A Ryan's Shadow Novella
If you’ve read The Waking Fire, you’ll know Anthony Ryan is capable of great things—fun characters with snappy dialogue, epic and interesting worlds, engaging quest-based stories, and grand mysteries that resolve to reveal further secrets. All these elements are present in Many Are the Dead, a novella from his Raven’s Shadow world… they’re just not tied together.
Take the fun characters. We follow an experience-hardened monk living on the border of violent tribal mountains as he aids a resourceful nun from a different order in a perilous quest to retrieve an herb rumored to cure a plague spreading in the lowlands. The monk is pleasantly terse, the nun Nynaevedly resourceful, and their interactions, along with a mute monk, an expressive dog, and a bitter lowland-raised tribal shaman, make for great conversation. What they don’t make is for any meaningful internal changes in the characters, such as Lisbeth or Clay go through in The Waking Fire. Given, we can’t expect as much from a novella a tenth as long as his other works, but the ending lines of the novella hint at an unresolved love between the two main characters that could have been there, giving that ending punch and a pleasant ascetic kind of wistfulness, but isn’t. Instead it feels more like a grasping for satisfying internal journey than the conclusion to one.
The setting, emebellishing a hidden corner of the well-fleshed out Raven’s Shadow world, is lots of fun: there are terse and culturally alien tribal highlanders, abandoned fortresses built by fools, secret tunnels, and wild beasts under magical control. It feels just right for the scope of the novella, and is lots of fun to wander through as the mystery pulling the characters along develops.
That mystery is another place Ryan doesn’t live up to the work he’s done other places. What we love about mysteries is seeing all the pieces fall into surprising place, just a page or two before we would have guessed it. This is something Ryan is good at, but it doesn’t happen in Many Are the Dead. Instead of the magical conflict we wander into having something to do with the herbs or the plague that kick off the plot, they remain two separate story lines that coincidentally happen at once. Same with the sought-after mcguffins, a mysterious weed and two children of promise: they appear without effort and fulfill a role, but have nothing to do with each other, and little importance to the main characters. In place of the fun jolts of these pieces falling into logical connection, we often have cliffhangers where some beast or other attacks—which is fine in moderation, but it feels overdone here (after the third or fourth dire situation in which no one dies, it’s hard to believe anyone important ever will).
This is not to say Many Are the Dead is not a good read—it pulled us through readily enough, based mainly on the strength of the world and the promise of the characters. It just doesn’t tie together in the end to form anything larger than the sum of its parts (in the way that, say, The Emperor’s Soul comes crashing together at novella’s end), which is a shame only because Ryan has proved elsewhere he is capable of so much more.