May contain light spoilers... but I also may lie about who survives, so there!
My friend Harry Connolly (20 PALACES novels) has a new epic trilogy and the last book was released yesterday... but I have already read it along with it’s brother and sister. Harry’s first 20 PALACES novel CHILD OF FIRE was one of Publisher’s Weekly’s 100 Best Books Of 2009 and got a starred review. The first novel in this new series also got a great starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, so you don’t have to take my word for it’s quality. It kicks ass.
My plan with the first book, THE WAY INTO CHAOS, was to read a chapter or two every night before going to sleep, except every danged chapter ends with a cliffhanger and you end up reading the next chapter and the next chapter and the next chapter and suddenly it is 4am and you realize you have to work the next day (well, that same day), and... There’s a chapter that ends with the hero falling off a flying boat into a city overrun with monsters! How are we expected to just set the book down and falll asleep? Impossible!
There are two protagonists, and if you pay attention to the art next to the chapter number you’ll know which this chapter is about.
“Tyr” Tejohn is a legendary warrior without a war, who ends up with a cushy palace job as weapons instructor and bodyguard to the slacker Prince. A good thing, because age has crept up on Tejohn and his knees and eyesight aren’t what they once were. But he still has his hands full, the Prince would rather get drunk and cause trouble. When the Empire suddenly falls to an unknown enemy (monsters they call “grunts” who hunt, kill & eat humans), Tejohn must get the Prince and his slacker friends to safety... but what if there is no safety?
Cazia is one of the Prince’s slacker friends, a spoiled teenaged sorcery student who may be the last survivor who knows how to cast spells. She and Tejohn don’t like each other, but both are sworn to protect the Prince. So we have our sword and our sorcery... in a world which has suddenly gone to hell. All of the characters are fully formed flesh and blood people and the world created is complex and fascinating. I particularly liked how before the fall of the empire, the ability to sing a song that tugs the heartstrings of the audience is more valuable than gold. The book also does a great job of giving both male and female characters equal time, so whether you’re looking for epic battle scenes with an aging warrior or a magical story about a teen sorceress learning how to use her powers with the fate of the world at stake, this book has you covered.
Publisher’s Weekly called it “immersive, thrilling, and elf-free epic fantasy”, and even though this is epic fantasy, the story is more like King Arthur and Merlin than Lord Of The Rings. The magic is logical and well grounded: one of the handful of spells turns air into water... which might even be possible through science. In other words: I had no trouble believing any of it even though I’m more into crime fiction these days. Oh, and though there is violence there is no sex of any kind. This is something I might have read as a teenager.
The second book in the trilogy is my favorite, it’s the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK of the trilogy. That’s not to imply there are singing teddy bears who live in a tree house city in the third book (though there are talking alligators in a log city at the bottom of a lake, but they’re scary as hell!). Tejohn our warrior and Cazia our apprentice sorceress split up on two different missions to try to save whatever’s left of their world... and both face darkness within that they never knew existed.
Tejohn travels across the ravaged land to find the Prince’s wizard uncle who may know a spell that can save mankind from the grunts... before there isn’t any mankind left to save. Now that the empire has dissolved, his status is no longer currency and he finds himself struggling to survive as a commoner (and worse). In the past he could roll into a city and they would give him the best room and meals and anything else he wanted, he was a “Tyr”... now that his privilege is gone he must pay for everything in labor (which doesn’t get him much). Plus, all of the kingdoms which were in alliance as the Empire are now fighting among themselves, and Tejohn speaks the language of the enemy. No shortage of battles... and Tejohn comes to realize frightening truths about himself that he never wanted to know.
Cazia leads two other girls into the forbidden Valley Of Qorr, where monsters lurk... and perhaps the answers to where the grunts came from. Yes, girls. Not women. Cazia is only 15 years old, and with her is the preteen Princess Ivy who is betrothed to the Prince in an arranged marriage, plus a beautiful slave girl Kinz. The three go on an amazing adventure which could have been a full length novel in itself. When I was a kid MYSTERIOUS ISLAND was one of my favorite movies, and the Valley Of Qorr has all of the adventure and monsters of that film... or maybe of the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s big fantasy adventure, and these three girls are challenged every step of the way. But just as Luke Skywalker learns about the darkside of The Force in EMPIRE, Cazia learns about the darkside of sorcery on this adventure... and it takes a toll that I will not spoil for you.
The great thing about these books is that *anyone* can die in them, and all of the characters are so well drawn that you care about even the minor characters. There’s an old woman traveling saleswoman who turns everything into a deal and has so much personality that she leaps off the page. Also, the world building continues in this book, and the details are amazing. The way an oxen herd is fed as it is on the move is impossible to forget. Oh, and note how fleshtone is part of the class system in this world... that’s kind of fun. One of the great things about all three books are the bits of mystery: in this book we discover that someone from the surprise attack on the castle in the first book has survived... but we don’t know who that is until it is revealed later in the book. Is it the King? The Queen? One of the other characters we grew to love who we thought died? Things like this help drive the story. The other great thing are the characters dealing with the dark sides... and throughout all three books the idea that everything they know is wrong. They see the world from their point of view, and when that world is destroyed they see things as they really are... which is often the opposite of what they believed it to be.
Though everything gets worse for our two heroes in this book, they get better for the reader!
The final book continues to twist expectations. Tejohn and Cazia are reunited and find the Prince’s Master Sorcerer Uncle, who has extremely poor housekeeping skills. They develop the weapon that can kill the “grunts”, but now they need an army to go into battle and use that weapon. Problem is, soldiers are the first casualties in any war... and now they are left with farmers and children. Tejohn and Cazia try to round up an army: Tejohn at the Twofin Fortress where he knows there are a handful of good soldiers, and Cazia in the castle of her estranged father (which is far enough away from ground zero in the grunt attack that they may not have been attacked yet). Both find situations are not exactly as they seem, and must resolve these problems before they can put together any sort of army...
Once again, anyone can die in these books. There’s a character we come to love who doesn’t make it until the end of the book. That one shocked me, and I had to reread that scene because I just could not believe this person would die. Again, well drawn minor characters make the whole story seem real. There are a bunch of old women servants to the Master Sorcerer Uncle who both love and hate their jobs, and we completely understand each of them. Because the story pushes forward, there are also characters who kind of get left behind (like Kinz) who I really want to spend more time with. The side effect of well drawn characters is that you don’t want them to die or have their subplot stories end.
The other thing that drives this final chapter is the question: why? Why did the grunts attack now? Where did they come from? What do they want (other than to eat people)? And who is behind all of this? These answers are the real solution to the conflict, because if they can find out *why* they can prevent it from happening again. This requires Tejohn and Cazia to form some strange alliances in order to get information... like those scary as hell alligators in their log city. The alligators (Lakeboys) regularly feed on humans, so you are never sure if they are working with Tejohn and Cazia to save themselves from the grunts... or if they are just preparing dinner.
One of the interesting things about this book is a chapter that plays like a scene from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I know that sounds crazy, but there is a scene in this book that has the same feel as that trippy light show end of the Kubrick film. This plays into the idea that everything we know is wrong... that we see the world around us through our eyes and we may not see the truth (which is more complicated). Sometimes we think it’s all about us, when really it has nothing to do with us... we’re just so vain we think that we are the center of the world when we don’t really matter that much. Though these are sword and sorcery fantasy novels filled with sword fights and intrigue, they also have characters who are forced to reevaluate their lives and a story that might make the reader stop and think about our world here on Earth (where we don’t have as many sword fights or giant birds).
I finished reading the third book a few days ago, and I already miss Tejohn and Cazia and Princess Ivy and Kinz. I felt as if I went of this epic adventure with them... and I want to go on another one!
(click on any of the covers above for more info on Amazon!)