(Unescapable hints/spoilers of the first two books, some spoilers of The Darkest Road itself)
I love a series where the titles suggest a progression. Take De Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen. House of Shattered Wings – falling and getting back up. House of Binding Thorns – finding people to stand by, easy or no. House of Sundering Flames – what do you when it all goes wrong?
I see something similar in The Fionavar Tapestry. The Summer Tree suggests coming to the fullness of yourself. The Wandering Fire burns that tree as the fuel for a coming war – a sacrifice, a kindling.
The Darkest Road is what happens when the flame goes out. When there’s nothing left to guide you forwards but hope and courage. When you are asked to do things people shouldn’t be asked to.
The first book belonged to Paul and his guilt and grief, and Dave with his need to belong. The second belonged to Kim, and Arthur, and Kevin Laine’s moment of self-sacrifice.
The Darkest Road then belongs to Jennifer, and her son Darien, and maybe Kim too.
It is also the tale of a war, the final accounting between the forces of the Light and those of Rakoth Maugrim. The actual fighting itself comes second to the decisions and dramas that shape how the fighting will be done, and the journey of Darien. The narrative arcs of Kim and Jennifer here are fascinating contrasts. Jennifer, seemingly trapped by the fate given by the Weaver at the Loom both as Guinevere and as the mother of Darien, rebels. With Arthur and Lancelot, she takes choice after choice to try and shake free the seemingly inexorable cycle of death and loneliness. But with Darien, she refuses to make any choices for him, even when that lack of guidance hurts him. Choice must matter at least as much as destiny, and that belief guides all the decisions she makes – and the decisions she abdicates.
Kim, for the most part, has been willing to go along with not making the choices, guided by the sense of destiny and the Baelrath, a magical ring that gives her the power to summon and compel others to war as it sees fit. What else can she do, when there is a war. Her powers as a seer, and the Baelrath’s powers, are too badly needed. Yet we see Kim stir fitfully at that, particularly when she clashes with Jennifer over the guidance of Darien. From the beginning she’s been an independent minded spirit. Something will give there.
And it is in that vein of free will vs fate, of hope and conviction vs terror and darkness, that the one of the book’s most breathtaking scene happens. Diarmuid’s seemingly endless reserves of sarcasm and flippant brilliance have lit up the series for me, even if there’s times when I think he pushes a little too far. In the finale, he shows the man behind all the posturing – endlessly giving and brave. It’s the same spirit behind Lancelot’s absolutely fantastic combat scene near the middle too.
As for Darien – that, I think, would be too much spoiler. But his arc, that of a young man, still literally a child in some ways, struggling with his power and identity in a way few of us would ever have to, was thoughtful and tense in equal measure.
I give you a taste of the themes and tease a little of what to expect, but let me tell of you what it’s like to read this series, this book, to see the ending its given. It’s fantastical, utterly fantastical, and not just in the elves and dwarves and magic. It’s about the way people act, the way the characters act like you know people can act but so regularly don’t. It’s a series about how people can act in a way that’s superheroic – like people out of myth, only better. All of which add up to make this an emotional, enthralling ride – sometimes fistpumping, sometimes teary-eyed, but almost never dull.
And at the end of The Darkest Road, because these characters gave and loved and entertained, there is a space for healing and growth, and for the summer trees to grow again. And I could honestly go right back to that start and read the whole thing again right now, because that’s how much I loved the ending.