Sydney is a nineteen year old orphan of unknown parentage, but she was brought up by Edgar who had the misfortune to be hanged four years before for working against the all-powerful Guild. She makes a living by picking pockets in the town of Last Hope. As always in these cases, I wonder why Edgar, who seemed like a nice enough chap, made no better provision for her, and how it is that there are no respectable jobs she could be doing, and how come she appears to have no other friends apart from a prostitute and a boyfriend who’d like to pimp her out. Luckily, just as she’s about to be hanged herself, she’s mysteriously taken off to the Wizard Tree and rescued by – surprise! – a wizard. And from there on, the story becomes a race to vanquish the evil Guild and their even more evil overlord Schrammig in order to put the king’s bastard son on the throne.
This is the fantasy equivalent of easy-listening music – charming, comfortable and conventional. Wizards are nice people (apart from the evil wizard, of course) who can do pretty much anything the plot requires without apparent effort, while not being able to do anything which would make life too easy. The bad guy is an appropriately nasty character (we know this because he has a scar; oh yes, and he drags people off to be hanged, as well). There’s the Guild which has monopolised all business and is, it seems, very unpleasant. There’s a nice friendly ex-knight and a grumpy monk and a surprisingly ladylike wizardess, who is determined to go off to war, but cries as soon as anyone gets hurt. There’s a hereditary monarchy with male primogeniture. There’s an organised religion which has a single capitalised god, churches, abbeys and monks who wear brown robes. There are towns which appear to be almost entirely populated by thieves and prostitutes, and are filled with markets and taverns. Vast amounts of stew are consumed. So far, so traditional.
Our heroine, Sydney, is an odd mixture of feistiness and timidity, who seems to go along with the vanquishing scheme because that way at least she gets fed regularly. Well, I can see how that might be an attraction if you’ve lived on the streets. Her only problem is that she’s easily distracted. No sooner is she given a task to do by her new friends than she finds some other urgent errand to do first, and then another, and then… A bit of a loose cannon, really. Willem, the king’s bastard son, is exactly the sort of strong, upright character you’d expect. He strides around making promises of treating everyone fairly when he’s king, and says ‘I give you my word’ or ‘Trust me’ and people believe him. There are a lot of things taken on trust here. The most interesting character to me was Vadnae, the rather prissy wizardess, constantly dismayed by mud and rain. I was also interested in the mysterious Tuatha (elves, basically), who were a small but important part of the story.
As the plot gets going, Sydney and pals are chased hither and thither, escaping by the skin of their teeth from the bad guys always half a step behind (I wasn’t quite sure how they managed to do that, but never mind). Each time they escape, they stop and talk things through. Whenever they meet potential allies, they stop and talk things through again, explaining just how nasty the bad guy is, and how awful life is under the Guild, without ever filling in the details of what, exactly, they do that’s so bad (apart from randomly hanging people, that is). But it must be pretty bad, because people are starving as a result and living in vermin-infested hovels and so on.
I had some logic issues. Why exactly is Willem trying to kickstart his revolution by rousing the downtrodden hovel residents of Last Hope anyway? Wouldn’t it be simpler and easier just to drum up an army from his supporters? This is, after all, the traditional way to get yourself onto a disputed throne. And if you manage to drum up a bigger army than your rival, yay, you win! Plus, aspiring kings don’t go off alone with pick-pockets, they tend to have hefty bodyguards around them at all times, as a precaution against assassins. So I had trouble with the whole idea of Willem crawling through the tunnels below Last Hope in the first place. All it needed was one startled local to put a dagger through him and – game over. And why exactly was Anaria making stew in the middle of the night? And why the agonising over the risks of trekking through the Wastes, when Rolf had obviously just made that journey safely? Confusing.
The writing style is clean to the point of terseness. I would have preferred just a little more description here and there, to flesh out the scenery a little more. One thing that I found irritating: the author rarely uses ‘he said’, ‘she said’. Instead, characters do something – tap a finger, toss their hair, quirk an eyebrow – and then speak. I understand the logic of not overusing ‘said’, but I find it less intrusive than all this restless action. These comments are not criticisms, rather personal preferences that occasionally intruded on my enjoyment of the story.
Eventually we meet the mysterious Tuatha and from then onwards the book becomes a bit of a page-turner. Whenever magic is involved – the strange marble, the very spooky shadow creatures, Sydney’s dreams – I found myself totally engrossed. I never quite understood why Sydney was so important to everyone, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. The magic was very convenient at times, so that whenever Sydney got into trouble (which she did quite often, usually after saying airily ‘Don’t worry, I can deal with X’), a helpful wizard or magic marble or some such would miraculously rescue her. Sometimes she got other people into trouble, too (usually after saying airily ‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe’). But despite all that it was good, exciting stuff.
I find this a very difficult review to write. On the one hand, I understand what the author was trying to achieve, and the book is technically impeccable. It pushes all the right buttons. But somehow I never quite felt the sort of emotional engagement that I’m sure was intended. Willem strides about making promises but we never see him in truly king-like mode, apart from a brief swordfight. Sydney herself too often makes bad decisions and ends up needing to be rescued. The question of who to trust was a major theme, yet everyone trusts Willem unreservedly, and Sydney too, for that matter. The children seemed to be there purely to create artificial tension and tug at the heartstrings. There were some great moments, and the ending was note-perfect, but all too often characters spoke in platitudes: ‘We can’t allow this to happen, we owe it to X to do this, I promise you he’ll pay for his crimes.’ Or this:“Willem gives me confidence, Erik. We should believe in him. And ourselves. It’s the only way we’re going to win.” Honestly, if I were a Last Hope resident, I’d need more than that to persuade me to take up my pitchfork against armed and trained soldiers.
For all that certain aspects didn’t quite work for me, this is an entertaining and fast-paced read, which I enjoyed a great deal, especially the Tuatha and the strange shadow beings. Recommended for those who like very traditional and uncomplicated fantasy. Three stars.