Diana Wallace Peach has just released her latest series (The Shattered Sea) which made me feel guilty that she’d managed to produce another couple of books while I was still failing to crack on and talk about her previous epic. I’ve been meaning to write a comprehensive review of the Rose Shield tetralogy (one more than a trilogy, in case you were wondering) for ages but things kept getting in the way, not least the amount of time it took to read them in the first place; this is a substantial story (over 1200 pages in total) but I promise you that there’s no padding. I was tempted to frame it in the context of one young girl’s rise from poverty and disfigurement to Power and Influence but it’s much more than that. It’s set in a world on a knife-edge that’s about to undergo a series of changes both internally and externally with questions of succession, invasion, occupation, injustice and revolution. And it’s into this maelstrom of competing interests that Catling is thrown.
We first meet our heroine as a toddler on Darkest Night at the water’s edge; her self-interested mother is attempting to file away the child’s facial birthmark but there are other powers at work. A ghostly presence induces a half-blood river worker to submerge the wounded child into the luminescent water – and that’s where the magic begins to happen.
A key element in Diana Peach’s stories is the very limited use of magic. These are clearly fantasy tales (although this is bordering on science fiction due to the human population being the ancestors of space-farers who have settled an alien planet) but the magic is given very clear boundaries and usually restrained to just one specific theme. In the Dragon Soul stories it’s dragons, in Sunwielder it’s a magical amulet, and so on. This allows much more attention to be given over to character development and world-building, two areas in which DWP excels. The people are real, the environment is vivid and the issues facing them cover both the mundane and the catastrophic.
There are different societies within the story: city-dwellers of Ellegeance; the maritime culture of the Cull Tar; and the native inhabitants of the planet who are relegated to the outlands of swamp, rivers and wolds. Then there’s the individual strata of those societies, clearly shown in the Ellegean cities – the privileged and powerful reside at the top, the destitute at the bottom, with social mobility strictly limited. As with any human civilisation, particularly those with huge disparities between rich and poor, a couple of other elements come into play: a criminal underworld and religion, both exerting a grip on those with little or no hope of escaping their grim existence.
The leaders of this world are also revealed to the reader: some are callous and cruel, others determined but undermined by age or gender. Some believe they have to act to protect a status quo that is no longer tenable. And this brings us to the magical ingredient that runs through the books. The waters of the planet have a natural luminescence that contains elements of the world’s own consciousness and allows, in certain circumstances, trained initiates to emotionally control the people they can see. These Influencers are used to control the masses within the individual city-states that make up the kingdom of Ellegeance, and are beholden by oath to the realm. This provides not only the main thread of the story but provides one of the faultlines that shatters the kingdom into conflict: these powerful Influencers implicitly have to decide what is good for the kingdom as their foremost decision and that over-rules all other oaths to their Guild and to their leaders. So, politics a-plenty. I told you her world-building was good.
So, what’s the deal with this girl, Catling? The first book in the series focuses on her childhood and her realisation that she is immune to Influence, thanks to her dip in the magic water whilst wounded. Her birthmark is similar to a rose pattern across one half of her face, hence the series title of The Rose Shield, but for much of Book One it truly is Catling’s ‘Bane’. I don’t want to spoil the rest of the revelations but suffice to say that books Two to Four deal with her late teens and adulthood and a significant increase in power and vulnerability. There are bleak times ahead for Catling and her friends, but the world is changing. Serving those in high office, Catling has to fight to live her own life while the Kari, the spirits of the planet, subtly manipulate her into being the right person, in the right place, at the right time to force change. But change comes at a cost.
One cost that DWP is keen to explore in her writing is the impact of man’s actions on the environment. A seasoned campaigner in her own neighbourhood of Oregon against industrial projects that threaten the pristine forests of the north west USA, in the Rose Shield series she uses the Kari to speak for the planet against the abuse the natural world is suffering at the hands of the invading, uncaring alien humans. Both Catling and her best friend Whitt experience life with the native Farlanders and Fenfolk and rely on them to escape from man-made peril and connect with the true nature of the world.
A glorious fantasy full of hardship and tenderness, alongside touches of humour that act as counterpoints to a great deal of death and destruction, D. Wallace Peach has once again scored a hit in an epic tale that raises questions about the world that we live in, how we treat others and what we’re doing to our own planet.