Whoever said "getting there is half the fun" must have been an avid literary adventure fan. For Eric Van Lustbader's hefty science fiction/fantasy thriller, MISTRESS OF THE PEARL, the intuitive reader should be warned to ratchet up that old maxim to say that getting there provides nearly all the fun.
It's been a while since I've read anything by the justly acclaimed Van Lustbader, so I must confess straight up that the two previous volumes in his epic Pearl saga are not on my have-read shelf. (In retrospect, they should be...) And for Van Lustbader, creative continuity is everything. There's no gentle warm-up, no teacherly recap, no summary of previous highlights. He opens with a shipwreck on the exotic planet of Kundala and you, poor reader, are thrown headfirst into storm-tossed waves to thrash around with everyone else and create some sense of bearing as best you can.
If you've ever traveled to a country where no one spoke your language (and vice-versa), that's the general feeling that results from swimming through the first few dozen pages. Yet you're there, submerged in it, and you don't really want to leave; the alien landscape may seem life threatening, but it's also magnetically alluring. So, like Van Lustbader's enigmatic characters, with their tantalizing and obscure pedigrees, you forge ahead looking for patterns in his intense fabric of inter-species relationships --- and perhaps try to become part of them.
Yes, there is a mystical Pearl that's supposed to set everything right; yes, there is a Mistress, whose authority is all but unrecognized. There's also an omnipotent but maddeningly capricious super-goddess with a supposedly cosmic plan; and of course there are "good" and "bad" forces embodied in a variety of beings, whose motives are not always clear. In short, little or nothing is as it seems and even the characters on the sometimes-fuzzy side of "right" end up entangled in all sorts of moral and political undergrowth.
It's that amazing verbal and imaginative "undergrowth" of Van Lustbader's cosmically vast plot structure that grasps and holds the attention of any reader who appreciates clever imagery, graphic action, and surprisingly disciplined prose in such a long book (nearly 600 pages). In this lush jungle of improbable life, fascinating, frightening and endearing individuals exist side by side in a strange mixture of conflict and detente. In fact, politics alone weave a magical, circuitous web that keeps MISTRESS OF THE PEARL tight, edgy, and surprisingly agile throughout.
By all means, get hold of the preceding RING OF FIVE DRAGONS and VEIL OF A THOUSAND TEARS and read them beforehand if you can. But if MISTRESS OF THE PEARL crosses your path first, take a leap of literary faith into Van Lustbader's vivid universe --- and enjoy a breathtaking ride.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on January 7, 2011