A classic in growth – Dean F. Wilson’s “The Call of Agon – Book One of the Children of Telm”

Description by the author / blurb:

THE LAST LINE. THE LAST WORDS. THE LAST CHANCE. Ifferon is one of the last in the bloodline of the dead god Telm, who mated with mortal women, and who imprisoned the Beast Agon in the Underworld. Armed with a connection to the estranged gods in the Overworld and a scroll bearing Telm’s powerful dying words, he is tasked with ensuring the god’s vital legacy: that Agon remain vanquished. Fear forces Ifferon to abandon his duty, but terror restores his quest when the forces of Agon find his hideaway in an isolated coastal monastery. Weighed down by the worries of the world, but lifted up by the companions he encounters along the way, Ifferon embarks on a journey that encompasses the struggles of many peoples, the siege of many lands, and discoveries that could bring hope to some—or doom to all.
Review (for shortened version, click here)

Agon, the outcast of the gods, is filled with hatred for the world, Iraldas. In his imprisonment he nourishes desires of vengeance. It is said Agon believes the hatred that is ravaging his insides can only be quenched if he destroys the whole of Iraldas. From eternal loneliness he wants to receive final satisfaction. But he cannot set his plan into motion as long as he remains bound by the spells of the gods. He must be called by a formulae of dark magic. And truly it happens that the world is threatened by his calling.

Whatever Ifferon’s adventurous past might have been, the beginning of the novel finds him hiding in his monastery from the gathering forces of Agon. These want to make sure the bloodline of Telm is eradicated, lest hidden powers should surge to pose an obstacle to Agon’s liberation. Ifferon’s last haven, the monastery, is attacked by the evil army.

Harr’Don the Great, unloved child of the king of the realm of Boror, tries to protect Ifferon, because he knows of the importance of his lineage. He saves him from the ruins of the battle and they both embark on a journey for safety. Shortly before Ifferon flees from the monastery, he is joined by a boy who has been hearing rumours about the monk’s true identity. He has sneaked into the monastery. He says he is a poet and is searching for inspiration. Ifferon permits that the young man, Yavün, accompanies him. But Herr’Don warns Ifferon that he should have thought twice before allowing mere acquaintances by his side.

The question of the true identity and destiny of the principal personages recurs frequently in the novel. It is a perilous question, because the forces of evil are unpredictable. Often the boundaries between friend and foe escape definition. Is Yavün really searching for inspiration in his shrewd poetical quest – or isn’t he rather a spy of the sinister powers that haunt Ifferon’s life?
Even Herr’Don is an equivocal figure, as Ifferon himself observes: “I admit there is something strange about Herr’Don, as if sometimes he is completely absent of mind … “
The knight Délin, who eventually teams up with the fellowship, seems transparent enough, but shows fatherly blindness towards the possible dangers of a child he insists the group should take with them, though they encounter him unwounded surrounded by a dead escort.
Particularly uncertain are the intentions of Aralus, a vagabond – the only safe thing that can be said about him is that he wouldn’t be a slave to Agon, because he rebels against accepting any master whosoever. But if the dominion of his own heart tends more towards lightness or darkness, no one can tell for sure.
The young woman Thalla is a mage’s apprentice. When Teron, head-cleric of the monastery, and Ifferon briefly meet after the destruction of their former home, Teron warns Ifferon that the mages benign proposals may shroud equivocal intentions.
But then Teron himself is an inscrutable personality. Long after they have parted ways, Ifferon learns more about the motives of his anterior master. For instance, his aversion against Thalla’s master might simply be driven by envy, because this mage obtained the gift Teron himself had desired: immortality. Uncertain remains if this unquenched passion for power and distinction might not have eaten on Teron’s soul to the point where he is ready to claim and take what he judges should be his.

The picture the author draws and constantly redrafts of the changing set of people around Ifferon is strewn with flickers of grey and blurred by dark spots. It is not a fellowship of friendship, but partly of discipline, partly of necessity, partly of motives that are kept guarded. When affection strengthens some ties, it raises the tension in the group instead of calming it – as when Thalla, originally Herr’Don’s lady, is not unresponsive to the feelings Yavün shows for her; or when, as mentioned, the knight Délin demonstrates fatherly concern for the mysterious child who is mostly a subject of uneasiness for the others.
As diversified as is the author’s picture of Ifferon’s companions, as accentuated is the element of indeterminacy in the story. The possibility of sudden reversals in the assessment of characters and the direction of events remains open. The author manages to separate indeterminacy from confusion. With every action happening against a horizon of heightened indeterminacy, Wilson triggers a constant flux of tension.

Though, for a long stretch, I struggled with this novel. There is quite an extensive middle part when indeterminacy is played out so abundantly that the reader comes to believe the author might not determine anything to come to pass at all. Characters talk profusely about what they can do, what they might do, but their words are not met by adequate space allotted to the descriptions of their actions.
It is curious that, self-aware, the characters occasionally comment on their own tendency to loquaciousness: “More walking, less talking.”“Every wasted moment is a moment offered in sacrifice unto Agon …” “ … we tarry when we must hurry, for each word spoken is the death of ten of my people” etc.
Surely the characters’ oratory pathos is not unfit to the antique patterns of speech Wilson is resuscitating. ‘The call of Agon’ is imbued with the climate of Middle Age thinking. This frame admitted, still it is arguable whether the pathos is not at places idealised to the point of becoming an encumbrance to the story flow.
When Geldirana, leader of army of the horse-people, adduces sentence after sentence of outdated speech about how momentous the coming battle is to be and about how bravery must conquer in the face of adversity, I was almost convinced that she would miss any active part in the battle simply by wasting her time with talking through it. In result, the passages depicting Geldirana’s active involvement in the battle prove too short in comparison to the extensive oratory build-up.
Another case of excessive pathos might be when part of the fellowship, surrounded by deathly forces in a fortress, still finds leisure for issues of pride and honour – Délin, provoked by the rogue Aralus’ malicious comments, wants to call him to reason in a duel, right there on the spot, though enemies can tear down on them from behind the next corner if they don’t hasten their escape. Happily for the story logic, Délin shows the good sense to douse his knightly ire.

But, finally, even the particularities of elaborate speech unfold their own charm when the reader has, somewhat grudgingly, become used to them. He will come to see them as a part of the authenticity of Middle Age atmosphere. Of course, a fantasy novel is concerned about atmosphere, not historic exactitude, and the English of the Middle Ages was not remotely that used by the characters, but still a feeling for historicity is conveyed by Wilson’s stringent employ of language with an archaic sound. “For” constantly serves as a subordinating conjunction. “Dour” is the life of the characters. “Oft” they “tarry”: though “aught” could be done, they do “naught”. They “stay” the blow of an enemy, they “bellow” in the midsts of battle, they are “attired” in a certain way, sometimes “scree” covers their “vesture” etc.

This was the point that ultimately convinced me of the exceptional value of the novel. Wilson is a consummate wordsmith. Characters sometimes express their sentiments by poetical flights or recall the knowledge of their world in the shape of poems. But, apart from this, also the prose is remarkable for its choice expressions. Its saturated with plastic and colourful comparisons. From a single paragraph: “ … [the] mist was different; it rolled and billowed like waves, sinking and rising with the tides of sleep. Ifferon watched closely, though as if from a great distance, through some strange mirror or screen … It brought shivers to him, like the fingers of the wind combing through his hair, … forcing him to quiver like an old, weathered tree in the coolest of breezes. There was a faint sound like the rustle of leaves; then the deceptively gentle sound of the sea as a new tide came. The fog seemed to swell, like water-skins overflowing …”
Also when no comparisons are elicited, Wilson often reverts to a densely metaphorical style. Just two examples: “Mirth was their venture and joy was their vesture.”“Fear was choked by courage, panic slain by valour.”
Wilson masterfully plays with neglected aspects of the depth and elegance of English. Not just that he has written an exciting tale, he has written it superbly. Like Yavün, Wilson can deal with words as if they “were children’s toys or chocolate treats”. This enthusiasm does not fail to communicate itself to the reader, because in spite of the artistic style the sentences are easily processable for the mind. No long relative clauses, interpolated into main sentences, mar comprehension. Instead, habitually, main sentence constructions are chained together by conjunctions: “Thus did both groups tarry … , and many of them fell to arrow or rock, but their work did not go unrewarded, for slowly it was shown that the walls began to weaken, and when the rolling-shield had made its final retreat, then came the direction of the catapults upon them.”

In contrast to the language, my appraisal of the coherency of the story must carry a cautious tone.
Though, first of all, it must be said that I haven’t spotted but three editorial blunders. Two are of lesser consequence and have been signalled to the author, who will correct them for the second edition.
The third one is rather a gap in storytelling than the result of the faltering of its logic. It pertains to the escape from the fortress already made mention of above. It is simply left unsaid how the companions manage to finally get out of the fortress – this despite searching their way inside has been an arduous task: “They turned a corner in the corridor, and their hearts sank, for there, ahead of them, was an identical corridor …” Suddenly, the reader finds them out in the open, and he wouldn’t have realised it if their next “left-or-right” decision hadn’t been to go either into the hills or into the forest, two locations clearly outside of the precinct of the fortress.

What I am concerned about is that a lot of information is taken for granted, though the reader won’t be able to gauge it in full from the entirety of this first novel, and what part of the picture he will get will be determined by his willingness to follow up small clues: to spot them, retain them in memory and to assemble them with others that will be given in later chapters. The reader will automatically do so, given the basic trust one imparts on every book that the story it will tell will be coherent. This trust, in other words, is prospective: it assumes the author will reveal to the complete satisfaction of understanding what he has only disclosed yet in partly intelligible bits and pieces. I’ll cite one passage from the book:
“Melgalés [Thalla’s master] believed that Molok the Animator brought the Shadows to life and created for them a vessel at the thirteen locations where the roots of the Tree of Althar touch upon Iraldas, an effort to feed his creations with the life of the Céalari. Molok claimed Ardun-Fe as his own, forcing the Aelora to flee to the north, and he used the residue of their magic to make many evil things. It is said that there might have been more of the Molokran were it not for Uldarus binding each year to thirteen moons.”
The passage is ripe with names and ideas that are but roughly definable at the time the reader arrives at it, or not at all. Some are exposed more fully in the course of the story, some not. For instance, throughout the novel it’s not made clear who Molok is, though from the sparse indications I’d suppose he is an evil master ranking even higher than Agon, a greater god than Agon, while greatest still seems to be Chránán, the Lord of the Shadow of Time, though he is mentioned only once. Of course, it would have been helpful to better understand the relation between these three malignant gods.
Further, at the point the reader hits the passage above, he hasn’t read about the Céalari before, but the next passage somewhat clarifies: “And that is not to even mention the Elad Éni, older gods than even the Céalari” – which implies the Céalari are the gods, those that matter for the present-day life of Iraldas. Next, the identity of Uraldus is dubious. Only much later in the novel, when the moon shines, the knight Délin will say: “Uldarus is out tonight” – leaving to assume he must be the god of the moon.
From the novel I gathered that those of the Céalari whose “Lamp” was doused or broken in Althar became exiles on Iraldas (the plain world). From this I conclude that “Althar” must be the exclusive realm of the Gods. This seems confirmed when, much later in the novel, Délin stills his thirst, and the following comparison is attached: “The water felt like life renewing in his veins, as if it were from the heavenly streams of Althar in the skies above.” But the whole history about the Lamps and the exile remains untold. It is common knowledge among the characters, and they allude to it, but the reader if offered no share in that knowledge. He can only collect the random allusions and wait for an explanation to arise from them by their successive addition.
While this means of storytelling is acceptable for a mythical story background, Wilson would badly affront his reader, and sap the coherency of his own world conception, if he weren’t to adduce further information and complete the mythological picture in the forthcoming two instalments. I didn’t count the vague and, thus, often confusing allusions as bad points against the novel because it seems evident Wilson is bent on furnishing a satisfying frame of inner-world plausibility (indeed he also has written to me in that sense).

Particularly the chapter “The Calling of the Council” contains many hints at the relation between the different peoples of Iraldas, and many new faces are introduced. There also is a listing of the elect of the council. Here, however, the reader cannot retain the bulk of information. Besides, that information, except about Teron and another character, is not further elaborated on in “The Call of Agon”. It is to be assumed these names and faces will be reintroduced in the future instalments, because else it would have been redundant to point them out at all; however, when they will reappear, it is a safe bet the reader will have forgotten they have already been mentioned or that they have raised their voice in “The Calling of the Council”. But I’d call this the only important example of information overload.

In this respect this review is a prospective review, granting credit in advance. Even apart from the author’s own assertions, this seems a reasonable stance, because given the care and work visible throughout this novel production, it is hard to suspect the author could veer from it in the further unfolding of his story. In consequence, I also won’t count as a negative point what I deem an instance of serious infringement on internal coherency, because I’m convinced this instance will only be of limited duration.
I mean the role of Aralus, which is left a mystery. He first meets the company on the borders of the river Hamis and he went there with the precise intention of meeting Ifferon. But it’s not explained why he hadn’t sought out Ifferon in his cloister while the latter was still stationary there; nor is the much more difficult question treated of how he could keep track on Ifferon’s whereabouts on his haphazard journey, in order to be able to join the fellowship; finally, no convincing reason is given why Aralus’ company has been accepted at all. It is no argument that it’s better to keep him close in order to keep an eye on him. Like that, every stray figure would have to be introduced into the confidence of the fellowship. Because confidence is granted on Aralus, despite he doesn’t show a single action to merit it. Thus he forms part of the secret mission to penetrate the fortress, though for the reader it is glaringly clear he cannot be more than a security risk. No, there must be certain circumstances that determine why he is admitted to the circle around Ifferon, circumstances the author has held back on so far.
Until Aralus’ role is not clarified, story logic is suspended, and though the reader might endure the suspension in this first part of the trilogy, the source of Alarus’ information about Ifferon’s location, as well as the reason for his acceptance into the fellowship, needs to be revealed in the coming instalments.

In sum, Wilson has wrought a vigorous tale that draws for its progression in tension on world-scale events, small skirmishes and individual perils, as well as ambiguous psychological moments. The descriptions the densely textured, graphic language paints are both beautiful and meaningful. “The Call of Agon” is fantasy that has been designed on the lasting qualities of the great classics of its genre. It incites to the top rating and gives much to hope for its successors.

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

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One thought on “A classic in growth – Dean F. Wilson’s “The Call of Agon – Book One of the Children of Telm”

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