The description of this fantasy anthology promises swordfighting and romance. Well, there is some of both in here, though not in every story; but that isn't the key to what gives the book unity. I realized part way through that many of the stories take place in settings where social dynamics involve strict, even ritualized codes of behavior. Actual duels may rarely feature, but the social meanings of forms of confilct are explored (and in some stories, conflict is prevented). More importantly, most of the authors here are extremely attentive to the dynamics of power: who has it, how it plays out, and the ways that people (especially those with less power) work within and against the codes of their society.
Heather Rose Jones has been expertly anatomizing Alpennian society (both like and unlike other 19th-century European countries) and the ways that her characters survive as independent women in a series of novels, and we here have a side story that is just as acute. In "Gifts Tell Truth," Jeanne, Vicomtesse de Cherdillac, is in the process of developing the skills for bringing people together she showed in The Mystic Marriage, and becomes involved in a case of espionage precisely because she understands Alpennian ways well; when she acts, she chooses to do so in a way that heads off violence.
"The Sharpest Cut," by Doranna Durgin, takes place in Denbarra, the most ritualized society in the book. I enjoyed the way that the author described the elaboration of clothing as symbols. The story concerns the fine line between the use of "honor" and propriety to smooth relations between people, and its use as weapons to shore up the power of people who have the upper hand. (It is stated that this is a very non-violent society, on the surface at least: they fight with disapproval not swords.) Abuse of power is a growing problem in Denbarra in this story and its main characters figure out how to act against it in a very Denbarran manner.
In "The Game of Lions," by Marella Sands, the main characters are the members of a women's team playing an international exhibition match of tikta (a game similar to cricket) in a quasi-African setting. Although the social mores described aren't wildly oppressive, still, as young women the players are disregarded and unimportant. They wind up using that very fact to their advantage when they need to be overlooked doing something daring to prevent a war. And their other advantage is their alliance with each other. The captain of the opposing team has some remarks to make about the relative importance of men's conflicts versus activities that bring people together, like tikta. And there's a sub-thread to the story about polygynous marriage and how women's alliances or conflicts work out in that setting.
"Hearts of Broken Glass," by Rosemary Edghill, is the bloodiest and most pessimistic story in the anthology. There is not the least disguise of the oppressive and violent use of power in this society, a European-type aristocracy. The main character is a well-born woman who's been fiercely schooled in disciplined obedience. Yet she may become desperate enough to break loose, even if she can't do much except run away to somewhere else (a difficult thing requiring toughness)--realizing that the game is unwinnable accompanies refusing to play the game.
Other themes that run throughout the anthology are justice, and choosing to act rightly when you have or win the power to act. "At the Sign of the Crow and Quill" by Marie Brennan is a particularly neat little story on this theme: its main character is truly heroic not because he wins a swordfight, but because of what he does after he wins: he makes a choice that splendidly turns his opponent's power-hungriness on its head, at the same time refusing to grasp for power himself.
"A Sword for Liberty" by Diana L. Paxson is set during the American Revolution and is fantasy only in that the goddess Libertas has a great deal of reality to its main character. I was suprised by how well the story worked. The difficulty of reconciling the grand ideals expressed in such documents as the Declaration of Independence with intolerent, racist, sexist, slave-owning reality is its theme. The ultimate affirmation of idealism can only be prevented from being facile if the idealist has been sufficiently faced by reasons to have reservations, and I believe the main character here was. The story's sitll sentimental, though, and making a (semi-repentent) slave-owner into a heroic character is a hard sell.
This is an imperfect anthology. I'm pretty sure there are no writers of color among the authors, which is a serious problem. There are a few stories that are poor stuff, and more that I forgot the instant I turned their last page. Even some of the better stories can be awkward. And the final story in the volume, while quite nice, doesn't seem to fit in thematically. Still, overall the combination of stories was a strong one, and they actually enhanced each other.
(Fourth Talisman #2)
Published by: Acorn Publishing
Publication date: February 19th 2018
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
In the second volume of the Fourth Talisman series, Nazafareen’s path takes a twist, setting her on a journey into the heart of the maelstrom…
It’s been a thousand years since the Avas Vatras tried to burn the world to ashes. A thousand years since they were imprisoned in the brutal wasteland called the Kiln. But revenge is a dish best served cold—even, apparently, by the children of fire.
In Delphi, Nazafareen joins forces with the followers of Dionysius to rescue her friends from the Oracle’s dungeons and seek out the three talismans whose extraordinary powers stopped the Vatras before. With her own breaking magic growing stronger by the day, she must walk a razor’s edge to control her volatile temper. And if the Vatras find the talismans first, their last hope will die.
In the frozen wastes of the Valkirin range, Victor strikes an uneasy bargain with bitter enemies to keep his tenuous grip on the Maiden Keep. The other holdfasts are coming for him. But it’s an enemy within Val Moraine’s walls that may prove to be his downfall.
Nazafareen reached the top of the stairs and tried to see what was going on. The other Maenads quickly fanned out on either side, working their way around the edges of the throng, except for Rhea who was trying to plow her way through. Nazafareen rose onto her tiptoes but she was too short to get a good look.
“Out of the way,” Rhea growled at the middle-aged man ahead of her.
He gave her an incredulous stare.
“And go where?” he demanded.
The crowd was packed cheek to jowl, a dense mass of humanity that might as well have been a brick wall for all the progress they were making.
“Just move!” Rhea snapped. She turned sideways, using her shoulder like a wedge, and began forcing her way through tiny gaps, but they only made it a few paces before she stopped again and cursed under her breath.
“The temple soldiers are holding a tight line in the front,” she whispered. “We’ll never make it. We’d better backtrack.”
Nazafareen wanted to scream in frustration. The ranks had already closed tight behind them. Then the crowd gave a tremendous cheer, tinged with excitement.
“What is it?” Nazafareen asked, her mouth dry with fear. “Can you see them?”
She could smell the sea of unwashed bodies and heavy perfumes, and a hint of something else. Smoke.
Rhea used her staff to poke a woman hard in the back. When she turned with an outraged scowl, Rhea took the chance to peer over the crowd. Her face turned grey.
“They’ve put someone inside the bull,” she hissed. “Oh no…”
Kat Ross worked as a journalist at the United Nations for ten years before happily falling back into what she likes best: making stuff up. She's the author of the dystopian thriller Some Fine Day, the Fourth Element fantasy trilogy (The Midnight Sea, Blood of the Prophet, Queen of Chaos), and a new gaslamp mystery series that opens with The Daemoniac and continues with The Thirteenth Gate. She loves myths, monsters and doomsday scenarios. For more information about Kat's books, come visit her at katrossbooks.com.
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The Queen's Rising is a beautiful and imaginative story about Brienna, a young woman torn between identities, and the journey she takes to help reclaim her heritage.
The tale starts in a kind of quasi-French or other Western European Rennaissance-era kind of place where a very describable goal for children and young people is to 'passion' in a particular school: art, wit, dramatics, music, or knowledge. To do so, children must become 'ardens', attend Houses and train at an average of seven years with a Master or 'ariels'. Then they may graduate by receiving a cloak, find a patron, and continue to pursue their passion. I loved this worldbuilding, I just felt so at home with everything Brienna was learning. Brienna joins Magnolia House, but as she is unable to find a passion she can truly excel at she settles on knowledge, and when she is seventeen she finds it difficult to secure a patron until along comes someone who can help with the mysterious visions she has been experiencing. This patron leads her into a war for the throne of the neighbouring land, from which Brienna's absent father hails, and I think it's more based on the medieval Celts, with women warriors and woad and Irish-Gaelic inspired names.
I think the best thing about this book is the beautiful word choices Ross uses. Whenever there is a chance to use a bland description or a truly beautiful one, Ross manages to grab the beautiful description and wrangle it into her book. Brienna herself was a brave, resourceful character who worked hard to uncover the mysteries surrounding herself and help the plot move along. I loved the time spent in Magnolia House with her arden-sisters and the slow introduction made to the incredible worldbuilding in that respect. Magnolia House was almost like a boarding house crossed with a University and a distinct European feel to it. Think Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Merchant of Venice. I really hope the next books in the series follow Brienna's arden-sisters and we get to see more of this kingdom.
The second half of the book takes place primarily in Maevana, a queen's realm currently being ruled by a cruel king, and Brienna is the answer the rebels have been looking for. Using a disguise, she infiltrates the king's court in an attempt to recover some lost property that will set the real queen back on the throne. This half of the book almost forgets about Brienna's time at Magnolia and turns into a very typical, predictable YA fantasy adventure. Not that there's anything wrong with that! I've simply read enough of these types of stories to know where it's going to go. I still enjoyed it, but I think since the Magnolia House half to me seemed more original and inventive, I liked the worldbuilding better in the first half. The second half, like I said, was more of an adventure that the first half was leading up to, even though they take place in two very different settings.
I do have two issues with the book. Brienna trains for a year with each ariel before she settles on knowledge as her passion, and she only has three years to master it. This means that she’s had some training in music, art, wit and dramatics, and I was really hoping that that training might come in handy during her subterfuge. Yet instead of any of her time at Magnolia being of use, the book is basically split into two parts: Magnolia and post-Magnolia, and it almost seems as if they have nothing in common. Brienna learns to swordfight post-Magnolia, and that comes in handy, but she doesn’t have to use her passion training at all. I think part of the reason why is because she kind of sucked at them, but she doesn’t even really use her expanded knowledge to help her succeed in her mission, so it feels a little disjointed.
The other issue I have with the book is that while there is conflict in that Brienna has a goal and she keeps getting hurdles put in the way, she clears these hurdles rather easily. She’s smart and can come up with solutions to her problems but I never really felt like Ross took the worst thing that could happen to her. It wasn’t exactly helicopter authoring in that Ross put Brienna in bad situations then lifted her out again, just that, for example, when Brienna was risking her life and doing things she shouldn’t be doing, she never got caught by the bad guys, even though I really hoped that was where it was leading.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed The Queen's Rising, with its gorgeous writing and creative and innovative worldbuilding. While I do think the entire story is self-contained and makes an excellent stand-alone, I would also like the next books in the series to focus on Brienna's arden-sisters and their adventures, rather than staying with Brienna and whatever she does next. I guess I'll have to wait and see!
I received this book for free from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.