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Michael R. Collings has crafted a two-part, lengthy novel titled WORDSMITH. I haven’t seen this two-volume series (is it pretentious to call it a “duology”?), plus a prequel (which I previously reviewed here), receive much attention online. In fact, I was hard-pressed to find even a single significant review of either volume online, and that’s really too bad. I think it would appeal to many fans of fantasy (or “science fantasy”), and I’d compare it favorably with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s long-running Darkover series. If you’re at all familiar with M. A. R. Barker’s slightly more obscure novel series and role-playing game setting of Tekumel/The Empire of the Petal Throne, some elements – colonists from Earth who have long forgotten their heritage and established a new culture and society on an alien, metal-poor world and discovered magical/mystical abilities – will also seem familiar. I hesitate to describe it as a science fiction tale, though it shares many typical tropes of the genre (especially in the second volume), but I certainly wouldn’t quite describe it as straight “fantasy” either. Perhaps the catch-all “speculative fiction” label is the best we can apply to WORDSMITH.

Please note: plot spoilers follow, though I have studiously tried to avoid spoilering all the major twists and turns of the plot.

WORDSMITH is more or less the coming of age story of a young man, a social outcast, La’am Iam’Kendron-word (and yes, it’s a long story about what that name/title signifies), who ultimately grows in power, matures, and becomes both the most powerful man on Omne as well as its savior from outside forces. The Omnans, long-ago colonists from Earth, settled Omne and created a peaceful, pastoral society on a metal-poor world, renouncing technology and the company of other humans. Their world has been sheltered by the Veil of Heaven, part-mystic and part-cosmological phenomenon that has shielded them from outside attention and allowed them to remain aloof, isolated, and independent for centuries. The Omnans have discovered that Omne also holds a number of secrets, not the least of which is a kind of magic or energy that can be manipulated by those who dedicate themselves to its study (and service?).

The Omnans’ isolation is shattered in the second volume of WORDSMITH, which details the conflict that pulls apart Omnan society when a ship from Earth – or at least humanity’s larger society – arrives, seemingly in fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. Sadly, but perhaps predictably, these visitors are little more than privateers, and do not have the best intentions of the Omnans in mind. They have arrived only to exploit what they can of Omne’s resources and then depart, leaving a shattered society behind. (This bit reminded me more than a little of Cortes’ arrival in Mexico, again, seemingly in fulfillment of a prophecy, and the eventual downfall of the Aztec Empire.) I hesitate to describe in detail the outcome of this struggle, though I will simply say that it explores the nature of the strange forces that permeate Omne, though it left me wanting more.

Ultimately, this is a book about a clash of cultures, moralities, and societies. To be sure, the Omnans are clearly the “good guys” and their unwanted, rapaciously exploitative visitors are the “bad guys.” But there’s still plenty of room for moralizing (I don’t mean that in a bad way) and the plot isn’t clearly telegraphed from the start, as with many similar stories.

I give this two-volume set a very hearty four stars out of five. It’s highly engrossing and entertaining throughout, despite its length. Collings is himself a wordsmith, and his prose reads effortlessly. The only elements preventing me from giving it a full five stars are the pacing of the second volume, which slows a bit and takes a somewhat meandering course before picking up at the end, and the mostly unknown and unclear origins and full capabilities of the strange powers we see on Omne. I am left with some lingering questions on this, but perhaps that lack of precise clarity is part of the point. I’d actually love to see more fiction from Collings set on the world of Omne and hope he’s working on it!

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Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers