This flintlock fantasy (meaning a Napoleon-Era-like setting and wars that are fought with muskets, bayonets, and artillery . . . and magic) is the second book in a series that began with The Thousand Names. That book was in many ways a war chronicle. This one turns to the homefront after the military victory obtained in the first book, and to the Royal Palace at Ohnlei, where the king is dying, and his only heir, 20-year-old Raesinia, is scheduled to become Queen.
In The Thousand Names we became aware that in this kingdom there were forces of darkness operating, members of a shadowy church employing supernatural powers. They apparently started out as a movement to destroy the evil demons of the world, but ended up very much in their service. These so-called “Black Priests” have mostly died out, but seek a return to power. They have a powerful ally in the kingdom, Duke Orlanko, the Minister of Information. The Duke, sort of a mashup of J. Edgar Hoover and Dick Cheney with even more evil intent, has used his position to bring most of the kingdom under his control.
Opposing the Duke’s efforts are two very powerful and determined women: Raesinia, who wants to return power to the people and end the tyranny of the Duke, and Sothe, who used to work for Orlanko for evil but now works for Raesinia for good.
But this amazing fantasy series gives us more than just these two brave women fighting for the forces of light. There are any number of women who not only aid the movement but help to lead it. Truly one feels like singing “Sisters Doin’ It For Themselves” while reading this book. There is Winter Ihernglass, who joined the army disguised as a boy and got promoted for her resourcefulness and bravery; Jane Verity, her former lover, who now leads a group of women in the capital working for more freedoms and calling themselves “the Leatherbacks”; Cora, a 14-year-old recruit of Raesinia (who leaves the palace at night in disguise to agitate among university students) and has a singular talent for raising funds for the cause; Cyte (short for Cytomandiclea, an ancient queen and heroine of the kingdom) who wants to help however she can; and Abby, who lets principle take precedence over her personal wants.
These women and many others in the story make significant contributions in every aspect of the struggle against Orlanko, a struggle which centers around events reminiscent of the storming of the Bastille and fight for liberty in Revolutionary France.
We also have a return of two endearing male characters from the first book: Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, who is not brilliant, but conscientious and loyal, and Count Colonel Janus bet Vhlanich Mieran, now newly appointed Minister of Justice.
Discussion: Raesinia’s exploits, full of daring, and magic, will keep you on the edge of your seat, and her loyalty to her friends and family will win your heart. Likewise, the bravery of Sothe, Cora, and Winter will inspire your admiration.
Most of the relationships explored in this book are between women, and especially, among Winter, Jane, and Abby. The author has written a military fantasy with the central characters involved in lesbian relationships without making this aspect of the book seem anything other than a romantic involvement of soldiers. The relationships are warm, realistic, without gratuitous prurience, and without dominating the main thrust of the action.
Count Vlahnich is, as in the first book, still a little too prescient to be realistic, but since the character Marcus wonders about this as well, it’s possible we will learn why this is so in the third book.
Evaluation: This isn’t really a standalone book, but should be read after The Thousand Names. I hope that lovers of both fantasy and books with strong female characters will discover this series, because it is quite entertaining, has a number of memorable characters, and most of all, is very unique in its use of females in central roles in a typically male-dominated military setting.
Published by ROC, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA), 2014