Kings of the North
Reviewed by Jen Pearson
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:12 (#353) in December 2011.]
Kings of the North is the second book of a new series extending from Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy, published in the late 1980s. Reading this prior trilogy isn’t required to enjoy this novel; however, I got no further than page 30 in Kings before realizing I needed to read the book directly preceding it, Oath of Fealty, to understand what was going on. The two, in fact, are pretty much seamless. The choice of when in the story to divide it into two books seems arbitrary. Oath of Fealty provides a very brief “Author’s Note” which gives readers new to this world and set of characters a little background. Kings of the North provides no such orientation.
The meat of this novel is largely the developing political tensions in this world. Books that rely heavily on political and military maneuvering and court intrigues aren’t my favorites. However, along with the diplomatic complexities are magical complexities. Devotees of various religious figures are the primary magic users in Tsaia and Aarenis, but a magery formerly considered lawless and evil is allowed expression through one person. Ancient royal regalia turns out to have a will of its own. The new king of Lyonya is learning about his magical connection to his kingdom. We see briefly into the more mystical magics of gnomes, dwarves and elves as well. This complex of magics is what kept me reading.
Moon has also assembled a worthwhile cast of characters to work out the problems in this world: young and old, noble of heart and not so noble, though leaning heavily toward the noble. The book’s title indicates more than one king, but there’s not equal emphasis among them. The newly minted king of Tsaia barely makes cameos. Among kings, Kieri Phelan of Lyonya gets the most attention and the third king, Torfinn of Pargun, only exists as a character (as opposed to a rumor) when he is in the company of Kieri Phelan. Overall, the book is divided between the lives of four people: Kieri Phelan in Lyonya; Dorrin Verrakai in Tsaia; Jandolir Arcolin, a mercenary in Aarenis; and the traveling Count Andressat.
Several minor characters with engaging personalities are also involved, most notably the blind Sergeant Stammel. Stammel is not the only secondary character coping with disabilities, mostly physical, but also some magical (imposed by others). The list of characters at the front of the book was helpful, especially in the beginning. Moon almost exceeded my memory limit for characters. For the most part, though, she does a good job of distinguishing them.
One critical place where she falls curiously flat in character development is Arian, who becomes King Kieri’s queen-to-be at the novel’s end with virtually no romance between the two at all. He thinks about her remotely a couple of times. Then they are suddenly, fiercely in love within the space of a few minutes. It reminds me of old movies in which the sudden embrace of two people who hardly know each other was so ridiculous. There is absolutely no suspense to their relationship, which is why I have no fear that this supposed spoiler will spoil anything for readers. Poor Arian is only barely distinguished from the other king’s squires of which she is a part. In that role, she is around Kieri regularly, presumably providing plenty of opportunities for nuanced interaction. Toward the end, after they’ve had their sudden embrace, she shows herself to be brave in the face of a crisis, but this doesn’t distinguish her at all from other characters. It’s a book full of brave people. Sadly, she remains a cut-out suitable-wife-for-the-king even after her late adventure.
In a nearly 500-page book, one might argue that there was no room for romance, yet excess talk of strategic planning, economics, security measures, and descriptions of food could easily have been eliminated without harm, and a few fond, funny or even informative scenes regarding the king and his eventual beloved would have benefitted the book considerably.
Gender role reversals (at least women taking on roles generally considered the domain of men) has been common in fantasy novels for decades now and is often part of their appeal for women, myself included. Though Dorrin Verrakai is breaking new ground as a female duke in this novel, female soldiers seem to be largely taken for granted in this world. There are female religious leaders and the locus of power for the elven forest is female. All of these women seem perfectly comfortable in their roles. However, they’re all single–or appear to be. Moon seems to be much more comfortable portraying single women in strictly unconventional positions. In other words, these women are not androgynous in their roles. Possible exceptions are Paks, who could arguably be said to be in a female role and plays only a minor part in this novel, and the Lady of Elvenhome, who reveals a couple of brief moments of maternal feelings, which otherwise are so rare in her they’re difficult to believe. It seems to be either one role or the other. And I wonder if the author’s emphasis on women taking on male roles is what resulted in her lack of imagination in the development of Arian. After all, with marriage to the king, she’s soon to be relegated to hearth, home and child-rearing (heir-begetting being her chief function)–so why develop her.
Many of the book’s smaller disappointments or incongruities are also in sections involving Kieri. That weakness isn’t a fatal flow, however. The trend of the story is toward the importance of Dorrin Verrakai, the new powers she’s still investigating, and the mysterious crown jewels. The book has the feel of the beginning of a setup for things to come–a beginning only. I will be surprised if incidents are resolved in the next book, but have the impression we’re in for a long and interesting ride with these characters, with potential plot twists hinted at in this novel begging to be developed. I’m happy to be along for the ride despite some bumps and disappointments.