Cloudbearer's Shadow
by Ann Marston
(Harper Prism, $5.99) ISBN 0-06-105977-3
Apparently set one generation after the conclusion of her Rune Blade Trilogy, Ann Marston's Cloudbearer's Shadow revisits the Celt-like world of the Isle of Celi. It is the story of Gareth, a young man raised in exile who sets out on a quest to save his father. It is solid fantasy fare, this tale of a young man's coming of age, wherein he discovers his powers, finds his love, heals his family breach, and stumbles into a heroic destiny. At the same time, he sets in motion the destined events which will presumably lead to his people retaking their island from evil conquerors.

Cloudbearer's Shadow is awash with backstory from the Rune Blade Trilogy. The story begins with the horrific events of Gareth's early childhood, recounting how his father, the Prince of Skai, fought a battle against the evil Maedun invaders. He lost both his magical rune blade and the life of his warrior-maiden companion. Upon discharging his duty and returning home to his palace, the Prince found most of his people, including his wife and daughter, slaughtered by the Maedun. He was forced to take the survivors, which included his two young sons, into exile in the face of this defeat.

As if these events weren't dark enough, when Gareth's older brother died in exile, Gareth became convinced that he'd lost his devastated father's love. After all, how can the unmagical Gareth ever hope to adequately replace his talented brother as heir? He doesn't have any magical abilities, he doesn't have a warrior-maiden obviously meant to be magically bound to him (as had been the case with his brother), and his family no longer possessed their rune blade.

Now grown to a young man, Gareth learns that his estranged father is gravely ill and in need of a healer. With his unresolved feelings for his father spurring him on, Gareth rushes headlong into a journey to his former homeland, the now-conquered Isle of Celi. He not only wants to find a healer, he also needs to recover the magical rune blade, Bane. This willful sword has been haunting Gareth's dreams forever and now insists on being recovered for its true owner, the Prince of Skai.

Gareth soon meets two companions in his quest, a mysterious harper and his warrior sister. Of course, since seeking heroes like Gareth don't just run into any average person, Lowra and Davigan are both much more than they first appear. Both become key players in his life when their quest for their captured brother becomes entwined with Gareth's own. In order to fulfill their goals, Gareth, Lowra, and Davigan brave the danger of facing an enemy powered by a potent blood sorcery. They've begun a process which will presumably lead to the prophecy that the Maedun fear so desperately, that one day every Maedun sorcerer will we wiped out by a powerful enchanter aiding a King of Celi.

Though Cloudbearer's Shadow is the beginning of a new trilogy, it reads like a book in the middle. Set in the same world as The Rune Blade Trilogy, Marston provides copious amounts of background from the previous works so that a newcomer won't be lost. But Cloudbearer's Shadow is also very much the set-up to the fulfillment of a larger destiny in following books. With so many of the dramatic events having already happened or foreshadowed for the future, this story lost a bit of punch.

Cloudbearer's Shadow is a solid fantasy lacking outstanding originality or depth in plot. For example, there are Maedun sorcerers who are all evil practitioners of blood sorcery and the Celi who are the good magic-wielders of the uncorrupted Tyadda magic. There are willful magic swords with only one rightful owner and there is a hero who seems able to practically invent any magic as greater and greater needs arise. Despite these oft-seen plot elements, Cloudbearer's Shadow features some nice characterization in the likable young protagonists braving danger for the sake of their loved ones. Overall, Marston leaves the reader in some suspense and anticipation as to how the players already introduced will fit into the larger story of the fate of the Isle of Celi.

--Preeti Singh

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