Shattering the Ley
by Joshua Palmatier
Review by Sam Lubell
DAW Kindle Edition ISBN/ITEM#: B00G3L181K
Date: 01 July 2014
Critics of fantasy say the genre is simple escapism. How can novels about magic and swordplay say anything meaningful to our age of concerns about terrorism and the environment? Such detractors clearly have not read Shattering The Ley by Joshua Palmatier which deals with both these subjects in the framework of an imagined world fantasy novel that manages to subvert several of the usual fantasy clichés.
In this book, the city of Erenthrall uses the magic of the earth's ley lines to run everything from street lights to floating carts to the construction of new towers. The Prime Wielders who control this magic have fashioned the ley into the Nexus, essentially a magical equivalent of a country's electrical grid. The book opens with schoolgirl Kara Tremain learning that she has a strange affinity for ley powered objects as globes brighten when she draws near them and, when her father takes her to see the magical creation of the first new tower in 20 years, she feels the energy and faints.
Meanwhile, Allan Garrett, a new Dog (one of the cruel city guardsmen), witnesses the self-immolation of a Kormanley priest who accuses the Baron and Wielders of perverting nature in creating the Nexus system before lighting himself on fire. Allan himself has a somewhat inconvenient tendency to disrupt ley workings.
Then, shortly after a gardener Wielder, Ischua, tells Kara she has a strong ability to wield the power of the ley at an unusually young age, her younger friend Justin disappears despite a careful search by Kara and their other friend Cory. Justin is tortured into becoming a Hound, one of the Baron's secret trackers and spies. The Wielder, Ischua, is secretly a member of the Kormanley and hatches a plot to influence Kara to favor their cause since she is strong enough to become a Prime Wielder. While the Dogs search for the Kormanley, a splinter group launches exploding carts at the crowd gathered to watch the activation of the new tower, killing Kara's parents.
In virtually any other fantasy, Kara would turn out to be a chosen one, who would gather the various characters into a team to defeat the Baron and/or the Kormanley. Instead, Palmatier brilliantly shatters genre conventions. Kara and Allan do not meet for most of the book and I do not think there is a single scene with Justin, Cory, Kara, and Allan all together. And the main conflict is environmental, a breakdown in the ley system is creating distortions in the air, like a tear into another dimension that can trap people partway through them and then cut anything that is halfway through when it vanishes. The Kormanley claim this is a further manifestation of the need to stop misusing the ley and allow it to return to its natural patterns.
In another departure from genre norms, there is no active force for good. The Baron is out for his own power, the Dogs attack people without restraint and torture prisoners, and the Kormanley are terrorist bombers who kill innocent people (and are themselves manipulated as part of the lords' power struggle.) Allan, Kara, and her friends, while clearly the heroes of the book, are basically innocents caught up in larger forces over which they have little control. Only when society itself breaks down can they begin to play a larger role.
The book makes occasional jumps in time, skipping forward four years after Kara's parents' death to when she becomes a full Wielder (bypassing her apprentice years) and later 12 years to Kara's breakup with her lover Marcus after he joins the Kormanley. This weakens the book structurally by forcing Allan's and Kara's stories into the same time periods and gives the book an odd pacing, slowing down in spots and then jumping ahead. While the characterization of Kara and Allan are both strong, most other characters are not fully developed. Hagger, Allan's alpha in the Dogs, is not defined except in relation to Allan and the reader never sees any of the other Dogs express regret or horror at their actions. Marcus is given some characterization, most notably in his decision to join the Kormanley.
Nothing on the book cover says this is the start of a series, although the ending of the book certainly leaves room for a sequel. If there is one, however, it will have to be a very different book due to a major disruption of the status quo in Shattering the Ley (not to give anything more away than the title does.)
Altogether, this is an innovative fantasy novel with a very modern feel. Today's readers can certainly relate to the concerns of these characters and the more sophisticated morality than the conventional good versus evil struggle of too many fantasies. When the Dogs are chasing the Kormanley, it is hard to see which is the lesser of two evils. For readers who are willing to tackle a more challenging fantasy, without clear heroes and obvious conflicts, Shattering the Ley is an excellent read.