daniel is too generous, I think, in that while there was some development of Severa’s character it was too crude and clumsy due to the time constraints; I tend to find female characters more difficult to write because their motivations and thought processes are so different from my own.  And his criticism concerning the lack of music is well-placed; there is a distinct lack of melody to accompany the constant rhythm of the legions on the march.

I did, however, agree with him concerning how neither dragon story amounted to any sort of dropped plot-thread.  While I freely admit to favoring subtlety and dropping hints to labored explanations of precisely what happened in all circumstances, that’s not the same as simply leaving a plot point unaddressed. My philosophy is to refrain from telling the reader any more than the perspective character can reasonably expect to know, and I’m not going to divert a character’s inner dialogue for the purposes of exposition any more than is absolutely necessary. 

I was impressed that Daniel correctly nailed both meanings of the city’s name; those who thought it was simply a singularly inept attempt to disguise the name of Rome clearly don’t know much about Roman history.  There are various theories concerning what Pliny described as “the other name of Rome which it is held sinful to disclose except during the rites of the mysteries”; some say it was Amor, others Hirpa.  I incline towards the Amor theory myself, thanks to a number of historical plays on words in both Latin and Greek that juxtapose Roma, Amor, and Eros.

Anyhow, I take this sort of review as a challenge to, as Daniel suggests, see each book outdo the next.  I don’t know if my skills are up to the task, but if I fail it will not be through a failure to try.

In related news, I expect Hinterlands to release The Wardog’s Coin in ebook next week, which will consist of the title story and “Qalabi Dawn”.  For those who would like to obtain a physical copy of the ebooks, Hinterlands will be publishing a hardcover version of Summa Elvetica in May, that will possess a newly designed spine to match those of the Arts of Dark and Light series, and in addition to the titular novel, will contain the following stories: “Master of Cats”, “Birth of an Order”, “A Magic Broken”, “The Wardog’s Coin”, “Qalabi Dawn”, “The Hoblets of Wiccam Fensboro”, and “The Last Witchking”.  I don’t know the exact page count yet, but it should be around 450 pages.