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Elfquest: Ascent. Written by Wendy and Richard Pini. Illustrated by Brandon McKinney and Terry Beatty. Poughkeepsie, NY: Warp Graphics, 1999. 1v. (unpaged). (Elfquest Reader's Collection, Book 12). $12.95. ISBN 0-936861-43-6.


Adults, teens; mild violence

In Shards, the volume that chronologically precedes this one, the elves' Palace was shattered into crystal shards that were appropriated by the human warlord Gromuhl Djun to incorporate into his palace, which tops off a city that climbs a mountain. The Wolfriders split into two tribes: Ember's small band of "find a new Holt" elves and Cutter's group of warriors and magic-users who would attempt to retrieve the shards and restore the Palace. Winnowill has become the Djun's "Lady Venovel" and is eagerly trying to get at the Scroll of Colors, locked away in the Djun's library.

Ascent opens as Winnowill savors the brutal murders of slave-workmen as they finish their work on the Djun's palace. She also survives an assassination attempt. She and the Djun visit the crystal towers, where he reasserts his authority over her and dangles the promise of a session with the Scroll before her. Later, while resting, she is contacted mentally by Rayek, who pleads with her to help him regain the Palace. Infuriated by his genuine love, she tosses him away and resolves to take revenge on him and those who shelter him. She urges the Djun to cut down a patch of forest (the elves' holt) that has so far repulsed his men with its ever-renewing brambles. The Djun's Master Builder (a.k.a. Two-Edge) builds fearsome machines to do the job.

In the holt, Rayek and the Wolfriders plot shard-retrieval strategy. Then Aroree sees the woodcutting machines approach. After a short battle against the men defending the machines, the elves write off the holt and escape underground through Ekuar's tunnel. Soon they connect with the troll tunnels. King Picknose is loathe to let the elves through, but his argument with Cutter is interrupted by human warriors who had followed the elves into their tunnel. After the one-sided battle, Picknose is more concerned with filling in the tunnels than stopping the elves. The elves continue on, joined by troll siblings Flam and Drub, who want a share of the booty that's sure to result from the quest.

The elves' tunneling abruptly ends when Ekuar collapses. Though Mender saves his life, the rock-shaper is unfit to contine, so they bind him in wrapstuff, and the trolls dig up. They break through into a pigsty, under which they hunker as Rayek, Venka, Zhantee, and Aroree take off in search of the Scroll of Colors. Meanwhile, Winnowill is finally working with the Scroll but can't make any sense out of it--until Rayek approaches, and the Scroll ignites in response. As a result, the Djun's guards are ready when the quartet arrives. Rayek blasts them, but he is distracted by Winnowill's mental attack. Venka shields him, and he blasts his way into the Djun's library. Rayek attempts to carry off half the scroll, but the Djun desperately holds it down. Aroree manages to yank the half away. Then a boulder launched by the humans hits Rayek and Venka square on. Already weak, Venka loses her grip on Rayek and tumbles into the Djun's palace.

As the exhausted Rayek remains behind to search for Venka, Aroree and Zhantee return to the others. Safe from Winnowill's spying (at least via the Scroll), but faced with stirred-up humans, the elves decide to split up even further to climb the mountain and sneak into the Djun's citadel. First, they move to another hide-out, the cellar of an inn. There they are discovered by the young woman Shuna, whose life was saved by Leetah in Kings of the Broken Wheel and who saved Tyleet and ran away from home in Shards. Meanwhile, the Djun demands, and to his dismay sees, Winnowill's true form. Rattled and yearning yet knowing that to have her is to lose his soul, he manages to stay on top of the situation by exerting his "ownership" over her and making her use her powers on his behalf. Claiming to be a god, he proclaims to his people that to worship anything but him will mean their deaths. To back up his words, he has Winnowill transform a pack of war dogs into vicious Peace Hounds: claw-tentacled, lantern-eyed, fork-tongued horrors.

The Peace Hounds are released into the city, where they ferret out and kill the rebellious. Shuna is chased by three Hounds, but the Hounds are diverted by the scent of the elves at the inn. After briefly driving the Hounds back, the elves scatter in their prearranged groups, leaving Clearbrook and Treestump and their wolf-friends to "keep the how-unds amused." A fierce battle leaves one Hound dead and the other two hurt and fleeing--and the humans astonished that the supposedly undefeatable Peace Hounds can be killed.

In the Citadel, Rayek searches for Venka, who is being tended by Two-Edge. The elf-troll is falling in love with the elf maiden and shows off his work to her, including the horrible "birds" used to publicly execute a rebel--an execution that Shuna witnesses. She is so disgusted that she starts recruiting others to fight the Djun. Unfortunately, a Hound scents her rebelliousness--but luckily, Strongbow, Skot, and Krim are nearby and destroy the Hound, then hop into an untenanted building with Shuna to avoid the Djun's men who come to investigate the noise. Later, she and her companions lead more Hounds to the elves, who dispatch them and make it plain to the humans that the "good spirits" are on Shuna's side and against the Djun. But things are not going so well in the Citadel; Winnowill forces Rayek, Venka, and Two-Edge into the open. For various reasons none of them can slay her, so she subdues Rayek; Two-Edge manages to escape with Venka. Ignoring the Djun's demands that she explain what's going on, Winnowill enters Rayek's mind with the intent of learning how to reconstruct the Palace.

In the streets, more and more humans are joining Shuna's rebellion. The chaos is useful to Aroree, Mender, and Flam, who are able to move about without attracting notice. Then Flam smells gold in a human house and breaks in to steal it. Mender tries to drag him out, and they start to tussle. Aroree flies in to stop them, but guards see her and also break in. The guards are attacked by the owners of the house, who are swiftly cut down. Coming to their senses, Flam and Mender quit fighting, and the trio escape through a hole in the floor--Flam pauses briefly to retrieve his dropped treasure and, incidentally, kill the guard who was about to kill the householders' two children. Another guard shoots a crossbow into the dark hole, but hearing nothing, and terrified of what's in the hole, they leave--and below the floor, Mender is bleeding to death.

The story continues in Reunion.

This is easily one of the most gripping books I've read in a long time. The Pinis really did a masterful job not only of tightly plotting (and maintaining control of) a complicated story but also of keeping the many characters separate, individual, and sympathetic. I can't begin to count the stories I've seen, in the comics and elsewhere, where the number of characters and subplots is so outrageous that you need a character list and a scorecard to keep track of what's going on. In fact, this is one of the major beefs I have with modern fantasy/SF. So I can give no higher praise to the Pinis than to say that at no time did this issue even crop up in my head. At no time did I lose track of the story thread. Their sense of proportion and timing was impeccable. No subplot lasted too long or dominated the story. Every character played an important role. Even the fight scenes, which normally bore me, were interesting and meaningful. (And short. Thankfully, combat has never been a priority of the Pinis.)

It's very interesting to watch Winnowill and the Djun play off one another. Who is the dominant person? The Djun's manipulation of Winnowill is open and obvious, while her manipulation of him is more subtle. With her obvious advantage in personal power, you' think that she ultimately holds the upper hand, but that's not necessarily the case--otherwise she'd have taken over long ago. She admits that she lacks a crucial ability that he has: the ability to win allies. I've said it before, and it's still true: the Pinis understand power and leadership, from subtle to overt, better than just about everyone. (That's why Cutter is one of the truly great characters in fantasy.)

I was also pleased that the art stayed consistent through the story. Although for the most part the artists who have illustrated the various issues of the collected comic have been good, the constantly changing art invites unwanted comparison between artists. The team of McKinney and Beatty have done some of the best non-Pini artwork in the Elfquest series; their characters are distinct and look right, the "shots" are well thought out, and the setttings are appropriately claustrophobic. I wish the book could have reproduced their color art, but better to have black-and-white versions than nothing.

An essential part of any Elfquest collection. Make sure that Shards precedes it for maximum understanding of the events that take place.

Buy it directly from Warp Graphics!

Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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