Red Tide is Marc Turner’s third entry in his debut series The Chronicles of the Exile, and it’s an absolute masterpiece. The plots and characters of the first two stand-alone novels, When the Heavens Fall and Dragon Hunters, are woven together to provide the first glimpse of a far-reaching fantasy epic in the vein of the Malazan series. Built upon the solid foundations of the first two books, Red Tide truly shines as a masterwork of fantasy. It’s also particularly grimdark with plenty of moral ambiguity, grit and darkness.
Beginning mere days after the catastrophic events of Dragon Day in Dragon Hunters, Red Tide opens with the terrifying stone-skins on the verge of launching a full-scale invasion against the lands we’ve grown to know and love from the first two books. All the stone-skins profess to require is safe passage through the hazardous Rubyholt Isles from the pirate-lord who rules it. Sent to sabotage the negotiations is a new character, the cold-hearted ex-Guardian Amerel. As she cunningly manipulates her pawns, another manipulator emerges in the form of Galantas, the swaggering son of the pirate-lord who is out to steal his father’s title. As these two twist negotiations into something more sinister, we return to an old favourite, Romany, the high-priestess of the Spider, given new life by the deity. Thankfully, she’s lost none of her dry wit or cleverness, and sets off to worm her way into the court of Mazana Creed, the newly crowned ruler of the Storm Isles. At Mazana’s side is Senar Sol, the heroic Guardian who continues to struggle with finding the right thing to do in a world made from shades of grey, and this time he’s also forced to grapple with divided loyalties as his homeland is threatened by the stone-skin menace. Karmel, the conflicted Chameleon priestess with the power of limited invisibility, is sent into the mix with her brother Caval, the same brother who sent her off to die in Dragon Hunters. Somehow finding himself swept up into the mix is Ebon, the well-meaning but tortured Prince of Galitia, another favourite from the first book, who this time chases after the trail of his love and his brother, a deeply personal story in the midst of clashing empires.
It’s genuinely exciting to return to the characters from the first two books, especially since the books had stand-alone plots and characters. It feels like a special treat, since Turner could have easily created a third stand-alone book with all-new characters. However, the weaving together of disparate strands begins to create hints of the tapestry of a larger world and plot that’s grand in scale. Each character’s story is deeply personal and intimate but, together, they tell the story of world-shaking events of magic, empires and gods. This is nothing new, of course, but it’s handled so perfectly that there are few, if any, moments where pace or emotion is sacrificed for world-building and story development. Each of the characters is so complex, emotionally developed and compelling that it’s all too easy to become drawn in and miss your train stop as you read.
Amerel is extremely compelling as a morally ambiguous, the-ends-justify-the-means, coldly calculating manipulator. Yet, there are hints of the kinder person she once was which makes it impossible to predict what she may do in any given situation. She suffers from a magical curse similar to post-traumatic stress disorder that causes her to feel the pain of everyone she sees hurt. Yet that doesn’t stop her hurting them, even for an instant. A few of her decisions were surprising enough that lead me to second-guess everything I thought about her, and that’s incredibly engaging. Where the Guardians we’ve met so far focus on using their Jedi-like powers to augment their fighting prowess, Amerel focuses on manipulating the minds of those around her, friends and enemies alike. When she does use her telekinesis to fight, she does so in such a wonderfully creative manner.
If Amerel is a good person broken by a harsh world and turned bad, then Galantis is a bad person who puts on a show of being good to serve his own ends. He projects the image of the fearless pirate hero, swimming with sharks, leading the charge to capture merchant ships and even saving the lives of those he owes nothing to. Of course, he’d cut his own father to pieces and leave him for the dogs if it meant he’d get ahead. But in projecting a heroic façade, Galantas sometimes ends up doing things that are genuinely heroic if only for appearances. The other characters are familiar to those who have read the previous books: Senar Sol, Romany, Karmel and Ebon are even better developed in Red Tide.
The secondary characters and villains are also a highlight of Red Tide. Mazana Creed dealing with the results of absorbing the soul of the dead god Fume is interesting. The Revenants, the company of mercenaries she’s hired as her private army, is filled with colourful characters, such as Twist, the sub-commander who can’t help but challenge everyone he meets to a duel. Vale, Ebon’s bodyguard and time-shifting best friend, is a stoic, tragic figure, whose backstory is finally delved into. One particularly unforgettable character is Hex, the stone-skin mage who speaks in jaunty rhymes as he transforms the lives of our protagonists into literal living nightmares.
These characters inhabit a world that’s beginning to take shape next to those of Malazan or A Song of Ice and Fire as a fully realised, living, breathing place with history, geography, religions and cultures. The corner of that world explored in this book, the Rubyholt Isles, is a fantastic place to explore, and is actually the remains of an ancient continent, shattered by unknowable magic and filled with underwater ruins and rifts through which deep-sea monstrosities emerge into “waters made choppy by a dozen writhing tentacles”. What makes this even more interesting is the casual manner with which native Rubyholters, like Galantas, refer to things like, “the telltale shadow[s] in the water that mark a gateway where this world overlap[s] with another”, or the fact that one of the most popular market stalls in Galantas’s home city of Bezzle sells slices of a giant tentacle for people to eat as they peruse the market’s wares. Turner has also meticulously crafted his world down to the most insignificant alleyway. Rather than going down the next random street, characters will instead, for example, choose “Brine Alley”, since it runs “parallel to the waterfront”. Little details like this really bring his world to life.
Red Tide is written in a similar way to Malazan or the First Law Trilogy, in that it alternates between the tight third-person perspectives of its protagonists. Its action scenes are a real triumph, whether they be sword-fights, magical duels, chase scenes, ship battles or larger skirmishes. There are always multiple layers to the action beyond just the strokes of the blades. Even the “slower” scenes are charged with multiple levels of conflict, whether Galantas is trying to convince pirates to follow him while hiding his true intentions or Senar Sol is trying to sway Mazana Creed in helping his homeland while trying to assess how deeply Fume’s spirit has corrupted her. The world-building is snuck in as part of the action and, without realising it, the Rubyholt Isles start to feel like home.
My sole criticism of both When the Heavens Fall and Dragon Hunters is that both took a long time for their pace to ratchet up to page-turning levels. Red Tide, however, is captivating from page one. This is perhaps due to it being the third book in the series with many recurring characters, thus less setup is necessary. Nonetheless, it’s a commendable achievement since Red Tide mostly takes place in an entirely new location and features plenty of new characters and factions. I wouldn’t, however, recommend reading it before its predecessors. Although they are stand-alone, Red Tide does draw strongly from both of them even though it doesn’t continue from them directly.
Overall, it’s an exquisitely crafted novel, from a macro level down to the smallest details. It’s structured beautifully, populated with interesting characters, features a wonderfully developed, magical world and is tightly written. Red Tide is my favourite fantasy novel of 2016 and I have nothing bad to say about it.