It Doesn’t Get Better: The Ships of Merior by Janny Wurts

Posted 2nd April 2023 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews / 2 Comments

The Ships of Merior (Wars of Light and Shadow, #2) by Janny Wurts
Genres: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy

A powerful, layered weaving of myth, prose and pure imagination – The Ships of Merior continues an epic fantasy series perfect for enthusiasts of The Dark Tower and Earthsea.

The second volume of Janny Wurts's incomparable series following Arithon and Lysaer, two brothers forced to take opposite sides in a relentless conflict.

After defeating the malevolent fog that blighted Athera, Arithon and Lysaer battle the throes of the Mistwraith's insidious retribution: a curse set upon them at their moment of triumph compels them each to seek the other's downfall.

Lysaer, the charming and charismatic Lord of Light, drives his brother out of hiding and hounds Arithon with a massive army at his command. Meanwhile Arithon, Master of Shadow, the sensitive mage who prefers music to violence, must take to the seas to evade capture and strike back against Lysaer's mighty war host.

Locked into lifelong enmity, the brothers’ pursuit of each other's destruction will test the foundations of human morailty, even as threat to the world’s deepest magic rides on the outcome.

THE SHIPS OF MERIOR weaves a rich and complicated tapestry, bringing readers deeper into the mystical world of Athera. Striking a balance between epic scope and intricate subtlety, the Wars of Light and Shadow is a must-read series for readers of intelligent fantasy.


~sure, send the ghost-guy to outer space
~nO guNPowDEr FoR yoU
~timeskipping 6 years but this book is 6 years long
~what are sorcerers even for
~this was meant to be a mini-review but it turned into a rant

Why, you may I ask, would I continue with The Wars of Light and Shadow series when I absolutely despised the first book? Sensible question with a fairly silly answer: my husband and I have discovered that these books are EXCELLENT insomnia cures! My reading aloud to him as he goes to sleep stops his brain from Not Shutting Up, and the books themselves bore me into putting down my ereader and curling up to sleep.

So how does The Ships of Merior do as a book as opposed to a sleeping aid?

To put it mildly: not great.

The writing has not improved from its problems in the first book – overblown, pretentious, stuffed with preachy telling-not-showing, a frustrating insistence on referring to the same character by three or four different epithets rather than repeat their name even once, and over-explaining to the point of massively slowing down passages that are trying to be fast-punchy-action scenes. We continue to have random little side-plots that do nothing but take up space (Arithon, why the fuck did you give her that ring?!), which can’t disguise the fact that there is still far too little story to fit a 700+ pagecount. The difference is made up with a why use one word when ten will do? philosophy that I would appreciate more if the prose was beautiful enough to linger over – which it isn’t.

The magic system continues to be extremely hand-wavey. This is actually not in and of itself a problem for me – I love soft magic systems – but the issue is that because we have no idea how the magic works, Wurts has to explain to us why we should be impressed or nervous or scared when Big Magic Things happen, and that slows down and stretches out those scenes immensely. Which undercuts any sense of thrill or urgency. Turning your Big Epic Sorcery moments into long-winded lectures ruins those moments.

Either leave us with cinematic visuals and nothing else, or teach us enough about how the magic works – beforehand! – that we understand for ourselves how impressive The Thing is when it happens. But don’t lecture us about it in the moment. Because then your pacing, and the power of the scene, is fucked.

Another writerly thing I forgot to critique in my review of book one, which gets worse in Merior: don’t start all your Fantasy Nouns with the same letter. So many characters and places and objects in this series so far start with A: Arithon, Asandir, Ath, Athera, Alestron, Athlieria, Avenor, Althain – this is simply bad writing practice. Especially when a lot of these (and this isn’t even all of them) are often used close together, or are used repeatedly and aren’t a one-off, throwaway mention. You know why? Because all those words start to blur together, and it becomes way too hard to keep them all straight.

The alphabet has 25 other letters. USE THEM!

I regret to inform you that the fatphobia from Curse of the Mistwraith is still rampant in this book. It’s embarrassingly easy to spot which characters we’re supposed to despise (as opposed to not-like-but-grudgingly-respect or not-like-but-feel-conflicted-about) because they are, without fail, fat. They are literally and figuratively full of themselves; the way their velvets and lace are stretched across their stomachs is described over and over in any scene they appear in. To be fat is to be gross, arrogant, and stupid; there are no exceptions.

Speaking of fat characters, Dakar continues to be Not Funny and also awful, a lecherous whiny dickhead who is too stupid and biased to see what’s right in front of him – that Arithon is not a monster and not the slightest bit interested in killing his brother or anybody else. I hate how Dakar is treated by the narrative – the butt of every joke – but I also despise him as a character. I’ve now read multiple reviews where he’s described as being hilarious – sometimes he’s considered the best/favourite part of the story! – and I have no idea what other readers are seeing that I’m not. He isn’t funny. Not because he makes jokes about awful topics, but because his jokes are simply not funny, being overcomplicated and too wordy or simply making no sense.

The carter purpled and swung. The suet-round face of his target vanished as Dakar ducked and fled beneath the saddle girth. Bunched knuckles smacked against he barrel-sprung ribs of the horse, who responded from both ends with a grunt and a fart like an explosion.

‘Oh my,’ cried Dakar, stifling a chortle. ‘Your wife’s nose must look like a pudding if that’s your reaction to her kisses.’

??? I’m confused. Am I supposed to be laughing at the fart? The idea of the carter punching his wife? Dakar’s too-long-not-snappy needling? I don’t get it.

The Mad Prophet informed the man sent down to fetch him that he had never stayed sober for more than a fortnight, even as a babe at his mother’s knee. Three months was a lifetime record, Dakar insisted, as if astounded to still be alive.

That second quote, I see how it’s supposed to be funny, but even aside from the fact that the topic isn’t amusing to me, it’s just not phrased right to make me giggle. And I love comedy. Pre-Covid I used to go to amateur and professional stand-up nights; John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight show never fails to crack me up no matter how dark and dismal the topic; seeing Dara O’Brien live was one of the best nights of my life; and I watch everything Russel Howard touches. And I don’t think the issue is me being too Left Wing – I grew up in a house where Frankie Boyle was king and South Park was the norm. I definitely know the horrible hilarity the right person or writer can make you feel at things that Wow, You Really Shouldn’t Be Laughing At.

But I don’t at all understand – never mind appreciate – Wurts’ sense of humour.

Wurts also continues to massively fail at making Lysaer look like any kind of hero. I think this is partly deliberate – we know from the prologue of book one that a whole religion venerating Lysaer develops later, and demonises Arithon, and that these books are supposed to be the ‘true’ history that reveals it was all rather more complicated than Lysaer good: Arithon bad. So we’re clearly not meant to think Lysaer is perfect.

But we’re also pretty clearly meant to respect him, to believe that he’s trying to do the right thing, even if he is very wrong about what that is. We’re supposed to feel conflicted about the conflict between the two half-brothers. And I don’t. Lysaer is the (albeit unintentional) villain, and there’s been no explanation whatsoever as to why the omnibenevolent Fellowship hasn’t fucking stepped in. Okay, so they can’t lift the curse the Mistwraith put on Lysaer and Arithon – but maybe they could confine them??? Or Lysaer, at least, since he’s the one who’s spent six years building an army to murder his brother, who just wants to be left alone to play music? Put him into an enchanted sleep until you can figure out a cure, for crying out loud – he’s dragging the whole continent into a completely pointless war! DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

But they don’t. Because Reasons. Which is lazy and pathetic. Just like the instalove of Elaira for Arithon is lazy and pathetic – oh, the sorceresses are extra magically good at reading body language, are they? And that’s why she fell in love with him after five minutes six years ago, is it? She Just Knows everything about him now, does she?

So freaking stupid.

Especially because there’s no reason at all not to have had her falling in love with him over time – the instalove wasn’t even slightly necessary. She could have fallen for him in this book, where she gets to spend months with him; or if you had to have her be in love with him before this book, at least say she’s watched him from afar in visions (which would fit because the Koriani sorceresses seem to be very well-known for their scrying) these past six years and fell for him that way!

Oh, and the Koriani – the all-women magical order – continue to be weaker, less capable, and less smart than the all-male Fellowship. The Koriani are schemers who don’t have the full picture but are going ahead with their Terrible Choices anyway; but it’s fine, because they’re not powerful enough to pull off the magic required to track down Arithon, or anything. There’s hundreds of Koriani, but they are insignificant next to the five Fellowship sorcerers – who don’t consult with them, don’t share information, and who are hiding the Koriani’s greatest tool and treasure from them, cutting them off from their most powerful magics. The Fellowship are effortlessly immortal and self-healing; the Koriani’s method of extending the lifespan is not limitless, is extremely painful to undergo, and eventually leaves those who use it broken in long-term agony. The Fellowship are scholarly, wise, guardians of the world; the Koriani decide the best way to ensnare Arithon is with sex.

What the actual fuck? I know this was originally published in 1994, but – seriously??? This level of misogyny from an author who is a woman??? I understand internalised misogyny, but this is fucking ridiculous.

Finally: this isn’t a critique of the book that Wurts wrote, but it’s very much a critique of whatever editor was involved in turning this into an ebook, because I found over 200 typos in my e-edition. Ships of Merior was clearly digitised a long while after its initial publication, and that process inevitably means typos, but this is just unacceptable. Someone should have gone through the digitised file before hitting the publish button!

So if you do want to read this series, I strongly recommend getting yourself paper copies rather than reading the ebooks.

Will I be reading the next book? Yes – I’ve already started. I have no intention of giving up this good a sleep-aid until/unless it stops working! (And I’m still waiting for the unicorns to show…)

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