T.A. Barron’s The Great Tree of Avalon trilogy is a series that begins with a wonderful potential that it can’t live up to, and contains complex themes that it eventually betrays. While it begins with an excellent, adventurous first volume with a focus on environmentalism and free will, it ends with bloated second and third volumes that steadily corrode those themes as they proceed. In many ways, this trilogy is harder to read than a series that begins badly (see Eric Van Lustbader’s Pearl Saga), because it raises the readers’ hopes fairly high before utterly disappointing them.
One of the trilogy’s consistently engaging elements is the setting. The Great Tree of Avalon is actually a gigantic tree, the seven nations of Avalon being the seven enormous roots (named after the elements — Fireroot, Mudroot, Woodroot, etc.). Not quite Earth and not quite Heaven, the Tree is more like a bridge between the two realms, and thus boasts a population of both mortal humans and animals, and magical spirits and immortal beings.
Avalon is threatened, as most magical lands tend to be, by a Prophesy. Foretold by one of the mainstays of Arthurian legend, the Lady of the Lake, a time will come when Avalon will go dark for one year, and during that year a baby will be born who is destined to bring doom to Avalon. Of course, during that same year, another child will come into being who is prophesied to save Avalon, and become the true heir of Merlin (yes, that Merlin).
During that dark year, two infants, one more or less human, the other an eagleman, are brought together by violent circumstances but are saved by a mysterious wizardly figure (hint, hint). One of the children is given a magical staff by said wizard, and the two fatherless babes are brought up as brothers.
Fast-forward seventeen years, and the brothers are already orphaned and separated. Eagleman Scree, with his staff, has been missing for several years, and human Tamwyn has been trying to find him while making a meagre living as a wilderness guide. Meanwhile, Avalon has been suffering a mysterious drought, racial tensions are rising, and most people are inclined to believe that the Dark Child of the Prophesy, destined to come into his power at the age of seventeen, is responsible. Actually, an evil sorcerer with his sights set on finding the mystical Staff of Merlin and conquering Avalon is responsible, but even he believes that the Dark Child will turn up sooner or later to lend a sinister hand in his dastardly scheme.
In Stoneroot, the Society of the Whole — Avalon’s main religion that preaches equality and harmony amongst all creatures — decides that something must be done to forestall disaster. High Priestess Coerria asks her successor Llynia to go forth and seek out the Lady of the Lake, who supposedly appeared to Llynia in a vision, in order to ask for her aid in finding the true heir of Merlin.
Llynia, a power-hungry, arrogant woman whose head has swollen to gigantic proportions thanks to her elevated status, is not willing to admit that she may have fudged the exact details of her vision, and is even less willing to have feisty apprentice Elli tag along at the High Priestess’ request. Llynia and Elli do not get along, mainly because Elli rightly believes that Llynia is a prideful and small-minded individual, and Llynia believes Elli’s previous history of enslavement at the hands of gnomes makes her unfit to be a part of the Society of the Whole. Eventually, Tamwyn’s and Elli’s paths converge, and Tamwyn agrees to help guide Llynia and her cohorts on their quest to find the Lady of the Lake, end the drought, and find a way to stop the evil sorcerer’s plan.
Child of the Dark Prophesy, for the most part, is a colourful and well-paced adventure. T.A. Barron, a dedicated environmentalist, infuses the story with a pro-nature and pro-environment bent that is believable and relevant to the plot instead of being preachy or aggressive. Livestock in the novel are kept in open pens, the incentive to stay being shelter, food, and gentle care. The book’s characters are horrified when they discover that the sorcerer has been using slave-labour, and this reader was surprised to discover that the slaves were all animals, who were whipped into doing work instead of volunteering, as they evidently do for nicer people in Avalon.
Another one of the novel’s finer points is the creative way in which the story interacts with the foreboding Prophesy. Prophesies, a popular element in fantasy literature, have been misused and overdone, even in novels aimed strictly at adults. Instead of being a written-in-stone blueprint of plotlines to come, this one is more a sly suggestion, and neither the Dark Child nor the Heir of Merlin are exactly who one thinks, which makes for several entertaining surprises throughout the book. The resolution to the mystery itself, without giving anything away, is both inventive and intelligent.
With a refreshingly bizarre setting, an interesting plot, and more-or-less relatable characters, there are few wrong tones in this book, but they do exist. At the top of my list is the villain himself. In a novel that seems to stress the theme that nothing is exactly black or white, the sorcerer is a ham-handed cartoon with “perfectly manicured” hands (where does one find a good spa in Avalon?) and a tendency to mutter “mmmyess” after every sentence, as if his wicked verbal choices are delicious. Another is the character of Batty Lad, a bat-spirit (?) of some sort who contributes nothing to the story except extremely irritating dialogue he seems to have cribbed from Star Wars’ Jar Jar Binks (“Woojaja lika see me do do do tricksies? Me lovey do tricksies! Woojaja wojaja woojaaa?” After a few chapters of that, even I wouldn’t mind if the sorcerer gave him a good whipping).
However, in the second instalment of The Great Tree of Avalon, events grow steadily worse, in more ways than one. In this novel, Tamwyn, conflicted by his double-destiny of being both the Dark Child and the Heir of Merlin, discovers that villainous sorcerer Kulwych is still alive and in possession of the magical crystal he created in the previous volume. Not only that, but his master, the evil war spirit Rhita Gawr, has corrupted the crystal into a tool of destruction, as opposed to creation. Rhita Gawr’s ultimate goal is to conquer Avalon with the crystal (along with a handy army of undead horrors currently locked in the spirit world), so that he may use the Great Tree as a bridge to conquer the universe. Kulwych’s hopes are that his loyal service to Rhita Gawr (who prefers to call his minion by bizarre pet names like “duckling”) will allow him to gain revenge on Merlin for past wrongs.
While Rhita and Kulwych are plugging away at that little scheme, chaos is starting to infect the rest of Avalon as well. Much to Scree’s dismay, a clan of eaglemen has turned against the others and is raiding and pillaging at whim. When an attack results in the death of one of the eaglefolk close to Scree, he decides to go after them and get his revenge. Meanwhile, the Temple of the Society of the Whole has been ransacked, its people killed or chased off, and its remaining buildings vandalized with “Down with Harmony — Up with Humanity!” slogans. Elli suspects the Humanity First movement, a rebel sect founded by former Society priest Belamir (who had a harmless but slightly sinister cameo in the first book) who preaches of humanity’s superiority over all other creatures.
Tamwyn’s part in this novel is separate from all these other threads — ever since the stars of the constellation Wizard’s Staff were mysteriously extinguished last time, he’s been determined to climb the Great Tree and find a way to relight them in time to stop Rhita Gawr’s nefarious plot. Conflicted by the confusing nature of his new powers (and his adolescent hormonal longings for Elli), he sets forth without her, essentially to climb the Great Tree all by himself.
Unfortunately, as the story progresses, the characters don’t. In Child of the Dark Prophecy the rote and static nature of the characters was partially excused by the fact that the epic story was only starting, and that introduction to the setting and themes of the trilogy had to take precedence. This excuse does not exist in Shadows on the Stars. One does not have to read too deeply into this novel for the characters’ puppet strings to become apparent. In this novel, the people don’t influence the storyline, the storyline moves of its own accord and Tamwyn, Elli, Kulwych, and others are only dragged along for the ride. The novel is riddled with careless plot devices that are given little to no introduction, and more often than not, conveniently vanish once their purpose is over.
If the heroes come up against a challenging obstacle or require certain motivation, nine times out of ten they don’t have to solve it out of any particular ingenuity or skill on their part. Instead, a rare creature, magical object, special technique, or hidden path happens to appear, providing an instant, easy solution. Take, for instance, the Sapphire Unicorn, an animal renowned for being special and precious (but not special or precious enough to receive any mention whatsoever before her surprise entrance, or to escape being relegated to messenger-duty — a homing pigeon wouldn’t have sufficed?), who delivers a warning from the Lady of the Lake, before being killed off four and a half pages later.
The novel is bogged down by this “oh, how convenient” factor, as well as by the redundant description. After a dozen mentions of how Elli’s hair is curly, as in, abundantly, wildly, thickly, like a faery’s flower bed, like a faery’s garden, like wintry waves, readers should get the point. Elli’s hair is curly, Brionna the elf maiden’s hair is blonde (and honey-coloured, and honey-toned), and Kulwych’s hands are as white and soft as marshmallows.
These flaws continue into the final volume, The Eternal Flame. The final battle is about to take place for the fate of Avalon, and our heroes are spread all over the map performing their own special roles towards the defeat of evil and the triumph of good. Tamwyn finally makes it up to the branches of the Great Tree, getting closer in his bid to re-light the stars. In an intriguing and creative set-up, the stars in this world are actually doorways to others, and by extinguishing them their doors are opened and nasty things can come out of them, or go into them to conquer the realms beyond.
Scree, who fought with and defeated the leader of the treacherous Bram Kaie clan of eaglefolk, has taken on the mantle of its new ruler, with plans to have the Bram Kaie fight for the side of Avalon in the upcoming battle to end all battles. Elli performs her chore by travelling to the darkest realm in Avalon (Shadowroot, natch), with the goal of destroying Kulwych’s corrupted crystal, eliminating Rhita Gawr’s magical advantage. Finally, Brionna the elf maiden and Lleu the priest set forth for the actual battlefield on the Plains of Isenwy, to see if they can’t, in fact, stop the war before it starts.
The series is sustained by the wonderful setting, with each book’s focus resting on a different part of the Great Tree (in Child it’s the roots, then by Shadows Tamwyn has made it to the trunk, then in Eternal Flame the branches are explored). Despite the truly interesting landscape, however, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the book is populated by a series of non-characters whose personal victories are more due to luck than to any special destiny, power, or decision of their own making. What are young readers supposed to learn from reading this? Child of the Dark Prophesy built up an interesting conflict by labelling Tamwyn as both the Dark Child and the heir of Merlin, Avalon’s destruction and salvation all rolled into one. However, when generous strangers and magical solutions are inclined to just drop into the hero’s lap whenever the situation arises, Tamwyn’s fateful choice between good and evil never happens, because nothing is attributed to Tamwyn’s own decisions or actions.
The Great Tree of Avalon has some threads of ingenuity mixed in with its major flaws, so it wouldn’t be fair to give the ending totally away, but suffice it to say that the conclusion is a severe disappointment that manages to contradict the environmental theme that T.A. Barron has established throughout the entire trilogy. Since the introduction of the loathsome Humanity First movement, the novels have promoted equality between all species of creature, from insects to birds to faeries to humans. In Avalon, all are equal and all are equally responsible, but by the end of the last volume this idea is betrayed by an ending that is inconsistent, unrealistic, confusing, and abrupt — hardly a tone one wants to finish a series with.
The Great Tree of Avalon begins with great potential, introducing a magical, original world ripe for exploration. In the beginning, its characters also appear to have potential, towards both good and evil. However, as the novels progress, the miraculous coincidences pile up, until the potential is leached away by the fewer and fewer opportunities that arise for the characters to truly choose their own paths. Yes, there is suspense inherent in the question of “what will happen?” There is also a special, delicious tension in the idea of “what will the character do?” In The Great Tree of Avalon trilogy, there is too much of the former, and not enough of the latter.
(Philomel, 2004 – 2006)