The Nine Kingdoms series is another offering from a writer who normally writes romance. Despite the fact that these books are placed in the romance section at bookstores (along with the rest of Kurland’s work, which belongs there), they are fantasy. Not fantasy-romance like Shana Abé, but romantic fantasy–the difference to my mind being that in fantasy-romance, the plot and the events of the book are based on the love story (like traditional romance novels), while in romantic fantasy there is a larger story in which the romance is neither the main/only plotline nor the focus of the storytelling.
Check out our interview with Lynn Kurland
The basic storyline involves the mercenary sword-master Morgan (a woman, so perhaps I should call her a sword-mistress), who loathes magic, setting off on a quest to bring a magical dagger to the hidden magical kingdom of Tor Neroche. On the way she and her usual traveling companions meet up with several unlikely companions, including the dispossessed-of-his-magic king of Tor Neroche and his mage-master brother; their party becomes the target of several magical attacks, which seem to be aimed not at the king or the prince but at Morgan. Her murky heritage might just be more dangerous than she realized, and she might just be the key to saving Tor Neroche…and the happiness of its mage.
I discovered Kurland’s foray into fantasy through the inclusion of a Nine Kingdoms piece in two novella collections (both stories fall in the past of the world compared to the time of Star of the Morning), so I went into the book with a pretty clear idea of what to expect from the writing, as it relates to the manner of storytelling, dialogue, and characterization. In this case, foreknowledge was important to full enjoyment of the book, mostly because the tone seems for the most part a light-hearted mockery of quest or sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Either that, or it is an appalling conglomeration of the worst clichés of the form, and while I find that interpretation a stretch, I must acknowledge the possibility. It does not take itself too seriously, despite the weight of the story (fate of the world, end of times if the evil sorcerer can’t be conquered, etc., etc.); the tone is whimsical, even if the story is not.
The hero–Miach, the king’s mage brother and chief advisor–is the best-developed and most sympathetic character, followed by Morgan’s long-time admirer. Morgan herself is a bit too prickly and un-read for my tastes; she’s a jock not a scholar, or “a fighter not a lover,” to use the language of the marvelous “What’s My Pirate Name” quiz. Furthermore she can’t seem to decide between arrogance herself and crippling self-doubt, BUT she kicks some serious ass (literally, she’s a vicious sword-wielder) and so is nonetheless at least a nice departure from conniving females or wilting females. As far as the rest of the characters go, there is little to say. They are stock characters chosen to fill a role, and while they play those roles with aplomb they don’t really offer anything unique or even individual. Often the characters’ waffling on decisions or balking at accepting the logical conclusions seems contrived. I’m guessing this is a failure of the author to sufficiently cloak the truth so that it surprises the audience and allows the reader to ponder the shocking possibility with the characters.
Despite my occasional cringe at an especially stilted exchange of “witticisms” and the well-trodden paths of destiny (arrogant young king to be put in his place, daughter of mysterious lineage to come into her legacy, strangely omniscient and omnipotent evil-doer to create problems at just exactly the worst moments), I found this book thoroughly entertaining. It is a quest story with the high stakes and drama required for a good quest story, and it wove together the elements fantasy readers have seen many times before into something fresh, if not revolutionary. I had a smile on my face throughout, and I was certainly captured by the mystery of who Morgan is, why the king lost his magic, what exactly is coming after them, and how they can save the world. I also enjoyed the sparks between Morgan and Miach, which–never fear for any of you who don’t also like to read romance–never take over the story or become the point of the events.
Star of the Morning is the first book of a trilogy, and it ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger note. I enjoyed it very much and expect to like the sequels just as well. But this book is not for everyone, not even every reader of quest fantasy. It has to be taken as a tongue-in-cheek legend of a fantasy world, akin perhaps to our glorifications of the Old West, and as a vehicle for a story of predestined lovers in a world where Fate undeniably exists. As such, it succeeds. But even my eyebrows went up in a few places, so it is definitely walking that fine line between discretion and disaster…
So this is the second book in the Nine Kingdoms series, and even though the first one ended on a cliffhanger, this section doesn’t actually pick up right where the first left off. Rather, we come in a month later. Morgan has survived the poisoning by the evil mastermind sorcerer (whom Miach’s ancestors had a chance to kill and decided to let one of their descendents take out instead) that ends the first book. She is still recovering at her childhood foster-father’s, and Miach has contained the spreading evil for the time being and can now follow his heart. Most of the book is wrapped up in the two of them finally admitting their love for one another, and Morgan getting past the whole Miach lied to her thing and then Morgan accepting who she really is–the daughter of an elven princess and one of the most evil mages of all time. (Except, you know, the one Miach’s great-to-the-nth-power grandfather chose to not kill.)
For a 378-page book, not really a lot happens…if you’re thinking about how much normally happens in a fantasy book. But the books aren’t, strictly speaking, fantasy, and I think this second in the trilogy kind of shows that. What they are is romantic fantasy, and this book progressed at about the normal pace and level of emotional exposition for a romance novel. The first book hid its nature much more cleverly; it was more of a fantasy adventure story with some romance thrown in, whereas this was a romance story with a bit of fantasy adventure thrown in.
I enjoyed the book all the same, even with that said. It was less tongue-in-cheek than the first one; it seemed like it had settled down into a book that was taking itself seriously as a story, rather than seeing itself as a farce. It could still laugh at itself, yeah, but it seemed to have developed some self-respect. (The first one was almost too self-mocking to be taken seriously. Either that or too bad to be taken seriously, and between that one’s writing and this one’s, the editors sat down with LK and had a discussion with her about how to write fantasy. Either way.) The slow forgiveness Morgan extends to Miach, and the deepening of their feelings for one another and trust of one another was handled very well. It unfolded at a believable pace, and for believable reasons.
Basically, this is the second book in a trilogy, in a profoundly hilarious way. Most second books end up being the throw-away book, the one wherein all the action that happens proves to be fruitless because the biggest conflict is still to come, etc., etc. The pointlessness of this second book’s action was handled differently than, say, Joe Abercrombie did with Before They Are Hanged, where at the end of the book the characters discover they’ve traveled across the world for absolutely no reason. No, Lynn Kurland handled it by simply not putting action in the book at all. The book was a set-up for what will be the final quest and show-down against the evil mastermind. It was expository in terms of the characters’ personal histories and the history of their world. I kind of like the take; it was an honest way for LK to say, “If I were writing strict fantasy, this would be a duology, but since I’m writing romance fantasy, it’s a trilogy, so come get your romance before it goes all Dragonlance again.”
I’m excited to jump into the third book in hand and find out how everything goes down. As with any good romance, I am 95% sure how it will end, but that’s okay–these books are a good yarn, an extended fairy tale, and read for the enjoyment of the story and the characters rather than to be surprised or philosophically hounded by the ultimate outcome of events.
This third and final novel of the Nine Kingdoms trilogy was closer in style to the first than the second. It had more action propelling the story forward and less character development, since all the characters who needed to come to terms with who they are had taken care of that in the second book.
There was a pretty specific list of wrap-ups that had to happen: the correct spell for closing the well of evil had to be found, then they had to reforge the magic sword Morgan broke at the end of the first book, then they had to go close the well, and then they had to fight the most evil putz of a sorcerer of all time–you know, the one the ancestors didn’t kill when they had the chance. And that’s what happened, along with some other minor happenings that it would spoil the surprise to talk about.
I was a bit surprised at the timing of some of the events. I supposed (for no good reason, really) that the reforging of the sword would be a big deal or take a big quest to get there. Nah. Just a chapter. I think it was a case where the author is, again, more of a romance writer than a fantasy writer, in two senses of that distinction. First, she wasn’t interested in sending them off on trumped-up, stretched-out-needlessly quests the way a lot of epic fantasy writers like to do. And second, she was more interested in giving the characters ample time to talk about how much they loved each other in a few key places, so if she had a 400-page limit then she only had so much room for adventuring, anyway, and she was saving it for the moments that really mattered. It was a nice sense of timing, actually. It covered what needed to be covered, left time for an extended denouement, and didn’t really waste time with irrelevencies (at least, irrelevent pieces of action).
The one beef I have with the end (this is a spoiler, but, come on, did you really think it wasn’t going to be a happy ending?) is that they, again, didn’t kill the evil sorcerer. If the hero(es) was/were totally opposed to killing, that would be one thing. But, I’m sorry, when you’ve been killing people for 2 days in battle and you have in hand the man who kidnapped and tortured you as a young man, killed your parents, almost killed the woman you love (who is not a pacificist opposed to killing, by the way, so you can’t claim it’s so she won’t stop loving you), just killed your brother, and was all around the most evil bastard pretty much ever, it is unrealistic to not kill him. It’s the fucking Batman not dropping the Joker off the building when he had the chance in The Dark Knight thing–the author can’t bear to have her hero kill someone while he’s “helpless” so he doesn’t. Leaves it to the next generation AGAIN. It doesn’t make any sense, not from a moralistic point of view (since none of the characters were opposed to killing) nor from a practical point of view (because it made no sense to not kill him). The closest thing I heard to an argument against killing him from one of the characters was that one of his sons will just take over…um, seems to me that if he’s imprisoned and effectively removed from power that one of his sons will be taking over the family business of mayhem and destruction ANYWAY. I suppose there is also the matter of needing him alive to reverse a spell against one of the family members, but that argument seems to me too great a risk for the risk/reward ratio, and thus the compassion Miach shows to the enemy was, to me, kind of a lame piece of moralizing on the part of the author there at the end.
Otherwise, events wrapped up as they were supposed to (and I can’t say the above aspect of the end really surprised me). Overall, a good yarn for a long winter night…and one that needs to be taken that way, both for its tone and its content.
I had this book on my shelf for the better part of a year before I picked it up to read. I had really enjoyed the original trilogy in the Nine Kingdoms world Kurland started in a couple fantasy-romance novelas (for anthologies), but she uses a style of storytelling that lends itself to a certain mood. It has always struck me as being an almost tongue-in-cheek parodic tone poking (loving) fun at the quasi-archaic language and bardic tale form of many epic fantasy, while gleefully diving into the worst cliches of it. So, between needing the mood for something light even its darkest moments and assuming this was a completely new cast in a completely new time period from the trilogy, it took me a while before I had that evening where I looked at my shelf and thought, Yes, THAT one. Honestly? Waiting that long was a mistake. (Er…sort of. The flip side of not enjoying this book sooner than I did is that I only have to wait a month for the sequel, which comes out in early 2011.)
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this book is the start of a new sequence–presumably also a trilogy–that parallels the other three books in the series. It is about one of Morgan’s brothers, Ruith, who also survived their father’s display of ultimate evil power (although the survival of three of seven children, vs. none at all, is starting to call into question the efficacy of his prowess), who has kept himself hidden all these years by capping his own magic and living like a hermit. He is drawn into the quest of Sarah, unmagical (or is she?) daughter of a powerful witch, who has to stop her brother from his quest to cover the world in evil using the pieces he has of Ruith’s father’s spells.
At this point this new sequence can stand alone, because while it made references to a couple of the characters from the first three books, it did not intersect with that story at all, and by the end of it we know where the timelines match up, but the siblings (Morgan and Ruith) have not yet encountered evidence of one another. Obviously, or I would have known what it was from the back description. But I feel eventually stories will intersect, and this angle of the storytelling will pick up the end of the first trilogy’s arc and tie up some of the loose ends. So if you like the sound of this book, it can be the first one you read, but you should probably pick up the others at some point.
One of the things I think worked best for me in this book was that it toned down the archness of the original series. Does this imply I was misreading, and Kurland wasn’t trying to be tongue in cheek with the fake archaic heroic tone, and has finally figured out how to write fantasy? Or is it just that for these characters or this story–or based on reviews/comments deriding the tone of the first trilogy–she decided it was appropriate to bring it a little more in line with a traditional fantasy? I feel like the whimsy here is about on par with Tolkien’s opening chapters about hobbits, and, while I did not mind the way the other books were written, this one did work better for me in that respect.
I really enjoyed the way the romance between Sarah and Ruith developed. It started out contentious but that faded fairly quickly into a companionable trust; the courtship through conflict is fun, but I don’t think it’s the only path to true love, and these two are just not senticous enough on a personal level for that kind of butting heads to work. Instead their romance develops sweetly, and I like that just as much or maybe more. Since I am mentioning that the books again have a love story underpinning the major plot, I should point out that these books get shelved in Romance, not Science Fiction/Fantasy. Personally, I think they are put in romance only because Kurland is a known romance author; based on the content of the stories, I think they should be in fantasy. If Sharon Shinn and Anne Bishop are fantasy and not romance, then so are the Nine Kingdoms books.
For being a standard fantasy road-trip quest, the events nonetheless took a few surprising turns. I especially enjoyed the trail of failed attacks Sarah’s brother has left behind him, and how each of those damaged mages ends up in their party. It backed up that neither Sarah nor Ruith are, in fact, hard-hearted, despite what they might think about themselves. Also the mysterious stranger whose identity is only given as someone who likes to thwart the doing of good intrigues me; is he one of the old evil mages, or just a contrarian? And Ruith’s reluctance to use his magic goes back and forth between being frustrating–as you want him to just embrace his true self–and a relief as you realize because his magic is walled away, it cannot be used against him. Sarah’s seeming lack of power is obviously going to prove to be an unusual power; there have been hints about what it is, but she has yet to discover her power, and I am very curious to know just what it is she can do.
The next book in this sequence comes out January 4, and I’m significantly more excited about it than I initially was about this one. I found A Tapestry of Spells to be a sweet beginning of a romance and a dark, unexpected adventure, and since it ended on quite the cliffhanger I can’t wait to find out what happens next!
Spellweaver is the latest book in Lynn Kurland’s fantasy-romance Nine Kingdoms series and the direct sequel to A Tapestry of Spells. This makes it the middle book of a trilogy that parallels the first three Nine Kingdoms books; at the end of this book the two stories had still not come together, but the distance between them has been cut down significantly, though, knowing where the third book will go (it’s set up very obviously at the end of this one), I’m not sure if the two sets of characters will intersect partway through the final leg of Ruith’s quest or not until he and Sarah have successfully finished it.
This book was different from the first trilogy’s second book in that it didn’t have the two characters running around on fool’s errands or sitting in stasis talking about their feelings. Instead they were busy continuing their initial quest and learning what Sarah really is. On that note, I want to discuss Kurland’s use of the “old wise man” character in this series. Fantasy is notorious for having someone like Gandalf offer cryptic advice or vague warnings that are only helpful retrospectively, presumably because the wiser character doesn’t want to influence events or decisions that should be made solely by the (ignorant) character who is forced to choose one path or another. Either that or they all have Cassandra complexes, and are terrified no one will ever believe them if they simply speak the truth. Kurland plays with this idea repeatedly in this book, having Sarah and Ruith encounter not one, not two, but three people who knew exactly who Sarah was–and therefore what she was likely to be–and only the third, non-friendly one, will tell the girl about it. The others make it clear they know more about her than she does but refuse to elaborate because it would take away from her the path to self-discovery. Hm. Well, it seems to me that if her life path has taken her into the presence of someone who looks at her and sees the ghost of her dead mother, that it’s a natural place on her life path to learn the truth; and how, exactly, is it supposed to be better for her to learn it when she accidentally ventures into the presence of someone who would kill her for her power, versus in the presence of someone who has benign intentions toward her? Clearly the point of such behavior in this series is to poke fun at those sage and dignified figures in fantasy writing–which, let’s face it, is a lampooning those smug know-it-alls pretty well deserve. 🙂
By the time we get to the truth of Sarah’s past and her power, the mystery is more about the specifics than the existence of some unusual magic and a heritage that isn’t what she had always been told. The explicit revelation came near the end of the book, and it left a lot of room for curiosity about what all Sarah can do now that she knows what she has to work with. It’s also clear that she is on this quest not by accident but because she is probably the only person who can help Ruith finish what he needs to do to destroy his father’s legacy once and for all.
Ruith’s true quest is revealed at the very end, and it is dark and scary and kind of a surprise, but one that immediately makes sense and has a decently clear back-trail of hints. They just could have been hints leading in another direction, too, so the big villain of this trilogy remained in the shadows until now. It will be exciting to see Ruith and Sarah on the last leg of their adventure; now the only problem is waiting until next winter to read it!
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.