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Beneath the Vaulted Hills, by Sean Russell

Rating: 4.5 Roses published 1997; hardback 1997, Daw Books

The time of the mages is nearly over; only one mage still lives, the elusive Lord Eldrich. Though the mages and the Church of Farrelle have outlawed the knowledge and practice of magic, scholars continue to seek out the secrets of the mages. There's one man, however, who has first-hand knowledge of the mages -- Erasmus Flattery, a young empiricist who studied in Lord Eldrich's house as a child. And he isn't talking.

Beneath the Vaulted Hills is the first installment of The River into Darkness, a "prequel" series to Sean Russell's earlier series Moontide and Magic Rise, which contained the books World Without End and Sea Without a Shore. Beneath the Vaulted Hills stars some of the same characters from Moontide and Magic Rise, only as their younger selves.

Like all of Russell's novels, Beneath the Vaulted Hills has a mystery at its heart; in this case, an underground ancient mage-built temple. Flattery's aid is enlisted by two young men, Hayes and Kehler, who think they can locate the temple based on clues gleaned from an old painting and documents stolen from the Church of Farrelle.

An intriguingly diverse cast of characters coalesces around the search for the temple, including the Tellerites, people who want to preserve the mage lore for future generations; Lord Skye and Sir John, courtiers who are trying to manipulate events for different purposes; the beautiful Countess of Chilton, who is pursuing a romantic interest in Lord Skye; the painter Averil Kent, who is pursuing the Countess of Chilton; Deacon Rose, a senior member of the Church of Farrelle; and the enigmatic Lord Eldrich himself.

Besides intrigue and mystery, Beneath the Vaulted Hills offers spine-tingling action as the variously motivated characters risk their lives in a race to find the ancient temple. I quite literally shuddered at the intense descriptions of characters forcing their way through pitch-black tunnels barely wider than their bodies and diving into freezing underground lakes to find submerged passages.

Sean Russell has never written a bad book, and Beneath the Vaulted Hills is quite up to his usual high quality. The good news is that Russell is finally getting some well-deserved commercial success -- this is his first fantasy published in hardback. The bad news is that there's no getting his work on the cheap anymore. There's hardly anyone out there who I would more cheerfully plop down $24.95 for, however.

Review by Sara Lipowitz
Reviewed January 14, 1998

ISBN 0-88677-745-3

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