by Kristen Britain
464 pages, DAW Trade
Review by SF Winser
It's been ages since I've read any epic fantasy. Not the aimed-at-adults kind. And that stuff used to be my escapism of choice about 20 years ago. I've recently been thinking I should go back and see if it's just me maturing beyond an infantile genre or simply because my horizons are broader.
So I started with the first book of this series, 'Green Rider'. And loved it. It had all the action, adventure and magic I remembered from a good dose of fantasy. There wasn't anything immature... I just have broader tastes now, so I get to read this big fantasy stuff less often than I used to. Yay me for maturing and developing more eclectic tastes! Yay epic fantasy for not actually being immature and remaining one of those tastes!
(I'm not doing a good job of impressing you with my maturity here, am I?)
So I spent the next fortnight (and more money than I could afford) buying up the recent UK reissues of the older books and, eventually, the new title, 'Blackveil'.
Fantasy is, first and foremost... fun. If you don't read for fun, then bugger off, this review is not for you. There are lots of reasons to read. Intellectual stimulation and joy in artistic language can be one of them. Fun, however... Story... these have always been the main reasons for me. And there's plenty of that here.
This is very-much character based fantasy. That is not so much that the plot is driven by the characters—There're too many political infights/big bad monsters/interfering supernatural forces to be able to claim that as entirely true—but that readers tend to fall in love with the characters and want to see what happens to them next.
Karigan is our main character. She's a sixteen year-old student, daughter of a self-made wealthy man and she's just been expelled from school for fighting with bullies. In a mixture of self-righteous huff and confidence that she can walk across the country without problems and explain the situation to her gruff-but-loving father face-to-face, she sets off into the wild without telling anyone where she's going.
And then a King's Messenger—a Green Rider—falls off his horse in front of her, two arrows in his back and a message she MUST deliver or the kingdom will fall to dark forces.
And so begins Karigan's life of adventure. She has been chosen by the Green Riders, who have a bit of magic in their make-up, to perform the task of messenger until she dies or is rejected by the messenger service. The death thing happens to lots of riders.
Each of the novels is, in a way, stand alone. There is a minor story arc which must be resolved and usually is. However, they fit into a broader arc involving an amorphous, ancient Big Bad, a star-crossed romance or two and ancient races, ancient lineages and the history of the Green Riders and their sister organisation The Black Shields. The later books also have a minor character arc involving a gentlemen thief, some pirates and an ancient magic.
They're fun and new in lots of ways. There is magic, but most of it's minor in scope—no grand flame-throwing mages here. Karigan is involved in battles for the kingdom, but usually in small ways. The simple fact that Karigan is pretty much just a glorified postal-rider makes this an unusual take on fantasy from the beginning.
In Blackveil Karigan has joined a quest to investigate the tainted land of the Big Bad I mentioned earlier. He is missing in time, the wall that separates his twisted lands is temporarily breached and if any investigation of the old, overtaken Eletian (aka Elven) ruins is going to happen, it must happen now. But this involves a party of Elts, one of whom once tried to assassinate Karigan, an Eletian princess who doesn't want to go and a brand new assassin sent by the Princess-to-be's family to kill Karigan before the King falls in love with her any more than he already has.
This isn't a Frodo-sque adventure into Mordor, with the fate of the world in balance. It's a dangerous and deadly journey, in bad company, for unknown and probably non-existent reward.
The magic systems are subtle and interesting. As is typical of ongoing stories involving magical or superheroic powers, Karigan's very minor abilities get a bit of feature-creep. But they remain, always, taxing and dangerous. The varied and always 'minor' powers of the Green Riders are handled very well by Britain. The wild magic of Blackveil and its minions is creepy and creeping. There's no feeling of 'Dungeons and Dragons-Lite' that pervades many fantasy series. The magic here comes from many places and is often very hard to access. When it is used, the effects are minimal and sometimes counterproductive.
Speaking of counter-productive, Britain has a great way of interweaving character interactions that makes the world feel very real—good characters, acting for good reasons, end up accidentally advancing their own destruction, or end up helping out the 'bad guys'. And vice versa. And some good characters aren't entirely good. And some bad characters aren't entirely bad. Each side has its share of moral-grey-area inhabitants.
Not to say that there are two sides. There are factions, and dynasties and families and societies and individuals who all have their own sometimes conflicting agendas. The background Big Bad only really puts in a truly directed appearance toward the latter end of the series—every other 'negative' plot device is done second-hand or for nefarious purposes that have nothing to do with the overly ambitious 'Take over the world' plan of the traditional Big Bad.
And that brings me to my main problem with the series. This is a great approach but... well... after four rather thick books I'm starting to pine a bit for a traditional resolution. We need the Big Bad defeated. Karigan and the King need to get their groove on or one of them needs to move on. The secret ambitions of the otherwise benevolent Black Shields towards Karigan need to be revealed and whatever the hell is going on with her and the God of Death really needs to be sorted soon or I'm gonna start getting grumpy. Also: fix the four-book problem of the hole in the damn D'yer Wall already. It's all well and good to keep this grand theme stuff in the background—the real world does work more like that, of course—but we DO need this stuff to be worked out eventually. And soonish. This IS fantasy. We read it because it's not the real world. I really want that revelation soon. Especially since Britain takes a few years to write each book.