Fantasy Review Barn
The first book in this series, ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’, was a breath of fresh air, a fantasy work set in a single city, with compelling characters and a beautifully woven plot, filled with double-dealing and double meanings, where nothing and nobody can be taken quite at face value. I could say that this is more of the same, which is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t do the book justice. This time we begin to see far more of the underpinnings of the city, both literally (the maze of tunnels and caves dating back much further than the present regime) and in political terms, as Duchess is drawn into the orbit of the upper echelons of society. The three main religions also feature heavily, and we learn a lot more of the history of the city and of Duchess herself. If this sounds like a lot of ground to cover, it is, but the authors skillfully weave the many different strands together to create a brilliantly nuanced picture of Rodaas and its people, which comes alive in a way that the first book didn’t quite manage, for me.
Unlike the first book, which had a single audacious theft as its heart, this one has multiple plot threads. For one, Duchess decides to set up business with a talented young weaver who is unable to get guild membership because she’s not Rodaasi. I found the motivation for this move a bit unclear; it seemed rather an odd thing for Duchess to want to do. However, Jana, the weaver, is a lovely addition to the character list, and her Domae culture adds depth to the story. Then there's a ring stolen by dodgy gaming practices to retrieve, and a scheme to provide Duchess with a skilled swordsman as a bodyguard. Again, the bodyguard scheme seemed an odd thing for Duchess to want to do. While it led to some exciting moments, and the bodyguard came in very handy for a couple of incidents (a warrior-type is a great addition to the book, in my opinion), but then at a crucial moment he leaves Duchess on her own. It struck me as being a bit implausible (methinks I smell a plot device). However, all of these are dealt with in Duchess's usual audacious style (read: almost impossible to pull off), so there’s plenty of action along the way.
These various schemes, however credible or otherwise they may be, give Duchess the excuse to move around the city, and it is her adventures in the various districts and below the surface that bring the book to vivid and dramatic life. Some of her encounters are unforgettable: the strange candlelit ceremony at one temple, the meeting with the facet (priestess) in another and the events underground, for instance. The facets are a truly spine-chilling invention, a sort of hive-mind of masked women, all identical, and there’s a moment near the end, when the hive-mind slips slightly, which is awesome.
The characters are as believable as always. Lysander is (as before) my favourite, but I liked Jana and Castor (the bodyguard), too. Duchess makes a very sympathetic lead, although she’s a little reckless for my taste. Is that a hint of a romantic interest for Duchess in Dorian? Even the minor characters have a complexity which is refreshing, and add depth to the story.
What didn’t work so well for me? As with the first book, I found the convoluted plot threads a tad too tricky to follow all the time, so there were references along the way that I just didn’t get. Sometimes there would be a line revealing some possibly crucial information (‘Ah, so that’s what so-and-so meant...’), which just whizzed over my head altogether. There is also the constant problem that everyone Duchess encounters may possibly be double-crossing her, so I tend to regard every new character as potentially hostile. I found myself always waiting for the double-cross from them. In fact, mostly they were surprisingly helpful and even charming, perfectly willing to further Duchess’s ends, while (obviously) working for their own ends as well. In some ways, everything was a little too easy for Duchess, as things fell into place rather readily. The retrieval of the ring, for instance, was a real let-down.
One issue that bothered me was the bodyguard, whose name started as Pollux and then changed to Castor, with an overt reference to the mythological twins. Does this mean, then, that we are in our own world at some future point? Or perhaps this is an alternate world, that happens to have some common history. Either way, it jolted me out of the story altogether for a while.
A highlight for me was the uncovering of some of Duchess's family history. For the first time, there is some detail about what actually happened when her father died and she was torn away from the safety of her family. More significantly, we learn what should have happened that night, and some of what went wrong. The suggestion that perhaps her brother and sister may have survived too opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities.
As with the first book, the authors have pulled off an impeccable blend of mystery, action and world-building, combined with compelling characters about whom it's all too easy to care deeply. Who could be unmoved by Lysander and his friends, dealing with tragedy in the only way they can; or by Duchess, accepting the truth about Lysander for the first time, or realising the sort of life she might have had if events had gone otherwise, and coming to terms with her life as it now is? And then there was her final meeting with one of the facets, which was truly heartbreaking. This is a polished and cleverly thought out book which would repay a second read to understand all the nuances and subtexts. Highly recommended for those who like depth to their fantasy. A very good four stars.