Jude Fisher, Wild Magic (DAW, 2003)

What if the two major cultures of the world were an Arabianesque theocracy and a Viking-like monarchy, and they'd existed in a fragile peace until one small incident threw off a spark which lit a conflagration? What if everyone wanted to possess the most beautiful woman in the world, and she had her own ideas on the subject? What if the rumors of vast treasures in the icy far reaches of the world threatened to destroy a family and tear apart a society? What if a magician's apprentice did something spectacularly stupid, lost a priceless treasure, and upset the balance of nature? And what sort of people would get caught up in all of this, often to their detriment?

Those are the questions asked, and the themes explored, in Wild Magic, the second book in Jude Fisher's epic fantasy trilogy, Fool's Gold. We rejoin the farflung cast of Sorcery Rising as events continue to unfold at a breakneck pace. Katla Aransen may have been healed of the grievous wounds suffered when she was burned for sacrilege, but the damage done to her spirit may never heal. Saro Vingo's attempts to escape the hateful domination of his greedy father and monstrous brother have only served to drag him further into a life of humilation and frustration. The Rosa Eldi, Rose of the World, may have married a king, but her lack of memory and inability to conceive are just the tip of the iceberg; her mysterious origin is tied into a growing danger. Virelai, once a sorcerer's apprentice, is now under the control of an unscrupulous man who'll stop at nothing to regain his fortunes. And Aran Aranson is willing to lead family and friends into mortal peril for the promise of gold and treasure, no matter what the cost to his soul. In the end, all of their stories will collide and intertwine, but the results may not be desirable for any of them.

Fisher, a long-time British SF publisher and worldwide editor for the works of Tolkien, clearly knows how to build the story. While one could argue that Wild Magic suffers from "middle book syndrome," it certainly furthers the multiple storylines considerably, and leaves us dangling on some very painful cliffhangers, as the main characters plunge further into chaos and danger. At the same time, enough answers are dropped into the mix to satisfy some curiosity, and raise plenty of speculations. The real payoff, however, will clearly come in the third book, The Wars of Sorcery, when everything is tied together at last. As such, I'm reserving at least some judgment.

I can say, however, that Fisher manages to combine the familiar and the alien to create recognizable fantasy societies. It's not often that you get to see Middle Eastern religious fundamentalists locking horns with Vikings, but in Fisher's world, it works quite well. The two cultures manage to co-exist and play off of one another, and the combination of overlap and contrast provides for a rich atmosphere. The characters, too, are complex and intriguing, from the amnesiac Rosa Eldi to the fiercely independent Katla to the monomaniacal Aran to the deeply-conflicted Saro, and each separate storyline is captivating in its own way, to the point where I was willing to skip chapters just to follow one particular character before going back to another.

All in all, Wild Magic lives up to the promise of the first book in the series, keeping up the energy and adventure and providing just enough payoff to make me want to come back for more. Fisher clearly has a winner here, with the only downside being that this book does rely heavily upon the one that came before it, and the resolutions are mostly forthcoming in the last of the series.

[Michael M. Jones]