Startled by the abrupt arrival of debt-collectors, a young glassmaker drops the vase that could have paid off her father’s debts; instantly losing their citizen status, girl and man are sold into slavery. Taken far from home, they attract a good price thanks to their high level of skill, particularly the girl – she has a talent for caging glass, particularly rare in one so young. Renamed Tirzah, the girl and her father are bought on behalf of the Magi, a fearsome cult of sorcerers who use the power of numbers as magic.
For the past two centuries the Magi have been building a giant structure, Threshold, which their calculations predict will allow them to cross to the Vale, a well containing the power of creation, that will give them access to immortality and immense power. Glass, carefully crafted, is a key component of the enormous pyramid, but only perfection will do.
Project head Magus Boaz doubts Tirzah’s skills, and demands she cage a vase – one riddled with weaknesses, microscopic cracks and other flaws. Though her father laughed at her when she told him of it as a child, Tirzah can communicate with glass – she reads the vase and, knowing how and where to cut and, inspired by an old tale, frees a design of frogs and reeds to creates beauty where once was only dulled imperfection. The onlookers are amazed, none more so than Boaz, who sweeps up the gladdened glass... and dashes it to the floor.
Thus is Tirzah inducted into the way of the Magi. Single-minded in their pursuit of the One, they rule tyrannically. Their cruelty is not confined to the slaves – when Tirzah first enters Threshold she is so overwhelmed by the despair of the imprisoned glass, which cries agonizingly, that she collapses to the ground. This alerts a subgroup of her glassmaking companions that Tirzah, too, is an Elemental – able to communicate both with elements and with the peaceable, benevolent Soulenai. Tirzah learns that the enslaved Elementals are plotting to overpower the Magi and destroy Threshold. But Threshold grows stronger and more malevolent by the day, and Tirzah suspects that force may not be the best way to defeat it. And if the Magi can cross in to the Vale, something can cross from the Vale in to the world…
Threshold’s an absorbing combination of fantasy, action and romance, with a strong Gaia-type spirituality running through the text. Douglas creates a convincing sense of threat and malevolence from the apparently inanimate creation, and I liked her character development, particularly Tirzah’s arc – Douglas explores the seductive effects of security and comfort on drive and determination.
I was a little surprised there was no reflection on slavery in a society where one act of fate can turn anyone from respected citizen to slave, but it’s also the case that we’re often unable to see our own society with clear eyes.
This was my most belated introduction to Douglas, as I was given Threshold a decade or so ago, and it’s taken another trip away to have me dig through my unread backlog. I’ll be leaving Threshold on the train when I disembark at Bath in an hour, but enjoyed the experience and will check out what else Douglas has written. - Alex