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Mythic Darkness: Elementari Rising by Nancy Hightower

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A mythic world of terror and beauty, conjured in poetic prose, is the heart of Elementari Rising, a debut epic fantasy by Nancy Hightower. Recounted in an elevated style reminiscent of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the darkness of the tale makes George R. R. Martin's saga seem almost gentle in comparison. At least in the Song of Ice and Fire series, it is for the most part only those who play the game of thrones (and their benighted soldiers and peasants) who meet gruesome deaths. In Elementari Rising, death is shockingly random and widespread, striking in ways few readers will expect.

This is for good reason: the enemy, rather than being motivated by greed or evil, is indiscriminating in the way that nature is indiscriminating; just as earthquakes and tornadoes don't care whom they kill, nor do the Elementari, spirits of the four elements, whose only desire is to roam free. The world's only hope of protection against them is the Terakhein, guardians whose magic can lull the savage nature spirits to sleep. When the book begins, crisis is in the offing: the spirits are starting to awaken, thirsting for destruction. Someone is killing the Terakhein.

The book is the first in a series, and introduces a small piece of what feels like a vast world replete with its own legends, history, and ancient language. The language in particular is so convincing--again like Tolkien's work--that reading Elementari Rising, one feels immersed in an alternate world that truly exists, that has only been waiting for readers to discover it, much in the manner of Middle Earth or Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea. Hightower's prose, never faltering from its poetic register even in the narrative's most mundane moments, contributes to this immutable sense of otherworldly reality. Perhaps it is in part because of this that the stakes always feel dizzyingly high: we are aware at every moment that this not a story about the petty squabbles of people, but of something much larger and crueler.

All of this -- the stakes, the poetry -- are captured in the dialogue:

"You lose things in war," Cadman cried hoarsely..."The earth is at war with itself; don't you understand that yet? Don't you know what drives the Ogoni's hunger? What fuels the Ophidian's desire? These are no dark overlords wanting only power; they fight for their very essence--earth, water, fire, and air--to remain unfettered and to dream within the earth."

Ranging from darkly enchanted woods to colorful towns and cities, the story follows Jonathan, the eighteen-year-old protagonist who has been swept into a quest for the Terakhein. His intense emotional suffering might remind some readers of the Stark children in Game of Thrones, torn from everything they know, subject to horrors unthinkable for their age, and ultimately transformed.

More than anything else, Elementari Rising might be about the inevitable loss of innocence, the unsustainability of normal life in the face of natural disaster. Perhaps for that reason the protagonist is young, and the threatened Terakhein are children. It is children, after all, for whom we are meant to guard the world and the last vestiges of normality; they are the most precious thing we have to lose.