This fast-paced epic fantasy has plenty of Machiavellian twists and poses some deeper questions.
Book Two of Duncan Lay’s Empire of Bones trilogy opens with an emotionally devastated Rhiannon trying to deal with a series of powerful shocks. She has found that the men closest to her, Huw the Velsh bard, and Sendatsu, the elf banished from his home, have both lied to her. She has also found that she can use magic powerfully and that she has just killed her father, the manipulative Hector, in a spectacularly extreme way. As well, the use of untrained magic has depleted her energies. She feels fragile and alone:
In Dokuzen there are three power centres. Sumiko, with her magic-weavers, and Jaken, Sendatsu’s arrogant scheming father, both wish to rule Dokuzen and depose the third power – Daichi the entrenched elf Elder. Lay reveals their betrayals skilfully so that the reader is always intrigued and unsure of what to expect. Unexpected liaisons and tricky alliances occur in the face of a well-planned attack from King Mark of Forland.
On one level the story is fast and pacy; there are battles and skirmishes well told, and the way Lay uses conversations between the main characters to move the tale along and reveal the deviousness of some of them is very deft and pleasing. However, there are also philosophical depths lurking in the narrative. For example, the old question of when it is OK to lie is aired; and, interestingly, Asami’s and Rhiannon’s problems raise issues to do with the gender wars; they are both struggling with the patriarchal values surrounding them. When to trust is also an extremely important aspect of the story, and in the telling of the age-old battles between elves and humans we are led to ask who owns knowledge. The chance to play with these ideas adds enormously to the quality of the narrative:
There is no summary of the first book at the beginning of this one: I think it would have been useful; however, the main thrust of the story can be understood, although I would recommend that the reader find a copy of the first volume to enjoy the slow build up of characterisation that underlies events here. The vibrantly presented characters and the ways in which they are made to play off each other are among the main attractions of the story.
Often the second instalment of a trilogy can be a little flat, in a holding pattern and not able to resolve problems because the next volume is looming. This is not the case here: a fast-moving narrative and very clever Machiavellian developments ensure that our interest continues throughout, and bode well for Book Three.
Duncan Lay Valley of Shields: Empire of Bones Two, HarperVoyager, 2013, PB, 560pp, $29.99