The Adamantine Palace
Orion UK, 2009 (US: Roc, Feb. 2010)
Stephen Deas’ debut The Adamantine Palace is a strong debut though not without its problems. The world of The Adamantine Palace is ruled by several Kings and Queens who in turn are, if not ruled, at least mediated by a Speaker who sits in the titular palace. The power of the nobles of the world stems from what looks like a combination of perceived divine mandate and the harnessing of dragons. The novel follows the tumultuous events that occur when one dragon, Snow a perfect white, is lost and unable to be tended by the mysterious alchemists as all dragons are. Amidst this several powerful nobles vie for the role of Speaker double dealing and politicking their way to the top. Politics, betrayal and violence ensue spinning a tangled web of consequences. Perhaps the most startling thing, for me at least, and a potential detriment to many readers is the difficulty in finding a protagonist.
That isn’t to say that there are some fascinating and complex characters. The trio vying for the Speaker’s position make for some interesting reading. The hard, no-nonsense Queen Shezira, the scheming and manipulative Queen Zafir, and the slimy Prince Jehal are each characters who are well drawn, similar in their drive for power but different in the means they use to grasp for it. None of them are particularly likable however and provide little means to provide emotional attachment. In truth each are rather detestable figures in their own right. Zafir and Jehal’s callous manipulation and use of sex as a weapon are almost sickening and Jehal’s introduction, and Zafir’s part in it is particularly nauseating. Queen Shezira is something of a more noble figure but she seems to have cast off her humanity in her drive for power; using her daughters like chess pieces in her quest. There is hint of something deeper in the relationship between Shezira and her Knight Commander but only hints and never enough to reveal something human beneath the iron clad facade of nobility.
Outside of the plot to become Speaker there is the thread detailing the sell swords Sollos and Kemir and their search for the missing dragon Snow. Sollos and Kemir are probably the closest we get to actual “heroes” hard scrabble fighters with a real sense of history and who provide some of the most emotional moments of the novel. There isn’t anything really altruistic about either character though. They are sell swords through and through with money never far from their thoughts; typically right up there in the front. Sure, they might have something of a greater goal in mind but said goal is decidedly non-heroic in nature.
Then there is the dragon Snow. Deas could have done the easy thing and made her the hero, but he didn’t. Snow is, quite frankly, scary. Distant, inhuman, alien, powerful? Yes and while you might let out a cheer when you first meet her it dies in your throat pretty quickly leaving you with an uneasy sinking sensation in the pit of your stomach and the sudden need to back away very very slowly. I loved that. Deas has crafted a fascinating back story for the dragons, examined it a bit, but left in largely unexplored. But Snow, particularly for us human types, is not a hero.
Shezira, Jehal, Zafir, Sollos, Kemir, and Snow are only some of the characters that get screen time in The Adamantine Palace which, for a novel running 384 pages makes for relatively short chapters and brief encounters with each. It also means that none of them gel completely into sympathetic characters. Towards the end of the novel more time is spent with Kemir and, as far as I’m concerned, it those moments that I felt the novel was at its strongest. That particular narrative thread takes on a tragic cast that far eclipses the treachery and betrayal that occurs elsewhere. While you never spend too much time with one character you do get a novel that moves along at a breakneck pace and a novel that constantly manages to offer new twists, turns, and surprises. While novel comes to a decent conclusion it leaves events open for the next volume The King of the Crags do out in the UK July 2010. Stephen Deas is an author to watch and I look forward to see where the series goes. You can also check out samples of Deas’ work, for The Adamantine Palace and others, over here.