Pauline J. Alama, The Eye of Night (Bantam Spectra, 2002)

Pauline Alama's freshman effort, The Eye of Night, opens up fairly normally for a fantasy novel: in first-person narrative we follow one Jereth, a former monk in an un-named imaginary world, who has become disillusioned with his religious life. In his wanderings, he falls in with two women: one clever but horribly deformed, the other beautiful but an idiot. Hwyn, the clever one, is carrying a sacred object known as the Eye of Night, the Skyraven's Egg, that figures in a number of prophecies about the end of the world, but whether it brings suffering or utopia depends on the prophecy. Hwyn's self-imposed mission is to take the Eye of Night to the north where the land is slowly succumbing to the darkness.

The first half of the novel reads like a standard quest (or anti-quest, depending on what the Eye of Night really is) fantasy. The travelers encounter a number of different events which they must extricate themselves from, and they grow in character as a result. But about halfway through the book, things take a twist. Even though the quest remains the overriding plot device, the narrative begins to look inward to Jereth and Hwyn. Then, well before the end, the quest ends and the true reason for the book begins, when the two female travelers suddenly discover who they truly are, leaving Jereth on his own to find himself.

At first glance, this sudden shift of narrative thrust is awkward. Just when you think that the novel is aiming toward an end, that end is come and gone. However, if you pause and reflect on what the narrative has been saying in relation to where the story is now headed, it makes a lot of sense.

But narrative tricks aren't the sum total of Alama's book. The imaginary world, while not exhibiting anything new or extraordinary, is still fully realized. This is not just some pseudo-medieval world (although it is that), but a world with different peoples all co-inhabiting the same continent. As the travelers move from village to village, we encounter along with them different cultures and differing ways of approaching the same basic questions of life.

Add to this mix vivid characterization. The cast in the book is quite large, but rarely will you find a two-dimensional character. Not only are the three travelers well realized, but even most of the various villagers and other people they encounter are well drawn.

The Eye of Night is not light fantasy, but Pauline Alama has proven in her first novel that she is an author to keep an eye on.

[Matthew Scott Winslow]