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THE BLACK FLAME
1980

Book cover art by Bob Adragna.
Review © 1998 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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In sharp contrast to its predecessor, I found the sequel to Daughter of the Bright Moon to be a talky, tedious affair. I should have been tipped off by the unpromising prologue, which shows Rifkind in the undignified act of running weeping from a ballroom when she realizes it is not her destiny to marry Ejord, the studly scion of Chatelgard manor. I beg your pardon? Romance novel histrionics? Is this the Rifkind I've come to know and love?

Fortunately, this claptrap doesn't last long and is merely a plot device to get Rifkind out of the manor. By the first chapter, she's hacking the tentacles off a slimy swamp thing. As much of a relief as that may be, the fact remains that this book is so frustrating it had me banging my head against the wall. Rifkind is still tremendously appealing as a character, but damn if this just plain isn't a dull story.

Rifkind, having left Chatelgard with Jenny, a former lady-in-waiting to the court, finds herself in the swampy land of Felmargue, inhabited by raft-dwelling folk known as the Quais. The Quais are clannish and nomadic people whose legends tell that the swamp exists as a form of punishment by the gods, who didn't like what a group of magicians were getting up to in their nearby castle. One day, the legends say, the swamps will be destroyed by the Leveller, who will come when the gods decide the Quais have been punished enough, and the land will return to dry habitability. Rifkind's business in Felmargue is personal. Somewhere in this humid, slimy land is the Hold, an enclosure housing the Descendant, who guards the Well of Knowledge. Here is located a magical substance called the Black Flame, with which Rifkind has been told she can replace the ruby pendant lost in the first novel, and enhance her ability to channel the powers of the Bright Moon.

After rafting for a time with a clan of Quais (and finding herself offended by the natives' feuds as well as their cavalier attitude toward deaths among their own people), Rifkind discovers the Well and the Black Flame are being sought for reasons as yet unknown by her former Chatelgard employer, the treasonous Lord Humphrey, in league with the evil seeress Krowlowja. Later, Rifkind and Jenny land at the Hold, where Rifkind also discovers that there is something among the gods going on — related to the Black Flame and the prophecy of the Leveller — that is so involved and ruthless that the Bright Moon Herself seems all too ready to sacrifice Rifkind to achieve Her needs. The two women also meet Domhnall, an ageless man who has lived within the crumbling walls of the Hold's ancient castle ever since the gods struck the magicians down. An alliance is forged which includes an uneasy sexual tension between him and Rifkind.

Confused yet? Well, it is all a bit overplotted, but then, so are most fantasies of this sort, and Abbey's especially. No, what irked me about this novel is that, with the exception of a few interesting action setpieces, it's just a boring, talky exercise. And the infuriating thing is that the basic story isn't at all bad. Rifkind in particular is still one of the better heroines you'll find in heroic fantasy. In this story her developing friendship with Jenny rings true (and is more than a little reminiscent of the Xena/Gabrielle friendship, though without the lesbian subtext — I still wonder if the creator of the TV show took any influence from Abbey?).

To put it simply: the book is too cool to dismiss, but too lumbering to enjoy. Many times would I put this novel down, thinking I really couldn't take any more, only to find my memory drifting back to Rifkind and one scene or another I found particularly well done. And so I'd start reading again, and within 40 pages quit. Argh! Have any of you had this experience before, where there was a book you wanted to enjoy with all your heart, and it defied you every step of the way?

I dunno. I suppose this novel might find a more receptive audience among readers already more widely enamored of sword and sorcery to begin with. For my part, I consider myself a very open minded reader, and The Black Flame is a book that, completely against my will, just didn't light my fire.

Followed — 26 years later — by Rifkind's Challenge.