I plan to write a fuller review after reading more of the series, but really enjoyed this. As a kid I read the first couple of books in this series, and now I suspect the reason I didn’t finish is that Elliott’s adult novels are geared toward adult tastes and interests, more so than most popular fantasy, which tends to be heavy on the adolescent wish-fulfillment, action/adventure and romance. Not to say that there aren’t elements of that here, but this probably isn’t the fantasy to buy for your teenage niece or nephew.
The worldbuilding stands out, especially this time around. It’s closely based on the early Middle Ages (France and Germany, I believe). Some fantasy readers prefer more original worlds, but I’ve always been partial to historical fantasy; to me a world based on real culture and history is always going to feel more complex and nuanced and authentic than one invented by a single author, and that holds true here. This is no cardboard quasi-medieval setting; it feels like the real thing, complete with economics that make sense (you can’t just levy an army out of nowhere and go haring off without considering the planting and harvesting!). Even rarer for fantasy, Elliott also portrays a religion and a Church as powerful and ubiquitous as in the actual Middle Ages. And rarer still, the portrayal of this through-a-glass-darkly version of the Roman Catholic Church is quite complex – it contains many people with various motivations, neither all one thing nor easily dismissed. (I’ve seen occasional readers feel that the inclusion of all this religion is preachy, but am quite sure that’s not Elliott’s intent. For one thing, she’s Jewish.) But with all that, this is a more gender-egalitarian world than our own (gender roles exist but dictate which positions of power people ought to occupy, rather than whether they should). There is a much more diverse cast than we get in most epic fantasy – with roughly equal numbers of male and female characters, as well as a few who are non-white – which is fun to read about.
The characters here have a lot of potential, leaving me looking forward to future books; it is a big story with a large cast, and the characters feel like they could be real people, not just genre shorthand for them. Of the two major plotlines, I remembered Liath’s much better than Alain’s. Liath is a vulnerable young woman whose storyline in the first half of the book involves her getting trapped in an abusive situation that feels quite realistic – it is a long shot from the blood’n’guts of many fantasy novels these days, but perhaps more memorable for it. An interesting choice for a fantasy novel, and one whose resulting trauma seems to have frustrated many readers, as well as some of the characters. Alain’s plotline is more conventional – young man discovers the wider world, has mysterious parentage, experiences battle – but I enjoyed his complicated relationship with the Church (Alain is a genuinely good person, unlike a lot of the blandly inoffensive protagonists out there) and his position in a retinue on the “bad” side. The macro plot is similar to that of many epic fantasies – kingdom is torn by internal strife while invaded by evil creatures – but it feels fresh and engaging and, if this volume is any indication, Elliott intends to keep things moving rather than just set it up and leave us in a holding pattern for five books. At least, I hope that is the case, because this book is very promising and I want more like it!