David Hair’s Scarlet Tides, the second novel in his Moontide Quartet series, has been compared to great fantasy epics such as A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time, and it easily earns it place amongst them. Spanning two continents, multiple countries, and countless cultures, Scarlet Tides follows the holy (and not so holy) wars, political machinations, alliances and betrayals, and magical maneuverings of powerful rulers in a game of thrones that would almost put the denizens of Westeros to shame; however, true influence is held by those who can wield magic, and they don’t always hold the same values as the ruling nobles. The person who comes out on top will depend entirely on who can control the most mages . . . and the mysterious Leviathan Bridge that only connects the two continents during periods of low seas known as Moontide.
Trying to condense everything in Scarlet Tides into a bite-sized review synopsis is nearly impossible due to the density and complexity of the material. Hair has created so many warring factions and intense players that explaining the moves will spoil a large portion of the plot. The crux is that young Cymbellea di Regia has obtained the Scytale of Corineus, the source of all magical power in this universe. Emperor Constant, the artifact’s previous owner, desperately wants to regain control of the Scytale and dispatches his holy Inquisitors to reclaim it at any cost. Simultaneously, the Emperor instigates another Crusade under the guise of establishing greater control of the lands south of the Leviathan Bridge. Nothing is as simple as it seems, though, and people are moved like chess pieces by many strong players; however, these pieces aren’t without defenses, and they may attack the players and take control of the board before anyone suspects a thing.
Scarlet Tides is an engaging, well-developed book, but like the novels in the Game of Thrones universe, it’s very dense with the multitude of characters, cultures, and settings. At points I felt like I needed a chart, a map, and a database to keep track of everyone! As I got further into the book, relationships became clearer, but readers should keep in mind that it takes about one hundred pages for everyone to be introduced. The first chunk of the novel doesn’t repeat a single character, which had me debating whether or not I needed to start creating a character map to keep track of everyone. As the story continues, relationships and ties clarify; however, and while it still maintains several diverse storylines, the last chapters begin bringing the players closer together. I expect that the final book in the quartet will have the entire major cast together for a stunning climax!
With so many characters Hair does an exemplary job of avoiding flat stereotypes. Every cast member has facets instead of being a static caricature of a magic user or warrior or noble. Unsurprisingly, there are some standard fantasy tropes, but the author’s touch breathes fresh life into them, so they don’t feel stale. I particularly appreciate how Alaron Mercer, the obligatory nice guy in the cast, doesn’t hold Cymbellea’s rejection against her; he regrets that his affections won’t be returned, but he helps her because he values Cym’s friendship, not because he holds any hope that she’ll repay him with sexual favors.
The only real issue I have with Scarlet Tides is that its complexity takes it out of the realm of popcorn summer reading into thinking reading. This is not a novel to pick up when you want to just escape into a book for a few hours; you need to be committed to following who’s allied to whom and which characters are where and have what abilities. The story is still entertaining, but it requires brain power to fully comprehend and digest.
If hardcore epic fantasy is your jam, Scarlet Tides may be the book for you! You may want to begin with Mage’s Blood, the first installment in The Moontide Quartet, but it isn’t strictly necessary; however, I’m in favor of completism, and some of the subtleties I missed in the first one hundred or so pages are probably much clearer if you know the story from its inception. The ending of Scarlet Tides promises exciting events in the third book, so I will watch for it to become available, even if I need to rest my brain with absolute literary trash between chapters.
4.5 Uses of Gnosis out of 5