Review | To Ride Hell’s Chasm – Janny Wurts

About the Book

When Princess Anja fails to appear at her betrothal banquet, the tiny, peaceful kingdom of Sessalie is plunged into intrigue. Two warriors are charged with recovering the distraught king’s beloved daughter. Taskin, Commander of the Royal Guard, whose icy competence and impressive life-term as the Crown’s right-hand man command the kingdom’s deep-seated respect; and Mykkael, the rough-hewn newcomer who has won the post of Captain of the Garrison – a scarred veteran with a deadly record of field warfare, whose ‘interesting’ background and foreign breeding are held in contempt by court society.

As the princess’s trail vanishes outside the citadel’s gates, anxiety and tension escalate. Mykkael’s investigations lead him to a radical explanation for the mystery, but he finds himself under suspicion from the court factions. Will Commander Taskin’s famous fair-mindedness be enough to unravel the truth behind the garrison captain’s dramatic theory: that the resourceful, high-spirited princess was not taken by force, but fled the palace to escape a demonic evil?

704 pages (paperback)
Published January 1, 2002
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This book was provided by the author. It does not impact this review.

Janny Wurts is a hugely inspirational author for me. Not only is she a strong, female voice in the genre, but her books are so intricately crafted, every word perfectly placed for maximum impact, every element of character and plot precisely developed. Reading her books isn’t just entertaining, it’s also educational and something I recommend everyone experience. 

There is absolutely nothing like sitting at the feet of a master and studying their art. 

To Ride Hell’s Chasm was a book I was very excited to read, and I was even more excited to receive a signed copy of it, which I have put next to my Tad Williams signed books. 

This is a standalone, which is something I’ve discovered I tend to enjoy in fantasy, and something we don’t see a whole lot of in this genre. Fantasy is full of series, duologies and trilogies, and Wurts herself has penned a massive epic fantasy series (It is absolutely amazing, by the way. One of the best series out there, full stop, and if you have not read it yet WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?). So this standalone felt like a true switch of gears for this author. I was excited to see what a writer of this caliber could do with less space to work with.  

Wurts is a writer who puts herself on the page. Her books are layered and passionate, with deep explorations of characters and cultures, of the way people work both together and against each other. Here, in To Ride Hell’s Chasm, she pushed herself to a whole new level. Her passion and care for the story she’s telling positively shines. A book has a certain magic when you can tell the author loved the story they were telling, and I felt that here, in every word and on every page. Wurts is such a passionate, visionary, artistic person and that’s felt, profoundly, in this book. 

And perhaps that is one reason why this book felt a bit personal. I could feel Wurts throughout the story, her hand carefully moving characters, pushing events, exploring ever deeper layers and themes, delicately touching the nuances of human nature. With raw honesty she crafts her characters and with a precise, goal-focused eye she writes her story. Like the finest dark chocolate, this is a book I advise you savor. Trust Wurts to take you where you need to go. She is a master of her craft and you are in good hands. 

The plot of To Ride Hell’s Chasm is deceptively simple (pay attention to the word “deceptively”).

Princess Anja of Sessalie has disappeared on the night of her betrothal feast. The king assigns his guard commander, Taskin, to find her. Then also adds the new gate captain, a foreigner named Mykkael to find her as well. The story looks simple enough on the surface, but Wurts quickly subverts any idea that this will be simple or straightforward. The mystery went in a direction I didn’t expect almost instantly. There were numerous times when I could not fathom how characters would get out of certain situations and plenty of plot twists that had me reeling.

Yes, this book is fantasy but it is also shockingly human, driven by characters who live and love, who laugh and are betrayed, making this book feel both fantastic and relatable all at once.

To Ride Hell’s Chasm is an incredibly dense book. It’s not one you can sit back and let happen, but will require some focus and you’ll likely need to be in the right mood (Or maybe that’s just me? I’m a mood reader.). However, in my estimation, the effort it took to fully grasp all the layers and depth, the nuances and detail of this story made the experience (and that fantastic ending) even richer. In truth, Wurts’s best traits as an author are her dense prose and plots. She does nothing in half measures. I love that she’s not afraid to reach for the heart of every part of her story, and then carefully examine what makes it beat. 

There is a painting technique called Pointillism. (Read more about it here.)

If Janny Wurts’s books were paintings, I’d think of them as a perhaps more fluid pointillism. The stories are meant to be viewed both from a distance and up close. There is both forest and trees and all of it is important. 

I say this because it’s an important factor in this story. To Ride Hell’s Chasm was a book that required me to carefully examine all of its parts to fully grasp the whole. The story covers only five days, but it’s spread out across over 600 pages. The first day takes almost 200 pages, because every element, every emotional nuance is explored. Now, this might seem overwhelming, but it never felt so. This level of detail made the story so much more rich and vivid, so much more intricate.

Do not mistake this to mean the book is slow, because it’s anything but. There is so much relentless forward motion throughout, it was hard to find a place to pause my reading. And the action is both frequent and gripping, written with just as much detail as everything else, making me feel as though I was immersed in it. I will say, however, that the density of this book is something to consider before diving in. It’s a unique style which I love, but it’s not going to appeal to everyone (but nothing ever does).

I am frankly surprised by how much Wurts managed to pour into this one volume, and it’s all because of that depth, those layers, the incredible prose. All elements of her execution work together to create a nuanced tale, from mystery to action to raw moments of humanity, I was constantly engaged. There was something happening at every moment. The plot was tight and paced with precision. The book felt like a well-oiled machine: storytelling at its finest. No word wasted.

The world is stunningly well built. Every element has been crafted with care and an eye toward how it impacts the whole. Every detail is described with rich words and richer colors and contrasts. It feels lived in, with all social strata and cultural pressure points you’d expect in something that well-realized. Readers who love details will find a haven here: Wurts spares none and her world is so textured because of it. Everything from boiling laundry to dressing wounds and strategy and horses are intricately covered, and all written with such precision it makes me wonder how much research she did while drafting this book. It’s these details that I love though, because it makes the world blaze with such glorious realism.

And these strengths in her worldbuilding bleed into the characters, each of them exploring and experiencing the world in different ways, each of them just as vivid, messy, textured, and nuanced as the world they inhabit. Here, you will find the book grounded by the happiness, joy, grief, sorrow, worry, loss, and mystery. Moments that pull us into the story, make it relatable, help us see a bit of ourselves in what we’re reading.

I realize I am saying a lot here without saying much. I tend to try to avoid specifics in a book review, but I am trying doubly hard in this one, because I think half the joy of reading a Janny Wurts book is the experience of diving in and realizing you’re getting so much more than you expected.

What you need to know is that this was an incredible book, written by a master of her craft.

Standalone fantasy at its finest.

5/5 stars