Author:R.A. Salvatore
Publisher:Del Rey
ISBN:0-345-43039-5 (hardcover) / 0-345-43042-5 (paperback)
Price:$25.95 / $6.99

"This is either incredibly good or incredibly selfish, and I'm too close to it to tell the difference," said fantasy author R.A. Salvatore to his publisher, when he submitted the manuscript for his latest book, Mortalis . Dedicated to his brother Gary, who died of cancer last Fall, the book proves to be one of Salvatore's finest works.

Mortalis takes place immediately after the end of the first DemonWar trilogy, which includes The Demon Awakens, The Demon Spirit, and The Demon Apostle. The DemonWar series introduced us to Corona, a medieval-age land where King Danube rules fairly, the Abellican Church presides over the people's spirituality, and magic is the province of the clergy and their holy gemstones. All was well until an ancient evil amassed an army to lay war to the land. Now, in the wake of that conflict, no one will find it easy to return to their everyday lives.

Mortalis spans nearly a decade, and is a bridge novel between the first DemonWar trilogy and the next. Though it is possible to pick it up as an introduction to the world of Corona, the amount of backstory readers will be missing would make it a very difficult read.

Usually, not much happens in bridge books, but Mortalis covers important ground. The defeat of the demon dactyl in the previous book proves not to be the clean ending readers may have expected. Followers of the late, misguided Father Abbot Markwart still vie for control of the Church, and the heir to the Crown is questioned; meanwhile, both parties must determine the best course of action in the face of an incurable plague.

This chaos is the source of a great change in character for the hero, Jilseponie. Normally, any fantasy book has a threat, and a hero to challenge it. Readers who expect Jilseponie to stand up for what's right will be surprised to see her ignore her responsibilities as she considers, if one battle simply leads to another, so why bother?

Such apathy is one of the most powerful issues in Mortalis, moreso than any external force of goblins or giants. It's the characters' internal conflicts that Salvatore focuses on, and brings us to understand the heroes even more. Even the enemies take on new depths: the cult leader De'Unnero is so well written, I found him more hateful than nearly any other fantasy figure I've encountered.

Because of this introspection, there are fewer battle scenes in Mortalis

than there are in Salvatore's other books. But with Corona being besieged both physically and spiritually, the tension is still there.

Mortalis raises questions that only the reader can answer, such as, is the Church the keeper of people's bodies, or their souls? Though deeper questions can be found in most philosophy books, the thoughtful reader will still find much to consider.

The most interesting characters from the first trilogy, Jilseponie and Brother Francis, spend much of this book in the background: as much as a year may pass without seeing them. With the varying rates of time — chapters may be a few days, or a few years, apart — it would be easier to follow if the chapters were headed with the current date.

Readers must remember not only the characters from the first trilogy, but a host of new names and faces as well. Abbots, masters, and brothers of several different church abbeys pop up in discussion, almost to the point of a reference sheet being handy. But as the book progresses, remembering who's who becomes easier.

"In most of my books, I'm writing about five characters," Salvatore said at a recent book signing at Barnes & Noble in Leominster, Mass. "In Mortalis , I'm juggling thirty-five at a time. The challenge is to keep all those characters separate."

It's a challenge that Salvatore meets well. The characters in Mortalis are unique, and the words that come out of Brother Braumin's mouth are not something you'd hear from Brothers Haney, Viscenti, or Dellman. It makes each character more than just another face in the crowd, and thus more important to the reader.

Characters that will play important roles in the next trilogy are glossed over in Mortalis . We are introduced to new rangers and new races, but these chapters are teasingly short. We also see more of the northern ranger Andacanavar, and his fellow barbarians and their (stereotypical) distrust of anything magical.

All the characters are kept busy as Salvatore hops between times, places, and events. But readers aren't left hanging, as each chapter is often a capsule event, setting out to do something and doing it. But there is one instance in which a matter is brought up and then never resolved, nor referenced again.

In any event, Salvatore has the annoying habit of repeating words for effect: "He sat down and wondered, wondered," or "She looked up, up, to the parapet." This redundacy has the opposite effect as desired, and gets in the way of what's really happening.

Mortalis is not Salvatore's most depressing book, nor is it the most eventful; but it is one of the best-written. It may not answer all the questions from the first trilogy, but it does bring new life to some of Salvatore's most interesting and complete characters ever.

(Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise , 17-Jul-00)