Not Just for Kids: 'Relic Master: The Dark City' by Catherine Fisher
The fantasy series, being published in the U.S. for the first time, begins with a quest to restore a relic master's magical powers and fight oppressors.
Deception and leaps of faith (Paul Gonzales / Los Angeles Times / May 22, 2011)
Book One: The Dark City
Dial: 372 pp., $16.99 ages 12 and up
It's been 10 years since the final book in Catherine Fisher's "Relic Master" series was released in Britain. That was before Fisher wrote "Incarceron," a fantasy novel for young adults, and had a bestseller on her hands stateside.
With the beginning of their U.S. publication this month, the Welsh author's acclaimed fantasy "Relic Master" books finally seem poised to capitalize not only on Fisher's bestseller status, but on the strong dystopian trend in current young adult literature, as well as readers' lack of patience for a series to play out. The "Relic Master" quartet is being released rapid fire, with the first book out earlier this month and the subsequent three released monthly through August.
The series kickoff opens with a line that simultaneously sets the scene and whets the appetite for the unique world in which the action unfolds: "The seven moons were all in the sky at once." Where, exactly, this world is located is unclear, but, like so many other books of fantasy, the landscape is vaguely medieval with a hint of apocalypse.
Galen is a grizzled, ill-tempered "relic master" who lost his magical powers in an explosion. Raffi is his teenage sidekick — an apprentice whom Galen has hand-selected and who is learning magic, though he's unsure of his abilities. Together, this odd couple makes their way through the land, attempting to evade the Big Brother-esque Watchmen as they search for the holy site that can restore Galen's powers and overthrow their oppressors.
In this first installment of an elaborate quest story, the destination is the Dark City of Tasceron — a sooty, sprawling metropolis crisscrossed with a million streets and vapors wafting skyward from its crumbling skyscrapers. Getting there is, of course, treacherous because no one knows where the Watchmen lurk and when they might seize their prey.
All that's known is that the Watchmen want relics — random, glowing objects that hold some sort of power — and the masters who understand how to use them, including Galen.
Galen may no longer have the ability to read minds or cast spells, but he's still valuable. A 16-year-old girl named Carys Ann has been recruited to hunt him and bring him to the Watchmen dead or alive. She does this with cunning — by befriending the relic master and his apprentice. Yet something unexpected happens in the process. Carys Ann truly does befriend the enemy, who teaches her the value of their magic and causes her to begin questioning the Watchmen and their goals, though it's unclear which side she'll align with in the end.
The format of "Relic Master" should appeal to beginning readers of fantasy. There's an abundance of white space between the lines of text, and the chapters are fairly short. The lead-in to each chapter is both a breather and a setup for the continuing action in this quest, which is demarcated with a blank page, a picture and a quote from any number of mysteriously titled sources, such as the "Litany of the Makers" and "The Lament for Tasceron."
Though Fisher's invented vocabulary is a slight stumbling block, there are enough contextual clues to eventually reveal the meaning of things like "cromlechs" (stones with carvings) and "Sekois" (tall, cat-like creatures who hoard gold).
Fisher's Celtic influence is strong in her "Relic Master" series — not only in her language use but also in the action scenes. "Relic Master" may begin in a misty grasslands, but it moves through more inventive terrain as the stakes rise and the story progresses.
When Galen and Raffi attempt to cross a bridge and get to the other side, it leads back to where it began. A boat they take to get to the "wounded city" of Tasceron is chased by a ship through a drowned forest.
There's an ominous, high-stakes tone to "Relic Master," a well-told and suspenseful story of faith against all odds. The quest continues next month with Galen and Raffi searching for "The Heiress" in the series' second book.