Catherine Fisher is best known for her mythically resonant and highly original fantasy for young adults. Her most recent books include INCARCERON and its companion SAPPHIQUE, which are set in a sentient prison. INCARCERON reads like a captivity narrative set in a high-tech dystopia, raising interesting questions about technology, religion and social justice. Her newest series,Relic Master, returns to these fertile themes, but is set in the world of Anara where the mysterious but seemingly technologically complex Order is being hunted into extinction by the brutal, iconoclastic Watch.
In addition to guarding the relics, the Order uses what it calls "sense-lines" --- a kind of energetic grid woven throughout Anara --- to navigate and communicate with their world. Sense-lines allow them to sense danger before it arrives, to access visions, to connect to the source upon which they base their faith. But after an accident with a particularly powerful relic, Galen, a master of the Order, can no longer access the sense-lines. He has become blind to the mesh of energy that surrounds everything in their world and now must rely on Raffi, his inexperienced apprentice, to help guide and protect them.
This inexperience and blindness may account for their inability to sense that Carys, the girl who joins them on their journey, is a spy for the Watch. Telling them that she is traveling to the Dark City to rescue her father who was taken by the Watch, Carys gains the travelers' sympathy and trust. Little do they know that when they arrive in Tasceron, she plans to spring a trap, reporting them and everything she's witnessed along the way.
But Carys begins to have doubts about her own beliefs, inculcated by the Watch since childhood. Not only does she witness firsthand the power of relics, which she has been taught were nothing but superstitious nonsense, she sees how the Order cares for the people and how the people rely upon them. Coming to the painful revelation that she might not have been orphaned as she was told, but forcibly taken from her parents to be raised as a spy in the Watchtower, Carys must choose between the life she's always known and betraying the first friends she's ever made. "Once you believe you are lost," reads the Rule of the Watch. "Anything you see or hear can be twisted against you. The Order are masters of nothing but falsehood."
Poetic, prophetic and filled with memorable scenes --- such as the tombs in which the travelers take refuge when overtaken by a storm of burning seeds --- or the walkways one of the cat-like native Sekoi shows them high above the darkened city --- THE DARK CITY is also peppered with Fisher's trademark fragments of the myth and poetry that shape Anara's characters and conflicts. These fragments inform the tone without revealing the world and its secrets all at once. But even more fascinating are the tiny clues Fisher drops about the origins of Anara and its mysteries. I could swear one of the relics they carry resembles a digital watch, though how this could return an ancient spirit to its grave, or how the sense-lines could allow them to talk to a gnarled tree, suggest magic rather than technology.
The great science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once postulated that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The surprise revelation on the last few pages of THE DARK CITY clearly indicates a possibility that we are dealing with a culture so long separated from technology that it has become magic, again.
Likewise, though the conflict is clearly set up in terms of good and evil, there are glimmerings that the disagreements between the Order and the Watch may be more complicated than they initially seem. There are certainly mixed motives for the characters as they confront their beliefs. When Galen accuses another member of the Order of having lost his faith, he is gently chided: "Are you doing this to save the Order? Or to heal your own loss? Would you be so eager to face death if you didn't think the Crow could cure you?"
THE DARK CITY is the first book in the Relic Master quartet. Luckily for this reader and other fans of Catherine Fisher's work, the remaining titles will be released in three consecutive months this summer: THE LOST HEIRESS, in which Raffi and Galen search for the empire's missing heiress, will be released in June; THE HIDDEN CORONET, in which they seek a legendary lost relic, will be out in July; and the final volume, THE MARGRAVE, will be revealed in August, bringing the series to a conclusion as our heroes confront an ancient evil deep in the Pits of Maar. With the power of Fisher's writing and the momentum of the release dates,Relic Master promises to be the young adult fantasy series of the summer.
Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on May 17, 2011